This week saw the 100-day milestone for the new Albanese Labor Government, with lots of attention on issues like climate change, a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption, a referendum to create a constitutionally-enshrined Voice to Parliament, and of course the Jobs and Skills Summit (which I have written about here, and here).
One issue that has received comparatively little focus, but which will be considered by the Senate next week (beginning 5 September), is the possible creation of a Commissioner for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer and Asexual (LGBTIQA+) issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHCR).
I bring this to your attention because there is a strong chance the Government will reject amendments to establish this much-needed position, and this weekend is your last chance to take action to let Prime Minister Albanese and his ministerial colleagues know that you support an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner. But first, some background.
Why an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner?
The AHRC is our national anti-discrimination body, with responsibility for receiving and conciliating discrimination complaints under Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws, including the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, Sex Discrimination Act 1984, Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and Age Discrimination Act 2004.
The AHRC also has a number of statutory office-holders, with responsibility for publicly advocating for equality and human rights generally, including the President and the Human Rights Commissioner, as well as positions dedicated to specific attributes or communities, including the:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
- Age Discrimination Commissioner
- Children’s Commissioner
- Disability Discrimination Commissioner
- Race Discrimination Commissioner, and
- Sex Discrimination Commissioner.
Notice who’s missing? That’s right, there’s no Commissioner with responsibility for LGBTIQA+ issues.
That’s because the 2013 amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act which added sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes in that law did not create such a position. These are now the only attributes in the four main Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws not to have a Commissioner attached to them.
This omission has left LGBTIQA+ Australians at a distinct disadvantage over the past nine years, with no Commissioner with primary responsibility to speak on issues affecting our community, including during the marriage equality debate (while former Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow did a good job, it was still only a small part of his overall role).
With ongoing attacks on LGBTIQA+ rights, including the rise of transphobia in both politics and the media, I believe it is beyond time there was a Commissioner within the AHRC empowered to advocate on our behalf, without other competing responsibilities.
The Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Amendment (Selection and Appointment) Bill 2022
The absence of an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner has become topical in the context of the Government’s Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Amendment (Selection and Appointment) Bill 2022, one of the first laws introduced since the election.
This is an important Bill, which seeks to enforce a transparent and merit-based appointment process for the statutory office-holders discussed above, both to prevent a repeat of the previous Government’s appointments which failed to meet these criteria, and to maintain the AHRC’s international accreditation as an ‘A-status’ national human rights institution (which is under threat because of those same non-transparent appointments). I support its passage.
However, introducing legislation which focuses on the appointment of Commissioners under national anti-discrimination laws obviously draws attention to the lack of an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner under those same laws.
In this context, and responding to lobbying from LGBTIQA rights group Just.Equal Australia, new Greens MP for Brisbane Stephen Bates introduced the following amendment during the Bill’s Second Reading debate in the House of Representatives in early August:
‘whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House calls on the Government to establish a Human Rights Commissioner for LGBTIQA+ people within the Australian Human Rights Commission.’
In the words of Mr Bates:
‘The lack of such a commissioner is an obvious oversight that we can remedy here today. This remedy would send a strong and clear message to the LGBTIQA+ community that the era of the homophobia and transphobia from the previous government has come to an end, and signal a new approach in engaging with and protecting communities that have suffered systemic oppression for centuries. The community is not asking for anything unreasonable. There already exist commissioners for race discrimination, disability discrimination and so many others. It is vitally important that the LGBTIQA+ community have the same protection of our rights afforded to us.’
This amendment was supported by a number of cross-bench MPs. This includes MP for Kooyong, Dr Monique Ryan, who said:
‘There is a clear and urgent need for a dedicated LGBTIQA+ human rights commissioner. The absence of such diminishes the reality of discrimination against this group of individuals. The absence of such means that no-one at the AHRC has the resources or experience to advocate for and articulate the concerns of the community in legislation, policy reform or public education.’
And the MP for Goldstein Zoe Daniel, who noted:
‘Traditionally, the human rights of the LGBTQI+ community were part of the Human Rights Commissioner’s portfolio, but with that portfolio also holding religious freedom, in recent history I think there’s been a conflict between those two areas. We know that in the last parliament this led to a toxic debate that caused great distress to members of the LGBTQI+ community, particularly trans people, compounding mental health issues for children in this community particularly. For that reason, I think that direct representation is needed.’
While the MP for Warringah Zali Steggall spoke of her front-row view of the transphobic campaign of her failed Liberal Opponent during the recent election:
‘it is clear that in Warringah during the election we had very inflammatory debates about members of our community and their opportunity for inclusion. I have to say that it did raise concerns for me. There was a lack of information in the public domain about the real status of the law when it came to transgender rights and issues within the LGBTQI community. I am concerned that issues that are specific to members of the LGBTQI community do at times get overlooked or submerged into the greater responsibilities of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, so I think there is merit in there being a more specific mandate for addressing those issues.’
Despite these, what I would describe as compelling, reasons, the Government chose to vote against the Bates amendment, ensuring its defeat.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus made two main arguments against the amendment in his own speech:
‘The government will not support that second reading amendment. Let’s be clear about this: the effect of the second reading amendment, if it succeeds, would be to negate the bill, to stop these important measure that are contained in this bill from coming into effect…
‘While we of course understand the strong sentiment expressed by members of the community in support of a dedicated LGBTIQA+ commissioner, this bill is not the vehicle to create such a position. The government recognises that it is important to consider how best the commission can operate to promote and protect the human rights of all members of the Australian community, including LGBTIQA+ people. I acknowledge and commend the work that the commission already undertakes in relation to LGBTIQA+ rights, which is led by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins. There will no doubt be further discussion on this proposal, as well as, I hope, discussion on other opportunities to strengthen the work of the commission in the future.’
The first argument is a matter of debate around the wording of the Bates amendment, and may or may not be correct. It is also probably not relevant to the different, substantive amendments proposed by Greens Senator David Shoebridge and to be voted on in coming days (discussed in more detail below).
However, the second argument is incredibly weak. Claiming LGBTIQA+ rights are already worked on by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner is simply not good enough, for at least two reasons. First, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner has a full-time role of their own, with plenty to focus on in terms of sexism, and sexual harassment – they, understandably, have limited capacity to simultaneously focus on anti-LGBTIQA+ discrimination.
Second, this arrangement does not seem to be working, especially when checking the LGBTI section of the AHRC website itself. Where not only are there no current projects on LGBTI issues – and haven’t been any since October 2021 – there are no news items from the past eleven months either. After all, it’s not like there are any substantive issues of LGBTIQA+ equality which still need to be addressed, or any major debates involving transphobia which have happened during that time… [sarcasm]
What is perhaps most disappointing about the Attorney’s comments is that, irrespective of the Government’s position on the specific Bates amendment, he was unwilling to make a commitment to creating an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner at all, even at some point in the future.
This disappointment was compounded two days later when the Government and Opposition united to defeat a Greens motion in the Senate to at least hold an inquiry into the Bill, to allow for consultation with the LGBTIQA+ community about the need to create a Commissioner within the AHRC.
All hope is not lost
While there is no denying those two votes were setbacks, there is still a third chance for this issue to be progressed.
As mentioned above, Greens Senator for NSW David Shoebridge has introduced a more comprehensive set of amendments to the Bill, which would create an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner on exactly the same basis as the other attribute-based Commissioners. You can see the details of those amendments here.
I understand these amendments are likely to be voted on in the Senate this coming week, and potentially on Tuesday 6 September. Which means we have just days left to convince the Government, as well as cross-benchers like David Pocock, Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrrell, to support these amendments.
The easiest thing you can do, right now, is to sign and then share this petition from Just.Equal Australia calling on the Government to support an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner.
If you have more time, you can also write to the Prime Minister, Attorney-General and/or other members of the Government (like your local MP or Senator), urging them to support the equal treatment of LGBTIQA+ people by establishing an AHRC Commissioner for our community.
Below is the letter I have sent this morning to Attorney-General Dreyfus.
3 September 2022
The Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
CANBERRA ACT 2600
Dear Mr Dreyfus
Please create an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission
I am writing to call on you to create a Commissioner for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer and Asexual (LGBTIQA+) issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
The establishment of this position is long-overdue. While there are Commissioners at the AHRC for a number of other attributes within Commonwealth anti-discrimination law, there are none with specific responsibility for advocating for LGBTIQA+ equality and human rights.
This has caused a distinct disadvantage for the LGBTIQA+ community when our rights are up for debate, including during the emergence of transphobic campaigns in politics and in the media over the past 12 months.
The creation of an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner within the AHRC would also be consistent with the 2021 ALP National Platform, which was developed ahead of the election. This included commitments that:
‘Labor will work closely with LGBTIQ Australians and advocates to develop policy that will… strengthen laws and expand initiatives against discrimination, vilification and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics’ (page 64), and
‘All Australians should be able to go about their lives free from discrimination. Labor is the primary architect of the anti-discrimination law framework in Australia. We will continue to defend and enhance that framework to ensure that it is fit for purpose, accessible and promotes equality’ (page 66).
I hope you would agree that creating an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner will ‘strengthen’ and ‘enhance’ initiatives against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, while ‘enhancing’ the Commonwealth anti-discrimination framework.
I note that you, and therefore the Government, opposed a second reading amendment in the House of Representatives to your Australian Human Rights Commission Legislation Amendment (Selection and Appointment) Bill 2022 from the Greens which called on the Government to ‘establish a Human Rights Commissioner for LGBTIQA+ people’ within the AHRC.
While one of your arguments was technical (which has hopefully been addressed by the revised, comprehensive amendments proposed by the Greens in the Senate), I am disappointed by another argument you raised, that this work is already being performed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner.
In my opinion, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner already has a (more than) full-time role in advocating on issues of sexism, and sexual harassment. They do not have the capacity to address LGBTIQA+ discrimination as well, nor should addressing LGBTIQA+ discrimination be treated as some kind of add-on to somebody else’s role, with the consequence that our community’s issues are inevitably ignored (noting, for example, that the AHRC has no current projects on LGBTI discrimination listed on its website, and have not posted even a news item since October 2021).
Now that the Bill has progressed to the Senate, I urge you and the Albanese Labor Government to support Senator David Shoebridge’s amendments to create an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner with the same powers and responsibilities as existing office-holders within the AHRC.
In the event you continue to oppose these specific amendments, for whatever reason, I call on you to:
- Commit to the Government itself creating an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner within the AHRC, and
- Provide a clear timeline for when this position will be established.
Thank you in advance for considering the issues raised in this correspondence. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you like to discuss the above.
Update: I received the following reply from a Director in the Human Rights Branch of the Attorney-General’s Department:
4 October 2022
Dear Mr Lawrie
Thank you for your email of 3 September 2022 to the Attorney-General, the Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP, regarding the creation of a LGBTIQA+ Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission (the Commission). The Attorney-General has requested that the Attorney-General’s Department respond to you on his behalf.
The Government believes that all Australians are entitled to respect and dignity, the opportunity to participate in society, and receive the protection of the law regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation and intersex status. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender identity, sexual orientation and intersex status in many areas of public life, including employment, education, in the provision of goods, services and facilities. The Government acknowledges the work that the Commission already undertakes in relation to LGBTIQA+ rights, led by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins.
The Government recognises that it is important to consider how best the Commission can operate to promote and protect human rights of all members of the Australian community, including LGBTIQA+ people. The Government understands the strong sentiment expressed by members of the community in support of a dedicated LGBTIQA+ Commissioner. There will no doubt be further discussion on this proposal, as well as other opportunities to strengthen the work of the Commission, in the future.
Thank you for bringing your concerns to the Attorney-General’s attention.
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