It’s Not Over Yet

Just when you thought Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t physically be any more disappointing on marriage equality than he already is, he goes and announces his support for adding new forms of discrimination to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (aka the Smith Bill).

 

That’s right, less than 24 hours after yesterday’s emotional celebrations when that Bill cleared the Senate – something which Turnbull himself tweeted showed ‘Parliament at its best today – the Senate passed the same-sex marriage bill’ – he has revealed he will support multiple negative amendments in the House of Representatives, including some that were explicitly rejected in the upper house.

 

This significantly increases the chances that the legislation that is ultimately adopted falls well short of genuine marriage equality, even risking the passage of the Bill entirely if we end up with deadlock between the two chambers.

 

It is unclear whether Turnbull actually believes in the amendments himself, or if he is simply supporting them in a(nother) craven capitulation to capital ‘c’ Conservatives within his party, in a last-ditch effort to save his leadership.

 

Frankly, my dear readers, I don’t give a damn what his motivation is. Because, far more importantly, it is clear what the impact will be: more discrimination against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI Australians more broadly.

 

Let’s turn to the possible amendments themselves. Based on media reports in The Australian, and Guardian Australia, it appears Turnbull now supports at least two, probably three, and potentially even more amendments undermining the Smith Bill, which as we already know is a significant compromise. These include:

 

  1. Providing all civil celebrants with an ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal conscientious or religious belief

 

As reported by The Australian, “[t]he Prime Minister supports… provisions that would ensure that marriage celebrants are able to decline to solemnise marriages which they do not wish to solemnise.” Presumably, this means supporting Attorney-General George Brandis’ amendments on this topic.

 

This proposal is so terrible it is almost unbelievable we have to keep explaining why, but just to reiterate the many reasons why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants:

 

  • Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious, therefore a celebrant’s personal beliefs are irrelevant
  • The ability to discriminate does not currently exist with regards to divorcees remarrying, so should not be introduced for LGBTI couples
  • Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state, so should not have the power to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status
  • Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious belief
  • If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses, and
  • Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia, opening the door to further discrimination in the future.

 

  1. Reinforcing the ability of charities to discriminate against LGBTI people

 

These amendments are being sold as a supposed ‘shield’ to protect charities from some unspecified, nefarious action by future governments. In reality, they are more likely to be used as weapons against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, further entrenching the ability of religious organisations to discriminate against employees, and people accessing their services.

 

Irrespective of which view you adopt, however, the amendments are completely unnecessary. As revealed by Liberal Senator Dean Smith during Senate debate of his Bill on Tuesday, he wrote to both the Australian Commissioner of Taxation, and the Acting Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commissioner, about the impact of his proposed legislation. From Hansard:

 

“I asked the charities commissioner two questions. The first was whether a religious charity that currently holds and/or expresses a view of or a position on marriage will be able to continue to do so without any negative impacts on its charitable status following the enactment of amendments to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry – that is, the future act. ‘The short answer’, the commissioner said to me, ‘to this question is yes’.

“The second question I asked the charities commissioner was whether the lawful refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony, deliver goods or services, or hire facilities to same-sex couples or other couples in accordance with the future Marriage Act and current exemptions in federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws would result in any adverse consequences in relation to an entity’s charitable status. ‘The short answer’, he says in correspondence to me, ‘is no’.

“For the sake of completeness, the Australian Taxation Commissioner says:

… a religious charity holding or expressing a view of a religious nature (position on marriage) will not have an impact on [Deductible Gift Recipient] endorsement.

He goes on to say:

Similarly, lawful refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony, deliver goods and services or hire facilities in accordance with the future Marriage Act will be unlikely to impact DGR endorsement. These activities would fall outside the scope of the general DGR categories and would not prevent DGR endorsed religious charities from fulfilling their DGR purposes.”

 

Turnbull’s own Government agencies – including the Taxation Commissioner himself – have effectively rejected any need for amendments in this area. He should not be jeopardising the introduction of marriage equality for the sake of something that is, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, a Trojan horse for increased discrimination against LGBTI people.

 

  1. Including a declaratory statement about ‘religious freedom’ in the Marriage Act

 

Another Trojan horse for new, adverse treatment of LGBTI Australians is the second of Attorney-General Brandis’ failed amendments: a proposal to add a statement from Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in the objects of the Marriage Act itself.

 

At this stage, there are mixed signals about whether the Prime Minister supports this change. What is not ‘mixed’ – indeed, what is unequivocal – is that such a change must be rejected.

 

In the words of ALP Senate Leader Penny Wong, during the same debate on Tuesday:

 

“As has been pointed out by a number of legal advisers, and also referenced in some of the documentation provided by the Human Rights Law Centre, there are some questions about the extent to which there may be unintended adverse consequences in relation to this amendment. I would also make the point that we find it somewhat odd that one would cherrypick the ICCPR in this way. For example, article 18.1 is singled out but not article 18.3, which states:

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

“Obviously, 18.3 constrains to some extent the rights articulated in 18.1 and reflected in the amendment that Senator Brandis has spoken to. I also note that article 26 of the ICCPR commences as follows:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.

“I pick up those two aspects of the covenant because it seems to us on this side that there’s obviously, certainly in this chamber and to some extent in the community, an interest in discussing the place of religious belief and the way in which the law might safeguard better the right to have such a belief—the right to hold beliefs—and a discussion about the extent to which that belief might affect the application of Australian law. However, as I have said on a number of occasions today, that is a reasonably complex and at times controversial discussion, and it is certainly a discussion that goes quite directly to the way in which religion is dealt with in a secular state and to the extent to which absolute belief, and limited protection under the law for that, need to be balanced.

“The Labor Party’s view reflects to some extent Senator Brandis’ introduction to this amendment, which is that this is a matter that rightly should go through the process that Prime Minister Turnbull has established [the Ruddock review]. We believe that an amendment of this sort would better be considered in the context of that process.”

 

Greens’ Senator Nick McKim noted even more serious concerns with this amendment:

 

“Enacting only the first sentence of article 18.1 leaves out the limitations on freedom of religion that are found in the remainder of 18.1 and in article 18.3 and… transforms what is a limited right into an absolute right.

“…I want to note that there is a trend around the world in Western democracies—and this is the case in Europe as well as the United States—where conservative Christian pro bono law groups are pursuing aggressive litigation strategies to justify discrimination against LGBTIQ people. Including article 18.1 of the ICCPR in Australian law will make freedom of religion justiciable and fuel legal conflict in our country. Last year we saw the Australian Christian Lobby establish the pro bono Human Rights Law Alliance… they established that alliance precisely for the purpose of litigating against LGBTIQ people, and the alliance is already running a number of cases on behalf of conservative Christians, including challenges to anti-discrimination law on the basis of the religious freedom provision in the Tasmanian Constitution, the constitution of my home state. Senator Canavan described this amendment as ‘a shield’. It’s not a shield; it’s a sword. It’s a sword that will be wielded by the conservative right against LGBTIQ people in this country, and that’s why it should be stridently opposed.”

 

**********

 

I started this post by expressing my disbelief that Malcolm Turnbull could have found a new way to let me, and LGBTI Australians, down. Again.

 

But, putting aside my own incredulity, that’s exactly what he’s done. Again.

 

Even after deciding that LGBTI Australians must be subjected to an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on our fundamental human rights.

 

Even after that was rejected by the Senate, and he determined that we would be subjected to an unprecedented three-month, $100 million postal survey instead.

 

Even after Australians overwhelmingly voted Yes, and he refused to put forward marriage equality legislation that simply amended the definition, and recognized foreign marriages – without additional discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

Even after the Smith Bill was passed by the Senate. Now that legislation that would finally allow all LGBTI couples to marry is before the House of Representatives, and its passage is so close we can almost touch it, the Prime Minister is still finding new ways to treat us as second-class citizens.

 

But, just as we’ve overcome all of the previous hurdles that have been placed in our way, we must do everything we can to clear this one too.

 

That means taking action one more time to say that second-class is not good enough. That we won’t accept new forms of discrimination as part of any marriage equality Bill. That the House of Representatives must reject any amendments that can be used to discriminate against us.

 

Please make sure you complete the #equalmeansequal webform, calling on MPs to vote against new discrimination: www.equal.org.au/equalmeansequal

 

Because now is definitely not the time to hold your peace.

 

151222 Turnbull

Prime Minister Turnbull, who wants to add new discrimination to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill in the House of Representatives.

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Quit Playing Games

With marriage equality set to be debated in Commonwealth Parliament during the next fortnight, I have written the below letter to all MPs and Senators, calling on them to legislate for genuine marriage equality, not a Bill (or amendments) that entrenches our second-class status. To send your own message that #equalmeansequal, click here.

 

**********

 

Dear MP/Senator

 

I met my fiancé Steven two weeks after my 30th birthday.

 

Within a few months it was clear this relationship was something special. Just 17 months after we met, in January 2010, we did what most couples who are in love do: we got engaged.

 

That means we have been engaged, waiting for the right to marry, for almost eight years.

 

Obviously, a lot of ‘life’ can happen in eight years. We’ve moved cities, changed jobs – almost as many times as the country has changed Prime Ministers – and even bought a home together (well, the small fraction that isn’t owned by the bank).

 

But, nearing the end of 2017, we still can’t plan our wedding day. I want to draw your attention to one of the consequences of our extended, involuntary wait.

 

My grandmother, who is now in the second half of her 90s, would have been able to attend our wedding had we held it when most couples do, within a year or two of our engagement.

 

Instead, with her health declining and having recently moved into assisted living, she won’t be there when Steven and I tie the knot.

 

The delay in passing marriage equality, due to the intolerance, and intransigence, of too many politicians over too many years, has stolen that moment of celebration from us all.

 

Steven’s situation is only slightly better. With a Portuguese background, family is even more important to him. He would love nothing more than to be able to wed in front of his grandmother.

 

But, in her late 80s and having recently had a pacemaker installed, we cannot ignore the possibility his dream may not come true, especially if marriage equality is delayed any further.

 

I think I will be even more upset for him if that moment is stolen, too.

 

Of course, the failure to lead on this issue by Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull among others, has taken much, much more from other couples, including Peter Bonsall-Boone and Peter de Waal who, after 50 years together, will forever be denied the ability to marry each other.

 

It’s time for you, as our elected representatives, to end the interminable wait for marriage equality, a wait that has already proven too long for too many.

 

Quit playing games with our relationships. Pass marriage equality now.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven one week after my brother’s wedding. Two years earlier I attended my sister’s wedding.

 

I look forward to being able to invite both of my siblings, and their respective spouses, to Steven and my nuptials.

 

When we finally say ‘I do’, though, there is a real chance our marriage will be subject to different terms and conditions than theirs. Because the legislation that will give us the right to marry will likely take away our rights in other areas.

 

The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, introduced by Liberal Senator Dean Smith, is already deeply flawed, allowing existing civil celebrants to simply declare themselves ‘religious marriage celebrants’ in order to turn away same-sex couples, and unnecessarily duplicating religious exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act.

 

Yet, there are many MPs and Senators who seem intent on making this unsatisfactory legislation even worse.

 

From Attorney-General George Brandis, who wants to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate against couples on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs, even though their role is entirely secular in nature.

 

And to add a ‘religious freedom’ declaration to the Act that will almost inevitably be used by the Australian Christian Lobby-created Human Rights Law Alliance to litigate to establish new ways of discriminating against LGBTI couples.

 

To Treasurer Scott Morrison, who apparently thinks school students need to be protected from learning about couples like Steven and me, and wants to legislate an unprecedented power for parents to withdraw their children from any class that even mentions the fact same-sex marriages exist.

 

Then there’s Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, who has already circulated amendments that would allow commercial businesses to discriminate against LGBTI couples on their wedding day. And, if they hold one, at their engagement party. Oh, and on all of their wedding anniversaries too.

 

None of these so-called ‘freedoms to discriminate’ operate currently with respect to inter-faith marriages, or to divorced couples remarrying. The fact they are being proposed now is homophobic.

 

Nor are any of these new religious exceptions necessary.

 

All that is required to introduce marriage equality is to amend the definition in the Marriage Act to be the union of two people, and to recognise the foreign marriages of same-sex couples that already exist. Nothing more.

 

After all, when Steven and I do eventually marry, there is absolutely no reason why we should be treated any differently to, or worse than, my brother or my sister were.

 

Quit playing games with our rights. Pass genuine marriage equality.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven four days before the 4th anniversary of John Howard’s ban on marriage equality.

 

His Government’s discriminatory Bill was rushed through the Parliament, and passed by the Senate on Friday 13 August, 2004.

 

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have spent more than 13 years trying to undo his changes, and for a better, fairer, and more-inclusive Marriage Act to be adopted in its place.

 

The process for doing so should have been the same one employed by the then-Liberal Prime Minister: a parliamentary vote.

 

Instead, our two more-recent Liberal Prime Ministers have both argued that LGBTI Australians should have to overcome hurdles that have not been placed in front of other groups.

 

First, it was the proposed plebiscite – a national, non-binding vote that has only been used three times in the 117 years since Federation, but not once to decide on the human rights of a minority, and not once in my lifetime.

 

Then, when that process was firmly rejected by the Senate – at the request of the LGBTI community itself – the Turnbull Government decided to invent a ‘postal survey’ run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a 3-month, $100 million farce that confirmed what every opinion poll of the last decade had already found, while also stirring up homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the community.

 

Let’s be clear: the postal survey should never have been held. And it must never, ever be imposed on any other group.

 

Now, having jumped through those extra hoops, and with marriage equality set to be debated by Commonwealth Parliament, the rules have apparently changed once more.

 

Instead of respecting the outcome of the process they chose, which overwhelmingly supported marriage equality, some MPs and Senators are spending more time creating additional restrictions to ensure our relationships are considered lesser than the marriages of cisgender heterosexual couples.

 

They are trying to change the rules of the game, right when LGBTI couples finally get the chance to take our rightful place on the field. Or at the altar. Or wherever we decide to marry.

 

That simply isn’t good enough.

 

Quit playing games with our community. Pass marriage equality, and stop creating new ways to discriminate against us.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven at a time when I had started to genuinely wonder whether I would ever find someone to spend my days with, let alone share a wedding day.

 

As an LGBTI advocate, the ability to marry felt like an abstract, or even hypothetical, right – important, yes, but not something I thought I would exercise myself.

 

Fortunately, falling in love made the hypothetical real, and today, more than nine years into our relationship, our desire to get married is more real than ever.

 

Unfortunately, public discussion over the past few weeks has at times felt ‘un-real’, as some MPs and Senators have debated the abstract ability of people to discriminate against LGBTI couples, rather than the practical rights of those couples to marry.

 

They have focused on hypothetical homophobic bakers, florists, and wedding-venue providers, and lost sight of the fact marriage equality should be about removing discrimination, not adding to it.

 

Once this parliamentary debate is over, if any of their amendments are passed, the rights of people to discriminate against us will sadly be very real.

 

The message that parliament would send – that our marriages are second-class – would be very real too. And LGBTI Australians would be reminded of that fact every time we are turned away by civil celebrants, or other wedding-related businesses, for years or even decades into the future.

 

It’s time for you, as our elected representatives, to decide what kind of legacy you want to leave. A better, fairer, and more-inclusive Australia. Or a country that chose something else, something lesser.

 

I started this letter by noting that Steven and I met two weeks after my 30th birthday. As much as I might try to deny it that means next year we will celebrate two major milestones: my 40th birthday and, much more significantly, our 10th anniversary.

 

As verbose as I am, I don’t actually have the words to express how much it would mean to me to finally be able to marry the man I love after all this time.

 

And so, I make this final plea to you:

 

Quit playing games. Pass marriage equality now. But, when you do, make sure it treats all couples equally. Because we are. Equal.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

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Why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants

The issue of marriage equality will be decided by Commonwealth Parliament in the next fortnight, first in the Senate (from Monday 27 November) and then, assuming it clears the upper house, in the House of Representatives (from Monday 4 December).

 

The ‘starting point’, problematic though it may be, is Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Although what this legislation looks like by the end of this process remains unpredictable.

 

That’s because a wide variety of Coalition MPs are likely to put forward an even more diverse range of amendments. In this post I will discuss just one, already foreshadowed by Senator George Brandis: to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs.[i]

 

I do so because, at this stage, this amendment seems to have a better chance of being successful – in part because of who is proposing it (the Attorney-General, a supposed ‘moderate’ within the Government) and also because it is marginally less extreme than some of the other changes flagged by people like James Paterson, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.

 

I don’t, however, support Senator Brandis’ amendment, for the following reasons:

 

  1. Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious. Indeed they were explicitly created as an alternative to religious ceremonies – and are now a very popular alternative, accounting for 3-in-4 weddings in Australia in 2015. If the wedding itself is not religious, surely the religious beliefs of the person officiating it are irrelevant.

 

  1. The ability to discriminate does not currently exist. There are a wide range of religious beliefs around marriage, including people who don’t support marriages between people of different faiths, while others don’t believe in divorce and remarriage. And yet, civil celebrants do not enjoy a special privilege to discriminate for these reasons. That it is being contemplated now, when LGBTI Australians might finally be able to wed, reveals that such an amendment is fundamentally homophobic.

 

  1. Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state. Only people who are formally registered are given the legal authority to officiate marriage ceremonies – their role is regulated by, and delegated by, the Commonwealth Government. If the Government is not able to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then nor should people who are fulfilling a secular function on its behalf.

 

Some people do not accept this characterisation, instead asserting civil celebrants are more akin to small business owners. But even on this theoretical foundation, there is absolutely no basis to provide them with special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples (or any other couples for that matter):

 

  1. Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious beliefs. They cannot be allowed to hang signs in their windows – real, or online – saying ‘no gays allowed’. In 2017, it feels strange to actually have to put that down in black and white, but it is the inevitable consequence of Senator Brandis’ proposal. And others within the Turnbull Government would go even further (with Kevin Andrews arguing Jewish bakers should be able to refuse Muslim customers, and vice versa).

 

  1. If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses. While some claim civil celebrants play such a central role in weddings they alone should be able to discriminate, philosophically it is hard to distinguish their position from others closely involved in the same ceremonies (including photographers, wedding venue-providers and even florists). If the former is permitted to reject couples on the basis of personal prejudice, why not the latter? By opening the door to civil celebrants, we may end up inadvertently allowing plenty of others to walk through – when all should be kept outside.

 

  1. Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia. Currently, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, and most state and territory anti-discrimination laws, only permit religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people. They do not provide the same special privileges to individuals. The Australian Christian Lobby desperately wants an individual ‘freedom to discriminate’ against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. By granting this ability to civil celebrants in the Marriage Act, a change that may seem small to many, we would actually be handing Lyle Shelton a large victory, and an invaluable tool in his ongoing campaign against LGBTI equality.

 

For all of these reasons, I think that anyone who supports genuine marriage equality – including the LGBTI community, our families, friends and allies, and the 61.6% of the population who voted Yes – should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

**********

 

It would, however, be remiss of me not to address an argument that is commonly used to support such special privileges, one that is advanced even by some within the LGBTI community itself. That is the view that ‘why would couples want to be married by someone who disagrees with their relationship?’

 

The answer, of course, is that the vast majority of couples do not (although some, especially in rural and regional areas, may have few other options).

 

But, with all due respect to the people making this case, so what? That response doesn’t actually deal with the substantive issue at hand, and completely misunderstands the essential role of anti-discrimination law.

 

To see why, let’s apply the same question to other scenarios: Why would anyone want the florist for their wedding to be prejudiced against LGBTI people? The (now clichéd) baker? The wedding venue-provider?

 

Why would an LGBTI couple want to spend their honeymoon at a hotel where the proprietor disagrees with their relationship? Or to celebrate their anniversary at a restaurant whose owner is homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic?

 

Why would a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex employee want to work for an anti-LGBTI employer?

 

The answer, again, is that most LGBTI people do not want to find themselves in any of these circumstances. But, for a variety of reasons (including the impact of historical discrimination, ongoing homophobic attitudes in society-at-large, and differences in power and privilege) plenty of people do – and that is the reason we have anti-discrimination laws in the first place.

 

The Sex Discrimination Act, and its state and territory equivalents, operate to protect vulnerable groups against adverse treatment, wherever it occurs: the provision of goods and services, education, employment and other areas of public life. That obviously covers civil celebrants offering their services to the public, too.

 

In amending the Marriage Act, we should not support anything that undermines these vital anti-discrimination protections. By conceding that discrimination by civil celebrants should be allowed, by effectively ‘picking and choosing’ when anti-LGBTI prejudice is made lawful, we would be doing exactly that.

 

Once this broader principle of anti-discrimination has been sacrificed, our opponents will stake their claims for ever-widening ‘freedoms to discriminate’. Indeed, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm has already circulated amendments to the Smith Bill that would make it entirely legal to discriminate against LGBTI couples in providing goods, services or facilities in relation to:

“(a) the solemnisation of a marriage under the Marriage Act 1961; or

(b) the preparation for, or celebration of, such a marriage; or

(c) the preparation for, or celebration of, events associated with such a marriage, including:

(i) an event announcing or celebrating the engagement of the parties to be married; and

(ii) an event celebrating the anniversary of the marriage.”

 

No doubt other conservative MPs and Senators will move their own amendments in the course of parliamentary debate, some perhaps more expansive, and even worse, than these.

 

They must, of course, be rejected – for exactly the same reasons that we must reject Senator Brandis’ amendment concerning civil celebrants. Because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should not be discriminated against in any area of public life. No exceptions.

 

If you agree, please take two minutes to write to Commonwealth MPs and Senators to let them know that #equalmeansequal, and that there should be ‘No compromise on equality’ (click here).

 

**********

 

One final point before I conclude. By now, I have hopefully convinced you to say ‘I don’t’ to Senator Brandis’ amendment to create religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

If that is the case, then logically you should also say ‘I don’t’ to the Smith Bill itself – because all of the above arguments can also be made against sub-section 39DD(2), which would allow existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’, and discriminate against LGBTI couples, based on nothing more than their personal religious beliefs.

 

That’s why I and others have argued passionately that the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, as it currently stands, does not offer genuine marriage equality. And why we should be pressuring Labor, the Greens and anyone else who claims to support LGBTI equality to amend that legislation to remove such discriminatory provisions.

 

I guess we’ll all find out in the coming fortnight how real their commitment to equality actually is.

 

George Brandis 25

Attorney-General George Brandis, who is proposing religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Interestingly, Senator Brandis is doing so even though civil celebrants themselves do no support such an amendment. As reported this week in the Sydney Morning Herald , Dorothy Harrison, the chair of the Coalition of Celebrant Associations, said: “We don’t approve of exemptions. We feel that if that’s the law of the country, then that’s what you do. We have discrimination laws and we have to live by them.”

How Dare You

I‘ve been writing this blog for more than five years. In that time, I have tried to stick to a few guiding principles in what I publish:

 

  1. To be factually accurate, and to correct the record as quickly as possible where I do (occasionally) make a mistake. Because there’s not much point in having an uninformed debate.
  2. To only divulge as much personal information as is relevant to the topic at hand, and to try to respect the privacy of my fiancé Steven (although sometimes, as with our appearance on The Drum this week, there is a compelling reason to share our story).
  3. To try not to write, or post, while angry.

 

Today, I’m breaking rule number three. To put it bluntly, I’m mad as hell, and not in an amusing, Shaun Micallef kind of way.

 

The source of my frustration? The fact that, in the same week the overwhelming majority of Australians voted for marriage equality, some Commonwealth Parliamentarians have decided to undermine that same equality by pushing for new special privileges to discriminate against us.

 

Those arguing for something less than full equality include Attorney-General George Brandis, who has already indicated he will move multiple amendments to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (aka the Smith Bill) which, as we have seen, is itself an unsatisfactory compromise.

 

Senator Brandis’ proposals include providing all civil celebrants with the ability to reject couples on the basis of their personal religious or ‘conscientious’ beliefs – despite the fact civil celebrants are performing a secular function delegated by the state.

 

He is also suggesting a provision to state that “nothing in the bill makes it unlawful for people to hold and to express the views of their own religion on marriage.” Which sounds fairly innocuous, but when we eventually see the detail could include an attempt to override state and territory anti-vilification laws.

 

James Paterson

Liberal Senator James Paterson.

 

Then of course there is Senator James Paterson who, on Monday, released his own draft legislation that sought to grant special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI people in a wide variety of circumstances, including allowing commercial businesses to deny goods and services to same-sex weddings.

 

Thankfully, his legislation won’t ultimately be introduced, but he and others are likely to move the majority of its measures as amendments to the Smith Bill.

 

Perhaps the most egregious of these is the concerted push to include, within the Marriage Act itself, a ‘right’ for parents to withdraw their children from any class with which they disagree on the basis of their religious beliefs. This move, reportedly supported by Senators David Fawcett and Zed Seselja, as well as MPs Scott Morrison and Andrew Hastie, is a naked attack on the Safe Schools program.

 

In the words of Peter Dutton: “I want to make sure that proper parental protections are in place… Because I do think this Safe Schools movement will use this debate as a launching pad for their next wave.”

 

It could even extend to parents withdrawing their children from any and all sex education lessons, or Health and Physical Education generally – basically, any class that might teach students the incontrovertible fact that LGBTI people exist, and that we are normal.

 

If you’re struggling to figure out how parents withdrawing children from Safe Schools lessons has anything to do with marriage equality, you’re not alone. Because they are completely unrelated issues, deliberately conflated by the ‘No’ campaign during the postal survey, and again now by conservative MPs.

 

**********

 

It is not difficult to legislate for marriage equality: to amend the definition to be the union of 2 people, and recognise the marriages of LGBTI couples that already exist. That is all that is required to implement the equal treatment of LGBTI relationships – nothing more and nothing less.

 

Instead, we are seeing some Liberal and National politicians using this debate to try to add to, rather than subtract from, anti-LGBTI discrimination, to fight an unrelated ‘culture war’ rather than do the one thing 7,817,247 people voted for: pass marriage equality.

 

My message to Senators Brandis, Fawcett, Seselja and Paterson, MPs Morrison, Dutton and Hastie, and anyone else who is contemplating amendments that have the practical impact of discriminating against LGBTI people and our relationships:

 

How dare you.

 

How dare you hold a 3 month, $100 million non-binding postal survey on the worth of our relationships, and of our lives, in the first place.

 

How dare you decide, when your unnecessary, wasteful and harmful process is finally over and the overwhelming majority of Australians have voted for marriage equality, to offer us something that falls far short of that standard.

 

How dare you attempt to change existing laws so that civil celebrants, who are performing a secular function delegated by the state, can simply say ‘no gays allowed’ on the basis of nothing more than their personal beliefs.

 

How dare you use this debate to attack Safe Schools, and inclusion programs for LGBTI students more generally, so that young people are denied the right to learn that who they are and who they love is okay.

 

How dare you amend legislation that would finally give lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians equal recognition under the law by taking away our rights in other areas, including anti-discrimination and anti-vilification protections.

 

How dare you place any terms or conditions on the right of LGBTI couples to get married in the (hopefully near) future that do not currently exist for cisgender heterosexual couples.

 

How dare you vote to ensure that your own weddings and marriages are treated any differently to, or better than, my wedding and marriage to my fiancé Steven.

 

Seriously, how dare you.

 

**********

 

I thought long and hard before writing this post, and then again before deciding to publish it. There is obviously a risk that, in doing so, I could simply be dismissed as an ‘angry gay’ (which is usually very far from the truth).

 

But then I realised I can live with that description. Particularly because there is a much greater risk: that, after coming so far since the Howard Government first banned marriage equality way back in August 2004, after fighting so hard, and overcoming every obstacle placed in our way – including the unnecessary, wasteful and harmful postal survey – we are denied true marriage equality at the final hurdle.

 

That is what is at stake in the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of the year, starting Monday 27 November: full equality, or something that falls short, potentially by a long distance.

 

I don’t want to think back on this moment and realise that we could have achieved something wonderful, but instead ended up with something flawed.

 

So, if you believe in genuine marriage equality like I do, if you think that LGBTI relationships should be treated in exactly the same way as cisgender heterosexual couples are today, then it’s time to get active.

 

Please write to MPs and Senators who support marriage equality and let them know that there should be No compromise on equality.

 

If you can, call the office of your local MP to reinforce that message. Tweet, share, and do everything you can to make sure your voice is heard at this critical point.

 

This is the best opportunity for our relationships to be treated equally under the law. Don’t let some conservative MPs and Senators take that right, your right, away.

Not so fast. Dean Smith’s Marriage Bill is deeply flawed.

Over the past fortnight, there has been increasing discussion about what marriage equality might look like in practice. Based on the widely-held assumption that a majority Yes vote will be announced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) on Wednesday 15 November, there appears to be a co-ordinated push to ‘unite’ behind Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Bill.

 

This includes the decision by the Labor caucus, on Tuesday 17 October, that it will support Smith’s Bill being passed as quickly as possible after the conclusion of the postal survey.

 

This was almost immediately followed by an opinion piece from Alex Greenwich and Anna Brown of Australian Marriage Equality describing Smith’s Bill as ‘a game changer’ and claiming that ‘[i]t would deliver equality for same-sex couples and it also ensures that faith communities can continue to celebrate religious marriage.’

 

One state-based gay and lesbian rights lobby even went so far as to declare Senator Smith’s draft legislation – which, let’s not forget, hasn’t even been introduced into Commonwealth Parliament yet – as ‘the only legitimate bill.’

 

In response to these developments, I had two equally-strong reactions.

 

The first was to say ‘not so fast’. Voting in the postal survey was still well underway, so to presume victory, and to start discussing how it might be implemented, could be seen as hubris, as well as confusing what should have been the one and only message of the Yes campaign – to #postyouryes.

 

It is for this reason that I chose not to write about this topic (what marriage equality legislation should look like) until after Friday 27 October, the date by which the ABS recommended people post their ballots in order to ensure they are counted.[i]

 

My second reaction was also to say ‘not so fast’, only this time in relation to the substance of Smith’s Bill. And that is because his draft legislation might give us marriage, but it will not deliver marriage equality.

 

In fact, on closer analysis it is a deeply flawed Bill. From the title: the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (notice what word is missing?). To its apparent purpose: to appease conservative Liberal and National MPs and Senators who oppose the equal treatment of LGBTI Australians under secular law. To its all-important details (discussed below).

 

It is clear that Senator Smith’s Marriage Bill is far less concerned with allowing all couples to marry irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, and far more concerned with allowing individuals and organisations to discriminate against couples on the basis of these very same attributes.

 

Three major shortcomings can be seen by examining key aspects of his draft legislation:

 

  1. Dean Smith’s Marriage Bill gives new special privileges to existing civil celebrants allowing them to discriminate against LGBTI couples

 

Under the Marriage Act 1961, ministers of religion already have the ability to refuse to officiate the wedding of any couple, for any reason. There has never been a serious proposal to remove this ‘right’ to discriminate, and Smith’s Bill won’t alter this situation either.

 

However, what the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 proposes in this area is actually far more radical – and that is to give a new special privilege to existing civil celebrants allowing them to discriminate against LGBTI couples, and to do so entirely lawfully.

 

It would provide people who are already registered as civil celebrants the ability to simply fill out some paperwork and declare themselves to be ‘religious marriage celebrants’ [clause 39DD(2) of the draft legislation].

 

There is only one substantive criterion that an existing civil celebrant must satisfy – that “the choice is based on the person’s religious beliefs” [clause 39DD(2)(c)].

 

That’s it – self-identification is enough. It is the legislative equivalent of never-was-a-Senator Malcolm Roberts’ approach to life: ‘I think I am a religious marriage celebrant, therefore I must be.’ Or the Andrew Bolt version of Descartes’ proposition: ‘I discriminate, therefore I am.’

 

In practice, the Registrar of Marriage Celebrants would be obliged to accept this application and voila – an existing civil celebrant can suddenly refuse to perform weddings of couples solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

 

Remember, these people are not ministers of religion.

 

They are not formally associated with any church or religious body.

 

And the weddings they officiate do not have to be ‘religious’ in any way, shape or form.

 

But none of that would matter because, on the basis of their personal views and nothing more, they would be provided with what George Brandis would describe as ‘the right to be a bigot’.

 

This situation is bad enough in and of itself. But it is even worse when you consider that it would be setting a terrible new precedent in Commonwealth law.

 

As many people would know, the anti-discrimination protections contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 are already limited by ‘religious exceptions’, which provide religious organisations with special privileges to fire, refuse to hire or deny service to LGBT people.

 

The main exception is contained in sub-section 37(1)(d), which protects “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.”

 

This is supplemented by special privileges for religious schools to likewise discriminate against LGBT students and teachers [section 38].

 

One limitation on both of these exceptions is that they apply to religious organisations only, like churches or schools. They do not provide individuals, who are not connected to any other religious body, the right to discriminate solely on the basis their own personal beliefs (or prejudices).[ii]

 

The introduction of a new special privilege for individual celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples, based on their own religious views and nothing else, would therefore be creating a dangerous precedent, one which could be used to argue for expanded rights to discriminate in the future.

 

Indeed, this appears to be the goal of anti-LGBTI hate groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, as well as Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie who has argued that the exceptions in Smith’s Bill should go much, much further:

 

“The protections offered [extend] only to the wedding and the wedding participants themselves. They need to be expanded to whole-of-life protections” (emphasis added).

 

In the long-term, that is what is really at stake in the debate around marriage equality and religious exceptions – whether individuals will be able to discriminate against us as LGBTI Australians, in every aspect of our lives, based on nothing more than their personal views.

 

And so, while achieving marriage equality in the short-term is obviously important (and I write that as someone who has been engaged for almost eight years), we should make sure we don’t win the battle but lose the war.

 

  1. Dean Smith’s Marriage Bill includes unnecessary and/or new special privileges for religious bodies to refuse to provide facilities, goods or services to LGBTI couples

 

The second major shortcoming of the Smith Bill is how it approaches the issue of ‘religious exceptions’ more broadly.

 

As indicated above, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 already provides religious bodies with extremely generous special privileges to discriminate against LGBT Australians.

 

Despite this, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill includes the following:

 

“47B(1) A body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if the refusal:

(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or

(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

 

There are two possible readings of this clause. The first is that it merely reflects existing Sex Discrimination Act provisions, and grants the same privileges to discriminate within the Marriage Act. To which the obvious reply is: if religious bodies already have the ability to discriminate in this way, why does it need to be replicated (some might say duplicated) here?

 

The alternative reading is that this is an expansion of the ability of religious bodies to discriminate, in that it grants new special privileges in relation to same-sex weddings in particular.

 

How broad these new special privileges are depends on what ‘reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage’ means. Proposed new sub-section 47B(5) notes that “[f]or the purposes of subsection (1), a purpose is reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of marriage if it is intrinsic to, or directly associated with, the solemnisation of the marriage.” Which isn’t exactly helpful (and nor is the Explanatory Memorandum).

 

Irrespective of which reading you adopt, however, I would argue that these new provisions should be rejected. Because they either unnecessarily duplicate protections that already exist. Or they introduce new special privileges to discriminate in wedding-related services simply because same-sex couples will finally be able to get married.

 

This last point is particularly important. Debate around the right to marry is at least as much symbolic as it is practical, and the marriage equality movement has meant so much to so many because it has taken on larger significance – whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians are considered full citizens. Or not.

 

To give marriage with one hand, but take equality away with the other – by including new special privileges to discriminate against us – fundamentally undermines what should be a powerful symbolic moment.

 

And make no mistake, it does so because of anti-LGBTI prejudice. As much as proponents of this legislation will try to argue it is necessary to protect ‘religious freedom’, as I have written previously this can be seen as a transparent lie.

 

After all, many religious bodies have strong beliefs about divorce and remarriage. And yet following the introduction of ‘no fault’ divorce via the Family Law Act 1975, and during the four decades since, there have not been any amendments to the Marriage Act to grant special privileges to religious bodies allowing them to discriminate against people who remarry.

 

The fact that they are being introduced now, when LGBTI Australians might finally get a seat at the ‘head table’, reveals that these new exceptions are not aimed at protecting ‘religious freedom’ – they are instead designed to protect homophobia (and transphobia, and biphobia, and intersexphobia).[iii] Nothing more and nothing less.

 

  1. Dean Smith’s Marriage Bill strengthens special privileges for some public servants to discriminate against LGBTI couples

 

The final major shortcoming of the Smith Bill relates to the ability of Australian Defence Force Chaplains to discriminate against personnel who wish to get married.

 

Importantly, ADF Chaplains already have the ‘right’ to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of anyone they wish, for any reason they wish, as a result of section 81 of the Marriage Act.[iv]

 

Nevertheless, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 reinforces this ability by adding the following:

 

“81(2) A chaplain may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if any of the following applies:

(a) the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the chaplain’s religious body or religious organisation;

(b) the refusal is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion;

(c) the chaplain’s religious beliefs do not allow the chaplain to solemnise the marriage.”

 

The duplication of the existing right of ADF Chaplains to discriminate in this way is entirely unnecessary.

 

But I have a much more substantive problem with the Marriage Act granting such privileges: ADF Chaplains are public servants, and therefore should be able to, indeed should be required to, serve all members of the ADF equally, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex personnel.

 

The Defence Jobs website seems to recognise this obligation in its advertisements: “the military Chaplain must provide spiritual ministry to all members of the Army, regardless of faith or denomination … in recognition of the imperative to foster firm faith as described, every Chaplain must be the spiritual minister to every member” (emphasis added).

 

Every member should mean every member – not just cisgender and/or heterosexual members. To determine otherwise is to permit public servants to discriminate against people simply because of their personal beliefs, thereby creating Australia’s equivalent of Kentucky’s infamous Kim Davis.

 

The most offensive aspect of these special privileges is that ADF Chaplains are paid for by taxpayers’ money, including LGBTI taxpayers, and yet they will continue to be free to discriminate on the basis of their own anti-LGBTI beliefs.

 

Smith’s Marriage Bill is therefore a missed opportunity to remedy this injustice, either by requiring all Chaplains to serve all ADF personnel without prejudice (which, based on the public debate so far, seems unlikely to be acceptable to religious stakeholders) or by removing the ability of these Chaplains to officiate any weddings, and coming up with a suitable alternative.

 

Which brings me to one of maybe three positive aspects of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, proposed section 71A, which provides that:

 

“The Chief of the Defence Force may, by instrument in writing, authorise an officer (within the meaning of the Defence Act 1903), other than a chaplain, to solemnise marriages under this Division.”[v]

 

I can see no reason why the appointment of these officers should not be the primary way in which ADF personnel are able to marry while on deployment, something that would effectively guarantee every serving member is treated equally, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. Surely that is a goal we can all agree on.

 

Conclusion:

 

If the result of the same-sex marriage postal survey on 15 November is the one that we want, that is not the end of the story – not by a long way.

 

We must also ensure that the legislation that is passed afterwards reflects what we want, or as close to it as possible – and that means not rushing to accept a Bill that might give us marriage, but not deliver marriage equality.

 

We should consider, in detail, all possible legislative options and decide whether what they offer is ‘acceptable’.

 

From my perspective, I don’t think we should accept a Bill that gives new special privileges to existing civil celebrants allowing them to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

Nor we should accept a Bill that includes unnecessary and/or new special privileges for religious bodies to refuse to provide facilities, goods or services to LGBTI couples.

 

Finally, I don’t think we should accept a Bill that strengthens special privileges for some public servants to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

Consequently, I don’t think we should accept Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017.

 

I think we can, and we must, do better. Because LGBTI Australians deserve more than just marriage. We deserve genuine marriage equality.

 

150518 Dean Smith

Liberal Senator Dean Smith, whose Marriage Bill uses just nine words to amend the definition of marriage, but more than 400 introducing or expanding special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

Footnotes:

[i] If you are reading this article after 27 October, but before 7 November, and still have your postal survey, then please #postyouryes as soon as possible. The earlier you do, the more chance there is it will be counted, and help Australia finally achieve marriage equality.

[ii] Even the religious exceptions contained in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 – which are the broadest (and arguably the worst) in the country – only apply to religious bodies, or educational authorities, and not to individuals.

[iii] The same argument can be made against proposals for civil celebrants to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’ allowing them to discriminate, discussed above. This ‘right’ has not previously been offered (nor sought apparently) in relation to people who remarry – it is only being added now to allow discrimination against LGBTI couples. That is homophobia, pure and simple.

[iv] “A chaplain may refuse to solemnise a marriage under this Part on any grounds which appear to the chaplain to be sufficient and, in particular, on the ground that, in the opinion of the chaplain, the solemnisation of the marriage would be inconsistent with international law or the comity of nations.”

[v] The other two positive features of the draft legislation are the proposed change to the definition of marriage (sub-section 5(1) “Omit ‘a man and a woman’, substitute ‘2 people’”) and the recognition of existing same-sex marriages.

Marriage equality or marriage discrimination – a simple test

Based on media coverage over the past few days, it now seems possible that Commonwealth Parliament will – finally – hold a free vote in coming weeks on the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians to marry.

 

Of course, it is just as likely (perhaps even more likely) that the Turnbull Government will instead decide to hold a non-binding, voluntary postal vote on the subject, but that unnecessary, wasteful, divisive and downright offensive proposal is a subject for another day.

 

What I wanted to write about today is the kind of legislation that might ultimately be voted upon.

 

Because, amidst the understandable excitement of activists and advocates, the LGBTI community, our family members and friends, indeed all Australians who believe in fairness and the right of all people to marry the person they love, that progress might be imminent, we must not overlook a fundamental question:

 

Is it marriage equality, or is it marriage discrimination?

 

That is, does the Bill treat LGBTI-inclusive couples exactly the same as cisgender heterosexual couples, or will it introduce new special rights for civil celebrants and/or other wedding-related businesses to discriminate against us?

 

If it is the former, it is genuine marriage equality. If it is the latter, then it is something else, something lesser: marriage discrimination.

 

Unfortunately, based on multiple news reports it appears that the private member’s bill being drafted by Western Australian Liberal Senator Dean Smith will include new ‘protections’ that provide celebrants with the right to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of LGBTI couples.

 

Given religious celebrants already have this ability, presumably Senator Smith’s Bill will extend this ‘right to discriminate’ to (at least some) civil celebrants.

 

The argument that will inevitably be put forward to justify the differential treatment of couples under the Marriage Act 1961 is that it is necessary to protect the ‘religious freedom’ of the celebrants involved.

 

From my perspective, whether we should accept this argument, and indeed whether we should accept legislation that includes these types of ‘religious exceptions’, comes down to this simple test:

 

Will it treat LGBTI couples in the future differently from, and worse than, divorced people seeking to get (re-)married today?

 

Now, I admit this might seem to be a somewhat strange comparator, so please allow me to explain.

 

There is a wide range of religious beliefs about the rite of marriage, from groups who believe in marriage between more than two people, to others who do not believe in marriage between people of different faiths.

 

One of the more common religious beliefs about marriage, and indeed still the official position of what is the second-largest religious group in Australia (the Catholic Church, after ‘No religion’), is that divorce is a sin, and consequently people who have divorced should not be allowed to re-marry.

 

The Marriage Act currently allows churches, and religious celebrants, the ability to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of couples where one or both parties have already been divorced.

 

However, despite the fact some civil celebrants are Catholic themselves (and therefore may have some qualms about second, third or even fourth marriages), there is no equivalent right for civil celebrants to decline to perform these weddings.

 

And that seems like a reasonable distinction to make – because civil ceremonies under the Marriage Act are secular, rather than religious, in nature, there is no need to provide civil celebrants with the right to reject divorced people on the basis of their personal religious beliefs.

 

But, if it is not deemed essential to protect ‘religious freedom’ by allowing civil celebrants to discriminate on the basis of marital or relationship status now, then it should not be necessary to permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in the future.

 

Indeed, by comparing the rights of divorced people seeking to re-marry today with the rights of LGBTI couples under any future legislation that seeks to permit all couples to marry, it becomes clear that:

 

Amendments that provide civil celebrants with the ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBTI couples are not based on protecting ‘religious freedom’, but instead are legislating a right to homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

 

As a result, any legislation that allows LGBTI Australians to get married, but does so on the condition that civil celebrants are able to turn them away because of their personal prejudices, is not marriage equality, it is marriage discrimination.

 

The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill that was released by the Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, during the debate on the (traditional) plebiscite way back in October 2016 clearly failed on this front.

 

Not only did it significantly expand the right of civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples, it also clarified that defence force chaplains (who are public servants) could reject people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It even allowed for-profit businesses, run by religious organisations on a commercial basis, to turn LGBTI couples away.

 

For all of these reasons, the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill was Unacceptable.

 

It is possible that Senator Smith and others have ‘learned’ from that experience, and that his private member’s bill will look significantly different to the Brandis Bill on the surface. The new ‘protections’ may not even explicitly target LGBTI couples, and instead be couched in more neutral terms.

 

But the real question will be how it treats LGBTI people in its substance. Irrespective of the wording used, if the legislation allows civil celebrants and/or other wedding-related businesses to treat LGBTI couples differently from, and worse than, divorced people seeking to re-marry today, it is simply homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in a pretty wedding dress (or tuxedo).

 

And so, by all means get excited by the possibility that the interminable debate about the right of LGBTI couples to marry in Australia might soon be over. But we should also be on guard against any proposals that provide civil celebrants and others with the ‘right to discriminate’ against us.

 

We’ve waited long enough for genuine marriage equality. We shouldn’t settle, or be forced to settle, for marriage discrimination.

 

Untitled design-2

We should hold off on cutting the celebratory wedding cakes until we know exactly what is in the substance of any Bill, including any religious exceptions it may contain.

What a binding vote for marriage equality is – and what it is not

With roughly ten weeks left until the 2015 ALP National Conference, and about one month into the public debate around a potential binding vote for marriage equality, there has been considerable media coverage of this issue.

Unfortunately, a lot of this coverage has been unhelpful, focussing on things that might be of interest to political commentators, but in practice having very little to do with what will actually be discussed by delegates sometime between July 24th and 26th.

This post aims to redress some of that imbalance, by attempting to clarify what a binding vote for marriage equality is – and just as importantly, what it is not – about.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT about division, the leadership or the Greens

It was perhaps inevitable that at least some political reporters would cover the question of a binding vote as nothing more than an issue of ‘division’ within the Labor Party, rather than a genuine debate pushed by people who want to see their political party commit to fully supporting the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

What was surprising – and perhaps disappointing – was to observe just how widespread this characterisation was. When even The Guardian writes articles that start like this:

Labor leadership divides over compulsory same-sex marriage yes vote

Tanya Plibersek wants to end the conscience vote, but Bill Shorten says it should stay. And Chris Bowen wants a conscience vote but will now vote for, not against.

Internal division within the Labor party over a binding vote on same-sex marriage has deepened, as senior frontbencher Chris Bowen backflips on his opposition to the issue” (http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/may/03/labor-leadership-divides-over-compulsory-same-sex-marriage-yes-vote?CMP=soc_567 )

then it is abundantly clear why Australia cannot sustain serious debate, especially on issues such as climate change or refugee policy that are significantly more complicated than this.

Hint to our journalists – this is what internal party democracy looks like, with different people putting forward different positions, and the arguments behind them, in the lead-up to a meeting where representatives from around the country will decide which approach Labor will ultimately take. That is discussion, not ‘division’.

A second recurring theme of coverage has been to view the entire issue through the prism of a supposed ‘leadership challenge’ between current Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who opposes binding, and Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek, who supports it (for example, raised in this Sydney Morning Herald article: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tanya-plibersek-push-on-samesex-marriage-faces-defeat-amid-labor-leadership-split-20150430-1mww0s.html ).

This is wrong on a number of levels, not least because it is an issue Ms Plibersek has been campaigning on for a number of years – long before she was the Deputy Opposition Leader. It is somewhat galling that, in a political culture where figures are constantly derided for core and non-core promises, and commit backflip after backflip, here someone is being criticised for continuing to push the same progressive agenda she always has even after reaching a senior leadership position.

Indeed, the idea of binding in favour of marriage equality is something that has been pushed by a large number of people within the ALP for a very long time, including well before the last National Conference. At that particular meeting, 184 delegates voted to support a binding vote (narrowly losing to the 208 delegates who supported a conscience vote).

They must have been remarkably prescient, in December 2011, two Prime Ministers and a change of Government ago, to have been expressing a view on a leadership contest in 2015, between two people who were then the Ministers for Financial Services and Superannuation, and Human Services, respectively.

But the main reason why this is not about a leadership challenge is because, while her strong advocacy is obviously welcome, this issue is not really about Ms Plibersek at all.

There are a significant number of ALP MPs and Senators who have expressed their support for a binding vote over the course of the past month (with the Herald reporting that at least 25 members, or almost a third, of caucus back this move: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/huge-spike-in-labor-mps-support-for-samesex-marriage-20150508-ggx4z4.html ).

And there is an even larger number of ordinary ALP members, and Rainbow Labor members right around the country, who are pursuing this change. To reduce all of their – and our – activism to being about a non-existent leadership challenge is, putting it bluntly, utter rubbish.

Finally, there have a number of reports linking the push by Ms Plibersek and others within the party for a binding vote to a move to combat the rise of the Greens, and specifically as a response to the recent Victorian and NSW State Elections, where the Greens either retained or won the seats of Melbourne, Prahran, Balmain and Newtown.

Malcolm Farr in news.com.au was perhaps the most explicit on this theme: http://www.news.com.au/finance/work/labor-fears-it-is-losing-urban-strongholds-is-behind-the-push-for-binding-marriage-equality-vote/story-fn5tas5k-1227336759408

But, once again, it is hard to see how, when the majority of the Queensland and Tasmanian branches of the ALP voted to call for a binding vote at their state conferences in mid-2014, they were somehow ‘responding’ to elections in other states, that were still six-to-nine months away.

A binding vote for marriage equality has been a long-standing goal of progressive members of the Labor Party – and certainly existed long before the recent inner-city electoral successes of the Greens.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS about both principle and reality

As we all know by now, the overall fight for marriage equality is about nothing more (or less) than the equal treatment of all people, including LGBTI Australians and their relationships, in secular law.

The principle, at its core, is that the Government should not discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, by denying them access to state-sanctioned marriage, simply because of who they are and/or who they love.

Turning more specifically to the issue of whether the ALP should adopt a binding vote for marriage equality, it too is about principle – that, as a matter of fundamental equality and human rights, there is no legitimate reason to allow individual MPs and Senators to vote against the caucus position on this issue which acknowledges those rights.

In the same way that the ALP would not allow individual parliamentarians to break from party solidarity to vote for a racist law, there must not be special exceptions provided to allow some MPs and Senators to vote against the rights of LGBTI Australians.

We could have the entire debate, between now and the end of July, focussed exclusively on these two principles.

But marriage equality, and whether we adopt a binding vote, is about more than just that – as we have been starkly reminded over the past fortnight.

Because marriage equality is about reality too – the real-life couples who want nothing more than the right to be married, but who are currently denied that right by their own Government.

Couples like Sandra Yates and Lee Bransden, who were forced to seek money through a crowd-funding campaign to enable them to marry in New Zealand, where marriage equality has been legal for two years, before Ms Bransden dies from lung cancer (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-04/crowd-funding-campaign-for-gay-wedding-in-new-zealand/6442318 ).

This is the real face of marriage equality – the couples who are waiting for the same rights as everyone else, including those couples for whom time is very quickly running out (and of course the many couples for whom time has tragically already evaporated since the ban was first introduced in 2004).

In this instance, the crowd-funding campaign was successful, and the couple were married in New Zealand on Saturday (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-16/gay-tasmanian-couple-seal-dying-wish-with-new-zealand-wedding/6475226?WT.ac=statenews_tas ).

Which is heart-warming. But it should not have come to this, we should not be reduced to this – begging via public appeals just to allow older couples to leave the country to marry before they die, and even then stripping them of that legal equality as they re-enter Australia on their way home together for the last time.

This situation is indignity writ large.

Marriage equality is right in principle. Binding for marriage equality is right in principle. But it is the reality – of couples like Sandra and Lee – which reminds us why the issue is so urgent, and why we need as many MPs and Senators as possible, including all of those from the Australian Labor Party, to vote yes on this issue. Right. Now.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT about the ‘rights’ of MPs and Senators to vote no

On the other side of this debate are those who would argue that, while marriage equality may be important, it is more important to respect the supposed ‘rights’ of individual MPs and Senators to vote against it.

The clearest demonstration of this view came on Sunday 3 May when Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen announced he had switched from his long-standing opposition to marriage equality, to personally supporting it – as part of an ongoing conscience vote. As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/chris-bowen-drops-opposition-to-samesex-marriage-20150503-1myp1v.html ):

“In a conscience vote I have decided I would support same-sex marriage and that’s not traditionally the approach I took last time,” he said.

“On my marriage certificate at home it has got the Australian coat of arms as it has on all of ours. It is our right as a citizen to get married and it is a right that should be applied equally.”

“I have friends who have had to go overseas to get married; I don’t think they should have to go overseas to get married as Australian citizens so I would support it.”

But Mr Bowen said the matter should be decided by each member of Parliament on its policy merits rather than politicians being forced to vote for or against same-sex marriage.

“I think people should be given their own time to develop their thinking and their approach,” Mr Bowen said…

In effect, Mr Bowen is saying that, while he acknowledges the fundamental injustice experienced by his friends, it would in practice be more unjust to compel his colleagues in the federal parliamentary Labor Party, including Senator Joe Bullock and MP Chris Hayes, to have to vote for his friends’ rights through a binding vote.

This is the reality – people who support a conscience vote in the ALP are actually saying that the right of individual MPs and Senators to vote against marriage equality is more important than the rights of real-life couples, like Sandra and Lee, to marry.

How can that possibly be? One is a genuine injustice – the denial of fundamental rights solely on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The other? How is requiring a Labor member of the House of Representatives, or Senate, to vote in accordance with the Party platform and in favour of marriage equality, in any way unjust, and indeed so unjust that it outweighs anti-LGBTI discrimination?

The way in which opponents of a binding vote try to ‘dress up’ this issue as a matter of competing rights is by claiming that it would be a denial of their freedom of religion to have to vote this way. But, in making this argument, they are misunderstanding and misrepresenting what freedom of religion is, and most importantly, what it is not.

Freedom of religion is allowing people to believe what they wish, including on issues of ‘morality’, within their religion and their particular religious organisations, for example, choosing to recognise, or not recognise as the case may be, LGBTI-inclusive relationships as being equal.

There is nothing in any marriage equality Bill introduced to date that would compel an organised religion to conduct same-sex weddings against its wishes, or to recognise those relationships as equal within their own faith.

And that freedom of religion includes MPs and Senators within the Labor Party – even if they were obliged to support marriage equality under secular law, they would continue to be free to consider LGBTI relationships as second-rate (or worse) within their particular faith.

On the other hand, freedom of religion does not justify allowing those same parliamentarians to impose their particular religious belief, and their definition of marriage, on the rest of us – the growing number of Australians without faith, and the even larger number of believers, including some religious bodies themselves, who do support marriage equality.

The ‘freedom of religion’ of individual MPs and Senators is not a sufficient basis to override the freedom from religion of everyone else, and the legitimate expectation that we should be treated equally under secular law.

And it is definitely not enough of an argument to override the ordinary rules of the Australian Labor Party – which expects solidarity from its parliamentarians on everything from refugees, to metadata, single parent payments to live animal exports, and should be able to expect solidarity on this subject too.

There are only two possible ways in which ‘freedom of religion’ would be a genuine basis on which to argue against a binding vote.

The first would be if a marriage equality law sought to change the definition of marriage within religion(s) – including by ordering particular religious organisations to undertake LGBTI-inclusive marriage ceremonies. And, as already noted, exactly none of the marriage equality Bills proposed in Australia to date require this.

The second would be if a marriage law sought to discriminate against people of religious backgrounds – for example, a law that actively prohibited people of a particular faith (or perhaps prohibited people of different faiths) from marrying, and again no law proposed to date does anything of the sort [as an aside, those same people who claim it would be a denial of fundamental freedoms to compel a religious person to vote for marriage equality had no qualms when LGBTI individuals, including Senators Wong and Pratt, were compelled to vote against their own legal equality].

Given neither of these conditions exist, we are left with a large imbalance, between a genuine injustice on one side (the denial of the right to marry to LGBTI Australians) and only a perceived injustice on the other (the supposed denial of the freedom of religion of individual MPs and Senators), with the latter not withstanding close scrutiny.

The choice between the two should be easy.

Unfortunately, not only does Chris-sy-come-lately Bowen reach the wrong conclusion on this, he – and other recent marriage equality converts like Ed Husic and Julie Owens – take their (il)logic one step further.

As reported by the ABC on Wednesday 6 May, all three have personally switched from opposing to supporting marriage equality (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-06/western-sydney-labor-mps-swing-to-favour-gay-marriage/6447516 ). But the same report noted that “[a]ll three MPs said the freedom to choose through a conscience vote is an important condition for their support” (emphasis added).

Come again? Do we really have members of the ALP caucus saying they personally support marriage equality, which is also the position outlined in the ALP Party platform, but that they would not support marriage equality if this position was made binding on the Party’s MPs and Senators, in the same way that almost every other issue is subject to a binding vote?

This is really ‘through the looking glass’ stuff. Despite Ed Husic noting that “if there was no logical reason to prevent this change [marriage equality], why stand in the way of it?” (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/support-for-samesex-marriage-grows-in-the-alp-as-mp-ed-husic-switches-position-20150505-ggu5um.html ) he apparently would do exactly that just to give his colleagues the ‘right’ to vote no.

This is an absurd position to adopt – one hopes it is only (preposterous) posturing ahead of National Conference, and that they will vote yes if and when a binding vote is ultimately adopted with respect to members of caucus.

But irrespective of whether they believe what they are saying or not, Bowen, Husic and Owens, and indeed any ALP MP or Senator who says that marriage equality is important, but not sufficiently important to bind on, should be reminded that this issue is not about them, or their colleagues, or their colleagues’ supposed ‘freedom of religion’ – it is about LGBTI people who are denied equality under secular law.

And there is no reason to extend that injustice for one day longer.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS about the ALP delivering as many yes votes as possible

Of course, the ALP on its own cannot pass marriage equality in the current term of Parliament – in order to pass before the 2016 Federal Election Tony Abbott must grant his MPs a conscience vote.

Consequently, there has been a lot of speculation about what impact an ALP binding vote might have over subsequent machinations within the Liberal Party. Indeed, it is something that I have covered multiple times elsewhere (including under the section “It’s Time to Bind: The Strategy’ here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/).

But, what we need to remember is that the ALP has zero actual control over what the Liberal Party room does behind closed doors – if it did, the Liberals would have granted a conscience vote at some point during the three and a half years that Labor has already had one.

What the ALP does control is its own internal rules.

By adopting a binding vote the Labor Party would be delivering as many votes as it possibly can towards the cause of marriage equality – more than the just over 50% of MPs and Senators who voted yes in September 2012, and more than the 78% of MPs, and 68% of Senators who indicate they would support it if a vote were held today (as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald here: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/huge-spike-in-labor-mps-support-for-samesex-marriage-20150508-ggx4z4.html ).

It is difficult to see how such a move could be criticised by others who also support marriage equality. To do so is effectively arguing ‘please do not provide more votes to the cause which we all agree is important’.

And yet, this is exactly what some have done in recent weeks – with perhaps the most prominent example being another recent convert to supporting marriage equality, openly-gay Liberal Senator Dean Smith.

Immediately after the latest of Ms Plibersek’s calls for a binding vote, Senator Smith responded by saying he was ‘personally disappointed’ by it (http://www.smh.com.au/national/gay-liberal-senator-dean-smith-slams-tanya-plibersek-over-gay-marriage-move-20150427-1mu99l.html ), that “I have always been distrustful of the Left on this issue and now my personal fears have been realised,” and further that “[t]his has put the cause back and she needs to explain herself to same-sex marriage proponents.”

In 2015, with Australia having fallen behind 18 (and soon to be 20) countries on this issue, we seriously have an openly-gay conservative Senator criticising a progressive Deputy Opposition Leader for having the temerity to seek to deliver more votes from her Party in favour of marriage equality.

Dean-ny-come-lately Smith could have been excused for those comments, given it was the day after the issue had ‘blown up’ in the media and upon further reflection he might have recognised how ridiculous they sounded.

Instead, the following week he gave an interview to The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/binding-vote-on-same-sex-will-set-back-cause-ask-a-gay-liberal/story-e6frg7bo-1227337768868 ), where all he managed to achieve was to dig his own hole that much deeper.

Not only did he reiterate his criticisms of Labor for daring to suggest they might all commit to supporting LGBTI equality, he crucially admitted that, even if there was a conscience vote on both sides:

“marriage equality would likely be defeated. He cautions the advocates of gay marriage inside his party to slow down. “Yes, community opinion is changing, but it is changing slowly and I am comfortable with it changing slowly.”

This admission completely undercuts his arguments. He inadvertently concedes that the only way marriage equality could be passed this term is by a binding vote from Labor and a conscience vote from the Liberals, and yet he is explicitly arguing against that outcome (and also arguing against the ability of a new Labor Government to independently pass marriage equality if it was elected in 2016).

But that isn’t even the most offensive thing about the article – that would be his repeated calls for people to ‘slow down’, to ‘wait’, for their fundamental equality. In addition to the above quote, he also said:

“Give the country as much time as it needs. This is not an issue that is going backwards. It is only heading in one direction and the pace of the forward direction should be left to the community to decide.”

Leaving aside the fact the vast majority of the community is already there (with 72% support from the public, the only roadblock is our Parliament), he directly contradicts his own reason for supporting equality, which is included in the very same article:

“I was on a plane. I realised that Tori (Johnson) was gay. His partner had lost his lifelong partner. I thought, ‘I have lots of gay friends who are waiting for the laws to change. They don’t want to go to New Zealand to marry’.”

So, his reason for finally backing marriage equality is that people shouldn’t have to wait for the same rights as their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts, that it is tragic if they die without having realised those rights, and yet in the next breath he argues that they should wait, for as long as he deems necessary (or, to use his own words, as long as he is comfortable with).

That is simply not good enough, not from someone who supports marriage equality as an issue, nor from one of the few openly-LGBTI people ever elected to the Australian Parliament.

Perhaps, instead of attacking people like Tanya Plibersek for trying to deliver additional votes for marriage equality, Senator Smith should spend a little more time making the case for change within his own party room.

If he is successful in that task – and we, the Labor Party, are successful in achieving a binding vote in July – then we could all even see marriage equality passed this year.

Liberal Senator Dean Smith, who is 'relaxed and comfortable' with LGBTI Australians being made to wait for their human rights.

Liberal Senator Dean Smith, who is ‘relaxed and comfortable’ with LGBTI Australians being made to wait for their human rights.

A binding vote for marriage equality IS NOT over

The last misconception that I wanted to address also happens to be the easiest to debunk – and that is the argument that, just because Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has come out against a binding vote, the debate is somehow over.

Yes, it was disappointing that Mr Shorten chose not to demonstrate leadership on this issue (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-30/shorten-rejects-calls-to-axe-same-sex-marriage-conscience-vote/6434354 ), instead falling back on platitudes like “I certainly have a view, though, that the best way to win the argument on marriage equality is to convince people not force them” (which, when you think about it, sounds like he is arguing for a conscience vote on anything and everything, not just on LGBTI rights).

Nevertheless, just because the parliamentary Leader of the Party has adopted this position does not mean that delegates to ALP National Conference in July will necessarily agree with him.

In fact, all we need to do is look to his predecessor, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and the positions which she took to the 2011 National Conference on this issue; to oppose marriage equality, and to support a binding vote.

Not only did the Conference overwhelmingly reject her homophobia on the first (by a margin so large that the count wasn’t called, so she wouldn’t be embarrassed by how comprehensive her ‘defeat’ was), but delegates very nearly voted against her position on the issue of binding, too –it was only defeated by a margin of 208 votes to 184.

Which demonstrates two things – one, that Shorten’s position might be influential, but it is very much possible for National Conference to disagree with the Leader and two, that all it would take is for 13 people to change their minds for the vote to be resolved differently this time around.

Some commentators (looking at you, Barrie Cassidy) might be surprised by the possibility National Conference could decide this way, but they shouldn’t be.

As raised earlier, almost a third of ALP MPs and Senators already support binding (25 out of 80 – with 33 against and 12 undeclared). And, as demonstrated by successive national ballots, for National President and Party Leader, the general membership is in fact much more progressive than the parliamentary caucus.

All of which is to suggest that success on a resolution for a binding vote is very much a possibility. But it will not happen without a sustained push in the weeks that remain – and that is something we all have a responsibility to pursue, in whatever way we can. It’s time we all demanded that #ItsTimeToBind.