Malcolm Turnbull wants YOU to pay $10.83 so HE can keep HIS job

 

Some of the details of the proposed marriage equality plebiscite were finally revealed on Tuesday (13 September), more than 12 months after it was first agreed as Coalition policy under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

 

That includes the estimated cost: a massive $170,000,000.

 

In the days since, there has been plenty of coverage of the wastefulness of this national public opinion poll, especially when the alternative – passing a Bill through Parliament, in the ordinary way – would cost exactly $0.

 

There are, of course, an almost limitless number of ways in which this enormous sum of money could be better spent, including on funding additional nurses, teachers or postgraduate students[i].

 

But we also shouldn’t forget where this money comes from: from us, the taxpayer. Or, in this context, from us, the Australian voter.

 

The Australian Electoral Commission estimates that, at 30 June 2016, there were 15,696,874 people on the nation’s electoral roll[ii].

 

Which means that EVERY AUSTRALIAN VOTER – cisgender, heterosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) alike – is effectively being charged $10.83 for the ‘privilege’ of participating in a plebiscite which nobody can provide a compelling justification for.

 

Indeed, there are very few people or organisations who are clamouring for the marriage equality plebiscite to be held. The extreme right-wing of the Liberal-National Government. The Australian Christian Lobby and other religious fundamentalists. And the Prime Minister, one Malcolm Turnbull MP.

 

Yes, the same Malcolm Turnbull who argued against the plebiscite in the Coalition party-room in August 2015.

 

The same Malcolm Turnbull who claims to support marriage equality, but who cannot bring himself to do so on the floor of the House of Representatives.

 

The same Malcolm Turnbull who, even as he introduced the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016 on Wednesday, conceded that the cost of the vote is ‘substantial’, and that this is a ‘valid argument’ against holding it[iii].

 

So why exactly is he pushing ahead with a policy that he knows is wrong, both in principle and in practice?

 

The answer, as it nearly always is, is politics. Turnbull is tied to the plebiscite because it is only way he keeps himself tied to his job.

 

One year to the day before he introduced his plebiscite bill, and the day after he had rolled Tony Abbott to become Leader of the Liberal Party, Turnbull signed a new Coalition agreement with the National Party in which he committed to holding a plebiscite. In doing so, he signed away any principles he may have once held on this issue.

 

Even now, he is so single-minded in pursuing the plebiscite because he continually needs to appease the narrow-minded Abetz, Bernardi and Christensen, the ultra-conservative Senators and MP who, it seems, are the ones actually running the Government.

 

There is no moral justification for this pursuit – it is all about base political motivations. And so we are left to draw the following conclusion:

 

There are no good reasons to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, but plenty of bad ones.

 

Chief among them is that it is being held so that Turnbull can keep his job.

 

You, the Australian voter, are being charged $10.83 each, so that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull can stay on as our 29th Prime Minister.

 

We are all being charged a ‘Turnbull Tax’.

 

10 dollar note

Malcolm Turnbull wants YOU to pay $10, and change, so HE can keep HIS job as Prime Minister.

 

Of course, the great irony of this situation is that we are all expected to pay $10.83 so he can keep his job, despite the fact he is refusing to actually do his job (by passing legislation), and is instead making us do it for him.

 

What a wonderful system for him. And what a horrible outcome for Australia’s LGBTI community, and indeed for all those who believe people should be treated equally under secular law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

 

Okay, so maybe the above is a little bit unfair – no, not on Malcolm Turnbull, who is after all the Prime Minister who wants to inflict an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on the population.

 

Instead, it is unfair because there are others who are also responsible for this abhorrent policy, and who therefore should be both named and blamed.

 

As I indicated above, this includes the extremists within the Liberal and National Parties who have advocated the plebiscite as a way to delay the equal recognition of LGBTI relationships.

 

And so, just as you are being asked to pay the Turnbull Tax, you will also be contributing to the ‘Extremist Excise’ if the plebiscite proceeds (I would have called it the ‘Fringe Fee’, except that these bigots are no longer fringe-dwellers within the Coalition, they seem to be in the majority).

 

It would also be unfair to overlook the role of the Australian Christian Lobby in this mess, as one of the few non-government organisations who believe an extended national debate about the validity of LGBTI relationships is a good idea.

 

Which means that the $170,000,000 spent also represents the ‘Australian Christian Lobby Levy’ – or perhaps even the ‘Lyle Levy’, so-named after its managing director Lyle Shelton.

 

Finally, we shouldn’t forget that of this $170 million, $15 million is being allocated towards the cost of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns ($7.5 million each).

 

Except that the ‘Yes’ side doesn’t want this money. Indeed, this public funding is one of the main reasons why practically every LGBTI organisation in the entire country came together on Wednesday to reject Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite[iv].

 

Only the ‘No’ side wants it, presumably so that the Australian Christian Lobby can have a bigger platform to compare marriage equality and safe schools to the rise of Nazism, or link rainbow families with the Stolen Generations, or to incite ‘bathroom panic’ against trans people, and trans women in particular[v].

 

Mr Shelton and the ACL want your money to be able to promote intolerance against LGBTI Australians on the basis of who they are. In effect, you, me, all of us, will be paying an ‘Intolerance Impost’, on top of the Turnbull Tax, Extremist Excise and Lyle Levy.

 

I mentioned earlier that there are no good reasons to hold the plebiscite. Well, as we all know there are plenty of reasons to oppose it[vi].

 

The fact that we are expected to pay for the ‘privilege’ of participating in this pointless exercise – of paying the Turnbull Tax, the Extremist Excise, the Australian Christian Lobby Levy and the Intolerance Impost – is just one more. And it’s a reason that affects all of us – because we are all being asked to cough up.

 

**********

 

Footnotes:

[i] Mamamia, There are so many better ways we could spend the same-sex marriage plebiscite funding, 15 September 2016.

[ii] Australian Electoral Commission, Enrolment Statistics, 30 June 2016.

[iii] “The other one is the cost – and that is substantial – but then you have to ask yourself: what price democracy? So those are two arguments that are valid.” Hansard, Wednesday 14 September 2016.

[iv] Media Release, LGBTI Groups Joint Statement on the Plebiscite, Wednesday 14 September 2016.

[v] Please see: Lyle Shelton’s Respectful Debate.

[vi] Please see: Letter to ALP MPs and Senators Calling on Them to Block the Plebiscite.

Submission re Tasmania’s Proposed Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2016

Update 19 January 2017:

Unfortunately, the Tasmanian Government has pushed ahead with its flawed legislation to allow greater rights to vilify LGBTI people, and especially vilification by religious organisations.

The Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2016 – full text here – was passed by the Legislative Assembly on 25 October 2016.

This includes an expansion of the ‘public purpose’ defence for vilification, to cover “a public act done in good faith for… religious purposes” where religious purpose is defined as “includes, but is not limited to, conveying, teaching or proselytising a religious belief.”

Disappointingly, the Legislative Council failed to refer the Bill to an inquiry, although the Government ran out of time for the Bill to be passed in 2016 – the Attorney-General, Vanessa Goodwin, stated that:

“Due to our heavy legislative agenda and given the proximity to the end of the parliamentary year, the Government does not intend to bring the bill on for debate until next year. This will allow further time for community debate and stakeholder feedback to MLCs on this important issue.”

With Tasmanian Parliament resuming on March 7, that means there’s now less than 7 weeks left to convince upper house MPs not to undermine what has been, until now, Australia’s best anti-discrimination scheme.

Original Post:

Department of Justice

Office of Strategic Legislation and Policy

GPO Box 825

Hobart TAS 7001

c/ legislation.development@justice.tas.gov.au

Friday 9 September 2016

To whom it may concern

Submission re Proposed Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2016

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission in relation to the Government’s proposed amendments to Tasmanian anti-vilification laws, which are included in the Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2016 (‘the Bill’).

I make this submission as an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) equality, and as someone who takes a keen interest in anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws, both at the Commonwealth level, and in Australia’s states and territories.

My first comment in response to the proposed Bill is to observe that it appears to be a ‘solution’ in search of a problem.

As far as I can ascertain, there seem to be two main motivations for these reforms. The first is to satisfy the demands of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), who have repeatedly requested that state and territory LGBTI anti-vilification laws (where they exist) be suspended, or even abolished, in the lead-up to the potential national plebiscite on marriage equality.

The obvious response to such a demand is that, if their arguments against the equal treatment of LGBTI people under secular law require them to breach anti-vilification laws, perhaps they need better arguments rather than worse laws.

The second motivation appears to be a recent case, involving Mr Julian Porteous, following the distribution of the Don’t Mess with Marriage booklet by the Tasmanian Catholic Church that stated same-sex parents “mess with kids”, and that same-sex partners are not “whole people”. Possibly the most salient point to note is that the complaint was subject to attempted conciliation, which did not result in it being resolved, but then did not even proceed to the Tribunal.

I would argue that these two motivations – to allow the ACL to contravene vilification standards during any forthcoming plebiscite debate, and to respond to a single case that did not even make it to the Tribunal – are not sufficient justification to propose reforms that would ‘water down’ the anti-vilification protections that are currently offered to LGBTI Tasmanians.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what this Bill attempts to do. By replacing the wording of section 55, and expanding the exceptions to the vilification protections offered under sections 17(1) and 19 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (‘the Act’), the Bill would effectively allow greater vilification of people on the grounds of sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, gender identity and intersex (among other grounds).

In doing so, it would wind back hard-fought, and hard-won, protections introduced after the long-running decriminalisation campaign of the 1980s and 1990s. It is very hard to see, 18 years since its original passage, why there is a need to make anti-LGBTI hate speech easier in the contemporary environment.

I have two more-specific concerns about the proposed changes to section 55.

The first is to question why the exception, which would be expanded to include ‘public acts done reasonably and in good faith’ for a ‘religious’ purpose (where ‘religious purpose includes, but is not limited to, conveying, teaching or proselytising a religious belief’), should apply with respect to section 19[i], which establishes the more serious offence of ‘inciting hatred’ (whereas sub-section 17(1)[ii] regulates ‘conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules’).

It is difficult to comprehend why the Act should be amended to make lawful the incitement of ‘hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of’ people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual (noting that section 19 currently does not offer protection to transgender or intersex people) merely because it is done for a ‘religious purpose’.

According to advocate Rodney Croome “Worst of all is the Government’s decision to erode hate speech protections even more than people like Julian Porteous want. He has called for the law against denigrating statements to be watered down, but has said the law against the more severe crime of incitement to hatred [ie section 19] should be kept intact.”[iii]

It seems this particular ‘solution’ isn’t just in search of a problem, it is lacking beneficiaries too (although it is clear who the losers will be from such an amendment: lesbian, gay and bisexual Tasmanians).

My second concern is to question the limits of the proposed exception for vilification for ‘religious purposes’, with respect to both sections 17(1) and 19. In particular, and noting it will be challenging for the Tribunal, or courts more broadly, to determine when a public act for a ‘religious purpose’ is ‘done reasonably and in good faith’ or not, how far will religious individuals or groups be allowed to go in ‘proselytising’ a religious belief that itself incites hatred?

An example of such a belief would be for an extremist christian organisation to promote a ‘literal’ reading of Leviticus 20:13, which has been interpreted as “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them”[iv].

And, before it is suggested that this example is implausible, we should recall that it is only four years since a senior figure within the Salvation Army publicly defended this belief – that gay people should be put to death – live on radio[v].

Given this, how would the proposed amended law deal with a situation where, instead of distributing the booklet Don’t Mess with Marriage, a religious school sent children home with a pamphlet entitled Gay Men Should Die (or perhaps slightly more generously, Gay Men Should Die Unless they are Celibate) conveying the ‘religious belief’ that men who have same-sex sexual intercourse ‘shall surely be put to death’?

It is reasonably clear such a pamphlet would ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’, as well as likely inciting ‘hatred, serious contempt for or severe ridicule’ of, people on the basis of both sexual orientation and lawful sexual activity, and in doing so contravene both sections 17(1) and 19 of the Act.

But it is also possible the proposed new section 55 would ‘excuse’ these actions because it would be a public act done in ‘good faith for a religious purpose’, as it was ‘conveying, teaching or proselytising a religious belief’, no matter how offensive it is, to young people at a school operated by that organisation[vi].

I would argue that this would be an unacceptable outcome, and hope that the legislative sponsors of these amendments, and indeed anyone pushing for changes to Tasmania’s vilification laws, would agree.

It is particularly concerning that such an undesirable result could be achieved given we have seen above that there doesn’t actually appear to be any justification for the introduction of this Bill.

More generally, as someone from outside the State I would argue that the undermining of Tasmania’s anti-vilification regime, which is currently among the best, if not the best, law in the country, in this way would be a negative precedent for other jurisdictions.

This is especially important given only four states and territories currently have any anti-vilification protections for any sections of the LGBTI community (Tasmania, Queensland, NSW and the ACT). Nor do such laws exist federally. Even where they do exist, such as in NSW, they have significant flaws (for example, only protecting lesbians, gay men and some transgender people from vilification, and not protecting bisexuals or intersex people at all).

In my view, the Tasmanian Government should be concentrating on ensuring its anti-vilification laws are comprehensive (such as by amending section 19 to prohibit the incitement of hatred, serious contempt for or severe ridicule of transgender and intersex people) and effective, instead of making it easier for people to vilify others because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Thank you again for the opportunity to make this submission and for taking it into consideration. Should you require clarification, or additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided below.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Footnotes:

[i]19. Inciting hatred

A person, by a public act, must not incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or a group of persons on the ground of –

  • the race of the person or any member of the group; or
  • any disability of the person or any member of the group; or
  • the sexual orientation or lawful sexual activity of the person or any member of the group; or
  • the religious belief or affiliation or religious activity of the person or any ember of the group.”

[ii]17. Prohibition of certain conduct and sexual harassment

(1) A person must not engage in any conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules abother person on the basis of an attribute referred to in section 16(e), (a), (b), (c), (d), (ea), (eb) and (k), (f), (fa), (g), (h), (i) or (j) in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated, intimidated, insulted or ridiculed.”

NB This covers sexual orientation (16(c)), lawful sexual activity (d), gender identity (ea) and intersex (eb).

[iii] The Mercury, Talking Point: Green light being given to homophobia and any bigot with a bible’, 31 August 2016. http://www.themercury.com.au/news/opinion/talking-point-green-light-being-given-to-homophobia/news-story/00ffb213c903540b1febfdb94dbef243

[iv] Of course, such a position would overlook the inherent contradictions of adopting a ‘literal’ interpretation of some sections of the bible, while rejecting literal readings of others, a double standard which has been perfectly encapsulated by the now famous ‘Letter to Dr Laura’ (responding to a US radio host’s bible-based description of homosexuality as an ‘abomination’):

dear-dr-laura

[v] Huffington Post, Andrew Craibe, Salvation Army Official, Implies Gays Should be Put to Death in Interview, 26 June 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/26/andrew-craibe-salvation-army-official-gays-put-to-death_n_1628135.html

Joy 94.9FM presenter Serena Ryan: According to the Salvation Army, [gay people] deserve death. How do you respond to that, as part of your doctrine?

Craibe: Well, that’s a part of our belief system.

Ryan: So we should die.

Craibe: You know, we have an alignment to the Scriptures, but that’s our belief.

[vi] The only question is whether the public act was ‘done reasonably’, although I would suggest there is a risk at least some Tribunal members or judges may view the promotion of any religious belief, no matter how offensive, to be reasonable provided that belief was sincerely held.

Lyle Shelton’s ‘Respectful’ Debate

 

Two months after the federal election, and one week after the first sittings of the new parliament, we are still no clearer on whether there will be a plebiscite on marriage equality this term – the Turnbull Government is committed to pursuing it, the Greens (albeit possibly sans Senator Hanson-Young), Nick Xenophon Team and even Derryn Hinch are committed to blocking it, while Labor is yet to officially declare a position, although appears to be leaning towards opposing.

 

Perhaps the only thing that is clear is that the majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians are firmly opposed to a plebiscite, and want to see it blocked, even if that may lead to marriage equality being delayed by three years (see Plebiscite Survey Results: Part 1).

 

This position, and the strength with which it is being advocated, seems to have caught many by surprise, especially mainstream media commentators. A large number – not just at News Corp, but at more reputable newspapers too – have expressed confidence that, not only will marriage equality be successful at any plebiscite (which I probably agree with), but also that the debate beforehand will be respectful (which I highly doubt).

 

They seem perplexed that LGBTI Australians could be fearful that an extended national conversation, notionally about whether our relationships should be treated equally under the law, but in reality about whether LGBTI Australians and our families are worthy of dignity and respect or not, will inexorably lead to homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

 

There are many ways in which we could explain why we hold this genuine fear. People who responded to my survey have already done so very eloquently (I encourage you to read their answers: see Plebiscite Survey Results: Part 2, In Your Own Words). Buzzfeed[i] has also taken a look back at the issue of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Tasmania in the 1990s as an example of how disrespectful the plebiscite debate may ultimately become.

 

Another way we can explain these concerns is simply to highlight what those who are opposed to marriage equality are already saying – and then spell out that a plebiscite will ensure their comments will be more frequent, broadcast more widely, and, as the vote approaches, likely become even more extreme.

 

The most obvious ‘spokesperson’ to consider is Lyle Shelton, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) – which is ostensibly a lobby group to represent issues affecting Christians, but in reality is obsessed with denying LGBTI equality[ii] (despite the fact the majority of Christians favour marriage equality). Which means that, for the remainder of this post, I will focus on quotes which Mr Shelton has already made, and explain how they are deeply offensive to many people, and not just to those who are LGBTI.

 

But first, a compliment – probably the only one I will make in this article – which is to acknowledge that Lyle Shelton is far more disciplined and deliberate in what he says than his predecessor, Jim Wallace. He seems to speak far less ‘off-the-cuff’ than Mr Wallace did, which means he has avoided some of the more stupid mistakes he made – like this infamous 2011 ANZAC Day tweet:

 

“Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!” @JimWallaceACL

 

Or this 2012 comment:

 

“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – [included] higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide… it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years… The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”[iii]

 

However, just because Mr Shelton is less impulsive than Mr Wallace was, doesn’t mean that what he says is any less offensive. Indeed, given he appears to carefully construct his public statements, you could argue that he is even more accountable for what he puts into the public domain.

 

The most obvious example of this – and, in my opinion, the most offensive thing said by anybody in the history of Australia’s marriage equality debate – is Shelton’s continual comparison between same-sex parenting and the Stolen Generations.

 

This includes a media release issued by the ACL in May 2013, criticising then backbench MP Kevin Rudd for expressing his support for marriage equality. The release, which was even called ‘Rudd’s change on marriage sets up a new stolen generation’, featured this statement “Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said Kevin Rudd’s overnight change of mind on redefining marriage ignored the consequence of robbing children of their biological identity through same-sex surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies”, as well as the following quote from Mr Shelton:

 

“The prime minister who rightly gave an apology to the stolen generation has sadly not thought through the fact that his new position on redefining marriage will create another.”[iv]

 

More than two years later, which is plenty of time to reconsider his views, he did not back down from this outrageous analogy. In an extended interview with Buzzfeed[v] in April 2015, Shelton said:

 

“I think the effect on children is the same, yes. You’re removing a child from its parents. The context of that comment was [former prime minister] Kevin Rudd’s backflip [to supporting same-sex marriage]. This was the man who quite rightly apologised to the Stolen Generation. But how can you say on the one hand that it’s wrong to remove children, then create public policy which does the same thing? Those are the dots I was trying to connect… I’m sure it’s very difficult [for same-sex parents to hear this]. I don’t doubt their love for their children at all. I do not bring that into question. But the fact is, every child in a same-sex family structure has been taken from its biological mother or father. Now we have to ask as a society, is that right to do that?”

 

Most (in)famously, Mr Shelton reiterated his Stolen Generations comparison in February of this year when he appeared on ABC’s QandA[vi]:

 

Tony Jones: So you can deny it if you like: “The fact is every child in a same sex family structure has been taken from its biological mother or father.” Is that correct? Is that what you said?

Lyle Shelton: Yeah, it is actually, Tony”

 

And later on the same program:

 

Tony Jones: … Are you talking about a kind of stolen generation.

Lyle Shelton: Well, we did take Indigenous children and babies from their mothers and give them to loving families but the error that we apologised for was taking them from their biological mother and father. Now, through assisted reproductive technology, we are taking the child from their biological father or their mother and giving them to someone else.”

 

160906 Lyle Shelton qanda (source new matilda)

Lyle Shelton on QandA, repeating his offensive comparison between LGBTI parenting and the Stolen Generations (source: New Matilda).

 

Mr Shelton has made the same offensive comparison on (at least) three separate occasions, over the span of three years, and in three different forms (media release, interview and TV appearance). It is clear that, when he says same-sex parenting is like the Stolen Generations, he means it. But what does he mean?

 

Essentially, he is comparing the mere existence of rainbow families, many of whom thoughtfully and deliberately cause children to be brought into the world to be part of a loving home, while others foster or adopt children who do not have a home of any kind, with a policy that instead saw children stolen from their own loving families, many literally taken direct from their mothers’ arms.

 

In short, Mr Shelton is saying that allowing LGBTI people to have children is the contemporary equivalent of the worst Australian Government policy of the 20th century[vii], one that was aimed at the genocide of a people. Making such a horrific claim, repeatedly, is the antithesis of ‘respectful’ debate.

 

Lyle Shelton is deliberately taking aim at rainbow families, and, despite his protestations, I do not believe he cares who is hurt in the process, whether that be the parents or, especially, the children (imagine being told that your parents, who have done nothing but love and care for you, have instead ‘stolen’ you).

 

But it is not just LGBTI Australians who are offended by this wanton disregard both for historical accuracy and for the welfare of others – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have also called out Mr Shelton for inappropriately co-opting the history of the Stolen Generations for his own base purposes.

 

In response to his first statement, in May 2013, the CEO of Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation (a Stolen Generations service for Indigenous men and their families), Pastor Ray Minniecon made the following comments[viii]:

 

“As a representative organisation for the Stolen Generations, we are deeply concerned by the comments made by Lyle Shelton on behalf of the Australian Christian Lobby comparing former Prime Minister Rudd’s support for marriage equality with creating another Stolen Generation… The assimilation policy of forced removal of children from their homes and the subsequent abuse of those children is no way comparable to the desire of a loving couple to have a child and have the relationship recognised.

 

“It is disrespectful to the current Stolen Generations, their history and their families… It is also dehumanising and demonising of gay couples and their desire for marriage and family. We call on Lyle Shelton to apologise to the Stolen Generations and to the gay community for this comparison.”

 

It is a very poor reflection on Mr Shelton that, far from apologising to Mr Minniecon, people affected by the Stolen Generations and the LGBTI community (as requested), he has instead chosen to repeat the same comparison on multiple occasions. It is worrisome to consider, if he is so willing to disrespect Aboriginal people in this way, the extent to which he is prepared to disrespect LGBTI people and their families should a plebiscite proceed.

 

**********

 

Of course, his Stolen Generations comments are not the only examples of Lyle Shelton demonstrating he does not consider himself bound by the ordinary limits of ‘respectful’ debate. We have seen similarly extreme comments made during discussion of the Safe Schools program, which has dominated much of 2016 (and indeed has been going much longer, albeit attracting less publicity).

 

In fact, Mr Shelton and his colleagues at the Australian Christian Lobby[ix] have made so many offensive comments about Safe Schools it is difficult to select just a few – but I will try nonetheless. For example, in 2015 he described what is an effective anti-bullying program thus:

 

“Dressed up as an anti-bullying program, it encourages children to cross-dress at school and demands the school accept this. Children are presented with information that downplays the danger of sexually transmitted diseases and introduced to concepts every thinking parent hopes they won’t Google.”[x]

 

More recently, he has written[xi] of his concerns about ‘an avalanche of homosexual and transgender material’ flooding schools as a result of marriage equality and Safe Schools:

 

“But one of the big consequences of any possible change in the definition of marriage – homosexual sex education in schools – is already proving a major distraction from the government’s election agenda. Hardly a week goes by without revelations of a new program designed to teach children that their gender is fluid or that they might be same-sex attracted.

 

“It seems that children are never too young to be inducted into the bright new world of rainbow sexual concepts. An avalanche of homosexual and transgender material is flooding into the curriculum from high school to pre-school – all without parent’s knowledge.”

 

The logical conclusion one can draw from these statements, and especially the reference to ‘homosexual sex education’, is that Mr Shelton would prefer school children – of any age – not learn anything about sexual and gender diversity.

 

This is despite the fact that decades of research (and the life experience of far too many LGBTI Australians, myself included) shows that imposing a ‘silence’ about sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status harms LGBTI young people, adversely affecting their mental health, and leaving them ill-equipped to take control of their sexual and physical health.

 

Presumably, Shelton would like to see non-cisgender, non-heterosexual youth go back to being ‘invisible’, like the good old days, before we started making such a nuisance of ourselves, demanding things like the right to appropriate, inclusive and comprehensive health education.

 

But what could be motivating this ill-informed and, frankly, dangerous, opinion? It is only when you consider Mr Shelton’s broader views on sexuality, and gender identity, that a clearer picture emerges. From the April 2015 Buzzfeed interview referred to previously:

 

“I’m not saying that gay feelings are not very, very powerful. They obviously are. But I don’t believe they’re innate. And the fact many people have periods of their life where they feel attracted one way sexually and then another way. And the fact that you have “LGBT…I…” the whole range [of letters in LGBTIQ], the whole gamut. I don’t think that it’s something that you could say is innate. And certainly there’s been no scientific evidence to that effect.

 

“We all have strong and powerful desires. All of us. I think if you accept that argument, [that sexuality is innate] then yes, the debate would essentially be over. But I don’t think that’s right at all. And the fact that it is so fluid for so many people, then that isn’t the basis on which to make public policy which affects children.”

 

Based on this view – that sexual orientation and gender identity is not innate – it seems Lyle Shelton would prefer that children and young people be ‘protected’ from receiving any information about diverse sexualities and genders, for fear that more of them might come to the (perfectly reasonable) conclusion that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is entirely natural.

 

It appears that, in Shelton’s warped worldview, if we don’t expose children to this type of information, maybe some of them can avoid becoming one of them[xii]. Which, to put it lightly, is complete and utter bollocks – all it achieves is to increase the isolation already felt by many young LGBTI people, leading to greater risks of depression, self-harm and tragically suicide, the exact things that the Safe Schools program is designed to address.

 

**********

 

An emerging target in Lyle Shelton’s sights, both in the context of Safe Schools and more generally, has been transgender people (like any bully, it seems he will try to intimidate what might be considered a politically weaker and therefore more vulnerable section of the LGBTI community, rather than take on the more established, and comparatively powerful, gay or lesbian communities).

 

As with the comments above, this includes a February 2016 opinion piece suggesting that trans and gender diverse children should be ‘protected’ from accessing information and services to support their gender identity:

 

“…[T]here is no scientific evidence that anyone is “born gay” or that little boys and girls have been born in the wrong body and that surgery, hormones, tucking or binding are the solution. Yet Safe Schools teaches gender theory as fact – even to primary school children.

 

“What Safe Schools doesn’t say is that most gender dysphoria subsides before puberty. It is likely the program could be doing more harm than good, particularly if kids later regret their sex change, as many transgender people do.”[xiii]

 

Again, it seems Mr Shelton would prefer that children and young people not receive appropriate, inclusive and comprehensive health education in the hope that some might be ‘spared’ from becoming trans (which, at least from his perspective, appears to be an outcome best avoided).

 

Added to this policy of ‘invisibilisation’, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby has also imported the tactics of his North American extreme-right/religious fundamentalist counterparts, deliberately and repeatedly misgendering trans people, as well as raising the spectre of ‘bathroom panic’. From the same opinion piece:

 

“Women and girls should feel safe in their toilets and change rooms from male-to-female transgender people who have not undergone a sex change…”

 

And in a longer, more recent article:

 

These resources tell schools to allow boys identifying as girls to use the girls’ toilets and provide schools with step by step guides on “Supporting a Student to Affirm or Transition Gender Identity at School”. Imagine an 18-year-old man identifying as a girl using the same toilets, showers and change rooms as your 13-year-old daughter. This scenario is now envisaged via a Turnbull Government-funded website. Special facilities for transgender students are okay, the Safe Schools hub says, but they should never stop a student from using the toilet facility of their ”gender identity” as this would be demeaning”.[xiv]

 

Both of Shelton’s assertions here – first, that trans people are not trans unless they have ‘undergone a sex change’ (here’s a simple rule Lyle: if someone identifies and lives as a woman, or a man, or neither, then it is not up to you, or me for that matter, to decide that they are not), and second, that male-to-female transgender people are potential predators from whom cisgender women need to be protected – are disrespectful and, particularly in relation to the latter, downright disgusting.

 

But, instead of shying away from making this type of outrageous statement, Mr Shelton has decided to double down. In a media release just last week, responding to the Victorian Government’s long overdue moves to reform access to birth certificates, the ACL said the following “Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said radical changes that would allow men identifying as women to enter women’s private spaces such as toilets and change rooms needed wider public discussion”.

 

It went on to note “Mr Shelton said Mr Andrews [sic] new laws would make many private spaces unsafe for women” and then included the following quote:

 

“Why should a man identifying as a woman be allowed into a woman’s gym or a domestic violence shelter?

 

“Why should biological males identifying as women be allowed into women’s public toilets and shower facilities?”

 

The obvious answer is that, if they are a trans woman then they are not a man – and Shelton’s refusal to acknowledge this, and deliberate choice to continually misgender them, is the opposite of ‘respectful’ debate. And his repeated inference that trans women are a threat to cisgender women is nothing less than the worst kind of scare-mongering.

 

There is another type of mis-representation that Mr Shelton has engaged in with respect to trans people, and that is potentially implying (or, at the very least, encouraging people to draw the conclusion that) gender affirmation procedures lead to an increase in suicides.

 

He has referred to this issue on multiple occasions – including on the ABC’s QandA program earlier this year:

 

“Studies that have been done of transgendered people who have had sex reassignment surgery, people who have been followed for 20 or so years have found that after 10 years from the surgery, that their suicide mortality rate was actually 20 times higher than the non-transgendered population. So I’m very concerned that here we are encouraging young people to do things to their bodies… like chest binding for young girls… [and] penis tucking… Now this is taking kids on a trajectory that may well cause them to want to take radical action, such as gender reassignment surgery.”[xv]

 

He also repeated it in May:

 

“Never mind that 10 years after a sex change operation, a person is 20 times more likely to commit suicide than the non-transgendered population.”[xvi]

 

Fortunately, The Conversation’s Fact Check examined these claims after Mr Shelton’s appearance on QandA. They found that, rather than multiple studies, he was referring to a single study, from Sweden. Further, while

 

“Shelton was correct to say that research shows that transgendered people who have had sex reassignment surgery had a suicide mortality rate later in life that was roughly 20 times higher than the non-transgendered population… it is also possible some viewers may have been left with the impression that the study showed sex reassignment surgery causes a higher risk of suicide later in life. That is not what the Swedish study showed. In fact, the researchers wrote that things might have been even worse without sex reassignment.”[xvii] [emphasis added]

 

One of the authors of the study, Mikael Landen, went further in refuting Shelton’s use of the study:

 

As Mr Shelton phrases it, it may sound as if sex reassignment increased suicide risk 20 times. That is not the case. The risk of suicide was increased 19 times compared to the general population, but that is because gender dysphoria is a distressing condition in itself. Our study does not inform us whether sex reassignment decreases (which is likely) or increases (which is unlikely) that risk… [emphasis added]

 

“We have known for a long time that [gender dysphoria] is associated with other psychiatric disorders (such as depression) and increased rate of suicide attempts. Sex reassignment is the preferred treatment and outcome studies suggest that gender dysphoria (the main symptom) decreases.”

 

All of which is to suggest that Lyle Shelton has publicly mis-used the outcomes of a study of trans people to suit his own intolerant agenda – implying (or allowing people to infer) that gender affirmation procedures increase the risk of suicide among trans people, when it is likely they instead decrease it. And, despite being publicly corrected by one of the authors of the study in early March, he made the same discredited inference again in May as part of an argument to ensure trans and gender diverse children are denied access to an inclusive and supportive school environment.

 

That’s not just disrespectful, it’s totally disingenuous too.

 

**********

 

At the start of this post, we saw that Lyle Shelton was unafraid to employ, time and time again, completely inappropriate comparisons with the worst domestic policy of the 20th Century (the Stolen Generations) as a rhetorical weapon against rainbow families, marriage equality and LGBTI rights in general.

 

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising to observe he has also felt no shame in linking marriage equality, and the Safe Schools program, with some of (if not) the worst international atrocities of the 20th Century, by comparing the increasing recognition of fundamental LGBTI equality with the rise of Nazism:

 

“That Labor leader Bill Shorten can promise during an election to fund the so-called ‘Safe Schools’ program which teaches children as young as four that ‘only you can know if you are a boy or a girl – no one can tell you’ and there be so little push back is a failure of those of us who know better.

 

“Changing the definition of marriage to entrench motherless and fatherlessness in public policy and teaching our kids their gender is fluid should be opposed. The cowardice and weakness of Australia’s ‘gatekeepers’ is causing unthinkable things to happen, just as unthinkable things happened in Germany in the 1930s.[xviii] [emphasis added]

 

Yes, he actually went there, he ‘Godwinned’. In Shelton’s view marriage equality and Safe Schools are ‘unthinkable things’, in the same way that ‘unthinkable things’ were done by the Nazis.

 

This is obviously completely disrespectful, and offensive, to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians. And, just as his Stolen Generations claims were offensive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, his Nazi analogy is also hurtful to the people affected by the Holocaust, and their relatives and descendants, including (but not limited to) Jewish people, Polish people, Romani people and disabled people.

 

Oh, and in case Lyle Shelton genuinely has no understanding of what happened in Germany during the 1930s and first half of the 1940s (and, based on the above comments, that seems a distinct possibility), that included thousands of homosexual men and women who were prosecuted, persecuted and executed in the Holocaust.

 

Anyone who is able to, without shame, draw comparisons with laws and policies designed to increase LGBTI equality and acceptance today, with a regime that murdered thousands of LGBTI people 70 years ago, is, in my view, unable to participate in ‘respectful’ debate about these issues[xix].

 

**********

 

I mentioned earlier that, for the most part, Lyle Shelton has been careful in his public statements, largely avoiding ‘off-the-cuff’ mistakes (which were far more common under his predecessor Jim Wallace). There is, however, one instance I can think of where the current Managing Director of the ACL let his guard down and revealed exactly what he thinks about marriage equality (and, in doing so, about LGBTI people more generally).

 

That occasion was his Sky News appearance debating Jason Tuazon McCheyne of the Australian Equality Party earlier this year. When challenged by Tuazon McCheyne to explain how recognition of his relationship could possibly affect that of Mr Shelton, Shelton responded with this:

 

“Well if the definition of marriage is changed it’s not assumed that millions of people like myself who are married, it’s assumed that I’m married to a woman. That affects me straight away, if people no longer assume that I’m married to a woman then I’ll have to explain myself.”

 

When “[h]ost Patricia Karvelas asked Mr Shelton if he was worried that people might think he was gay, Mr Shelton said they may or may not, but the terms of his marriage would have changed, alongside those of every other married Australian.”[xx]

 

More than six months later, and this remains an extraordinary, and extraordinarily stupid, answer. His only response about how marriage equality would affect his own marriage is that he might have to declare that his spouse is a woman? That he could be forced to say ‘she’ or ‘her’ at some point during a conversation in order to differentiate his marriage from marriages between two people of the same-sex? That’s it?

 

How utterly, utterly petty (some might say pathetic). To argue for the denial of equal rights under secular law because he can’t be bothered to use a pronoun. In doing so, he severely undermined any argument he might make against marriage equality in the future.

 

Of course, the real question here is why it should even matter – unless there is something wrong with a partner being of the same-sex, there is no inherent requirement for him to clarify gender-neutral comments someone might make about his spouse [as an aside, if Shelton had empathy this would have been an opportunity to understand that the mis-gendering of partners is something many LGBTI people already experience, frequently – with people making heteronormative assumptions about our relationships – but clearly it doesn’t appear to have occurred to him].

 

The implication we are therefore left with is that he would be forced to declare his spouse was a woman primarily to differentiate himself from us, as if being LGBT or I, or simply being perceived as LGBTI, were something to be avoided.

 

All-in-all, to use this as an argument – “if people no longer assume that I’m married to a woman then I’ll have to explain myself” – to reject our claims for equal treatment under the law is at best, dismissive, and yes, I would argue, disrespectful.

 

**********

 

From everything we have seen, it is apparent Mr Shelton shows no hesitation in making remarks that are disrespectful to Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, especially in the context of marriage equality and Safe Schools.

 

At the same time, exceedingly hypocritically, he has repeatedly called for the debate around these issues to be ‘respectful’. Sometimes this call for respect is made in the very next breath after making an offensive comment about us or our rights. Take the ACL media release, already mentioned above, responding to Victoria’s proposed new birth certificate laws, which said:

 

“Mr Shelton said Mr Andrews [sic] new laws would make many private spaces unsafe for women.

 

“Why should a man identifying as a woman be allowed into a woman’s gym or a domestic violence shelter?

 

“Why should biological males identifying as women be allowed into women’s public toilets and shower facilities?

 

“It is time to re-think the rainbow political agenda and the marriage plebiscite is the ideal time to have a respectful debate about the consequences of redefining marriage.”

 

That is exactly how the release was written, word-for-word. In the first three sentences, Shelton deliberately misgenders transgender people, suggests trans women are a threat to cisgender women, and imports the abhorrent fear-mongering ‘bathroom panic’ campaign from his North American extremist counterparts. And then, seemingly without any self-awareness whatsoever, he calls for ‘respectful’ debate in the fourth sentence.

 

Well, I call bullshit.

 

It is not ‘respectful’ debate to compare the mere existence of rainbow families with the attempted genocide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

 

It is not ‘respectful’ debate to continue to use this offensive analogy even after being called upon to cease and desist, and apologise (to Aboriginal people, and to the gay community), by a Stolen Generations service for Indigenous men and their families.

 

It is not ‘respectful’ debate to try to ‘invisibilise’ LGBTI children and young people, by denying them their right to appropriate, inclusive and comprehensive health education.

 

It is not ‘respectful’ debate to deliberately misgender trans people, to imply that trans women are a threat to cisgender women, to incite ‘bathroom panic’ and to misuse a study to imply gender affirmation procedures increase the risk of suicide when it showed no such thing (and to continue to do so even after being directly contradicted by the author of the study).

 

And it is not ‘respectful’ debate to argue for LGBTI people to be denied equal treatment under secular law because he might have to say ‘she’ or ‘her’ when referring to his spouse.

 

Of course, given all of this it is highly unlikely Mr Shelton is ever going to ‘change his ways’, and stop denigrating LGBTI people and our families. And this post is not aimed at achieving the impossible.

 

But it is designed to show to those media commentators who are seemingly unaware why so many LGBTI Australians are sincerely and genuinely concerned about the prospects of a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Because, if a plebiscite goes ahead, Shelton (and Francis, and van Gend, and the Marriage Alliance, and countless other homophobes and transphobes) will be given a megaphone to make similar outrageous, offensive and disrespectful comments, every day, for three-to-six months, with the media feeling compelled to report on each and every one, and with these comments likely becoming more and more extreme as the vote approaches.

 

Lyle Shelton et al have already shown, quite comprehensively, that a ‘respectful’ debate is beyond them. In that context, maybe those commentators will finally understand exactly why the majority of LGBTI Australians have thought long and hard about a plebiscite on marriage equality and come to the conclusion ‘thanks, but no thanks Malcolm’.

 

**********

 

Footnotes

[i] Buzzfeed Australia, This is What a Non-Respectful LGBT Rights Debate Looks Like, 1 September 2016.  https://www.buzzfeed.com/lanesainty/heres-what-happened-in-australias-ugliest-lgbt-debate?utm_term=.cp0oo5z8KQ#.uhV33QojNg

[ii] Brisbane Times, Christian Lobby analysis reveals strong gay focus, 9 June 2012. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/christian-lobby-analysis-reveals-strong-gay-focus-20120608-2017g.html

[iii] Huffington Post, Jim Wallace, Australian Christian Lobby Head, Claims Smoking is Healthier than Gay Marriage, 5 September 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/05/jim-wallace-australian-christian-lobby-smoking-gay-marriage_n_1858227.html

[iv] Sydney Morning Herald, Senator Wong condemns Christian Lobby’s stolen generations comment, 21 May 2013. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/senator-wong-condemns-christian-lobbys-stolen-generations-comment-20130521-2jyn3.html

[v] Buzzfeed Australia, Meet the man determined to prevent marriage equality in Australia, 24 April 2015. https://www.buzzfeed.com/robstott/meet-australias-biggest-marriage-equality-roadblock?utm_term=.qba11XBknA#.nfmpp9yNYO

[vi] ABC QandA, Transcript, 29 February 2016. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s4402548.htm

[vii] The 21st century equivalent would likely be the indefinite imprisonment of people seeking asylum on Nauru and Manus Island, by successive Governments.

[viii] Gay News Network, ‘Dehumanising’: Christian Lobby must apologise for Stolen Generation comments, 21 May 2013. http://gaynewsnetwork.com.au/news/dehumanising-christian-lobby-must-apologise-for-stolen-generation-comments-11050.html

[ix] To some extent, Shelton could even be considered the ‘moderate’ ACL voice with respect to the Safe Schools program, while Wendy Francis has taken more of the ‘attack dog’ approach.

For example, more than 12 months ago, Ms Francis was quoted on news.com.au saying the following:

“Our society is already over-sexualised without extreme sexual material and gender theory being promoted in schools… Children have the right to their innocence. The political ideology carried by this program denies children this right… Girls’ toilets should always be a safe place for them and should be off limits to a boy who might be transitioning into a girl. No-one should be bullied at school, including children grappling with same-sex attraction or gender confusion. But promoting radical sexual and gender theories to children without parental consent is not the role of the federal or state governments.” News.com.au, Christian Lobby groups claim radical sexual experimentation is being promoted in schools, 25 July 2015. http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/school-life/christian-lobby-groups-claim-radical-sexual-experimentation-is-being-promoted-in-schools/news-story/39c64a960b2d112875848c4f337de433

And early in 2016, The Australian reported on the issue in this way:

“Australian Christian Lobby spokeswoman Wendy Francis said the Safe Schools material pressured kids into accepting LGBTI concepts and ‘confuses them about their own identity.’

“She said forcing students to imagine themselves in a same-sex relationship was a ‘form of cultural bullying’. [emphasis added]

“Ms Francis said the material was not age-appropriate, as 11-year-old children were too young to be taught about sexual orientation and transgender issues. ‘A lot of children are still pretty innocent about this stuff – these are adult concepts’.

The Australian, Activists push taxpayer-funded gay manual in schools, 10 February 2016. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/education/activists-push-taxpayerfunded-gay-manual-in-schools/news-story/4de614a88e38ab7b16601f07417c6219

All of the usual ACL tropes are present and accounted for, including that trans women and girls are a threat to cisgender women, and that children and young people are ‘innocent’ and need to be protected from radical concepts like that being LGBT or I is perfectly normal.

Probably the only unique argument Francis presents is that an LGBTI anti-bullying program that encourages all students to imagine themselves in a same-sex relationship is a ‘form of cultural bullying’ – perhaps not realising that she is making an excellent argument for Safe Schools (to overcome the heteronormative pressure that young same-sex attracted people feel from literally everywhere – families, friends, schools, pop culture, the media – to imagine what it is like to be in a mixed-sex relationship).

[x] Mamamia, Teaching tolerance in schools is deeply dangerous, apparently, 5 November 2015. http://www.mamamia.com.au/safe-schools-program/

[xi] Online Opinion, Children are never too young to learn about rainbow sex, 9 May 2016 http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=18217

[xii] Shelton is not alone in making this type of argument. Mr David van Gend, from the Australian Marriage Forum, recently provided a submission to the Queensland Parliamentary Committee inquiry into the Health and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, legislation that will, if passed, finally equalize the age of consent for anal intercourse in that state. He was the only person to argue against equalization, claiming that:

“Schoolboys are vulnerable and often sexually confused. Multiple lines of research confirm that around two thirds of schoolboys aged 16 who identify as homosexual will no longer identify as homosexual within a few years. Their sexual identity is immature; the situation is fluid.

“Permitting older, established homosexual men access to schoolboys who are in a stage of uncertainty and sexual fluidity is likely to have the effect of establishing those schoolboys in a homosexual identity and subculture which they might otherwise have avoided.” Submission 10: https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/LACSC/2016/21-HealthOLAB16/submissions/010.pdf

Of course, Mr van Gend here is going one step further, by invoking the completely unfounded ‘male homosexual as paedophile’ stereotype, but it still fits within the overall philosophy, which I believe is shared by Lyle Shelton, that young same-sex attracted and gender diverse people must be shielded from information that tells them they are okay, presumably in the hope that they might ultimately ‘grow out of it’.

[xiii] Herald Sun, Safe Schools transgender awareness program could do more harm than good, 8 February 2016. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/opinion/safe-schools-transgender-awareness-program-could-do-more-harm-to-kids-than-good/news-story/93f16a43ddb61881fd613c47fbf542db

[xiv] Online Opinion, Children are never too young to learn about rainbow sex, 9 May 2016 http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=18217

[xv] ABC QandA, Transcript, 29 February 2016. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s4402548.htm

[xvi] Online Opinion, Children are never too young to learn about rainbow sex, 9 May 2016 http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=18217

[xvii] The Conversation, FactCheck Q&A: Was Lyle Shelton right about transgender people and a higher suicide risk after surgery?, 4 March 2016. https://theconversation.com/factcheck-qanda-was-lyle-shelton-right-about-transgender-people-and-a-higher-suicide-risk-after-surgery-55573

[xviii] Pedestrian TV, Australian Christian Lobby compares Safe Schools to rise of Nazi Germany, 31 May 2016. https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/arts-and-culture/australian-christian-lobby-compares-safe-schools-t/2114fa3a-c2e8-4f04-be10-582088364131.htm

[xix] In Lyle’s ‘defence’, he is not the only anti-marriage equality campaigner to draw an analogy between LGBTI people campaigning for equal treatment under secular law and totalitarian regimes – as this infamous tweet by the Marriage Alliance makes clear (which also overlooks the fact it is young LGBTI people who are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, but that is an argument for another day):

160906 Marriage Alliance Noose Image

[xx] OutinPerth, Lyle Shelton admits he’s worried people will think he’s gay, 15 February 2016. http://www.outinperth.com/acls-lyle-shelton-admits-hes-worried-people-will-think-hes-gay/

In the battle for marriage equality, we must not forget to fight against religious exceptions

The long struggle for marriage equality does not involve waging just one battle. Instead, it includes a range of related, and sometimes overlapping, fights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) equality.

 

Obviously, there is what most would consider to be the ‘central’ fight – to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to ensure all LGBTI couples who wish to can be married under secular Australian law. Victory on that particular issue is long overdue.

 

A closely-related fight is ensuring that the definition used to amend the Marriage Act is sex and gender neutral – referring to the union of two persons (replacing man and woman which is currently used in section 5) rather than referring to man/man, or woman/woman, unions. The latter would only be gay or same-sex marriage, instead of genuine marriage equality, and would continue to deny equal rights to some members of the LGBTI community.

 

Fortunately, most recent legislative attempts to amend marriage have used this more inclusive definition[i], although this is something that we will need to be vigilant about until equality is finally achieved in Australia (whenever that might eventually be).

 

And then there is the current procedural fight about how marriage equality should be implemented – with Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal-National Government intent on holding an unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

 

The $158.4 million-plus[ii] public vote appears to be supported by only the Australia Christian Lobby and other extremists opposed to LGBTI equality, while pretty much everyone else believes Parliament should simply do its job and pass a law to introduce equality (in exactly the same way then-Prime Minister John Howard entrenched inequality in the first place, way back in 2004).

 

However, there is one fight that is inherently connected to the larger battle for marriage equality that seems to be commonly overlooked – and that is the need to ensure that, irrespective of how marriage equality is ultimately achieved, no new special rights are created allowing religious organisations, and individuals, to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

These so-called ‘religious exceptions’ could take several possible forms. The narrowest version would be the introduction of a new right for civil celebrants and other celebrants, like military chaplains, who are not ministers of religion to be able to refuse to officiate ceremonies solely on the basis of the sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status of the couple involved[iii].

 

The next, more expansive type of special rights to discriminate would allow businesses that provide wedding-related services to deny those services to couples where one or both persons are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. This is the type of exception that excites Christian fundamentalists in the United States, with claims that requiring florists and bakers to sell their products to LGBTI couples is oppressive or even totalitarian in nature.

 

The broadest form of new religious exceptions would more radically change existing anti-discrimination laws, allowing all individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBTI couples on the basis of their own religious beliefs, with such discrimination not restricted to wedding-related activities.

 

No matter how narrowly or broadly these new special rights to discriminate are defined, they are all completely unjustified – there is no reason why civil celebrants, businesses or anyone else operating in public life should be free to deny LGBTI people equal treatment.

 

But, just because they are unjustified, doesn’t mean they are not on the public agenda, as recent experience in the United States amply demonstrates.

 

From Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who found fame by refusing to perform the duties of her Government job[iv], instead denying service to members of the public solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, through to more recent state-wide Bills to ‘restore religious freedom’ (or, more accurately, to reinstate the rights of individuals and businesses to treat LGBTI people as second class citizens) in North Carolina, Mississippi and elsewhere, there has been a renewed push for religious exceptions to undermine marriage equality, and anti-discrimination laws more generally.

 

There seem to be three, inter-related and mutually reinforcing objectives behind the religious right’s latest homophobic ‘crusade’:

 

  1. In a practical sense, they genuinely want to prevent the equal treatment of LGBTI people – both by being legally permitted to refuse service to LGBTI couples themselves, and to encourage the broader population to do the same;
  2. In a symbolic sense, they want to undermine the equality aspect of marriage equality – if lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are allowed to marry under secular law, then Christian fundamentalists want to ensure that they are still treated as differently as possible, turned away by civil celebrants, wedding-related businesses and even public servants; and
  3. In a strategic sense, they want to use this ‘moment’, when marriage equality and LGBTI rights are being discussed across the community, to reassert the supposed primacy of ‘religious freedom’ and use it to dismantle LGBTI anti-discrimination laws where they exist – or hinder their development where they have not already been passed.

 

Before we judge our US counterparts too harshly, however, we must remember that conservative and other right-wing forces in Australia are engaged in exactly the same campaign here.

 

For example, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Freedom to Marry Bill 2014, that would have introduced marriage equality (of a sort), included provisions that would have granted civil celebrants the ability to reject people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status[v].

 

Others on the ‘religious exceptions’ bandwagon include former Human Rights Commissioner, and now Liberal candidate for Goldstein, Tim Wilson[vi], as well as his former employers, the Institute of Public Affairs.

 

In addition to their outrageous calls for what limited LGBTI anti-vilification laws we do have[vii] to be temporarily suspended for the duration of the plebiscite, fringe group the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) have also repeatedly argued for any Marriage Amendment Bill to include permanent special rights for individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBTI people.

 

In his own words, ACL ‘homophobe-in-chief’ Lyle Shelton believes existing anti-discrimination laws are somehow a threat to Australian democracy:

 

“The rights to a free conscience, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and freedom of expression are the nuts and bolts of democracy. If they are to fall, then we have serious questions to answer regarding out democracy…

 

“Most fair-minded Australians would accept the right of a person to maintain their belief that gender and biology still matter to marriage and family and to always be free to give voice to that belief.

 

“Marriage between a man and a woman is fundamental to a flourishing society. When the definition is changed, the law will say that gender is irrelevant to the foundation of society.

 

“Those who believe gender, kinship and biological identity do matter to society’s fabric will be fundamentally at odds with the law and the anti-discrimination laws will be weaponised against them.”[viii]

 

Leaving aside the fact the ACL have been able to use their disproportionate-sized megaphone to publicly spew forth hatred against LGBTI Australians for many years[ix], without any apparent consequence, on this as with too many other issues they have found numerous supporters within the Liberal-National Government.

 

Indeed, ongoing debate on the issue of whether a draft Marriage Amendment Bill should include new ‘religious exceptions’, and if so how broad they should be in scope, is a key reason why Malcolm Turnbull was forced to back down from previous statements he would announce the timing and details of the marriage equality plebiscite ahead of the 2016 Federal Election.

 

In reporting on the decision by Turnbull to shelve the plebiscite announcement until after the poll, Dennis Shanahan in The Australian made the following observation:

 

“The key to reassuring those opposed to same-sex marriage, including conservative Coalition MPs, is not only the wording of the proposed plebiscite question changing the Marriage Act but also the protections for freedom of religion and speech.

 

“Those involved in the talks regard it as essential that Senator Brandis provide protections for those beyond the tight circle of religious and marriage celebrants who do not want to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.”[x]

 

Lenore Taylor in the Guardian Australia had earlier reported that internal tensions over the extent of these exceptions could cause the Government to delay announcing the Bill:

 

“The Turnbull government is wavering on its commitment to reveal details of its planned marriage equality plebiscite before the federal election because of deep divisions on crucial issues such as public funding and exemptions from anti-discrimination laws…

 

“[C]conservative MPs have been demanding broad exemptions from anti-discrimination laws for officials and wedding service providers, including florists, bakers and reception centres. Government sources said there were concerns that the issue would become internally “divisive.””[xi]

 

These reports confirm that the potential creation of new special rights to discriminate is very much a live option within the Turnbull Liberal-National Government.

 

This development is something that should have anyone interested in achieving marriage equality worried, especially because, as previous debates around Safe Schools and the plebiscite itself have demonstrated, the conservative and/or religious right are not shy about throwing their weight around inside the Coalition party room – and that applies just as much, if not more, under Prime Minister Turnbull as it did under his predecessor Tony Abbott.

 

The consequences of a conservative victory on this issue would be dire. On top of the practical and strategic problems identified above, the inclusion of new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI people in the plebiscite question – or its associated legislation – would make campaigning for marriage equality significantly more challenging.

 

In effect, it would ensure that the proposal considered at a plebiscite was fundamentally flawed from the beginning and that therefore many people in favour of genuine marriage equality would be forced to campaign, and vote, for something less than ideal while effectively ‘holding one’s nose’.

 

It would also tarnish the achievements of a successful ‘Yes’ campaign – instead of a unifying moment of national celebration, where true relationship equality was extended to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians without qualification, we would be left with a law that continues to permit discrimination in certain circumstances. In short, a ‘Yes’ result would be marred, leaving the overall job half-finished – and making it bittersweet to celebrate ‘equality-lite’.

 

For all of these reasons, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that, at the same time as we fight for marriage equality, we fight against the introduction of new religious exceptions, whether in the Marriage Act itself, or the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (or its state and territory equivalents).

 

Fortunately, we already have allies in this particular fight. In addition to the Greens, who have long campaigned against religious exceptions, the Australian Labor Party is also firmly opposed to their introduction.

 

160417 Guardian Why Knot

The Guardian Australia/Australian Marriage Equality event ‘Why Knot?’ where Opposition Leader Bill Shorten gave a firm commitment that Labor will oppose any expansion of religious exceptions – and will seek to repeal any provisions that are introduced by the Turnbull Liberal-National Government.

 

At the recent Guardian Australia/Australian Marriage Equality ‘Why Knot?’ forum in Sydney, I had the opportunity to ask Opposition Leader Bill Shorten the following:

 

“There is a real risk that, when Malcolm Turnbull finally gets around to drafting it, his Marriage Amendment Bill will seek to include new special rights for civil celebrants and other wedding business-providers to discriminate against LGBTI couples. Just to get it on the record: Mr Shorten, will you commit the Labor Party to voting against any attempt to expand religious exceptions beyond existing provisions and, if they do somehow end up being passed and polluting the Marriage Act, will you seek to repeal them at the earliest available opportunity?”

 

Mr Shorten’s answer was unexpectedly strong, and reassuring: “Yes, and yes.”

 

As reported by the Guardian Australia, he went on to note that “[i]t’s not allowed now under the current law – why would we water down existing laws? We don’t need to water down anti-discrimination law to keep some people [who oppose same-sex marriage] happy.”[xii]

 

It is possible that, after the Federal election, the combined votes of Labor and the Greens in the Senate will be able to block any attempt by a re-elected Turnbull Liberal-National Government to include expanded religious exceptions as part of its legislative package creating the plebiscite.

 

However, with a double dissolution election now almost inevitable on July 2nd, and the reduced Senate quotas associated with it, the final result in that Chamber will be especially hard to predict, with a range of minor parties still chances to win the 12th and final seat in each state.

 

Which means that there are now only two ways to avoid the creation of new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI Australians: for Shorten and Labor to be elected (and then implement their own policy to introduce marriage equality legislation within 100 days), or for a re-elected Prime Minister Turnbull to publicly commit to not introducing new religious exceptions in his own Marriage Amendment Bill.

 

Given his track record on LGBTI issues since taking over from Tony Abbott last September – selling the LGBTI community out on multiple occasions by ‘gutting’ the Safe Schools program and abandoning his previous personal position against holding a plebiscite – securing any enforceable commitments from Mr Turnbull will likely be an incredibly difficult task.

 

But, if we are committed to genuine marriage equality, then I believe this is a fight we must take on. Because if we don’t, we might find that we win marriage equality in the next 12 to 18 months but, instead of being able to celebrate achieving a better, fairer and more equal Australia, we are left to deal with new forms of exclusion, discrimination and state-sanctioned homophobia.

 

**********

 

[i] Although Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 disappointingly only sought to recognize overseas marriages between “a man and another man or a woman and another woman”.

[ii] As quoted on page 22 of the Senate Committee Report: Matter of a popular vote, in the form of a plebiscite or referendum, on the matter of marriage in Australia, 15 September 2015.

[iii] Thus providing them with the same right to ‘reject’ couples that ministers of religion already enjoy under the Marriage Act.

[iv] It is instructive to consider how people like Ms Davis would be received were they to refuse to serve African-American people, rather than LGBTI people – presumably such acts of outright racism would not be tolerated, or even celebrated, in the same way her egregious acts of homophobia and transphobia have been.

[v] For more on why Leyonhejlm’s Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 was offensive, see “Senator Leyonhjelm’s Marriage Equality Bill Undermines the Principle of LGBTI Anti-Discrimination: Should we still support it?”

[vi] In Wilson’s opinion piece in The Australian on 6 July 2015, “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible” he argued for religious exceptions to be extended not just to civil celebrants but also to a wide range of wedding-related businesses.

[vii] Only four states and territories currently have vilification laws that cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people: Queensland, NSW, ACT and Tasmania. There are no protections federally. Instead of suspending the paltry laws we do have, the Commonwealth Government should actually be introducing LGBTI anti-vilification laws of its own. See also: “Don’t limit racial vilification protections, introduce vilification protections for LGBTI Australians instead”.

[viii] From ACL Media Release, 5 April 2016 “ACL Concerned by Shorten Plan to Fine Business Owners who Disagree with Same-Sex Marriage.”

[ix] With Mr Shelton’s predecessor Jim Wallace saying that smoking was healthier than gay marriage, and the ACL under both leaders drawing comparisons between LGBTI parenting and the creation of another Stolen Generation, which is not just deeply offensive to LGBTI Australians but to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well.

[x] Dennis Shanahan, The Australian, 26 March 2016, “Federal election 2016: Same-sex marriage plebiscite pause for poll”.

[xi] Lenore Taylor, Guardian Australia, 16 March 2016, “Marriage Equality: Coalition disunity puts pre-election plebiscite details in doubt.”

[xii] Paul Karp, Guardian Australia, 31 March 2016, “Shorten: Labor won’t change discrimination laws to please gay marriage opponents.”

What does Malcolm Turnbull want his legacy to be?

It’s time for Malcolm Turnbull to seriously consider what he wants his legacy to be.

 

That might sound premature to some, especially given that tomorrow (Monday 14 March 2016) it will be only six months since he replaced Tony Abbott as Leader of the Liberal Party. Tuesday, the clichéd ‘Ides of March’, is the six-month anniversary of his official swearing in.

 

However, in the life of an Australian Prime Minister, six months is not an insignificant period of time. Indeed, for many, six months is a considerable slice of their term.

 

In the just over 70 years since World War II, Malcolm Turnbull is the 15th person to ascend to our top job. The average term in office – even including the 16-year rule of Robert Menzies[i] – is less than five years. In fact, only four Prime Ministers[ii] in those seven decades have even made it to the five-year mark, while six ended up serving less than three years.

 

The pace of turnover of Prime Ministers also appears to be accelerating – in the 11 years since Turnbull entered Parliament, he is now the fifth Prime Minister (with one of those, Kevin Rudd, even having two non-consecutive turns).

 

Based on the above, six months is likely to represent at least 10% of Turnbull’s entire term in office, and probably more.

 

In fact, there are reasons to believe Turnbull’s stay in the Lodge might be shorter than the average. For example, he is third oldest person to ever be first sworn in as Prime Minister (and the two who were older[iii] served for a combined period of less than two years).

 

It is also reasonable to describe Turnbull’s support inside the Parliamentary Liberal Party as somewhat tenuous. His first stint as Leader, while in Opposition, lasted less than 15 months. And, even after two years of the worst Prime Minister in living memory, he only defeated Tony Abbott by 54 votes to 44 last September (and which was only moderately better than the 39 votes cast for an ‘empty chair’[iv] in the February 2015 spill motion against Abbott).

 

With a switch of just six votes needed to reverse that result (whether to Abbott, who clearly remains interested in returning, or another candidate from the conservative wing of the Liberals) it should be noted that a sizeable majority of Liberal MPs in marginal seats voted for Turnbull[v], meaning that any loss of seats at the upcoming 2016 election would leave him more vulnerable to a challenge from inside the Government.

 

Of course, if the current level of in-fighting and disorganisation within the Coalition continues, there is also the small but real chance of the Government being voted out, cutting Turnbull’s term short at 12 months or less.

 

This thought – that, after just six months, it is time to start seriously considering his legacy – might be confronting for Turnbull, but he should console himself with the knowledge that, for most of his contemporaries, substantial elements of their legacies were built during their first year in office.

 

Kevin Rudd gave the apology to the Stolen Generations after less than three months in the role. He is also most commonly remembered for his response to the Global Financial Crisis, which reached its peak in September and October 2008 – again, less than 12 months from his election win on November 24 2007.

 

In Julia Gillard’s case, the announcement of the ‘carbon pricing mechanism’ (forever dubbed the carbon tax) was made on February 24 2011, exactly eight months after she ousted Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

 

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is also seen as a key part of her legacy – and, while the legislation that gave it effect was not introduced until late 2012, the Productivity Commission report which preceded it was already two months into its work before Gillard even became PM[vi].

 

Tony Abbott continues to assert that his first Budget – the ‘horror’ 2014-15 Budget, more widely known for its unfairness– is a key part of his legacy[vii], and that was handed down just eight months into his term. His more trivial – but just as infamous – ‘captain’s call’ to reintroduce knights and dames happened two months earlier.

 

Even in the case of John Howard, who, given he served as Prime Minister for more than 11 years and therefore has a long and highly-contested ‘legacy’, there is probably only one key positive achievement about which almost all parts of the political spectrum agree[viii] – his gun law reforms following the Port Arthur Massacre[ix], which itself occurred less than two months after he swept to power.

 

Six months into his own term as Prime Minister, it is hard to pin down exactly what Malcolm Turnbull’s key achievement or achievements have been (other than the initial, widespread feeling of ‘relief’ which many Australians experienced after he deposed Abbott). Different language has been used, including much talk of ‘agility’ and ‘innovation’ and ‘excitement’, but new ideas or policies? Not so much.

 

That situation will change, to some extent, over the coming months, as Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison put together their first Budget – to be delivered in early May (either May 10th, or 3rd if, as is now widely expected, they head to a double dissolution poll on July 2). There is obviously intense pressure on them both to set out their platform for the campaign ahead in that document.

 

But there is an even earlier opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to establish his legacy as Prime Minister. Two closely-linked opportunities, in fact: the decision on what to do with the Safe Schools program, and the choice whether or not to proceed with a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Both of these issues will come to a head in the coming week. The independent review of the Safe Schools program, instigated following the internal revolt by the likes of Cory Bernardi in the Coalition Party room meeting on 23 February, was expected to be handed to the Commonwealth Department of Education on Friday 11 March[x].

 

While it may be another week or two before the Government announces its response to that review, you can guarantee they will be discussing it internally during the week ahead (it’s also highly likely to be debated again in the Coalition Party room meeting on Tuesday, the second-last such meeting before a potential ‘double D’-election).

 

Lenore Taylor has also reported that the proposal for a plebiscite on marriage equality will be considered in detail by the Turnbull Cabinet this week[xi].

 

While the plebiscite was first adopted as Coalition policy under then Prime Minister Abbott on 11 August last year, this will be the main, Cabinet-level discussion of the process required to hold one – the question to be asked, expected timing (which, depending on who you listen to, may or may not be before the end of 2016), the estimated cost (likely upwards of $160 million[xii]), public funding of the yes and no cases, compulsory or voluntary voting and the supporting legislation.

 

Again, it is possible that the marriage equality plebiscite proposal will also be discussed at the Coalition Party room meeting on Tuesday morning (it will be interesting to see whether this one also takes six hours, especially given how much Liberal and National Party MPs appear to enjoy discussing LGBTI issues).

 

Obviously, the approaches that Turnbull, and his Liberal-National Government, adopts on these two issues this week will be a key part of his personal legacy for LGBTI Australians. Both decisions will have direct, and long-lasting, impacts on literally hundreds of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, their children, and their families and friends.

 

On Safe Schools, Turnbull will choose between defending a program developed to combat homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic bullying of LGBTI students, thereby reducing the all-too-frequent tragedy of LGBTI youth suicide – or giving in to bullies, like the Australian Christian Lobby, and The Australian newspaper, who it seems would much prefer enforced silence about LGBTI issues in the classroom, and the schoolyard, to the detriment of children with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex characteristics.

 

The consequences of this choice – whether a school is genuinely inclusive, or a vacuum allowing intolerance and discrimination to fester – can and will have lifelong impacts on the students who receive, or miss out on, programs like Safe Schools as a result.

 

On marriage equality, too, the impacts of Turnbull’s imminent decision will be profoundly felt, not only by LGBTI Australians, but also by the children of rainbow families.

 

As has been made clear by Australian Marriage Equality[xiii], if Malcolm Turnbull implemented the policy position that he held before becoming Prime Minister – of supporting a ‘free’ or conscience vote – then we could have marriage equality legislation passed by the end of this week.

 

But, if he persists with what was originally Tony Abbott’s plebiscite – but which is now most definitely his – not only will he be wasting at least $160 million on something which is completely unnecessary and inappropriate, he will also be causing real harm to LGBTI Australians, and our kids, by ensuring that there will be a protracted, bitter, and downright nasty campaign leading up to the vote.

 

The Australian Christian Lobby, both with its past actions (including repeated suggestions that gay and lesbian parenting creates another Stolen Generation[xiv]), and its recent call for state and territory anti-discrimination laws to be suspended for the duration of the campaign[xv], have effectively guaranteed it.

 

And, even if the marriage equality plebiscite is successful, it will still be at least another 12 – and possibly up to 18 or even 24 – months before Australian couples will finally be able to wed in their own country, with some elderly couples sadly, but inevitably, passing away before they can tie the knot.

 

However, while the impact of these decisions will be most keenly felt by LGBTI people, young and old, and their children, I would argue they will define Malcolm Turnbull’s legacy much more broadly. This is because his approach to Safe Schools, and the plebiscite, will tell us a lot about who he is as a Prime Minister, what type of Government he leads, and ultimately about his vision for Australia.

 

In terms of who Malcolm Turnbull is as Prime Minister, he would like most people, and especially the ‘persuadables’ in the electorate, to believe he is still the leather jacket-clad QandA panellist, with views that are more moderate than most of the members of his party – believing in climate change, supporting a republic, and wanting to be the leader who finally introduces marriage equality.

 

Deep down, I’m sure Turnbull would love to be the ‘cool’ Prime Minister who attends the 2017 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, claiming credit for removing discrimination from the Marriage Act 1961, receiving the passionate support, even adulation, from sections of the crowd in return.

 

But, if he caves in to the deeply homophobic and transphobic campaign against Safe Schools, led by the vitriolic and hateful scare-mongering of the Australian Christian Lobby and others, and if he continues to support an unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive marriage equality plebiscite, then not only will Malcolm Turnbull fail to be the Leader that he thinks he is (or at least wants to be) – he will become exactly the same type of Leader as the one he replaced.

 

By endorsing the attack on Safe Schools, and persisting with the plebiscite, Turnbull would show that there is no core belief that he will not jettison, no principle he is not prepared to compromise, in his quest to remain Prime Minister of Australia for as long as possible. The Opposition critique of him – that he is just Tony Abbott in a more expensive suit – will be more than justified.

 

And, by ensuring that it will be the public’s vote that finally achieves equality in relationship recognition in Commonwealth law, and not his own vote in Parliament, he will simply become another politician whom we had to win marriage equality in spite of, and not because of[xvi].

 

How Turnbull handles the decisions on Safe Schools, and the plebiscite, will also reveal a great deal about the type of Government he leads.

 

Is it a Government that represents, and serves the interests of, all Australians? Does it believe that the real and urgent needs of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are worthy of attention, and above all action? Does it think that people should not be legally discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity of intersex status?

 

Or is it a Government that represents, and serves the interests of, cisgender heterosexual Australians only? Does it believe that the pressing needs of young LGBTI people can simply be ignored? Does it think that the relationships of LGBTI Australians are genuinely lesser than those of other people, and therefore should be treated as such?

 

Turnbull has so far studiously avoided having to address this deep divide inside the Liberal-National Coalition. On Safe Schools, rather than reject the campaign against the program outright, he simply passed the buck to an independent review – thereby encouraging the attack to continue.

 

And, instead of directly reprimanding MPs like George Christensen and Andrew Hastie, who have compared Safe Schools to ‘grooming’[xvii] and George Orwell’s Big Brother[xviii] respectively, Turnbull offered a meek, generic statement saying “I encourage everybody who is discussing these issues to do so in very measured language… and to consider very carefully the impact of the words they use on young people and on their families.”[xix]

 

On marriage equality, he has again chosen not to upset the applecart, instead leaving in place Tony Abbott’s preferred option – a plebiscite – despite the insistence of multiple members of his own Government that they will not be bound by any ‘yes’ vote[xx], thus rendering the entire exercise pointless.

 

Well, on both of these issues, he can no longer kick those proverbial cans any further down the road. This week, in Cabinet and most likely in the Party room too, Malcolm Turnbull will need to decide what type of Government he wants to lead – and then he will need to argue for it, in the face of likely fierce criticism from Liberal and National MPs who do not now, and likely will not ever, support LGBTI equality, possibly at the cost of their ongoing support for his leadership.

 

Ultimately, how Malcolm Turnbull approaches the Safe Schools debate, and the marriage equality plebiscite, in the next few weeks will tell us whether he has what Keating would describe as ‘the vision thing’.

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull have a vision of a better Australia, where young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people can grow up happy and healthy, attending schools where they are free to be who they are, respected and accepted?

 

Does he see a future where all relationships are treated equally irrespective of the sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex statuses of the people involved, and is he prepared to actually do something to make that future a reality?

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull show, in who he is and how he governs, that he has the interests of all of us, including LGBTI Australians, at heart?

 

Or does his vision only extend as far as what is required to keep him in the Prime Ministership, the role that he has clearly coveted for so long?

 

That might sound harsh, and to some even potentially unfair, but that is what I believe is at stake in the next few weeks as Turnbull decides what to do on the Safe Schools program, and on the marriage equality plebiscite.

 

One final comment – some might argue that, given it is not Malcolm Turnbull who is leading the attacks on Safe Schools, and it was not his proposal to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, assessing his ‘legacy’ on how he approaches these issues is unjustified.

 

To which I would respond with two observations. First, he is the Prime Minister, and the campaign against Safe Schools is happening on his watch, including by members of his own Government, which makes his response to this issue extremely relevant to how we assess his performance.

 

And, while the marriage equality plebiscite might not have originally been his idea, if he chooses to proceed with it, at enormous cost, both financially, and psychologically in the harm it will cause to LGBTI Australians and their children, it will very much be his responsibility.

 

Second, John Howard did not ‘choose’ gun control to be his legacy, nor did Kevin Rudd ‘choose’ for the GFC to dominate his first term agenda, and Julia Gillard certainly did not ‘choose’ for her stint as Prime Minister to include such a large focus on climate change.

 

They were responding to events that were not of their own making – Port Arthur, global markets, and even the hung parliament. But how they responded to these things is what made them Leaders – and that is why we remember these achievements as part of their legacies.

 

Malcolm Turnbull did not choose for the attack on Safe Schools, nor did he choose Tony Abbott’s plebiscite. But, how the Government approaches these issues is now within his control as Prime Minister – and it is up to him how he chooses to exercise that power.

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull choose to support Safe Schools or does he side with those who have campaigned against it? Does he proceed with a plebiscite on marriage equality, even when he knows it is unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive? In short, what does Malcolm Turnbull want his legacy to be?

 

151222 Turnbull

For Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it’s time to turn his mind to how he will want to be remembered.

 

[i] Although this also includes the three-week term of John McEwen.

[ii] Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard.

[iii] John McEwen and William McMahon.

[iv] The Australian, Last Post, February 10 2015.

[v] The New Daily, “Why Turnbull could win the election – and still lose”, March 8 2016.

[vi] The Productivity Commission started its work in April 2010, and released the Disability Care & Support Final Report in August 2011.

[vii] The Australian, “Tony Abbott: My legacy the key to victory at next election”, September 26, 2015. Quote from Mr Abbott: “You can always dispute the marketing… but the 2014 Budget was a very serious structural attempt to tackle our long-term spending problems.”

[viii] Outside of ‘gun nuts’, and the accidental Liberal Democrat Senator, David Leyonhjelm.

[ix] Howard’s gun law reforms, and gun ‘buyback’, even has international admirers, as demonstrated by the 2013 segment by John Oliver on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (as reported here: Sydney Morning Herald, “US Show Uses Howard to Embarrass Gun Lobby”, April 22, 2013).

[x] Gay News Network, “Government Comment on Safe Schools Report Not Expected for 1-2 Weeks”, 11 March 2016.

[xi] Guardian Australia, “Coalition to finalise marriage equality plebiscite details as July election looms”, March 8 2016.

[xii] See “7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million”.

[xiii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Majority of MPs would back marriage equality”, January 30, 2016.

[xiv] Guardian Australia, “Q&A Recap: Lyle Shelton locks horns with panel on marriage equality”, 1 March 2016.

[xv] ABC News, “Same-sex marriage plebiscite: Christian lobby group wants ‘override’ of anti-discrimination laws during campaign”, 16 February 2016.

[xvi] For more, see: “Letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the Marriage Equality Plebiscite”.

[xvii] Buzzfeed Australia, This MP Just Compared the Safe Schools Coalition to ‘Grooming’”, 25 February 2016.

[xviii] From Mr Hastie, the Member for Canning’s, Facebook page: “George Orwell foresaw where the abandonment of reason can lead society: to a world devoid of compassion and empathy for those who disagree with us. All that is left is raw power. As Orwell wrote, without reason and charity in our public debate there will be nothing left but “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

[xix] ABC News, “Safe schools: Turnbull warns MPs over language used in debate”, February 26 2016.

[xx] Guardian Australia, “Eric Abetz: Coalition MPs will not be bound by plebiscite on marriage equality”, January 27 2016.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #5: Because there’s no intellectual stimulation in arguing with our opponents

There are some public policy issues which, as well as being important, can give rise to ‘intellectual stimulation’. By that I mean something that provokes informed debate, with multiple views, genuine disagreement about the best solution, sometimes even substantive and substantial arguments about the definition of the ‘problem’ itself.

Sadly, marriage equality is not one of these issues. Instead of being an exchange of ideas, for the most part the pro- and anti-marriage equality ‘debate’ is not really a debate at all. And it can’t be. Because it is impossible to have a debate when one side turns up without any arguments whatsoever on their side.

If the past twelve years have taught us anything, it is that anti-marriage equality campaigners are the intellectual Lilliputians of Australian public life. Sure they might have company out there on their ‘island of ignorance’ (hello anti-vaxers!), but it is difficult to think of many other public discussions in recent memory when so much has been said by people who had so little of substance to say.

It has become common to say that the argument for marriage equality has been run and won. And that’s true – except ‘won’ is an understatement. The defeat of anti-marriage equality campaigners, on the intellectual playing field at least, resembles nothing more than the 7:1 drubbing handed out by Germany to Brazil in the 2014 men’s football World Cup.

It is such a one-sided affair that, at times, you almost feel tempted to invoke the ‘mercy rule’ (which the opponents of marriage equality would probably reject anyway because it has too much in common philosophically with euthanasia).

In practice, the vacuity of anti-marriage equality campaigners, like Jim Wallace, or Lyle Shelton, or Cory Bernardi (and countless others), hasn’t stopped them from spouting the same nonsense time and time again over the past decade. It doesn’t matter that what they say on this subject has no credibility, they’ll keep saying it regardless.

Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby.

And that’s the frustrating thing – approaching twelve years since the original ban on same-sex marriage was introduced, and with the possibility of more before equality is finally legislated, it remains our responsibility to have the same public ‘debate’ with these people. To calmly refute the ridiculous claims that marriage equality will harm children, or impact on religious freedom, or that just because marriage has ‘traditionally’ been man-woman that it automatically must remain so in future.

And when I say ‘our’ responsibility, we should acknowledge that this burden has fallen particularly heavily on the shoulders of people like Australian Marriage Equality’s Alex Greenwich, and later Rodney Croome, and the Penny Wongs and Bob Browns of the political world, who have had to sit on countless panels and engage in countless debates with the Jim Wallaces and Lyle Sheltons of the Australian Christian Lobby, while suppressing the natural urge to react emotionally against the ignorance of what is being said. Hats off to them for doing what many of us might struggle to do.

Of course, this isn’t to say there is no intellectual stimulation in the issue of marriage equality per se. There certainly have been, and continue to be, interesting intellectual debates on this subject. It just happens that they are all held between people who already assume that everyone should be equal, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The debate about whether people should be aiming to make marriage inclusive or abolish it altogether, about whether there was strategic value in pursuing state-based same-sex marriage laws or not (or whether to support the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 or not), about where marriage equality sits on the overall list of priorities for the LGBTI community – all provide more intellectual succour than discussing the issue of marriage equality with a campaigner who seriously believes that marriage, under secular law, should be restricted to cisgender heterosexual couples.

It’s just a shame that we have been consigned to having to continue having this lop-sided non-debate. I for one can’t wait to discuss something a little bit more stimulating – and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

One final thing – you will hopefully notice that I have been careful to restrict these comments to anti-marriage equality campaigners, rather than all people who do not (or not yet anyway) support marriage equality. I am certainly not accusing all people who hold that view of being ‘ignorant’.

However, I am most definitely saying that, if you have carefully considered the question of marriage equality, and come to the conclusion that the only acceptable form of marriage is one man and one woman, and that you will campaign for that publicly, despite having no arguments on your side that withstand any kind of scrutiny, and against the equality and human rights of your fellow citizens, well, then there’s not much that you could say that is in any way worth listening to.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #8: Because it gives our opponents a platform for their bigotry

One of the more frustrating things about the marriage equality debate, which in Australia has been going for 12 years and, potentially, has several more left to run, is that it has provided the perfect platform for our opponents – religious fundamentalists and right-wing extremists alike – to express all manner of hateful comments about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians and, in particular, about our relationships.

It does not seem like a month has gone by, since the Howard Government first entrenched marriage discrimination in Commonwealth law in August 2004, that we have not been subjected to the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ramblings of bigots who believe that allowing two consenting adults to get married will somehow precipitate the downfall of civilisation.

All the while these vile views have been dutifully reported far and wide, often without challenge, by the media, under an obligation to report ‘two sides’ to any public policy argument, even when one of those sides involves perpetuating hate speech against an already vulnerable minority group.

And the people who oppose marriage equality have certainly given the media plenty of sensationalist material to choose from – no-one more than Australia’s premier anti-gay hate group (and sometime pro-religious organisation) the Australian Christian Lobby.

Two ACL ‘standouts’ (it would be too generous to call them ‘highlights’) of the past 12 years were then managing director Jim Wallace unfavourably comparing homosexuality with smoking in September 2012:

“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years…The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”

And the current managing director’s own disgraceful media release, in May 2013, which went even further. Titled “Rudd’s change of marriage sets up a new stolen generation”, it argued that:

“The Prime Minister who rightly gave an apology to the stolen generation has sadly not thought through the fact that his new position on redefining marriage will create another. Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said Kevin Rudd’s overnight change of mind on redefining marriage ignored the consequence of robbing children of their biological identity through same-sex surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies.”

Mr Shelton has since repeated this appalling comparison, on multiple occasions, including earlier this year on ABC’s Q&A.

Truly, is there anything more disgusting than denigrating the love between two people, who simply want the same legal recognition as other Australians, by linking it with one of the most shameful episodes of Australian history?

Lyle Shelton, breaking Australia’s equivalent of Godwin’s law: The first person to use the Stolen Generations in an argument about something that has nothing to do with the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people automatically loses said argument.

Lyle Shelton, breaking Australia’s equivalent of Godwin’s law: The first person to use the Stolen Generations in an argument about something that has nothing to do with the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people automatically loses said argument.

Nevertheless, some members of our political class have given it their best shot in trying to match the homophobia of the ACL during the marriage equality debate. We all remember Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s infamous ‘contribution’ to public life:

“The next step, quite frankly, is having three people or four people that love each other being able to enter into a permanent union endorsed by society – or any other type of relationship… There are even some creepy people out there… [who] say it is OK to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals… Will that be a future step? In the future will we say, “These two creatures love each other and maybe they should be able to be joined in a union.” I think these things are the next step.”

I would of course not be the first to point out that Senator Bernardi was the only person who seemed ‘creepy’ as a consequence of these comments. But he was certainly not the only Senator to cross the threshold from genuine public debate into outright vilification. His Coalition colleague, National Party Senator Ron Boswell, made a similarly outrageous speech during that debate, which it is not possible to do full ‘justice’ to here, but which did include the following gem:

“Two mothers or two fathers cannot raise a child properly. Who takes a boy to football? Who tells him what is right from wrong? What does he do – go along with the two mums? How does he go camping and fishing? Yes, there might be some attempt by one of the mothers to fill in as a father figure but it will not work. It is defying nature. And what about a young girl changing from a teenager into a young woman? Is it fair to say to her, “You don’t have a mother; your mother can’t take you shopping” or to not be able to help her understand how her body is changing? What are we trying to do here? Why are we trying to defy what has been the right thing for hundreds of thousands of years?”

And, in the spirit of bipartisanship, we should not overlook the Labor Party’s own intellectual vacuum herself, Senator Helen Polley, who during the same debate read the following into Senate Hansard:

“From D and AO: “Most of the world has chosen not to change the definition of marriage. Those who seek to change the definition ignore the impacts on children and the potential to create another stolen generation by putting an adult desire above the needs of children.”

Just like Lyle Shelton, in Helen Polley’s weird but less than wonderful universe it is somehow appropriate to connect the idea of marriage equality with the tragic history of the Stolen Generations (in the process contravening the Australian equivalent of Godwin’s law).

Helen Polley: Bigot.

Helen Polley: Bigot.

These are just the highest profile examples of the many, many outrageous things that have been said about our relationships over the past 12 years. Probably every bit as offensive, and potentially damaging, has been the slow drip of more ‘ordinary’ homophobic comments, the everyday, even mundane, verbal slings and arrows wielded by our opponents against us, attacking who we are.

These comments have come from public figures and politicians not otherwise known for their homophobia, including from one MP who, at least until the 2014 Federal Budget, was generally considered to be at the more ‘mainstream’ end of his particular political party.

In May 2012, on the ABC’s Q&A, then Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey argued against marriage equality by saying:

“Well, I don’t believe we necessarily make better parents because we’re a male and female. I must confess that my view has changed since I’ve had children and that’s very hard and lot of my friends, whether they be heterosexual or gay, they hold the same view as you. But I think in this life we’ve got to aspire to give our children what I believe to be the very best circumstances, and that’s to have a mother and a father. And I’m not saying that – I’m not saying gay parents are any lesser parents, but I am being asked to legislate in favour of something that I don’t believe to be the best outcome for a child.”

Such arguments – essentially bleating ‘but what about the children?’ while simultaneously ignoring all the evidence that the children of same-sex parents turn out just fine, thank you very much – have become depressingly common.

But just because they are common, does not mean that they do not hurt, and does not mean that they cannot cause profound and long-lasting damage. I would try to explain just how hurtful the bigotry of the marriage equality debate can be, but there was a speech in early 2014  which was far more eloquent on this subject than I could ever hope to be.

Irish drag queen Panti Bliss gave an impassioned talk on the 1st of February that year about just what the consequences of gay rights ‘debates’ can be. I encourage you to watch or read the whole speech but one of the passages which stood out to me was this:

“Have you ever come home in the evening and turned on the television and there is a panel of people – nice people, respectable people, smart people, the kind of people who make good neighbourly neighbours and write for newspapers. And they are having a reasoned debate about you. About what kind of a person you are, about whether you are capable of being a good parent, about whether you want to destroy marriage, about whether you are safe around children, about whether God herself thinks you are an abomination, about whether in fact you are “intrinsically disordered”. And even the nice TV presenter lady who you feel like you know thinks it’s perfectly ok that they are all having this reasonable debate about who you are and what rights you “deserve”.

And that feels oppressive.”

Amen. To me, Panti (real name Rory O’Neill) has summed up perfectly the experience of watching as your worth as a human being is assessed, at length, by others, simply of the basis of your sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It doesn’t just feel oppressive. It is oppressive.

Before anyone goes all Andrew Bolt on me, and suggests I am some kind of ‘closet totalitarian’ who wishes to shut down all public debate on terms that are suitable to me and my side of politics, let me first say this: I recognise that in order to achieve this important social reform it is inevitable there will be a public debate which exposes multiple sides to the issue, including some arguments that most normal people find objectionable. After all, that is part of democracy [And of course it is a debate that has already been had, time and time again, since Howard’s discriminatory law was first passed].

And if we are to secure long-lasting change maybe we do need to flush out (and I use that term deliberately) the prejudice, the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic views, of people who are opposed to the fundamental equality of their fellow Australians. Perhaps, in doing so, we can help secure not just marriage equality, but also a more tolerant, and even more accepting, country in the decades to come.

But, that is me talking as an adult, as someone who is comfortable in who they are, who understands the context of the debate and that much of the extreme prejudice currently being expressed is simply the lashing out, the childish tantrums, of people whose narrow view of the world is being challenged – and who are on the verge of defeat.

So, while the comments of the ACL or bigoted Commonwealth Parliamentarians might hurt, and might feel oppressive, to me, my fiancé Steven and to other marriage equality activists, we know that they can be endured on the long path to progress.

For others, who are not as comfortable in who they are, the hurt and oppression of such comments is undoubtedly magnified. For young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, being told that their sexual orientation is worse than smoking, or that recognising their relationships would be akin to recognising bestiality, or even that allowing them to marry the person they love is somehow the equivalent of the Stolen Generations, exacerbates the already high rates of mental health issues, including depression and self-harm, that they experience.

The Jim Wallaces, Lyle Sheltons, Cory Bernardis, Ron Boswells and Helen Polleys of this world need to understand the real-world consequences of their words and actions, that their bigotry can and does lead to depression – and worse – amongst young LGBTI people. Even the more everyday or ‘mundane’ homophobia expressed by people like Joe Hockey can be seen, in this context, as malevolent because it too leads to many young LGBTI people feeling like they are ‘less than’ their heterosexual and cisgender peers.

The fact that they do not accept responsibility for the harm that they cause, that the ACL and others refuse to concede that the bigoted views they express during the marriage equality debate do have consequences, definitely makes this one of the things I hate about marriage inequality – and one more reason why I will be glad when this debate is finally over, and we have taken another step on the path to full equality.