Submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission Review of the Family Law System

Australian Law Reform Commission

via familylaw@alrc.gov.au

 

Tuesday 13 November 2018

 

To whom it may concern

 

Submission in response to the Review of the Family Law System Discussion Paper

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this review.

 

While there are a number of important issues raised in the Discussion Paper, I will restrict my comments to one issue in particular: the welfare jurisdiction, and specifically its impact on people born with variations in sex characteristics.

 

This issue is discussed in Chapter 9 of the Discussion Paper, and specifically addressed in Question 9-1:

 

In relation to the welfare jurisdiction:

  • Should authorisation by a court, tribunal, or other regulatory body be required for procedures such as sterilisation of children with disability or intersex medical procedures? What body would be most appropriate to undertake this function?
  • In what circumstances should it be possible for this body to authorise sterilisation procedures or intersex medical procedures before a child is legally able to personally make these decisions?
  • What additional legislative, procedural or other safeguards, if any, should be put in place to ensure that the human rights of children are protected in these cases?

 

I will seek to answer these question as both an advocate for the overall lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, and specifically as an ally for intersex people, including as a supporter of Intersex Human Rights Australia (IHRA).

 

In this capacity – as an intersex ally – I have affirmed the March 2017 Darlington Statement of intersex advocates and organisations from Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.

 

That Statement provides a clear set of principles which guide the response to the current Discussion Paper. This includes:

 

Article 5: Our rights to bodily integrity, physical autonomy and self determination.

 

Article 7: We call for the immediate prohibition as a criminal act of deferrable medical interventions, including surgical and hormonal interventions, that alter the sex characteristics of infants and children without personal consent. We call for freely-given and fully informed consent by individuals, with individuals and families having mandatory independent access to funded counselling and peer support.

 

Article 16: Current forms of oversight of medical interventions affecting people born with variations of sex characteristics have proven to be inadequate.

a. We note a lack of transparency about diverse standards of care and practices across Australia and New Zealand for all age groups.

b. We note that the Family Court system in Australia has failed to adequately consider the human rights and autonomy of children born with variations of sex characteristics, and the repercussions of medical interventions on individuals and their families. The role of the Family Court is itself unclear. Distinctions between ‘therapeutic’ and ‘non-therapeutic’ interventions have failed our population.

 

Article 22: We call for the provision of alternative, independent, effective human rights-based oversight mechanism(s) to determine individual cases involving persons born with intersex variations who are unable to consent to treatment, bringing together human rights experts, clinicians and intersex-led community organisations. The pros and cons for and against medical treatment must be properly ventilated and considered, including the lifetime health, legal, ethical, sexual and human rights implications.

 

Article 23: Multi-disciplinary teams must operate in line with transparent, human rights-based standards of care for the treatment of intersex people and bodies. Multi-disciplinary teams in hospitals must include human rights specialists, child advocates, and independent intersex community representatives [emphasis in original].

 

I also endorse the 7 May 2018 submission by Intersex Human Rights Australia to the Review of the Family Law System – Issues Paper.

 

This includes supporting their analysis of the serious problems caused by the jurisprudence of the Family Court to date in this area (on pages 33 to 42), specifically:

 

  • Welfare of a Child A (1993)
  • Re: Carla (Medical procedure) (2016)
  • Re: Lesley (Special Medical Procedure) (2008), and
  • Re: Kaitlin (2017).

 

The horrific circumstances of the Re: Carla case in particular demonstrate the acute failure of the Family Court to adequately protect the human rights of children born with intersex variations. Instead, the Family Court appears more likely to be complicit in, and sign off on, these same human rights violations.

 

It is hard not to agree with IHRA’s conclusion that: ‘this 2016 Family Court of Australia case is deeply disturbing, exemplifying the way that the human rights of intersex children are violated with inadequate evidence for social and cosmetic purposes’ (page 39).

 

I further endorse the summary findings of the IHRA submission (on page 42) including that:

 

  • The Family Court system has not understood the intersex population, nor the nature of procedures in cases that it has been asked to adjudicate. Most cases are not subject to even this limited form of oversight.
  • The Family Court has failed to properly utilise its procedures in order to ensure that the best interests of intersex children have been thoroughly investigated and understood within the medical context, and within the human rights context, and
  • The ‘best interests of the child’ has been interpreted through a narrow lens, manipulated to facilitate experimental treatments that, contrary to Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, conflict with the child’s human dignity and right to physical integrity. This has been facilitated through appeals to gender stereotypes and social norms with insufficient attention to the long-term health and well-being interests of the child.

 

And I support the recommendations made by IHRA on pages 43 and 44, including that:

 

Recommendation 4. Any non-deferrable interventions which alter the sex characteristics of infants and children proposed to be performed before a child is able to consent on their own behalf should be identified as medical treatment outside the scope of parental consent and requiring authorisation of an independent body (hereafter referred to as the ‘decision-making forum’). A decision-making forum must bring together human rights experts, clinicians, and intersex-led community organisations.

 

Recommendation 5. Whether consent is provided by the intersex minor or a decision-making forum, the pros and cons of medical treatment must be properly ventilated and considered, including the lifelong health, legal, ethical, sexual and human rights implications. Consent or authorisation for treatment must be premised on provision of all the available medical evidence on necessity, timing, and evaluation of outcome of medical interventions. Where this is no clinical consensus, this must be disclosed.

 

Recommendation 10. The current threshold criteria to determine whether or not a procedure is within the scope of parental authority is whether it is therapeutic or non-therapeutic. This criterion has failed to distinguish between interventions that are strictly clinically necessary and those that are not; between interventions based on culturally-specific social norms and gender stereotypes and those that are not. This criterion should be abandoned as a threshold test of whether a medical procedure requires oversight or authorisation from a decision-making forum, and

 

Recommendation 11. Children born with variations of sex characteristics must be treated by multi-disciplinary teams. Multi-disciplinary teams must operate in line with transparent, human rights-based standards of care for the treatment of intersex people and bodies. Multi-disciplinary teams in hospitals must include human rights specialists, child advocates, and independent intersex community representatives.

 

Based on all of the above factors, and returning to Question 9-1 in the Discussion Paper, my approach to these issues is therefore:

 

  • All deferrable medical interventions, including surgical and hormonal interventions, that alter the sex characteristics of infants and children with variations in sex characteristics without personal consent should be prohibited as criminal acts.
  • Where medical interventions on infants and children with variations in sex characteristics are considered non-deferrable, this must be subject to genuine independent oversight.
  • Based on the advice of Intersex Human Rights Australia, the experiences of far too many people born with intersex variations, and the jurisprudence cited earlier, adequate oversight is not being provided currently. The Family Court has failed, in its welfare jurisdiction, to protect the welfare of intersex infants and children.
  • Given this, the Family Court should no longer perform this function. Instead, a new independent authority should be created to oversee issues related to non-deferrable medical interventions on infants and children with variations in sex characteristics.
  • This new independent authority should primarily be guided by human rights considerations, including the human rights of the child concerned – rather than the current approach which both prioritises and privileges a medicalised approach to these questions.
  • Consequently, this new independent authority should receive evidence and information from human rights and children’s rights experts, from intersex-led community organisations and peers, alongside clinical and psychosocial experts. Only by hearing from all of these sources can the issues be properly ventilated.
  • This new independent authority should be national, both so that it can help ensure greater consistency, but also to assist with the transparency of and accountability for its decision-making.

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission to this important inquiry. Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details provided, should you require additional information.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

1200px-Intersex_flag.svg

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Submission re Australian Law Reform Commission Freedoms Inquiry Interim Report

Australian Law Reform Commission

GPO Box 3708

SYDNEY NSW 2000

freedoms@alrc.gov.au

Monday 21 September 2015

To whom it may concern

SUBMISSION RE ALRC FREEDOMS INQUIRY INTERIM REPORT

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission in response to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) Freedoms Inquiry Interim Report.

This submission builds on my submission in response to the Issues Paper released in December 2014[i].

As with my earlier submission, my primary focus is on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, including:

  • The failure by the Commonwealth Government to protect LGBTI people from vilification and
  • The Commonwealth Government’s tacit endorsement of discrimination, by religious organisations, against LGBT people.

However, before I turn to these issues in detail – and specifically how they relate to Chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the Interim Report – I reiterate my concern about the Terms of Reference for this Inquiry.

From my earlier submission:

“The way in which the Terms of Reference have been formulated, and consequently the manner in which the Issues Paper has been drafted, appears to prioritise some rights above others, merely because they are older, or are found in common law, rather than being more modern rights or founded through legislation or international human rights documents.

This is an unjustified distinction, and makes it appear, at the very least, that property rights or ‘the common law protection of personal reputation’ (aka protection against defamation) are more important than other rights, such as freedom from vilification or discrimination.

My criticism of this inquiry is therefore similar to that of the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Discussion Paper released by the Human Rights Commissioner Mr Tim Wilson. From my submission to that inquiry[ii]:

“Specifically, I would argue that the prioritising of certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring that all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society.

From my point of view, chief among these rights is the right to non-discrimination, or to put it another way (which may be more favourably received), to be free from discrimination, including unfair or adverse treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The right to non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law adopted immediately post-World War II. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.”

Similarly, article 21 of the ICCPR establishes that:

“All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has, in cases which both involved complaints by Australian citizens against actions by the Tasmanian and Commonwealth Government respectively, found that the wording of these articles includes the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.[iii]

The Commonwealth Parliament has also recognised that the right to non-discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians is worthy of protection, with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

This historic legislation, providing similar rights to non-discrimination to those already enjoyed on the basis of race, sex, disability and age, was a significant, albeit long overdue, step forward for the LGBTI community. For this reason, I would not wish to see the right to be free from discrimination on these attributes to be diminished in comparison to other, more ‘traditional’ rights.

Unfortunately, that is the almost inevitable conclusion of a consultation process which aims to consider “how effectively we protect people’s human rights and freedoms in Australia”… but which then only focuses on a small number of freedoms, including the right to property, but which neglects others.”

[End extract]

Unfortunately, while the ALRC Freedoms Inquiry Issues Paper acknowledged that “[f]reedom from discrimination is also a fundamental human right”, in my opinion the Interim Report does not reflect this view and in fact further privileges some rights over the right to non-discrimination simply because they are ‘older’ in legal origin.

Nevertheless, in the remainder of this submission I will continue to focus on the important right to non-discrimination, including associated protections against vilification, as it relates to the freedoms of speech, religion and association that are discussed in Chapters 3, 4 and 5 respectively.

Chapter 3: Freedom of Speech

My first comment relates to terminology, namely the protected attributes referred to in paragraph 3.103 on page 80.

It is disappointing that the discussion of protections against breaches of human rights and discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (and the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986) would refer to the out-dated term ‘sexual preference’, rather than the more inclusive and better practice term ‘sexual orientation’.

It is also disappointing that the two other grounds added by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 – ‘gender identity’, and ‘intersex status’ – are not included in this paragraph.

Turning now to the more substantive issue of anti-vilification laws generally, and the issue of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 specifically (as discussed on pages 80 to 84).

Despite public controversy in recent years (at least in the eyes of some conservative commentators), I do not believe that there has been any real evidence that the racial vilification protections of the RDA have, in practice, operated inappropriately, or that they require significant amendment.

Moreover, rather than repeal Commonwealth racial vilification protections, I continue to believe there is a strong case for the introduction of similar laws against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

As I wrote in my earlier submission [edited]:

“My primary question is why laws should be established to prohibit ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred’ but not to prohibit advocacy of hatred on other grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The impact of vilification on these grounds, and the negative influence of public homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia more generally, is just as harmful as racial or religious vilification, and therefore I can see no good reason why there should not also exist equivalent anti-vilification protections covering LGBTI Australians at Commonwealth level.

In short, if there should be a law to protect against the incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence on the basis of race, then there should also be a law to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The fact that there is no such Commonwealth law means that the Government is currently failing in its duty to protect LGBTI Australians from vilification.”

[End extract]

Therefore, my response to the ‘[c]onclusions’ in paragraph 3.191 is to reject the suggestion that “[a]nti-discrimination law may also benefit from more thorough review in relation to implications for freedom of speech” but to instead submit that the Commonwealth Government should amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to include vilification protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, as a matter of priority.

Chapter 4: Freedom of Religion

It is difficult to disagree with the opening paragraph of Chapter 4, where it asserts: “[g]enerally speaking, Australians enjoy significant religious freedom, particularly by comparison to other jurisdictions. Australians enjoy the freedom to worship and practise religion, as well as the freedom not to worship or engage in religious practices,” or this description in paragraph 4.39 on page 104:

“There are few Commonwealth laws that can be said to interfere with freedom of religion. The Law Council of Australia advised that “it has not identified any laws imposing any specific restriction on the freedom of religion” and “that any specific encroachment is likely to arise in balancing religious freedom with other protected freedoms, such as freedom of speech.””

In fact, I would go further to suggest that religious freedom is unnecessarily and unjustifiably prioritised, and provided with ‘special treatment’, within Australia.

This is because legal protections surrounding freedom of religion extend far beyond the right to worship freely (or not) to incorporate other ‘rights’, including the ‘right to discriminate’ against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This so-called ‘right to discriminate’ applies outside places and celebrations of worship, to allow education, health and community services that are operated by religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT Australians both in employment, and in service delivery.

This is reflected in the variety of extremely broad exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination law, which provide that the requirement not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity does not apply to these organisations.

In the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, these exceptions are contained in sections 23(3)(b), 37 and 38, with sub-section 37(1)(d) revealing exactly how broad this freedom to discriminate is in practice:

“[n]othing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

It should be noted that there is nothing inherent in the freedom of religion that automatically requires religious organisations to be provided with what is essentially a ‘blank cheque’ to discriminate against LGBT employees and LGBT people accessing services in a wide variety of circumstances.

There are two reasons for this:

First, these services, whether they are in the fields of education, health or community services, are located squarely in the public sphere, and their primary nature is related to the delivery of education, health or community services, not to the ‘celebration’ of religion.

This means that, while discrimination against ministers of religion or worshippers within a church, mosque or synagogue on these grounds might conceptually fall within freedom of religion, it is much more difficult to argue that discrimination within a school, hospital or aged care facility is as essential to enjoyment of the same freedom.

Second, we accept that there are limits to religious freedom where it threatens public order, or causes significant harm to other people. It is clear that allowing religious organisations to discriminate freely in these settings causes considerable harm to LGBT Australians, including by:

a) Denying employment to people who are eminently qualified to perform a role, with this discrimination based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity, attributes which are irrelevant to the job at hand, and

b) Discriminating against people who wish to access services on the same basis, the most egregious example of which is mistreatment of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students whose parents have chosen to send to schools operated by religious organisations (and where they are often unaware that their child is LGBT).

For both of these reasons, I reiterate the view from my earlier submission that the exceptions offered to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination law should be significantly curtailed.

As I wrote previously:

“Religious exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws allow serious harm to be caused to LGBT Australians, on a day-to-day basis and across multiple spheres of public life, and, I submit, should be significantly curbed.

To this end, I believe the religious exemptions which are included in sub-sections 37(1)(a),(b) and (c) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[iv], if supplemented by exemptions covering how religious ceremonies are conducted, are both more justifiable in being better targeted to protecting freedom of religious worship itself, and less likely to result in harm to LGBT people through the breach of their right to non-discrimination across broad areas of public life. These are the only religious exemptions that, I believe, should be retained.

This, much narrower, form of religious exemptions would, in my view, also be a more appropriate outcome of a system of human rights that seeks to both protect fundamental rights, and promote the responsibility not to infringe upon the fundamental rights of others.”

[End extract]

Perhaps the most concerning part of the Interim Report is the stakeholder feedback from some religious organisations, lobbyists and lobby groups that, contrary to the above view, their rights to discriminate are currently too narrowly defined and they in fact demand a far greater ability to impose discrimination against LGBT Australians.

This includes submissions from the Australian Christian Lobby, Mr Patrick Parkinson, Freedom for Faith, Family Voice, the Wilberforce Foundation, Christian Schools Australia and the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. Their suggestions include replacing the existing, already overly generous exceptions to anti-discrimination law, with a positively-framed ‘right to discriminate’.

These groups are essentially arguing that religious freedom, no matter how broadly defined or how indirectly related to the actual celebration of religion, must always take precedence over the rights of others not to be discriminated against, even where such discrimination obviously causes significant harm.

I urge the ALRC to reject the views of these religious fundamentalists, and their attempts to impose the ‘supremacy’[v] of religious freedom over any or all other rights in Australian society, including through Commonwealth law.

Finally, while on Chapter 4, I note the discussion regarding solemnising marriage ceremonies on pages 111 to 113 of the Interim Report.

While I do not propose to comment on the content which is included in this section, I would note that one issue which is not canvassed is the proposal by some that, when marriage equality is finally introduced in Australian law, it should be accompanied by the establishment of a new right for civil celebrants to refuse to solemnise wedding ceremonies of LGBTI Australians.

Such provisions have been included in the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014, introduced by Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm, and similar rights to ‘conscientiously object’ have also been advocated for by the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Tim Wilson.

For reasons that I have outlined elsewhere[vi], such provisions should be rejected by the Commonwealth Parliament on the basis that this would set a concerning precedent whereby individuals would be able to discriminate in service delivery on the basis of their personal religious beliefs, and because a social reform which is based on love would be fundamentally undermined by provisions which legitimise hate.

Chapter 5: Freedom of Association

The issues which arise in this Chapter are similar to those raised in Chapter 4: Freedom of Religion. In particular, people like Mr Patrick Parkinson and Family Voice submit that freedom of association should allow religious organisations to discriminate against people who do not “fit with the mission and values of the organisation.”

To a certain extent I agree – churches, mosques and synagogues, indeed all formally and explicitly religious organisations, should be free to include or exclude whoever they want, on whatever basis they want, as ministers of religion and as worshippers or members of their respective congregations.

The ‘whoever they want, on whatever basis they want’ formulation is important – if the people making the case for freedom of religion, and freedom of association, to justify exempting religious organisations from anti-discrimination laws are philosophically consistent, they should be pushing for exceptions to be introduced into the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and other anti-discrimination schemes as much as they argue for the existing exceptions in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

If they do not, then it reveals that they are not genuinely motivated by the pursuit of these freedoms, but are in fact engaged in an exercise in prejudice specifically directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

In a similar way to Chapter 4, I also disagree that the freedom of association should extend to allow education, health and community services operated by religious organisations to be able to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Any argument that might be raised that these schools, hospitals or aged care facility should have the freedom to include or exclude ‘whoever they want, on whatever basis they want’ is outweighed by the public interest in having education, health and community services provided on a non-discriminatory basis, and specifically by the harm caused to LGBT people by allowing such discrimination to occur.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide a submission in response to the Interim Report. Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details below, should you wish to clarify any of the above or to seek additional information.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

[i] https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/02/15/submission-to-australian-law-reform-commission-traditional-rights-and-freedoms-inquiry/

[ii] Full submission at: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/10/27/submission-to-rights-responsibilities-2014-consultation/

[iii] Human Rights Committee, Toonen v Australia, Communication No. 488/1992, UN Doc CCPR/C/50/D/488/92 and Human Rights Committee, Young v Australia, Communication No. 941/2000, UN Doc CCPR/C/78/D/941/2000.

[iv] “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:

  • the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;
  • the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
  • the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice…”

[v] Indeed, it is especially concerning that the Australian Christian Lobby uses the language of ‘supremacy’ in its own submission: “Courts and legislatures need to acknowledge the supremacy of the fundamental rights of freedom of religion, conscience, speech and association… [it is] a freedom which must be placed among the top levels of human rights hierarchy” as quoted at paragraph 4.96 on page 116.

[vi] See: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/12/21/senator-leyonhjelms-marriage-equality-bill-undermines-the-principle-of-lgbti-anti-discrimination-should-we-still-support-it/

Submission to Australian Law Reform Commission Traditional Rights and Freedoms Inquiry

The Australian Law Reform Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into Traditional Rights and Freedoms – Encroachment by Commonwealth Laws (at the behest of Commonwealth Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis). They have released an Issues Paper for public consultation, with submissions due by Friday 27 February 2015. For more information about the inquiry, see <http://www.alrc.gov.au/inquiries/freedoms The following is my submission, focusing on LGBTI vilification, religious exceptions to anti-discrimination law, and asylum-seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees.

The Executive Director

Australian Law Reform Commission

GPO Box 3708

Sydney NSW 2001

c/- freedoms@alrc.gov.au

Sunday 15 February 2015

To whom it may concern

SUBMISSION TO TRADITIONAL RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS INQUIRY

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to the Traditional Rights and Freedoms – Encroachment by Commonwealth Laws Inquiry.

The subject of human rights and freedoms, and how they should best be protected, both by and from Government, is an important one, and is worthy of substantive consideration.

In this submission, I will focus on three particular areas in which the rights of people are currently being breached as a result of Commonwealth Government action, or in some cases, inaction:

  1. The Commonwealth Government’s failure to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians from vilification
  2. The Commonwealth Government’s tacit endorsement of discrimination, by religious organisations, against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians, and
  3. The gross violation of human rights of asylum-seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees, by the Commonwealth Government.

Before I move to these issues in more detail, however, I wish to express my concern about the Terms of Reference (provided by Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis) and therefore the overall direction of this inquiry.

The way in which the Terms of Reference have been formulated, and consequently the manner in which the Issues Paper has been drafted, appears to prioritise some rights above others, merely because they are older, or are found in common law, rather than being more modern rights or founded through legislation or international human rights documents.

This is an unjustified distinction, and makes it appear, at the very least, that property rights or ‘the common law protection of personal reputation’ (aka protection against defamation) are more important than other rights, such as freedom from vilification or discrimination.

My criticism of this inquiry is therefore similar to that of the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Discussion Paper released by the Human Rights Commissioner Mr Tim Wilson. From my submission to that inquiry[1]:

“Specifically, I would argue that the prioritising of certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring that all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society.

From my point of view, chief among these rights is the right to non-discrimination, or to put it another way (which may be more favourably received), to be free from discrimination, including unfair or adverse treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The right to non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law adopted immediately post-World War II. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.”

Similarly, article 21 of the ICCPR establishes that:

“All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has, in cases which both involved complaints by Australian citizens against actions by the Tasmanian and Commonwealth Government respectively, found that the wording of these articles includes the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.[2]

The Commonwealth Parliament has also recognised that the right to non-discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians is worthy of protection, with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

This historic legislation, providing similar rights to non-discrimination to those already enjoyed on the basis of race, sex, disability and age, was a significant, albeit long overdue, step forward for the LGBTI community. For this reason, I would not wish to see the right to be free from discrimination on these attributes to be diminished in comparison to other, more ‘traditional’ rights.

Unfortunately, that is the almost inevitable conclusion of a consultation process which aims to consider “how effectively we protect people’s human rights and freedoms in Australia”… but which then only focuses on a small number of freedoms, including the right to property, but which neglects others.”

[End extract]

Encouragingly, the ALRC at least acknowledges, on page 31, that “[f]reedom from discrimination is also a fundamental human right.” But the Issues Paper does not include a chapter on this right, nor does it include it within the list of “[o]ther rights, freedoms and privileges” in Chapter 19.

I believe that this imbalance, in examining and prioritising some fundamental rights, while essentially ignoring others, undermines the utility of this process – and is something which must be redressed in the Final Report, expected by December 2015.

I turn now to three particular areas in which the Commonwealth Government either itself breaches human rights, or authorises others to do so.

  1. The Commonwealth Government’s failure to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians from vilification

[NB This topic relates to Chapter Two: Freedom of Speech, and its questions:

  • What general principles or criteria should be applied to help determine whether a law that interferes with freedom of speech is justified?
  • Which Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of speech, and why are these laws unjustified?]

I acknowledge the importance of the right to freedom of expression, or freedom of speech. However, I also welcome the Issues Paper’s acknowledgement that there are possible justifications for encroachment on this right. In particular, the Issues Papers notes, at paragraph 2.2.4 on page 26:

“Similarly, laws prohibit, or render unlawful, speech that causes harm, distress or offence to others through incitement to violence, harassment, intimidation or discrimination.”

This obviously includes the prohibition on racial vilification contained in section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975[3].

My primary question is why laws should be established to prohibit ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred’ but not to prohibit advocacy of hatred on other grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The impact of vilification on these grounds, and the negative influence of public homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia more generally, is just as harmful as racial or religious vilification, and therefore I can see no good reason why there should not also exist equivalent anti-vilification protections covering LGBTI Australians a Commonwealth level.

It is for this reason that I provided a submission last year in response to the Senator Brandis’ Exposure Draft Bill seeking to repeal section 18C, in which I argued that, instead of abolishing racial vilification laws, similar protections against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status should be added to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[4].

In short, if there should be a law to protect against the incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence on the basis of race, then there should also be a law to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The fact that there is no such Commonwealth law means that the Government is currently failing in its duty to protect LGBTI Australians from vilification.

Finally, I note that this answer is, in some respects, contrary to the intention of “Question 2-2: [w]hich Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of speech, and why are these laws unjustified?” because it instead proposes an additional area where freedom of speech should be limited.

I submit that such an answer is necessary to redress the imbalance contained in the Terms of Reference, and Issues Paper, because the right to freedom from vilification is equally worthy of recognition, and protection, in Commonwealth law. It is a right that should be extended to LGBTI Australians as a matter of priority.

  1. The Commonwealth Government’s tacit endorsement of discrimination, by religious organisations, against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians

[NB This topic relates to Chapter 3: Freedom of Religion, and its questions:

  • What general principles or criteria should be applied to help determine whether a law that interferes with freedom of religion is justified?
  • Which Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of religion, and why are these laws unjustified?]

I acknowledge the fundamental importance of the right to freedom of religion. However, just as importantly, I support the statement on page 31 of the Issues Paper that:

“[f]reedom of religion is fundamental, but so too is freedom from discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, sexual orientation or some other protected attribute. Freedom from discrimination is also a fundamental human right.”

Indeed, the case at paragraph 3.20 on the same page, namely R v Secretary of state for education and employment; ex parte Williamson (2005) from the UK, provides a useful formulation:

“… there is a difference between freedom to hold a belief and freedom to express or ‘manifest’ a belief. The former right, freedom of belief, is absolute. The latter right, freedom to manifest, is qualified. This is to be expected, because the way a belief is expressed in practice may impact on others.”

Unfortunately, I do not believe that Australian law currently strikes the right balance between respecting the right to freedom of religion, and protecting others from the harms caused by the manifestation of those beliefs, including through breaches of the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Specifically, I am concerned that the broad exceptions and/or exemptions which are provided to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, including those protections added by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, are far too generous.

In practice, these exceptions provide Government approval and endorsement of the discriminatory treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians by religious bodies in a large number of areas of public life[5].

For example, the combined impact of sub-section 37(1)(d) of the amended Sex Discrimination Act 1984[6] and section 38 of the same law (which applies to educational institutions established for religious purposes), means that, according to Commonwealth law:

  • Religious schools can freely discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, including expelling those students simply for being who they are;
  • Religious schools can also freely discriminate against LGBT staff members, including by refusing to provide or terminating their employment, where sexual orientation and gender identity is completely irrelevant to the ability of that person to perform the duties of the role;
  • Religious health and community services can similarly discriminate against both LGBT employees/potential employees, as well as LGBT individuals and families accessing these services, with impunity; and
  • Religious aged care services can discriminate against LGBT employees or potential employees.[7]

It is difficult to see how these exemptions, which allow LGBT people to be discriminated against simply as they seek to obtain an education, or access healthcare (which are themselves fundamental international human rights), and to be treated unfairly in employment in a large number of jobs across a wide range of areas, is not a gross breach of their human rights.

Religious exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws allow serious harm to be caused to LGBT Australians, on a day-to-day basis and across multiple spheres of public life, and, I submit, should be significantly curbed.

To this end, I believe the religious exemptions which are included in sub-sections 37(1)(a),(b) and (c) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[8], if supplemented by exemptions covering how religious ceremonies are conducted, are both more justifiable in being better targeted to protecting freedom of religious worship itself, and less likely to result in harm to LGBT people through the breach of their right to non-discrimination across broad areas of public life. These are the only religious exemptions that, I believe, should be retained.

This, much narrower, form of religious exemptions would, in my view, also be a more appropriate outcome of a system of human rights that seeks to both protect fundamental rights, and promote the responsibility not to infringe upon the fundamental rights of others.

Finally, as with my previous answer, I note that this discussion is potentially contrary to the intention of “Question 3-2: Which Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of religion, and why are these laws unjustified?” because it highlights an area where, arguably, freedom of religion should be further restrained.

I believe that providing this answer is nevertheless important because, in Australia, freedom of religion is not unduly limited. Instead, freedom of religion is unjustifiably privileged, including where it tramples upon the rights of others, and especially the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians not to be discriminated against in public life.

A mature discussion of rights and freedoms would recognise this serious imbalance and seek to redress it, by ensuring that religious exceptions to and exemptions from anti-discrimination law only protected genuine freedom of religious worship, not establishing a supposed ‘right’ to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

  1. The gross violation of human rights of asylum-seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees, by the Commonwealth Government

I am not an expert in migration and refugee law, nor in the international human rights instruments that apply in this area.

Nevertheless, I know enough about this subject matter to submit that:

  • Seeking asylum is a human right, and is not a criminal act, irrespective of the manner of arrival (whether by plane or by boat),
  • Responding to people exercising their right to seek asylum by detaining them in offshore processing centres, indefinitely, in inhumane conditions, and without free and fair access to justice, is a fundamental breach of their human rights, and
  • An inquiry into the encroachment by Commonwealth laws upon traditional rights and freedoms would be incomplete without a thorough examination of this issue.

As a long-term LGBTI advocate and activist, I also feel compelled to raise the specific issue of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees being processed and ultimately resettled in countries that criminalise homosexuality, namely Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

As I have written to several Commonwealth Immigration Ministers, under both Labor[9] and Liberal-National[10] Governments, such a policy clearly abrogates the responsibilities that the Commonwealth Government has towards LGBTI asylum-seekers.

From my letter to then Minister for Immigration the Hon Scott Morrison MP:

“… the mistreatment of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees raises particular problems, problems that do not appear to be recognised by the Australian Government. Nor does there appear to be any evidence the Government is taking action to remedy them.

Even if the offshore processing and permanent resettlement of refugees continues, this must not include the processing and resettlement of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality (which both PNG and Nauru currently do).

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and therefore Minister responsible for the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees, cannot guarantee that sections 210 and 212 of the PNG Penal Code do not apply to detainees on Manus Island, then you cannot send LGBTI people there in good conscience.

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, cannot guarantee that LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees will not be subject to homophobic bullying and harassment, and will be free to lodge claims for protections on the basis of persecution due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then you must not detain them in such facilities.”

[End extract]

As I indicated at the beginning of this section, I am not an expert in this area of law, and therefore am not in a position to provide a more thorough analysis of the (multiple) breaches of human rights law involved in the offshore processing and resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees. I am confident, however, that there will be a number of submissions from human rights and refugee organisations in coming weeks that will do exactly that.

Nevertheless, I felt obliged to include this issue in my submission, given both the severity of the human rights breaches involved, and because of their particular impact on LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees, whose only ‘crime’ is to have sought the protection of our Government.

In conclusion, I wish to thank the Law Reform Commission again for the opportunity to provide this submission, and consequently to raise issues of concern for LGBTI people, namely the absence of anti-vilification protection in Commonwealth law, the breach of our right to non-discrimination because of religious exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, and the mistreatment of asylum seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees, by the Commonwealth Government.

I look forward to these issues being addressed in the inquiry’s Final Report, to be released by the end of 2015.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

[1] Full submission at: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/10/27/submission-to-rights-responsibilities-2014-consultation/

[2] Human Rights Committee, Toonen v Australia, Communication No. 488/1992, UN Doc CCPR/C/50/D/488/92 and Human Rights Committee, Young v Australia, Communication No. 941/2000, UN Doc CCPR/C/78/D/941/2000.

[3] “Offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

  • It is unlawful for a person to an act, otherwise than in private, if:
  • the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate another person or a group of people; and
  • the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

[4] Full submission at: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/24/dont-limit-racial-vilification-protections-introduce-vilification-protections-for-lgbti-australians-instead/

[5] Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to intersex status, only to sexual orientation and gender identity.

[6] Which provides that “[n]othing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibility of adherents of that religion.”

[7] Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to LGBT people accessing aged care services.

[8] “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:

  • the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;
  • the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
  • the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice…”

[9] My letter to Labor Immigrations Ministers, the Hon Chris Bowen and the Hon Brendan O’Connor from 2012 and 2013: https://alastairlawrie.net/2012/09/07/letter-to-chris-bowen-on-lgbti-asylum-seekers/

[10] My letter to then Immigration Minister the Hon Scott Morrison from February 2014: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/02/letter-to-scott-morrison-about-treatment-of-lgbti-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-sent-to-manus-island-png/