Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 – The Final Countdown

There are now only two sitting weeks left before the upcoming federal election. Which means there are only 8 days during which Parliament can pass the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013, historic legislation which would finally provide federal anti-discrimination protections to Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community.

It goes without saying that this could go down to the wire. Which is why I sent the email posted below to all cross-bench MPs, as well as key figures in the Opposition and Greens (and a slightly re-worded version to the Government). I don’t think that we, as members of the LGBTI community, should ‘die wondering’ about this Bill. So, I would encourage you to consider sending you own emails to these parliamentarians, to help get the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 over the line.

To help you on your way, I have included the email addresses of a range of relevant MPs at the end of this post. And please feel free to ‘borrow’ any and all of the following:

I am writing to you regarding the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013.

In particular, I am requesting that you:

  • Please support the Government’s proposed amendments which exclude the operation of religious exceptions in the area of aged care service provision; and
  • Please support the passage of the amended Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 in the final two sitting weeks of this Parliamentary term.

This Bill is a significant reform that will benefit the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) citizens of Australia, because, if passed, it will be the first term LGBTI people will enjoy anti-discrimination protections under federal law.

It is historic because it will be the first time any federal anti-discrimination law, anywhere in the world, explicitly covers intersex people. And the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 will also help to protect more people than some state and territory schemes – for example, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 does not currently apply to bisexual or intersex people, both groups that are protected under this proposed law.

Unfortunately, the Bill as drafted will ensure that religious organisations are provided with wide-ranging exceptions from otherwise lawful obligations not to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. This will allow religious organisations to continue to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment and service provision, which will operate to undermine the scope and effectiveness of these anti-discrimination provisions. In principle, I do not support the operation of any religious exceptions outside the appointment of religious officials, membership of religious organisations and celebration of religious ceremonies.

However, I understand that LGBTI anti-discrimination legislation which did not contain any religious exceptions would be unlikely to pass the current Parliament. What is possible is for the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 to be passed with amendments proposed by the Government that exclude the operation of religious exceptions in the area of aged care provision.

I strongly support the removal of religious exceptions in these circumstances. Older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should not be subjected to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity when they are accessing aged care services. This is particularly important when you consider that for many people, aged care facilities will be their home for long periods of their life – nobody deserves to be lawfully discriminated against in their home.

Above all, I see this as the very least which should be done for older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians. These are people who grew up when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, who had to fight simply for the right to be who they are, who lost partners and friends through the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. These are people who deserve our respect, not the operation of provisions which could force them back into ‘the closet’ because of the fear of being discriminated against.

It is my sincere hope that all Parliamentarians will vote in favour of the Government’s amendments to exclude the operation of religious exceptions in the area of aged care services.

It is also my sincere hope that all Parliamentarians will unite and work together to ensure that the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 is passed, as amended, in the final two sitting weeks of this Parliamentary term.

With Parliament rising on 27 June, there is only limited time to ensure this legislation is passed. Please help ensure that the Bill receives sufficient priority, through both Chambers, that it will finally be made law before the upcoming federal election.

I believe that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex citizens of Australia, like myself, have waited long enough to be protected under federal anti-discrimination laws. I hope that you agree.

Attorney-General, The Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP

Mental Health and Ageing Minister, The Hon Mark Butler MP

Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Tony Abbott MP

Shadow Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis

Greens Spokesperson for Attorney-General, Senator Penny Wright

Greens Spokesperson for LGBTI issues, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young

Member for Kennedy, the Hon Bob Katter MP

Member for Fisher, the Hon Peter Slipper MP

Member for Dobell, Mr Craig Thomson MP

Member for Lyne, Mr Rob Oakeshott MP

Member for New England, Mr Tony Windsor MP

Member for Denison, Mr Andrew Wilkie MP

Member for O’Connor, Mr Tony Crook MP

Member for Melbourne, Mr Adam Bandt MP

Senator for South Australia, Senator Nick Xenophon

Senator for Victoria, Senator John Madigan

Remove the Lord’s Prayer from Federal Parliament

There are many things which I miss about working as an adviser at Parliament House. And there are many things which I do not miss in the slightest. At the end of this, the first fortnight of sittings since I left Canberra, one thing which I am more than comfortable living without is the recital of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of each parliamentary day, both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.

The majority of the Australian population do not pay close attention to what happens in parliament (indeed many pay no attention at all), so they would be blissfully unaware that each day begins with our parliamentarians engaging in a prayer in adherence to one particular religion. Indeed, even though I was relatively politically engaged before starting work there, even I was unaware that each and every day starts with the same religious ceremony, as it has done during every sitting since Federation.

This is simply unacceptable in a modern secular democracy. One of the core tenets of the Australian system of Government is, or at least should be, the separation of church and state. We are not a theocracy, there is no religious test for standing for public office and there is no official state religion – in fact, these principles are enshrined in our founding document (s116 of the Constitution reads “[t]he Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office of public trust under the Commonwealth”).

It is also curious that the prayer remains part of the order of parliamentary business when our Senators and House of Representatives members come from a wide range of religious backgrounds. Many are christian, but some are from other religions (including our first muslim MP in the current parliament), some are agnostic and many are atheist. Those who are not christian should move to end the recital of the Lord’s Prayer because it has no place in a house of legislation rather than a house of god/s.

In theory, they would be joined by the majority of capital ‘C’ christians, who should understand that the separation of church and state means that, in order for all faiths to be protected equally, the state should not preference any one religion and should not engage in religious observance itself. This is also necessary to protect those, such as myself, who have no faith. In fact, only the most extreme christian fundamentalists would argue that an arm of government should begin each day by invoking a prayer to one particular deity in whom many parliamentarians do not believe, just like many people in the community that they represent.

So why, in 2012, does this relic of religious observance continue to corrupt the beginning of each sitting day? Well, despite the notable efforts of some MPs in recent years to raise its profile (especially Bob Brown and Harry Jenkins), this issue is admittedly minor in consequence when compared to others which affect vastly more people more seriously (the only people directly affected by the recital are our MPs, the staff who work in Parliament House and the very small number of people watching via APAC).

It is also fair to say that only a small number of citizens care passionately about the issues raised either way – on the one side, secularists who support the separation of church and state, and on the other religious fundamentalists who believe that they should be able to impose their religion on others. And while secularists, such as myself, are and continue to be vocal, religious fundamentalists are an increasingly rabid group of people who, now used to getting their way (see: banning same-sex marriage, parachuting chaplains into schools), would likely employ a nuclear response to any attempt to jettison the prayer.

Which means that the majority of MPs who are not christians do not actively support this reform for fear of being labelled anti-christian (which is of course fundamentally untrue – secularism is not explicitly against any particular faith, rather it opposes the intrusion of faith into areas where it should not stray). Even parliamentarians who are capital ‘C’ christian but support the separation of church and state do not take on this issue because they do not want to incur the opprobrium of people like George Pell, Peter Jensen and Joe De Bruyn. The small minority of MPs who are religious fundamentalists do not have to do anything to secure yet another victory.

As a result, even though most Senators and House of Representatives members probably know that it should be removed, and it would take only a small amendment to standing orders to achieve, each sitting day still starts with the Lord’s Prayer. It will continue to do so until enough MPs are willing to stand up for principle over pragmatism. Well, one can hope anyway.

In the meantime, should you ever catch a glimpse of the start of parliamentary proceedings on APAC, or happen to be in the public gallery, it is interesting to witness the strategies which MPs adopt during the prayer. While some say the prayer out loud (you can probably guess which ones), others stand silent, looking as if they want to be anywhere else at that particular moment, and some orchestrate their late attendance so they arrive in the chamber after the prayer ends.

My coping mechanisms involved a combination of going for a well-timed coffee, judiciously employing the mute button, or simply talking over the top of the Senate broadcast. Unfortunately, on a couple of occasions I had to sit in the adviser’s box in the chamber, because a bill I was responsible for was coming on for debate as the first item of legislative business, and so listening to the prayer was completely unavoidable.

I don’t think that any employee in any workplace, let alone one working for the federal government, should have religious observance imposed upon them. That is a fundamental human right which should always be respected. In fact doesn’t s116 already say something along those lines? If only the High Court had the courage to invigorate that particular clause. But that is another post for another day…