Where’s Our LGBTIQA+ Commissioner?

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 1975Sex Discrimination Act 1984Disability 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

Attorney-General

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

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.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Commonwealth Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC MP.

NB This post is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the views of employers past or present.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

The Jobs and Skills Summit and LGBTIQ Australians Part 2

Last Sunday, I posted about the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit, and the inclusion (or, at that stage, exclusion) of issues affecting LGBTIQ workers.

This included a letter to Prime Minister Albanese, Treasurer Chalmers, and seven of their ministerial colleagues, calling on them to include consideration of two matters in particular that affect LGBTIQ people in the workplace:

  • The absence of explicit protections for trans, gender diverse and intersex employees in the Fair Work Act 2009(Cth), and
  • The breadth of exceptions, in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and elsewhere, allowing religious organisations to discriminate against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, including in the delivery of public services using taxpayers’ money.

Since then, the issue of potential LGBTIQ exclusion from the Jobs and Skills Summit has been picked up by my friends at Just.Equal Australia, as well as being reported on by:

I also received the below, generic response from the Treasurer’s office, which, to be honest, did not inspire much confidence that my concerns, and the concerns of my community, were being taken seriously:

Dear Alastair,

Thank you for your email and attached correspondence about the Albanese Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit, which is scheduled to held over the 1st and 2nd of September.

The Jobs and Skills Summit will bring together around 100 representatives including from unions, employers, civil society and governments, to address our shared economic challenges.

The outcomes of the Summit will inform the Employment White Paper, which will be a shared vision and comprehensive blueprint for the future of Australia’s labour market.

Although Summit attendance will be limited and invite only, Treasury will be opening a submission process to collect insights and perspectives from the wider community later in 2022.

You can find out more information about the Summit and the White Paper, including up to date advice on when public submissions will be opened, by visitinghttps://treasury.gov.au/employment-whitepaper/jobs-summit.

Again, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and views on the above which will be brought to the attention of the Treasurer’s ministerial team.

Best wishes

[Name withheld], on behalf of the Hon. Jim Chalmers MP

Office of the Hon. Jim Chalmers MP | Treasurer of Australia and Federal Member for Rankin

Which made it a pleasant surprise to read, via Out in Perth, the Treasurer Jim Chalmers confirm that LGBTIQA+ issues would indeed be on the agenda at the conference:

‘We recognise that many LGBTIQA+ Australians often face a range of unique challenges when it comes to secure employment.

‘These are exactly the issues that we hope to address through our Jobs and Skills Summit.

‘That’s why removing barriers to employment and workforce participation are central themes of our Jobs and Skills Summit. Our aim is to bring people together around our big economic challenges to ensure more Australians can get a secure, well-paid job.’

Of course, just because LGBTIQ issues might actually be discussed, does not mean the Summit itself, or the Government afterwards, will recommend or commit to taking action to fix the problems which lead to workplace discrimination against, and exclusion of, LGBTIQ people.

I should also note I have not had a response from Albanese, Chalmers or any of the other seven Ministers addressing the substantive concerns raised by my letter.

In which case, the push continues to ensure the Fair Work ActSex Discrimination Act and other relevant laws are amended so that LGBTIQ workers are judged on the basis of their ability, not their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

In that context, today I have sent the below emails to two of the primary non-Government voices that will be represented at the Jobs and Skills Summit: ACTU Secretary Sally McManus and Business Council of Australia CEO Jennifer Westacott.

Hopefully their assistance will help give voice to the need to legislate better protections for LGBTIQ workers in Australia.

*****

Sunday 28 August 2022

Sally McManus

Secretary

Australian Council of Trade Unions

Dear Ms McManus

Please support reforms to protect LGBTIQ workers at the Jobs and Skills Summit

I am writing to you about the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit, at which you will be a key voice advocating for the interests of Australian workers.

In particular, I am writing, both as a union member for two decades, and as a leading advocate for my community, to ask you to support important reforms to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) workers.

These include:

  • Reforms to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) to explicitly protect trans, gender diverse and intersex workers against adverse action and unlawful termination. This could be achieved, easily, by adding gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes in relevant sections where categories such as race, sex, disability, age and even sexual orientation are already covered.
  • Reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and other Commonwealth and State and Territory anti-discrimination laws to remove the special privileges granted to religious organisations allowing them to discriminate against workers on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, including in the delivery of public services using taxpayers’ money. This problem is especially acute in what is described in the Issues Paper as the ‘care economy’ and their removal would, I believe, lead to more LGBTQ people entering professions like education, disability services and aged care.

I attach with this correspondence a letter which was sent to Prime Minister Albanese, Treasurer Chalmers and seven of their ministerial colleagues, that provides more detail about these issues, and the compelling reasons why changes must be made to both.

I note both your own strong personal support, and the strong support of many unions and members of the ACTU, to LGBTIQ rights over the past decade, including through the campaign for marriage equality.

I look forward to your support once again, on Thursday and Friday of this week, and over the following months, for the interests of LGBTIQ workers.

Because I am confident that you agree trans, gender diverse and intersex workers should have the same Fair Work Act protections as any employee. And that LGBTQ workers should be judged on their ability, rather than their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

*****

Sunday 28 August 2022

Jennifer Westacott

Chief Executive Officer

Business Council of Australia

Dear Ms Westacott

Please support reforms to protect LGBTIQ workers at the Jobs and Skills Summit

I am writing to you about the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit, at which you will be a key voice in central debates around economic and industrial relations reforms.

In particular, I am writing as a leading advocate for my community to ask you to support important reforms to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) workers.

These include:

  • Reforms to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) to explicitly protect trans, gender diverse and intersex workers against adverse action and unlawful termination. This could be achieved, easily, by adding gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes in relevant sections where categories such as race, sex, disability, age and even sexual orientation are already covered.
  • Reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and other Commonwealth and State and Territory anti-discrimination laws to remove the special privileges granted to religious organisations allowing them to discriminate against workers on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, including in the delivery of public services using taxpayers’ money. This problem is especially acute in what is described in the Issues Paper as the ‘care economy’ and their removal would, I believe, lead to more LGBTQ people entering professions like education, disability services and aged care.

I attach with this correspondence a letter which was sent to Prime Minister Albanese, Treasurer Chalmers and seven of their ministerial colleagues, that provides more details about these issues, and the compelling reasons why changes must be made to both.

Indeed, I note that you made some of the same arguments for better workplace inclusion in your speech on 27 May this year at the 2022 Australian LGBTIQ Inclusion Awards:

‘[T]oday we are here to celebrate and applaud the excellence of employers and their teams for their commitment to advancing inclusion and diversity.

It’s the right thing to do.

And not just that – it’s also smart business.

When every person can be their best selves at work:

  • They’re happier
  • They’re more productive
  • They’re more creative
  • They’re more loyal, and
  • They’re more likely to stay with their current employer.

Doing the right thing is a win-win…

I do not believe that any person should be made to feel excluded.

I do not believe that any person should be made to feel less than they are.

I do not believe that anyone’s personal struggle should be used as a political football.

So today I want to spend the bulk of my time apologising.

I want to apologise to our transgender colleagues.

I want to apologise:

  • For the hurt you have endured
  • For the cruelty you have been subjected to, and
  • For the fundamental misinformation and unfairness that has shrouded the discussion over the last year, but particularly during the election.’

You went on to acknowledge:

‘I understand the fear and worry when you turn up to work and every single new encounter is potentially:

  • A rejection
  • The loss of your employment status, or
  • The loss of your job.

I understand that there is only one choice you have to make.

It is not a flippant or superficial lifestyle choice.

Instead, it’s a difficult and often agonising acceptance to either be yourself or to pretend to be someone else.’

The upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit is another opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to improving the lives of trans and gender diverse Australians, who are affected by both the lack of explicit protections under the Fair Work Act, and the broad special privileges granted to religious organisations under the Sex Discrimination Act.

I look forward to you building on your public apology in May by supporting essential reforms to both these laws later this week.

Because I am confident, based on your speech, that you agree trans, gender diverse and intersex workers should have the same Fair Work Act protections as any employee. And that LGBTQ workers should be judged on their ability, rather than their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

*****

ACTU Secretary Sally McManus and Business Council of Australia CEO Jennifer Westacott will play a key role in whether the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit supports much-needed law reform to protect the rights of LGBTIQ workers.

NB This post is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the views of employers past or present.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

The Jobs and Skills Summit and LGBTIQ Australians

The Albanese Labor Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit will be held on September 1 and 2, 2022, now just eleven days away.

While there has been significant coverage of a wide range of issues relevant to this conference, there has been little to no reporting of how it will affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) workers.

The letter below, to Prime Minister Albanese, Treasurer Chalmers and a number of other Ministers, seeks to place at least two important and urgent LGBTIQ policy matters onto the Jobs and Skills Summit agenda.

As always, I will publish any responses received.

*****

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

Treasurer Jim Chalmers

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus

Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Tony Burke

Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler

Minister for Aged Care Anika Wells

Minister for Education Jason Clare

Minister for Social Services Amanda Rishworth

Minister for the NDIS Bill Shorten

Sunday 21 August 2022

Dear Prime Minister Albanese and other Ministers

Please include LGBTIQ workers in the Jobs and Skills Summit

I am writing to you about the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit, and the need to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) workers and the issues which affect them.

I was initially encouraged to observe the Summit would include a focus on ‘expanding employment opportunities for all Australians including the most disadvantaged.’[i]

However, I am both concerned and deeply disappointed by the Jobs and Skills Summit Issues Paper, released on 17 August,[ii] which completely omits LGBTIQ Australians as one of the groups which should be considered as part of this focus.

Specifically, page 2 of that document states:

‘While the participation rate is around historically high levels, many Australians still face barriers to secure and well-paid employment. In particular, women, First Nations people, people with disability, older Australians, migrants and refugees, and those living in certain regional and remote areas face specific barriers to entering the workforce. This means there are further opportunities and obligations to ensure the benefits of strong labour market conditions are accessible to all people in Australia.’

There is no mention of LGBTIQ workers here, nor on any other of the Issues Paper’s 14 pages.

This is despite the fact employment-related discrimination against LGBTIQ workers, including and perhaps especially transgender and gender diverse workers, is well-documented.

For example, a 2021 paper[iii] found that for transgender, including gender diverse and nonbinary (trans), people:

‘The unemployment rate of 19% was three times that of the Australian general population rate of 5.5% in May 2018 and well above the youth unemployment rate (12.2%). Notably, 33% of respondents perceived discrimination in employment. Unemployment may also occur due to difficulty with name and identity documents, discrimination in basic housing and health care, and the impact of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety on an individual’s ability to seek or maintain employment. Conversely, levels of depression and anxiety may be higher due to unemployment.’

The omission of LGBTIQ workers from the Jobs and Skills Summit Issues Paper also comes despite many LGBTIQ workers enjoying lesser workplace rights and protections than other employees, and a large number of employers being legally entitled to fire, to refuse to hire, or to otherwise discriminate against, LGBTQ workers simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This often includes the use of taxpayers’ money in said discrimination.

These issues must be addressed if the Jobs and Skills Summit is to indeed focus on ‘expanding employment opportunities for all Australians including the most disadvantaged.’

I include below two fundamental, urgent issues which therefore must be included in the Summit’s agenda.

  1. Protect transgender, gender diverse and intersex workers under the Fair Work Act

Currently, transgender, gender diverse and intersex workers do not enjoy the same legal status under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) as other employees, including women, people with disability, and even lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

This is because the adverse action protections in section 351, and unlawful termination protections in section 772, contain a long list of protected attributes – such as ‘race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin’ – but omit the protected attributes of gender identity and sex characteristics (intersex status).

In practice, this means transgender, gender diverse and intersex workers may not have the same guaranteed access to the low-cost, low-barrier Fair Work Commission as other employees who are subjected to mistreatment or unfair dismissal simply because of who they are.

Despite raising the lack of explicit Fair Work Act protections for these workers with the previous Government for several years,[iv] they refused to take any action to address this discrepancy, even voting against straight-forward Greens amendments to the 2021 Respect@Work Bill which would have remedied the situation, providing much-needed remedies to workers.[v]

I note the then-Labor Opposition voted for some, although not all, of those Greens amendments.[vi] I also note that, as a result of advocacy from myself and others, the 2021 ALP National Conference passed the following special resolution:[vii]

‘Aligning the Fair Work Act and Sex Discrimination Act

Labor will amend the relevant sections of the Fair Work Act to align with the Sex Discrimination Act to cover workers who are currently not protected.’

Unfortunately, while implementing this commitment – which would involve adding gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes in the Fair Work Act – would achieve some improvement, it would not bring that legislation up to best practice.

This is because sex characteristics[viii] is considered a more accurate, and more inclusive, protected attribute, and is the terminology preferred by intersex advocates, including Intersex Human Rights Australia.

Therefore, at least part of the response to this question on page 5 of the Jobs and Skills Summit Issues Paper:

‘How can we ensure workplaces are safe and fair, particularly for those people at higher risk of harassment, discrimination and other breaches of workplace minimum standards?’

is to add gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), including in relation to adverse action (s351) and unlawful termination (s772), so that transgender, gender diverse and intersex workers have the same rights and protections as everyone else.

Recommendation 1: The Jobs and Skills Summit must ensure transgender, gender diverse and intersex workers have the same rights and protections under the Fair Work Act as other employees, including in relation to adverse action and unlawful termination.

2. Remove special exceptions allowing religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTQ workers

That same question – ‘How can we ensure workplaces are safe and fair, particularly for those people at higher risk of harassment, discrimination and other breaches of workplace minimum standards?’ – is also relevant to the second issue which I submit must be on the Jobs and Skills Summit agenda: removing special exceptions which allow religious bodies to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) workers.

In fact, this issue is pertinent to a range of discussion, and questions, covered in the Issues Paper, including this statement on pages 6 and 7:

‘Addressing the barriers to participation and promoting equality of opportunity will contribute to a stronger and more inclusive economy, enable more Australians to realise their full potential, and help address current labour market challenges. This, in turn, will help ensure that the benefits of full employment are shared fairly across our community.’

And the associated questions on page 7:

  • ‘How can we reduce the barriers to employment for some Australians? How should governments, unions, business and the broader community best coordinate efforts to achieve this?’ and
  • ‘What strategies can be used to reduce discrimination and increase awareness of the value that diversity can bring to business and the broader economy?’

And on page 11: ‘How do we navigate workforce shortages in the care economy while supporting our frontline workers?’

Many people are aware of this issue because of public debate over the past five years surrounding ‘religious freedom’, the previous Government’s proposed (but thankfully-defeated) Religious Discrimination Bill, and the discriminatory (mis)treatment of LGBTQ students, teachers and other staff under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

Many people may not be aware of how broad these exceptions are in practice, not just under the Sex Discrimination Act, but also under the Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Cth), Fair Work Act itself (undermining both its adverse action and unlawful termination protections), and the majority of state and territory anti-discrimination laws (including in my home state of NSW where the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 has the broadest religious exceptions in the country).

The effects of these exceptions are all-too-real for LGBTQ workers.

Not only can LGBTQ teachers be denied, or fired from, jobs for which they are otherwise eminently qualified, simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

But so too can LGBTQ aged care workers, nurses, doctors, social workers, disability workers and other employees across what is described in the Issues Paper as the care economy.

There are a range of serious consequences which flow from this discrimination, including:

  • For LGBTQ workers, obviously this includes being denied employment, and losing significant financial benefits, or alternatively being forced to stay closeted while in the workplace, with associated mental health harms.
  • For the LGBTQ community more broadly, this discrimination reinforces poorer health and well-being outcomes, as well as entrenching economic disadvantage.
  • For the services themselves, they are rejecting the best person for the job on the basis of criteria which has nothing whatsoever to do with their ability to do the job. Alternatively, they are forcing some employees to not bring their whole selves to work, thereby diminishing the quality of the work those employees do.
  • This also means that, for people accessing these services, they are effectively denied being served by the most qualified person for the role. A person in an aged care home deserves the best aged care worker possible, not the best cisgender-heterosexual worker. A student deserves to learn from the most qualified teacher, not the most qualified cisgender-heterosexual one. And so on. And so on. Across society.
  • It should be remembered that the vast majority of these roles are delivering what are basically public services, like education, health, aged care, or social and disability services, and in nearly all cases using public – or taxpayers’ – money to do so. That means every Australian is helping to fund this discrimination, and even more egregiously, that LGBTQ workers are being asked to subsidise their own oppression.
  • Finally, in an era of large and growing worker shortages across education, health, aged care, and social and disability services, permitting lawful discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity discourages at least some members of the LGBTQ community from considering careers in these areas – which is perhaps a rational response to the knowledge that large employers in your chosen profession may be lawfully able to refuse to hire you, or fire you, just because of who you are.

For all of these reasons, a Jobs and Skills Summit that is focused on ‘expanding employment opportunities for all Australians including the most disadvantaged’ must seriously consider the harmful impacts of special exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTQ workers simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

And I submit it should recommend that such exceptions be abolished, not just for the benefit of those LGBTQ workers, but for the benefit of people accessing publicly-funded services in education, health, aged care, and social and disability services, and the benefit of the Australian community generally.

Recommendation 2: The Jobs and Skills Summit should call for the repeal of special exceptions allowing religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTQ workers simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Thank you in advance for considering the above issues ahead of the Jobs and Skills Summit. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you require additional information.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Will Prime Minister Anthony Albanese ensure that significant issues affecting LGBTIQ workers are considered at the Jobs and Skills Summit?

NB This post is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the views of employers past or present.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:


[i] Prime Minister and Treasurer Joint Media Release, ‘Jobs and Skills Summit to be Held in September’, 11 July 2022, available at: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/jobs-and-skills-summit-be-held-september

[ii] Department of the Treasury, ‘Jobs and Skills Summit Issues Paper’, 17 August 2022, available at: https://treasury.gov.au/publication/2022-302672

[iii] Ingird Bretherton et al, ‘The Health and Well-Being of Transgender Australians: A National Community Survey’, LGBT Health Vol 8, No 1, 12 January 2021, available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/lgbt.2020.0178

[iv] See for example: Unfairness in the Fair Work Act.

[v] See: Pathetic and Antipathetic, in Equal Measure.

[vi] The Labor Party supported the inclusion of gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes in the Fair Work Act – which are the same attributes already covered under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) – but did not support amendments which would have added gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes, with the latter terminology now considered best practice, and supported by intersex community organisations including Intersex Human Rights Australia.

[vii] ALP 2021 National Platform, page 137, available at: https://alp.org.au/media/2594/2021-alp-national-platform-final-endorsed-platform.pdf

[viii] This is defined in section 4(1) of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) as:

‘sex characteristics means a person’s physical features relating to sex, including-

(a) genitalia and other sexual and reproductive parts of the person’s anatomy; and

(b) the person’s chromosomes, genes, hormones, and secondary physical features that emerge as a result of puberty.’

The best of times?

This is the second in a two-part series of articles reflecting on the recent federal election and its impact on LGBTIQ Australians, with this post focusing on what it means for the upcoming Parliamentary term. You can read the first post, looking back on the past three years, ‘The worst of times’, here.

Earlier this year, following the NSW Perrottet Liberal/National Government’s decision to reject Mark Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, I wrote that ‘Not going backwards is not the same thing as going forwards’

The same thing could just as easily be written now after the federal election on May 21 which saw the Morrison Liberal/National Government defeated.

Yes, this outcome is a massive relief for LGBTIQ Australians, who, as I wrote last weekend, have just endured the worst Commonwealth Parliamentary term for our rights in my lifetime.

And it obviously means the threats of the Coalition’s damaging and divisive Religious Discrimination Bill (or ‘Religious Freedom Bill’ in disguise), and Liberal Senator Claire Chandler’s legislation attacking trans women and girls’ participation in sport, have receded (for now).

But, just like in NSW, not going backwards on LGBTIQ rights is not the same thing as going forwards: the many changes to Commonwealth laws and policies to make our lives better which were needed on May 20 were not somehow magically introduced on May 22.

Progress still needs to be delivered. In many, many areas.

I wrote about some of those LGBTIQ law reform priorities earlier this year, here

But perhaps a better and more comprehensive outline of what needs to happen is found in the Just.Equal Australia pre-election survey of the LGBTIQ community and its priorities, which included (but was definitely not limited to): 

  • Removing current exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act that allow discrimination against LGBT people, for example, by faith-based schools, hospitals and charities
  • Improving LGBTIQA+ safety and inclusion in schools
  • Improving LGBTIQA+ access to appropriate and inclusive aged care
  • Establishing LGBTIQA+ policy groups in federal government agencies such as health, education, the federal police, justice and the Prime Minister’s department
  • Developing mechanisms to consult with all existing LGBTIQA+ organisations and fund them to properly represent their constituents
  • Developing strategies around suicide and mental health, aged-care, homelessness, Indigenous LGBTIQA+ people and family violence prevention
  • Recognising LGBTIQA+ people in the Census by asking questions about sexual orientation, gender identity and variations of sex characteristics
  • Removing the ban on sexually-active gay/bi men, and trans women, giving blood and replacing it with a policy of individual risk assessment for all potential donors
  • Medicare funding for gender transition and other gender-affirming health care, and
  • Legislative prohibition of unconsented and deferrable medical interventions on children born with innate variations of sex characteristics.

I can almost hear the reactions of the ACL, and extremist columnists in the Murdoch media, to such a list: that it represents some kind of radical and dangerous left-wing agenda. Or, to transphobic bigots like Katherine Deves, that its implementation would be a ‘Rainbow Reich’.

But is it, really? Or are these priorities actually eminently reasonable, reflecting nothing more than the aspiration to enjoy what many (although not all) Australians already take for granted?

There is nothing radical about wanting all children to learn and to grow in safe and inclusive school environments, free from discrimination on the basis of who they are.

There is nothing dangerous in suggesting that teachers and other workers should be employed on the basis of their skills and qualifications, not their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The desire to grow old with access to high-quality, safe and supportive aged care services must be a universal one.

As is the basic want for essential Medicare-funded health services to allow people to live the lives they were meant to enjoy.

And surely very few people could argue against protecting children born with innate variations of sex characteristics from deferrable medical interventions until they are old enough to consent to them themselves?

While many of the other priorities (establishing policy groups and developing strategies, providing funding for LGBTIQA+ organisations and including LGBTIQA+ people in the Census) are merely the formal mechanisms required to ensure these objectives are achieved, and maintained.

Seen in this way, the above priorities are neither radical, nor dangerous. Instead, they are both reasonable, and the bare minimum of what needs to happen.

The fact this list (and the much longer list in the Just.Equal Australia survey report itself) is so lengthy is instead a reflection of the lack of action on these issues over the past nine years, with the Abbott, Turnbull and (especially) Morrison Governments either ignoring the LGBTIQ community and our needs, or in some cases (like the safe schools debate, plebiscite and postal survey, and proposed Religious Discrimination Bill) going out of its way to make our collective lives much more difficult.

So, we know what the needs are. How likely are they to be met under the new Albanese Labor Government?

The answer to that question is both complicated, and also pretty straight-forward (which we’ll return to later).

To begin, we should acknowledge that many LGBTIQ Australians are viewing the new Government with complex emotions, including an understandable sense of caution, anxiety even.

This is due both to what many perceived to be a failure to adequately call out the toxic transphobia of Katherine Deves during the election campaign itself. As well as the decision in February to vote for the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill despite the failure of Labor’s amendment to remove the damaging statement of belief provision, and the failure of Labor to support cross-bench amendments to remove the Bill’s override of state and territory anti-discrimination protections for teachers in religious schools.

As with many other areas, the Albanese Labor Government also went to the election with what could be described as ‘small target strategy’ in relation to LGBTIQ policy.

In The Conversation, Paula Gerber noted this included commitments to: 

  • Count LGBTIQ people in the 2026 Census
  • Protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination, and
  • Increase funding for LGBTIQ+ health, mental health and family violence prevention services.

Professor Gerber also describes the much vaguer, and far less reassuring, policy to ‘amend anti-discrimination laws so that… all teachers are protected from discrimination at work (while maintaining the right of religious schools to preference people of faith in the selection of staff)’ [emphasis added]. It remains to be seen how much (unjustifiable) discrimination against LGBT teachers such a policy would continue to permit.

On a broader range of LGBTIQ policy issues, such as discrimination against LGBT workers and people accessing services by other religious organisations, Medicare funding for gender transition, and ending coercive surgeries on intersex children, the then-Opposition was largely silent.

Which means the Albanese Government’s LGBTIQ policy agenda is simultaneously far superior to that of the Government it replaced and far less than what is necessary to deliver genuine equality.

Our first challenge therefore is to push the new Government to go much, much further in its policy commitments.

The second challenge is related to the first – and that is, even if we secure additional LGBTIQ policy commitments, we will need to keep up the pressure to ensure they are actually delivered amidst what will be an incredibly packed legislative agenda.

After all, it is not just LGBTIQ issues on which the previous Government held back progress. In this term of Parliament alone, the Albanese Government will need to deliver on real climate change commitments, creating a federal independent commission against corruption, implementing all of the Respect@Work recommendations, and holding a referendum to enshrine a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution as part of the Uluru Statement from the Heart (and plenty more besides, such as dealing with the energy and cost of living crises).

It will take sustained advocacy from the LGBTIQ community to ensure our issues are not forgotten, or put in the ‘second term basket’ (with no guarantee they will ever be dealt with).

The third challenge is a familiar one – the return of a Religious Discrimination Bill, which incoming Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has confirmed will come before Parliament at some point this term.

Now, I know many people will be triggered simply by hearing that three-word legislative title alone, but we should remember that prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religious belief is not a negative thing in and of itself (with most states and territories already doing so, including jurisdictions with strong LGBTI anti-discrimination protections like Tasmania, the ACT and, following recent reforms, Victoria).

But we will also need to be prepared to push back, firmly, against any provisions which go beyond prohibiting discrimination on the basis of belief to instead entrench the ability of religious individuals and organisations to discriminate against women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths (which were the problematic features of the Morrison Bill).

The good news is the make-up of the new Parliament looks to be conducive to meeting these challenges.

That includes the presence of people who I would consider allies to the LGBTIQ community inside the Government itself, including in key portfolios (starting with Mark Dreyfus himself, who was Attorney-General under the last Labor Government when the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was passed).

And of course it includes the expanded Parliamentary presence of the Australian Greens, now with four seats in the House of Representatives (up from one) and 12 in the Senate (up from nine).

Throughout the last term, not just on the Religious Discrimination Bill but on other issues like amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) to explicitly protect trans, gender diverse and intersex workers against discrimination, the Greens consistently demonstrated their support for LGBTIQ law reform (which is a testament to the great work of their then-spokesperson for LGBTIQA+ issues, Senator Janet Rice – new spokesperson Stephen Bates has big shoes to fill).

The independent cross-bench has also grown significantly too. We already had Helen Haines, Rebekha Sharkie, Zali Steggall, and Andrew Wilkie, all of whom voted to support our community throughout the Religious Discrimination Bill debate.

They have been joined by six new so-called ‘Teal’ MPs. While they are obviously yet to have a voting record against which we can judge them, they all represent electorates which voted strongly in favour of marriage equality:

  • Kate Chaney in Curtin (72.2% Yes)
  • Zoe Daniel in Goldstein (76.3%)
  • Monique Ryan in Kooyong (73.7%)
  • Sophie Scamps in Mackellar (68%)
  • Kylea Tink in North Sydney (71.8%), and
  • Allegra Spender in Wentworth (80.8%).

Given those results, if any of them choose to vote against LGBTIQ equality this term, they could find themselves exiting the Parliament at the next poll.

The Senate also looks promising, with the cross-bench including new Senator for the ACT David Pocock (who was an early and passionate supporter of marriage equality), and now two members of the Jacquie Lambie Network (noting that Lambie herself had been a strong advocate against the Religious Discrimination Bill, including seeking to protect Tasmania’s best practice anti-discrimination laws from Commonwealth override).

Overall, then, while there are challenges ahead in terms of making long-overdue progress on LGBTIQ equality, and navigating how and when to advance particular issues might sometimes be complex, there is also plenty of opportunity, if only we can take advantage of it.

Or, in the more straight-forward words of my National Party-voting parents on the night after the election (yes, we have some interesting discussions about politics): ‘There might never be a better election outcome to achieve the changes you have been campaigning on for so long.’

I agree, and will be doing my best to make sure they happen.

Because LGBT students in religious schools have already waited long enough.

LGBT teachers and other workers, too.

Trans and gender diverse people have waited long enough to have access to Medicare-funded gender-affirming healthcare, including transition.

And children born with innate variations of sex characteristics have waited far, far too long to have their fundamental rights to bodily autonomy protected.

The last term of Commonwealth Parliament truly was the worst of times. There is absolutely no guarantee the current term of Parliament will be the best. But there’s also no reason why it can’t be. So let’s get to work.

NB This post is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the views of employers past or present.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on election night. There is plenty of work to do to ensure it is ‘A Better Future’ for LGBTIQ Australians.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

The worst of times

As the dust settles on the recent federal election, and the new Albanese Labor Government settles into office, I wanted to take this short(ish) opportunity to reflect on the term of Parliament just ended, and especially its impact on LGBTIQ Australians.

To the surprise of few readers of this blog, the reflection of the past three years in the rear-view mirror (now thankfully receding into the distance) is far from pretty. Indeed, in my opinion, the 2019-2022 term of the Morrison Liberal/National Government was the worst for LGBTIQ people in my lifetime, by some margin.

There are many reasons for arriving at this conclusion, chief among them the Religious Discrimination Bill, which came to dominate the Morrison Government’s legislative agenda, especially in its dying days.

Remember, this was a law that sought to legally protect offensive, humiliating, insulting and ridiculing comments against women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths. By over-riding existing state and territory anti-discrimination laws, it also procedurally denied access to justice for victims of discrimination.

The Coalition’s Religious Discrimination Bill featured the broadest special privileges allowing religious organisations to discriminate against employees and people accessing their services of any anti-discrimination law in Australia. 

If passed, it could have entrenched existing discrimination against LGBT students ‘under the guise of religious views’ – while it definitely would have permitted new forms of discrimination against LGBT teachers by over-riding states and territories that had already protected them.

For more on the problems of the Religious Discrimination Bill, read: Why the Religious Discrimination Bill must be rejected (in 1,000 words or less) 

And even though LGBT people were obviously not the only targets of what I would describe as legislated hatred, I don’t think anyone would deny that denying the rights of LGBT Australians was a primary motivator both for the Morrison Government itself, and for the religious fundamentalists who supported the Bill.

But the Religious Discrimination Bill was by no means the only attack on LGBTIQ people by the Morrison Government.

In the final 12 months alone, we saw all bar six Liberal and National Party Senators vote for a One Nation motion calling for an end to gender-affirming and supporting health care for trans children and teenagers (in June 2021).

In September, the Coalition also rejected straight-forward amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) which would have seen trans, gender diverse and intersex workers protected on exactly the same basis as others, including lesbian, gay and bisexual workers (for more, see: Pathetic, and antipathetic, in equal measure).

In February 2022, on the very day that the Religious Discrimination Bill was finally abandoned, Tasmanian Liberal Senator Claire Chandler introduced legislation seeking to ban trans women and girls from participating in sport. Despite being a private member’s bill, it was later explicitly and repeatedly supported by Morrison himself, and no doubt would have been a priority for his Government had they been re-elected.

And of course the election campaign itself was marred by the toxic transphobia of candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves, hand-picked by Morrison himself in a transparent effort to invent a culture war and win the votes of bigots (for more, see: Ten months of transphobia). 

Then there was the issue of LGBT students in religious schools, a topic about which the Morrison Government continually found new ways to disappoint, ultimately abandoning some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

Morrison had promised way back in October 2018 to protect LGBT kids before the end of that year – a commitment he spent the following three and a half years running away from (for more, see: Scott Morrison’s Broken Promise to Protect LGBT Students is Now Three Years Old). By the time he was booted from office, his broken promise to end discrimination against LGBT students was 1,318 days old (and yes, I was counting).

The appalling treatment of LGBT kids during the Religious Discrimination Bill debate in February demonstrates just how little he, and his Ministers, cared about this group. Not only did Morrison’s proposed amendments only seek to prohibit expulsion – which would have allowed religious schools to continue to mistreat students in 1,001 other ways, from differential treatment and exclusion, through to discipline, detention, suspension and even asking them to leave).

But the calculated choice to exclude trans and non-binary children from any and all protection whatsoever (and therefore only to prohibit the technical expulsion of lesbian, gay and bisexual kids), was a wholly-prejudiced policy so heinous it can never be forgiven, and that includes anyone who voted for it.

The mistreatment of LGBT students also neatly illustrates why the last term of Parliament was truly the worst of times because, as much as what made the past three years horrific were the constant attacks on our community, just as damaging in the long run was the Morrison Government’s failure to take action to address long-standing human rights abuses against LGBTIQ Australians.

Not least of which are coercive surgeries and other non-consenting medical interventions on children born with innate variations of sex characteristics (otherwise known as intersex children).

Not only did the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments successively fail to implement any of the recommendations of the ground-breaking Senate Inquiry into this issue from October 2013 – almost nine years ago – but, as far as I am aware, they also didn’t even acknowledge, let alone respond to, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Report from October 2021 either (‘Ensuring health and bodily integrity: Protecting the human rights of people born with variations in sex characteristics in the context of medical interventions’).

Now, as someone who is in their mid-40s, I’m old enough to recognise that the last term of Parliament is not the only three-year period which has been challenging for LGBTIQ Australians.

Indeed, I suspect readers are probably thinking of two other terms which were also brutal – the 2001-2004 term of the Howard Government during which the marriage ban was originally passed, and the 2016-2019 term of the Turnbull/Morrison Government, and especially the plebiscite debate and then postal survey.

But I would argue that neither was as relentlessly awful as the three years just concluded.

In terms of Howard, it was really only the final six months of the 2001-2004 term during which he sought to use same-sex marriage (as it was then called) as a wedge against the Labor Opposition – the first two and a half years were awful for other reasons (especially in the (mis)treatment of First Nations people, and people seeking asylum) but did not specifically target LGBTIQ Australians in the same way as the Morrison Government.

And in terms of the 2016-2019 term of the Turnbull (and later Morrison) Government, I absolutely acknowledge that the debate about the plebiscite, in the last half of 2016, and then the postal survey (which, let’s not forget, was the idea of now-Opposition Leader Peter Dutton) in the last half of 2017, were completely unnecessary, totally divisive and ultimately damaging for far too many LGBTIQ people.

At the same time, it was nevertheless a debate about improving the legal recognition of LGBTIQ relationships, and the Australian people eventually delivered marriage equality, which was a welcome and long-overdue step forward (no thanks to the Liberal Party, who must never be allowed to claim credit for this outcome – see: Liberals Claiming Credit for Marriage Equality Can Get in the Bin).

In contrast, the debate around the Religious Discrimination Bill concerned a law that sought to strip existing rights away from LGBT people, including protections against discrimination, and the ability to go about our day-to-day lives without being subjected to offensive, humiliating, insulting and ridiculing comments simply because of who we are.

The Religious Discrimination Bill debate also dragged on far longer than the plebiscite/postal survey – with the first exposure draft released in August 2019 (followed by a second in December of that year), and the Bill not stopped until February 2022 (30 months later).

I should at least acknowledge two additional contextual factors which help to explain just why the past three years have been so rough – although neither reduces the culpability of the Morrison Government for its actions.

The first is that there was obviously a cumulative effect of the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government’s homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination. With the safe schools debate and decision to de-fund it occurring in the first term, and the plebiscite debate and postal survey (plus religious freedom review) in the second, the LGBTIQ community was already worn down by seemingly continuous debates about our lives.

Although, as the Treasurer who allocated funding for the plebiscite and then postal survey, Scott Morrison is responsible for a significant share of that accumulated stress.

The second is there is no doubt the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic since early 2020 has exacerbated the harms caused by the Morrison Government’s attacks on our community, especially because it left us isolated and alone in our homes when we needed each other for support and reinforcement to fight back against the Religious Discrimination Bill.

But once again, that context does nothing to exculpate the outgoing Government – indeed, the fact they were willing to push ahead with this divisive legislation, during bushfires, and floods, and a global pandemic, and instead of doing anything to alleviate climate change, only renders them more guilty.

There is one last question which needs to be addressed, and that is: why does writing this down matter? Especially post-election?

After all, the Morrison Government has been defeated. The country has (thankfully) moved on. While for the LGBTIQ community, we already know the past three years were the worst of times, because we endured them, and for many have the scars to prove it.

To which I say there are still (at least) two reasons for publishing this article.

The first is to ensure the Coalition’s homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination is properly recorded.

This is especially important as the Liberal Party inevitably tries to rewrite the history of the recent past, to present some kind of softer, kinder, gentler image to the electorate. But there was nothing soft, or kind, or gentle, about 2019, 2020, 2021, and early 2022 for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australians.

The second is because I think it helps to explain how many of us are feeling, right now. Yes, there is a sense of relief the attacks on us have ended (for now), but that welcome feeling doesn’t even begin to outweigh the sheer exhaustion from fighting constant battles over the last three, or six, or nine, years.

The tiredness in our collective bones.

On a personal level, and as an advocate with more than two decades experience, I will willingly concede the past three years have been the toughest of them all. 

The end of 2021, when two years of a global pandemic was followed by the introduction of the final Religious Discrimination Bill in late November, was particularly rough. It is definitely no coincidence that, in late December, exactly three days after lodging our submissions to both Parliamentary inquiries into the Bill, I came down with shingles (the working title for this post was actually ‘Scott Morrison’s Homophobia Gave Me Shingles’ but I assumed, probably correctly, nobody would click on that).

My body was saying, loudly and clearly, enough. Especially as illness ruined the planned summer break, preventing me from seeing my parents in Queensland.

Of course, the Religious Discrimination Bill debate continued, relentless, rolling on into Committee hearings in early January and Parliamentary debate in early February. But so did my need to stand up for my community, and try to see it defeated. Which we did. Collectively. But it came with a significant cost.

For me, that was burnout worse than anything I have experienced before, and – being completely honest – which I’ve only just recovered from (and which helps to explain the lack of recent posts).

Anyway, the point of this is not to say ‘woe is me’ (I’m fine, now). But it is to acknowledge there are a lot of people still feeling pretty bruised and battered by the past three years. And so we should try to show the care towards each other that the Morrison Government didn’t.

Together, we saw off the Religious Discrimination Bill. Together, we can put the worst of times behind us.

NB This post is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the views of employers past or present.

Scott Morrison’s defeat ended the worst Commonwealth Parliamentary term for LGBTIQ rights in my lifetime.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

5 things we learned from the Senate Hearings into the Religious Discrimination Bill

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee has been conducting an inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 over summer.

As part of that inquiry, it held two days of public hearings, on Thursday 20 and Friday 21 January, with a range of witnesses from religious organisations, civil society, business, legal groups, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Attorney-General’s Department.

Here are five things we learned from those hearings, ahead of the Committee’s final report, which is due to be tabled this afternoon (Friday 4 February), prior to debate on the Bill resuming in the House of Representatives next Tuesday (8 February).

  1. Citipointe’s conduct is not an outlier – in fact, it’s exactly the point

By now, most people will be familiar with the situation at Citipointe Christian College in Brisbane, which this time last week, issued a new enrolment contract seeking to discriminate against LGBT students generally, and trans and gender diverse students in particular.

What is also important to note is the way in which they sought to justify this discrimination. Clause 26 of their contract in particular tries to dress it up as discrimination on the basis of religious belief about gender identity, rather than on the basis of gender identity itself:

‘The Parents acknowledge and accept that, should I/we not share the College’s commitment to fostering these fundamental doctrinal precepts, this will constitute a serious departure from the religious precepts upon which Citipointe Christian College is based and will afford Citipointe Christian College the right to exclude a student from the College who no longer adheres to the College’s doctrinal precepts including those as to biological sex, which constitute an important tenet of the College’s Christian religion (emphasis added).’

Now, it is highly likely that Citipointe’s actions would be unlawful under the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991, not just because that legislation does not allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of gender identity, at all, but also because neither does it allow them to discriminate against students on the basis of religious belief beyond the point of initial enrolment.

Therefore, even if the school was successful in arguing this was indeed discrimination on the ground of religious belief about gender identity, it still couldn’t lawfully discriminate against existing trans and gender diverse kids.

Unfortunately, the same safeguard does not exist in the Religious Discrimination Bill, which allows religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of religious belief not just at the point of enrolment, but throughout their education.

And this right will exist, even if Liberal moderates are successful in amending the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to remove specific exceptions allowing religious schools to discriminate under that law.

Which means, if the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed in its current form, religious schools will continue to discriminate against LGBT students, ‘under the guise of religious views’, rather than sexual orientation and gender identity.

But the outcome will still be the same: LGBT kids mistreated because of who they are.

Above all, the attempted actions by Citipointe on this issue are not an outlier – in fact, multiple religious organisations at the Senate hearings told us this is what they would do.

For example, there was this exchange involving Mr Mark Spencer, Director of Public Policy, Christian Schools Australia:

Senator Andrew Bragg (Liberal): Finally – I’m just conscious of time – on the issue of children in schools, I understand that there was some discussion earlier about the different clauses that may or may not be considered by this parliament. My question is really more on the principle here, which is: do you want to have a right in the law to expel gay kids?

Mr Spencer: Again, you’re making a sweeping statement there that needs a bit more nuance. For a start, you talk about gay kids. Are you talking about same-sex attracted kids who might be committed to living a biblical authentic life? Are you talking about young people who may be, by their behaviour, not meeting the conduct standards of the school? There are a whole range of difference scenarios in there that you need to be unpacking and considering. The short answer is: no, no child has been, and no child do we want to sack simply because they might be same-sex attracted.

Senator Bragg: So your answer is no?

Mr Spencer: The answer is: no child do we want to expel simply because they’re same-sex attracted (emphasis added).

Translation: Christian Schools Australia reserve the right to discriminate against, and even expel, any gay student who is not ‘committed to living a biblical authentic life’. Which means affirming statements like ‘homosexuality is intrinsically disordered’, and pledging to be celibate for life.

In other words (or my words in fact): If a gay kid hates themself enough, they can stay. But if they do not believe who they are is inherently wrong, they can be lawfully mistreated.

Or this exchange with Right Reverend Dr Micheal Stead, Bishop of South Sydney, Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney:

Senator Bragg: I guess the question is: should you be allowed to discriminate against someone based on their sexual preference if they are teaching in accordance with the ethos of the school?

Bishop Stead: No – sorry, I may have misunderstood your question. None of the religious bodies are arguing for the right to discriminate on the basis of sexuality or gender. What we’re arguing for is the right to be able to discriminate on the basis of religious belief. If it happens that somebody’s religious belief also reflects their sexuality or their gender in a way which is inconsistent with the belief of the organisation-

Bishop Stead: Yes. The religious institutions are not seeking the right to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, gender or any of the other protected attributes-

Senator Deb O’Neill (ALP): Race, disability, age-

Bishop Stead: Thank you. They’re looking for the right to, in the wrong language, ‘discriminate on the basis of religion’. We would say ‘to preference on the basis of religion’ – to act in accordance with their religious belief. It’s only at the point at which somebody’s religious belief has changed to reflect their sexuality or gender that makes it inconsistent with the school that we’re into this area of intersectionality (emphasis added).

Again, they might say it’s discrimination on the basis of religious belief (or ‘preferencing’, to use their term), but it’s clear that in practice LGBT students and teachers will be the victims.

Or this exchange with Mrs Moira Deeming, Researcher, Church and Nation Committee, Presbyterian Church of Victoria:

Mrs Deeming: There are gay Christians and teachers – I am a teacher – who are Christians first and the way that they deal with whatever their sexuality feels like is expressed in a Christian manner. It’s about religious freedom and it’s about religious association. It’s not about finding out if someone is gay and cutting them out. It’s about working out: are you like minded with us? If you are like minded, join with us. Then there shouldn’t be an issue.

Senator Bragg: That wasn’t my question, but I know I am out of time. On notice, can you come back with exactly what your position is because, frankly, it’s a bit murky.

Mrs Deeming: Would you mind restating your question clearly just one more time?

Senator Bragg: The question is: do you want to be able to discriminate based on sexual orientation or preference in the hiring of your staff?

Mrs Deeming: That’s a corollary to preferencing based on religious belief. We’re not targeting anybody- (emphasis added)

All three witnesses appear to be saying: we reserve the right to discriminate against LGBT people, we’ll just call it discrimination on the basis of religious belief.

Which is exactly what Citipointe Christian College was trying to do with its contract. Fortunately, that was unlawful because of the much stronger anti-discrimination laws in Queensland.

But, discrimination protections for students and teachers under the Religious Discrimination Bill are much, much weaker, because of the excessive and extreme exceptions provided to religious organisations under this legislation, allowing them to lawfully discriminate.

As a result, there will be plenty more Citipointes around the country in future. And that’s not ‘murky’, it’s perfectly clear.

2. Workers from minority faiths are left unprotected by the Bill

The excessive and extreme religious exceptions contained in the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 don’t just affect LGBT people.

In fact, one of the groups who stand to lose the most are workers from minority faiths. This is because large, usually-Christian, publicly-funded service delivery organisations – including hospitals, aged care facilities, accommodation providers and disability service providers – will be able to lawfully discriminate on the basis of religious belief in employment. 

That means hiring (and firing), and providing (or denying) training, promotion, and other benefits, on the basis of faith rather than ability. Workers who are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic and atheist can be treated less favourably than Christians, just because of who they are.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Mr Surinder Jain, National Vice President of the Hindu Council of Australia, explaining the Bill’s impact on his community:

‘We have a lot of Hindus who work in aged-care services and disability services, predominantly being run by religious organisations. We have doctors working in private hospitals. We have IT people. Their jobs would be questionable. There is another category of people who are new migrants, who come here and who are desperately looking for a job and they find a job in a religious organisation. There is unsaid pressure on them that they should adapt to the religion of the organisation that they are in. This way the religious freedom [Bill] would actually be taking away their freedom of ideology and religion in declaring their faith and practising their faith and in not being pressured into adopting another faith.’

In short, the Religious Discrimination Bill privileges larger faiths at the expense of smaller ones, and especially employees of the latter.

3. A ‘mask off’ moment revealed what the statement of belief provision is really about

Through much of the hearings, and especially during the appearance by the Attorney-General’s Department on the Friday afternoon, defenders of the Bill attempted to downplay the impact of the unprecedented statement of belief override of all other Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws that protects religiously-motivated comments that offend, humiliate, insult and ridicule others.

They tried to make it seem like it was all very reasonable, rather than an extraordinary legal privilege to allow people to make demeaning and derogatory comments about women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths in all areas of public life.

Well, not all of them – one witness on the Thursday afternoon let the ‘reasonable’ mask slip, confirming the statement of belief provision will provide a platform for transphobia: Mrs Moira Deeming, Researcher, Church and Nation Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria.

I’ll reproduce the relevant part of the transcript below, but for context, remember that Greens Senator Janet Rice’s late wife was a trans woman:

Senator Janet Rice (Greens): We’re talking about, particularly, clauses 11 and 12 of this bill and, particularly, the statements of belief. The Australian Human Rights Commission say that statements of belief that will be legal under this legislation, which will override state and territory legislation, are currently considered discrimination, and they will no longer be considered discrimination.

Mrs Deeming: Multipartisan support – let’s get a controversial statement. ‘Trans women are men’. Would you consider that, in and of itself, a discriminatory statement that should never be uttered?

Senator Rice: If that were being stated in a workplace to a trans woman, absolutely.

Senator Rice: Do you believe that’s not discrimination?

Mrs Deeming: I just think it’s a statement of belief, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a religious belief.

Senator Rice: And, if it’s offensive to that trans woman, you that it’s acceptable?

Mrs Deeming: I think-

Senator Rice: It’s deeply offensive and potentially causing that trans woman to have severe mental health illness… to not be accepted in their gender identity.

Chair: Senator Rice, I’m just going to ask you to pause here.

Senator Louise Pratt (ALP): But, in the same workplace, someone won’t have the right to call the person who said that a bigot.

Chair: Senator Pratt, I’m just going to ask you to pause as well. Senator Rice has put a question to Mrs Deeming. Mrs Deeming, please answer the question. I don’t want any witness being interrupted, please.

Mrs Deeming: I pose that question because it’s obviously the most controversial one at the moment. It’s not specifically a religious view that biological sex cannot be altered. It’s not. There are many, many people – lesbians, in fact, and homosexual men and people from across the political spectrum, people in every single party here – that would agree with the statement that trans women are, by definition, male. They wouldn’t be making it on the basis of hate. What I’m interested her is finding out whether you’re going to try and take statements like that and class them as inherently harmful, where no offence was intended. It’s just a difference of belief. It’s a belief we don’t subscribe to.

Senator Rice: A difference of belief?… In that sort of instance, in a workplace, if that statement has been given to a young person who is attempting to affirm their gender, it leads to severe mental unwellness and severe impact on them – not being able to affirm their gender. It leads to suicidal ideation. It leads to potential suicide. That is the reality for trans and gender diverse people. So I put it to you that that is, in and of itself, a discriminatory and hateful statement if it is being made to those people.

Mrs Deeming: And I put it to you that it is psychologically abusive to coerce students and other people to say things that they do not believe, especially about the nature of biological-

*****

There’s a lot to take in there obviously, but some things stand out:

  • Deeming pro-actively chose to raise the statement ‘trans women are men’ – during an exchange with a Senator whose late wife was a trans woman
  • She argued that it’s ‘just a statement of belief’, and therefore should be legally protected
  • She did not agree with Rice’s comments about the harm caused by such statements to trans and gender diverse people
  • Instead, Deeming claimed it is ‘psychologically abusive’ to require students and other people to effectively treat trans and gender diverse people with respect.

In this exchange, Deeming confirmed that the statement of belief provision is not about providing protection for people who simply state ‘marriage is between a man and a woman’ – it is instead really about allowing people to make deeply transphobic comments to others, even to fellow employees in the workplace who are simply trying to do their job.

4. ‘The limit does not exist’ to the religious freedom agenda

There was another development over the course of the hearings which reveals a helluva lot about the ever-growing demands of the ‘religious freedom’ movement – and how it will continue to strip away the rights of others, with little care for the consequences it creates.

This relates to proposals to redraft clause 12 of the Bill – which is the ‘statement of belief’ provision – ostensibly to ensure it is constitutional. These changes were put forward by Professor Nicholas Aroney, who had previously served as a member of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review (which helped to create the mess we are now in).

Anyway, from Mr Aroney’s submission to the Committee:

‘To maintain this policy objective while addressing any doubts about the effectiveness of clause 12 under section 109 of the Constitution it would be sufficient to amend the clause so that it reads:

(1) A statement of belief, in and of itself, does not constitute discrimination for the purposes of this Act.

(2) Notwithstanding any of the following State of Territory laws, it is not unlawful to make a statement of belief, in and of itself:’

The redrafted amendment then lists all four of the Commonwealth anti-discrimination Acts (Racial, Sex, Disability and Age), and each of the primary state and territory anti-discrimination laws (such as the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977).

Now, I am not a constitutional lawyer, so I can’t tell you whether it has made the provision more, or less, constitutional.

However, I am an expert on the Religious Discrimination Bill and I can tell you that with this drafting Mr Aroney has made sure the ‘statement of belief’ clause would explicitly override section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).

As well as all state and territory anti-vilification provisions found in their primary Acts (like the prohibitions on racial, homosexual, transgender and HIV/AIDS vilification in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977).

This is because his version of clause 12 overrides all parts of these laws (by using the general phrase ‘it is not unlawful’), whereas even the current version of the Religious Discrimination Bill applies to discrimination only (it uses the phrase ‘does not constitute discrimination’ instead).

I can’t speak for Mr Aroney, so I don’t know whether this drafting is deliberate – and he meant to ensure religiously-motivated comments that breach laws like s18C should be protected – or whether it is simply careless.

But even if it was the latter, I think it is symptomatic of the overall ‘religious freedom’ agenda – and that is it is only ever concerned with securing more, and more, and more, rights for religious fundamentalists, like the right to be a bigot towards women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths.

And rarely, if ever, do religious freedom advocates bother to step back to consider what is being stripped away from other groups in society. Such as, in this instance, racial minorities.

My view is reinforced by the fact, on Thursday 20 January, multiple witnesses, from a variety of different religious organisations, were asked whether they supported Mr Aroney’s changes. Those that offered their support for his drafting include:

  • Mr John Steenhof, Principal Lawyer, Human Rights Law Alliance
  • Mr Mark Sneddon, Executive Director, Institute for Civil Society
  • Professor Patrick Parkinson, Director, Freedom for Faith
  • Right Reverend Dr Michael Stead, Bishop of South Sydney, Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney
  • Reverend Christopher Duke, Convener, Church and Nation Committee, Presbyterian Church of Victoria
  • Pastor Michael Worker, General Secretary and Director, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia, and
  • Pastor Mark Llewellyn Edwards, Australian Christian Churches.

Again, I have no idea if they each consciously support overriding s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), and other state and territory anti-vilification laws. But they absolutely supported amendments that have this practical effect. And at the very least it seems nobody even stopped to think about who was going to lose out as a result.

That is the insatiable religious freedom agenda in action. And you had best believe that, even if the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed, it will not stop eating away at the rights of others to live their lives free from discrimination.

5. Government Senators still haven’t grasped the full dangers of the Religious Discrimination Bill

It is fair to describe the Religious Discrimination Bills as complex, particularly because it contains a number of unique provisions that do things no other Australian anti-discrimination law has ever done before (like clauses 11 and 12, which specifically override, and undermine, anti-discrimination protections in other jurisdictions).

Nevertheless, it was disheartening when, on the final afternoon of two Senate hearings – which followed another three days of hearings into the Bill by the Joint Committee on Human Rights – the Chair of the Committee (Senator Sarah Henderson), was involved in the following exchanges, demonstrating she still hadn’t fully understood one of the Bill’s main problems:

Chair: Do you have to believe that it’s part of the doctrines and tenets of that religion? There has got to be a factual basis for that. You can’t just subjectively believe that.

Mr Walter [from the Attorney-General’s Department]: It’s a test of whether the individual believes it or not…

Chair: Does it have to be genuinely held in relation to you’ve got to factually be able to demonstrate that what you hold as your genuine belief reflect the doctrines and tenets of that religion? Your so-called relationship with God can’t be separated from, or not connected with, the doctrines and tenets of that religion. In other words, you can’t just make something up.

Senator Rice: You can. If you genuinely believe that your religion says so, you can.

Chair: That’s what I’m seeking to clarify. There’s been a genuine concern that many have expressed during these two days of hearings.

Mr Walter: Yes. What it doesn’t do is it doesn’t apply an objective text of saying, for example, ‘I believe X’…

Chair: Just to give you an example, could someone who is pro-euthanasia and has made some comments in relation to that issue genuinely consider that such a position is in accordance with the doctrines and tenets of Catholicism, for instance? The concern is that when you start to rely on the individual’s-

Senator Rice: It’s how it’s drafted.

Chair: genuine belief, which might not be connected in any way with the doctrine or tenet of that particular religion, isn’t there an issue with an objective test not applying?

Mr Walter: In that particular example, in theory, yes. However, that person needs to establish that they genuinely believe that. You’re going to be looking for a pattern of evidence that they’ve held that belief for a long time or they’ve expressed it in many ways-

Chair: Surely that doesn’t make sense, because that’s not consistent with the Catholic doctrine. How can they genuinely believe that that’s part of a tenet of that faith when it clearly, on its face, does not accord with the doctrines or tenets of Catholicism? How could that-

Senator O’Neill (ALP): That’s before we get to the religions that are new and don’t have such a body of evidence.

Senator Rice: Exactly.

Chair: That’s what makes this very complicated. Is there not a difficulty because there’s not an objective text; it’s a subjective test?

*****

At the very end, Senator Henderson was finally at least starting to ask the right question – because yes, there is a massive difficulty in that the definition of statement of belief is entirely subjective (with clause 5 of the Bill stating that only the person making the statement needs to ‘genuinely consider’ it to be in accordance with the religion).

That’s why this provision will protect an almost unlimited array of fringe beliefs – including white supremacist speech, as long as the person making it ‘genuinely considers’ it relates to their particularly-warped views of Christianity. It would not matter if every single church in Australia disagreed with them.

And the Attorney-General’s Department’s response – You’re going to be looking for a pattern of evidence that they’ve held that belief for a long time or they’ve expressed it in many ways – only makes things worse.

Apparently, if you can show you’ve made white supremacist comments, dressed up as religious belief, many times before, then it makes it more likely your comments will be protected from discrimination claims under Commonwealth, state and territory law.

The statement of belief provision is a mess. The whole Religious Discrimination Bill is a mess. And it must be rejected.

Conclusion

The above are just five of the issues which arose during the two days of hearings by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee into the Religious Discrimination Bill. There were many more I could have chosen to highlight here.

Despite this, based on media reports this morning, it seems likely that both Liberal and Labor Senators will recommend that the legislation be passed.

Which gives us just a matter of days to help stop this extreme, radical and unprecedented assault on the human rights of everyday Australians.

The best thing you can do at this point is to:

And if you need any further convincing of why this legislation should be defeated, try this: Why the Religious Discrimination Bill must be rejected (in 1,000 words or less).

The Religious Discrimination Bill might have been introduced by PM Scott Morrison, but it is just as big a test for Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese: will he support legislation that takes away rights from women, LGBT people, people with disability and people from minority faiths?

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

[NB This article is written in a personal capacity and does not represent the views of employers, past or present.]

LGBTIQ Law Reform Priorities for 2022

The next 12 months will be important in the history of LGBTIQ law reform in Australia.

There is the genuine possibility of long-overdue progress finally being made on key LGBTIQ human rights issues, at least in some jurisdictions.

At the same time, there is a real risk rights will be stripped away from our community, under Commonwealth law, in NSW and potentially elsewhere.

This post discusses five LGBTIQ law reform issues which, in my view, must be high priorities in 2022.

Please note before we start that a) they are *not* listed in order of priority and b) this list is by no means exhaustive – there is still a long way to go on the road to genuine legal and substantive equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australians.

  1. Stopping the Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Bill

The Morrison Government introduced the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 into Commonwealth Parliament at the end of last year, and will attempt to pass it before the federal election in May.

It must be stopped before it inflicts significant harm on women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths, among many other members of the Australian community.

The Bill takes away existing protections under all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, including the best practice Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998, in order to allow offensive, humiliating, insulting and ridiculing comments, as long as they are motivated by religious belief.

This will obviously include legal protection for a wide range of demeaning and derogatory speech that is homophobic, biphobic and transphobic.

The Bill also introduces ‘religious exceptions’ that are far broader than any other Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination law, both in the excessive scope of the organisations covered, and by adopting a test to determine whether these organisations are allowed to discriminate that is much, much more lenient than any other law.

The people at most risk are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist employees of publicly-funded religious schools, hospitals, aged care facilities, housing and disability service providers.

However, these extraordinary exceptions will also be used to discriminate against LGBT students and teachers in religious schools. This discrimination will be done ‘under the guise of religious views’ – on the basis of a student’s or teacher’s religious beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity, rather than on those attributes directly – but the outcome is still the same: LGBT kids and workers being legally discriminated against.

To find out more about the serious threat posed by the Religious Discrimination Bill, and some simple actions you can take to help stop it, check out: Why the Religious Discrimination Bill must be rejected (in 1000 words or less).

2. Ending coercive surgeries on intersex children

In my view, the worst human rights violations currently occurring against any part of the Australian LGBTIQ community are coercive surgeries and other non-consensual medical interventions on children born with variations in sex characteristics.

There is no justification for the ongoing contravention of the right to bodily integrity for intersex children.

Nor is there any excuse for the fact that, as at February 2022, no Australian Government has legislated to ban these human rights abuses. Especially when ending these practices was first recommended by a bi-partisan Senate Committee way back in October 2013.

Thankfully, 2022 might be the year progress is finally achieved, with the ACT Government committing to introduce legislation in the first half of the year. The Victorian Government has also promised to end these practices, although it is unclear whether they will take action before the state election in November 2022 (and would be incredibly disappointing if they didn’t).

There have been reports in other jurisdictions, including a 2020 Tasmanian Law Reform Institute Inquiry report, and a 2021 report from the Australian Human Rights Commission. But, really, the time for reports is over. It’s time for all states and territories, as well as the Commonwealth Government, to take concrete steps to end these human rights violations.

To stay up to date, follow Intersex Human Rights Australia on twitter and facebook and check out their website where you can donate if you have the capacity.

3. Removing barriers to identity documents for trans and gender diverse people

In 2022, there are still two Australian jurisdictions that require transgender people to have genital surgery in order to access birth certificates and other identity documents which reflect their gender identity: New South Wales and Queensland.

One other jurisdiction, Western Australia, requires transgender people to have physical medical treatments before updating their identity documents.

This situation is simply not good enough.

Trans and gender diverse people must be allowed to update their birth certificates on the basis of self-identification alone, without the need for surgery or other physical medical treatments, and without the need for doctors or other medical gate-keepers like counsellors or psychologists to ‘approve’ their identity.

And obviously all jurisdictions must provide recognition for gender identities beyond the binaries of male and female.

In good news, the Queensland Government has promised to take action on this issue early this year. While the Western Australian Government is sitting on a 2018 WA Law Reform Commission report which recommended sweeping changes to their laws.

Meanwhile in NSW? Nothing. No signs of progress. At all. Which will be incredibly embarrassing in February and March 2023, as Sydney plays host to World Pride, with what will likely be the worst birth certificate laws in the country.

For more on this subject, see: Did you know? Trans people in NSW and Queensland still require surgery to update their birth certificates.

4. Stopping Mark Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill

NSW is also the site of one of the worst attacks on LGBTI rights in Australia this century: Mark Latham’s Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020.

This legislation would effectively erase trans and gender diverse children from classrooms and schoolyards across the state. Teachers and principals would be liable to be dismissed simply for acknowledging the existence of trans and gender diverse people, while the kids themselves would be left completely on their own, exposed to bullying, and without the life-saving support of school counsellors.

Other LGBT students would also suffer, with the Bill including a provision based on the infamous section 28 from Thatcher-era Britain, which harmed a generation of LGBT kids before being abandoned two decades ago. And there’s an offensive and stigmatising definition of intersex in the Bill, too.

A Committee chaired by Mark Latham himself recommended core parts of the Bill be implemented as policy in NSW (with other recommendations going even further, such as banning trans girls from using bathrooms matching their gender identity). Disappointingly, all three Coalition MPs, and one of the two Labor MPs, on that Committee, supported these recommendations.

The NSW Government, and new(ish) Premier Dominic Perrottet, must respond to this Committee report by 7 March (ie the Monday after Mardi Gras). There is a very real risk NSW will introduce changes this year that would not look out of place in Republican-heartland USA. This disgusting transphobic attack on vulnerable kids must be resisted.

For more on this subject, see: I Stand with Trans Kids, and Against Mark Latham.

5. Fixing Australia’s broken LGBTI anti-discrimination laws

Rather than simply defending our existing anti-discrimination laws from attack (see the Religious Discrimination Bill, above), we need to also take urgent action to address many of the serious short-comings of Australia’s current LGBTI anti-discrimination framework.

Indeed, both the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and the laws of most – although not all* – states and territories should be significantly improved. This includes:

Commonwealth

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), should be amended to:

  • Replace the protected attribute of ‘intersex status’ with ‘sex characteristics’
  • Remove religious exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT workers and people accessing services, including LGBT students, teachers and other staff at religious schools
  • Prohibit vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, and
  • Create a Discrimination Commissioner with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

The Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) must also be amended to explicitly cover gender identity and sex characteristics – currently, it only mentions sexual orientation, meaning protections for trans, gender diverse and intersex employees are not guaranteed.

New South Wales

The Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) is the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law in Australia, and needs significant modernisation, including:

  • Protect bisexual people against discrimination by replacing the protected attribute of ‘homosexuality’ with ‘sexual orientation’ (NSW is the only jurisdiction in Australia that currently does not protect bisexuals)
  • Protect non-binary people against discrimination by replaced the protected attribute of ‘transgender’ with ‘gender identity’
  • Protect intersex people against discrimination by introducing a protected attribute of sex characteristics
  • Remove specific exceptions which allow all private schools, colleges and universities (religious and non-religious alike) to discriminate against LGBT students and staff
  • Remove specific exceptions which allow discrimination by religious adoption agencies
  • Remove the general religious exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT workers and people accessing services, and
  • Ensure prohibitions on vilification apply to all of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

Victoria

Recent amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), which have yet to take effect, mean many problems there have already been addressed (although the Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Bill could strip away hard-won protections from LGBT teachers and other staff in religious schools, before they even commence).

However, the major outstanding item of business is the introduction of prohibitions on anti-LGBTI vilification (something which has already been considered by a Parliamentary Committee, and the Government has committed to do, but is awaiting implementation).

Queensland

The Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld) could be improved in several key areas, including:

  • Introduce a protected attribute of sex characteristics, for both discrimination and anti-vilification
  • Update the definition of ‘gender identity’ to ensure non-binary people are protected against discrimination
  • Amend the religious exceptions applying to LGBT teachers and other staff in religious schools, to remove the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ approach and replace it with stronger protection (noting that LGBT students are already protected)
  • Remove the general religious exceptions which allow other religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT workers), and
  • Remove the specific exception which allows discrimination against transgender employees where the job involves working with children (s28(1), which is particularly abhorrent).

Fortunately, the Queensland Human Rights Commission is currently undertaking a review of discrimination protections under the Act, while a Parliamentary Committee has recently recommended updating its anti-vilification protections.

Western Australia

The Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) is probably second only to NSW in terms of worst LGBTI anti-discrimination legislation in Australia. It desperately needs amendments, including:

  • Protect intersex people against discrimination by adding a protected attribute of sex characteristics
  • Replace the current extremely-limited transgender protections (which only cover people who have had their gender identity recognised by the Government, and which is therefore restricted to people who have had genital surgery) with the much broader protected attribute of ‘gender identity’
  • Remove religious exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT workers and people accessing services, including LGBT students, teachers and other staff at religious schools, and
  • Prohibit vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

The Western Australian Law Reform Commission is currently undertaking a review of the Equal Opportunity Act.

South Australia

The Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA) could be improved in a number of ways, such as:

  • Replace the protected attribute of ‘intersex status’ with ‘sex characteristics’, while amending its religious exceptions to ensure they do not permit discrimination on this attribute
  • Clarify that the religious exceptions are not intended to allow discrimination against LGBT students in religious schools
  • Remove other religious exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT workers and people accessing services, including LGBT teachers and other staff at religious schools, and
  • Prohibit vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

Australian Capital Territory

The Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT) is the second best LGBTI anti-discrimination law in Australia. There is one major reform outstanding – removing the ability of religious organisations, other than schools, to discriminate against LGBT workers and peoples accessing their services (noting that LGBT students, teachers and other staff in religious schools are already protected against discrimination).

Thankfully, the issue of religious exceptions is currently under review by the ACT Government.

Northern Territory

Unlike the ACT, the Anti-Discrimination Act (NT) has fallen well behind best practice, and requires significant updating to:

  • Replace the current definition of ‘sexuality’ (which erroneously includes ‘transsexuality’) with a protected attribute of ‘sexual orientation’
  • Protect trans and gender diverse people against discrimination by adding a protected attribute of ‘gender identity’
  • Protect intersex people against discrimination by adding a protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’
  • Remove religious exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT workers and people accessing services, including LGBT teachers and other staff at religious schools (noting that LGBT students are already protected), and
  • Prohibit vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

*Observant readers would note the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 is not included in this list, because it is already close to best practice on these key points (protected attributes, religious exceptions and anti-vilification prohibition).

For more on this subject, see: A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

Conclusion

In my opinion, these five LGBTIQ law reform issues should be high priorities in 2022. However, as well as being placed in no particular order, I would also reiterate this list is by no means exhaustive either.

Other important LGBTIQ law reform priorities include ensuring that states and territories other than Victoria and the ACT prohibit sexual orientation and gender identity conversion practices (including making sure the partial ban in Queensland is extended beyond health care settings).

Nor is law reform the only necessary pre-condition for substantive equality for LGBTIQ people, which must also be achieved through a variety of other measures, not least of which is funding (such as providing no-cost access via Medicare for gender identity-related health care, including full coverage of transition expenses).

Anyway, as with previous years, our agenda is big but our ambition, and determination, are bigger. Let’s get to work to make a better future for LGBTIQ Australians.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

[NB This article is written in a personal capacity and does not represent the views of employers, past or present.]

Submission to ACT Government Discrimination Law Reform Discussion Paper

ACT Government Justice and Community Safety Directorate

Via: civilconsultation@act.gov.au

Sunday 30 January 2022

To the consultation team

Submission in response to ‘Inclusive, Progressive, Equal: Discrimination Law Reform’ Discussion Paper

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission in response to the Discussion Paper ‘Inclusive, Progressive, Equal: Discrimination Law Reform’ released in October 2021.

I do so in my personal capacity as a long-standing advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

This includes ongoing community education about, and campaigning for improvements to, LGBTI anti-discrimination laws across Australia, through my website www.alastairlawrie.net

In this submission I will focus on two areas of particular relevance to the LGBTI community, namely:

  • Consideration of a ‘general limitation’ defence, and
  • Reforms to religious exceptions in the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT).

‘General limitation’ defence

Question 3: Should the exceptions in the Discrimination Act:

a. be removed and replaced with a general limitation / single justification defence that applies where discriminatory conduct is reasonably justified, or

b. be refined to make them simpler, stronger, and better aligned with our human rights framework?

I do not support the introduction of a general limitations clause as recommended by the ACT Law Reform Advisory Council in its 2015 Report (Recommendation 18).

While this type of provision may hold some attraction in principle, it would lead to a number of serious problems in practice.

Several of these are articulated in the Discussion Paper itself, including that ‘it may make the law more uncertain for users’ (page 15).

I would add that this uncertainty is more likely to benefit those users who have significant financial resources, for example encouraging large respondents to contest discrimination complaints. Whereas the uncertainty may mean that victims of discrimination are not able to easily understand whether they are protected under the Act or not, and may therefore be discouraged from bringing complaints because of a perceived risk of failure.

I also agree with the argument, articulated on page 15, that ‘it may lessen protections against discrimination because the defence would be arguable in all cases’.

This threat has become even more pronounced through the expanding ‘religious freedom’ agenda in recent years, including the Commonwealth Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, which seeks to override state and territory anti-discrimination laws to provide legal protection to religiously-motivated comments that offend, humiliate, insult or ridicule others on the basis of who they are.

Even if that legislation is (hopefully) defeated, the introduction of a ‘general limitation’ defence in the ACT Discrimination Act would likely see religious fundamentalists exploit this provision to undermine the ability of women, LGBT people, people with disability and even people of minority faiths to live their lives free from discrimination.

Finally, I oppose the general limitation defence because of the possible adverse impact on the ACT Government’s long-overdue reforms to protect LGBT students, teachers and other workers in religious schools against discrimination, which were passed in late 2018.

Again, as outlined on page 15:

‘Such a provision may also weaken protections under existing exceptions, for example exceptions that allow discrimination by religious schools but only on certain grounds and subject to a range of conditions. A single justification defence would remove these clear restrictions and potentially allow discrimination in a broader range of circumstances, which may negatively impact LGBTIQ+ students and staff.’

It would be cruel and unusual to grant anti-discrimination protections to these students and staff, allowing them to finally learn and teach without the threat of mistreatment or abuse, only to take that away from them just four years later.

For all of these reasons I support the alternative approach, which is to refine the existing exceptions in the Act, and especially to narrow the religious exceptions which it contains.

Religious Exceptions

As indicated in the above answer, I strongly support the changes to religious exceptions made by the ACT Government in 2018, to protect LGBT students, teachers and other workers in religious schools against discrimination.

However, in my view, the job is only half-done, with a similarly-urgent need to protect LGBT employees of, and people accessing services from, other religious organisations operating across health, welfare and community services.

Therefore, I welcome this Discussion Paper’s focus on this out-standing reform to religious exceptions.

In principle, I support the approach to this subject in the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998, which:

  • Only allows religious organisations to discriminate on the ground of religious belief and activity, and not against other attributes such as sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Allows discrimination in relation to participation in religious observance (section 52)
  • Does not allow general discrimination in service delivery, and
  • Allows discrimination in employment, but only where it is an inherent requirement of the position (section 51(1): ‘A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to employment if the participation of the person in the teaching, observance or practice of a particular religion is a genuine occupational qualification or requirement in relation to the employment’).

These positions inform my responses to the Discussion Paper’s specific questions in relation to religious exceptions, as follows:

Question 7: Should the exception protecting religious observances (eg appointment of ministers etc) be refined so that discrimination is only permitted where necessary to conform with the doctrines of the relevant religion?

Provided that the circumstances in which this discrimination is permitted are narrowly defined (including ordaining or appointing priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order etc), I am agnostic about whether the test to determine whether such discrimination is allowed needs to be changed.

Question 8: Should the religious bodies exception be changed so that religious bodies cannot lawfully discriminate when conducting commercial (for-profit) activities?

Yes. I can see no justification for providing religious organisations conducting commercial/for-profit activities with special privileges allowing them to discriminate where it would otherwise be unlawful.

Question 9: Should the religious bodies exception be changed so that religious bodies cannot lawfully discriminate when providing goods or services to members of the public?

Yes. Again, I can so no justification for providing religious organisations that provide goods and services to members of the public with special privileges allowing them to discriminate where it would otherwise be unlawful.

Question 10: Should religious health care providers only be permitted to discriminate on the ground of religion in employment decisions where the duties are of a religious nature?

Question 11: Should any other religious service providers only be permitted to discriminate on the ground of religion in employment decisions where the duties are of a religious nature?

Question 12: Are there any other circumstances in which religious bodies should be permitted to discriminate in employment decisions?

(Answered together)

As discussed earlier, I endorse the approach to these issues which is adopted in section 51(1) of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998, namely that:

‘A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to employment if the participation of the person in the teaching, observance or practice of a particular religion is a genuine occupational qualification or requirement in relation to the employment.’

This would allow religious belief to be considered where it is intrinsic to the role in question (such as a hospital chaplain), and to be excluded from consideration where it is irrelevant.

Question 13: Should some sectors or types of organisations be prevented from relying on the general religious bodies exception? For example, organisations that receive a certain proportion of public funding?

Provided that the above positions are adopted (that religious organisations can only discriminate on the basis of religious belief and not on the basis of other protected attributes, that they cannot discriminate in general service delivery, and can only discriminate in employment where it is a genuine occupational requirement), then this type of further limitation may be unnecessary.

There is also a danger in drawing this kind of distinction, whereby those organisations which are not in receipt of government funding seek broader exceptions to discriminate in both employment and service delivery, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (see, for example, the recently-passed Victorian Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Act 2021 which disappointingly retained the special privileges allowing non-government funded religious organisations to discriminate in service delivery on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status and gender identity).

Question 14: Should religious bodies only be permitted to discriminate against members of the public on some grounds, and not others? If so, which grounds should be permissible?

Yes, as articulated earlier, I support the approach in the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 – and the Discrimination Act 1991’s existing approach in relation to religious schools – which is to permit discrimination on the basis of religious belief only, and not on the basis of other attributes like sexual orientation and gender identity.

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into consideration.

Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details provided, should you require clarification or additional information.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Why the Religious Discrimination Bill must be rejected (in 1000 words or less)

The Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill is a serious threat to the rights of women, LGBT people, people with disability, people of minority faiths and many other Australians.

However, because anti-discrimination law is already highly technical, and the proposed Bill is both incredibly complex, and contains a range of provisions that are completely unprecedented, it can be difficult to understand exactly what is at stake.

The following, then, is my attempt to explain the major problems contained in the Religious Discrimination Bill in 1000 words or less:

*****

The statement of belief’ provision protects offensive, humiliating, insulting and ridiculing comments against women, LGBT people, people with disability, people of minority faiths and others on the basis of who they are.

It does this by taking away existing protections against discrimination under all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, including targeting the best practice provisions of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act.

As long as they are motivated by religious belief, people will be empowered to make demeaning and derogatory comments in all areas of public life: in workplaces, schools and universities, hospitals, aged care, public transport, cafes, restaurants and shops. Everywhere.

And because the definition of statement of belief depends only on the subjective interpretation of the person making them, it protects fringe or radical views, including religiously-motivated anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and even racism.

By overriding all other anti-discrimination laws, the ‘statement of belief’ provision also denies access to justice to victims of discrimination.

This is because it effectively introduces a Commonwealth ‘defence’ to state laws, meaning state tribunals – which hear the majority of anti-discrimination cases – will be unable to resolve complaints where this issue is raised.

These cases will instead need to be heard by state supreme courts, or federal courts, at massively-increased costs to complainants.

The groups most likely to experience religiously-motivated discrimination – women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths – will lose the most.

The ‘statement of belief’ provision also grants extraordinary powers to the Commonwealth Attorney-General to take away existing rights in other areas, by ‘prescribing’ additional laws that will be undermined.

Laws that are at risk include:

  • ‘Safe access zone’ protections covering pregnant people seeking lawful terminations
  • Bans on sexual orientation and gender identity conversion practices, and even
  • Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits racial vilification.

The ‘religious exceptions’ in the proposed Bill are just as dangerous.

While many anti-discrimination laws contain ‘religious exceptions’, the special privileges allowing religious organisations to discriminate under the Religious Discrimination Bill are far broader than any other Commonwealth, state or territory anti-discrimination law.

This is both because it adopts a much more lenient test than other laws to determine when this discrimination is permitted (only requiring that one other person of the same religion could reasonably consider the discrimination to be justified).

And because it applies to a much wider range of organisations than other laws, covering charities, hospitals, aged care facilities, accommodation providers, disability service providers, camps and conference sites and even religious organisations undertaking some commercial activities.

Unlike the Sex Discrimination Act and similar laws, the Bill does not require these bodies to have been ‘established for religious purposes’, imposing the much easier test of ‘conducted in accordance with’ religious beliefs.

The people who stand to lose most from these exceptions are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist workers denied jobs, promotions and training they are qualified for simply because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

These exceptions also apply to ‘religious educational institutions’, covering everything from child-care and early learning centres, through to schools, colleges and universities.

However, unlike best practice provisions in Tasmania, Queensland, the ACT and NT which limit these exceptions to enrolment only, the proposed Bill permits discrimination against students on the basis of religious belief throughout their education.

In this way, the Religious Discrimination Bill allows discrimination against children and young people, denying them their religious freedom to question, explore and develop their own faith as they learn and grow, without fear of punishment.

The same provisions could also be used by religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids, not on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity itself, but on whether they affirm statements like ‘homosexuality is intrinsically disordered’ or ‘God created man and woman, therefore being transgender is sinful’. The outcome would nevertheless be the same: LGBT kids being mistreated because of who they are.

This means that, even if the Morrison Government finally implements its promise to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students, religious schools could still discriminate against them via alternative means.

The Bill also allows discrimination against teachers and other employees of religious educational institutionsmeaning they can be hired and fired on the basis of their faith, not their skills.

In addition, it grants extraordinary powers to the Commonwealth Attorney-General, allowing them to take away existing rights from teachers under state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

This includes recently-passed laws in Victoria which only permit discrimination where it is an inherent requirement of the role, and ‘reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances’, as well as similar laws in operation in Queensland for two decades, and in Tasmania and the ACT.

As with students, these provisions could also provide an alternative means to permit discrimination against LGBT workers ‘under the guise of religious views’. LGBT teachers and other staff are potentially at risk in Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT.

Finally, the Bill includes a range of other significant problems:

  • Removing the ability of qualifying bodies to take appropriate action about harmful ‘statements of belief’ made by professionals outside the workplace (for example, protecting repeated homophobic and transphobic comments by a doctor in a small town, even where this makes it unsafe for LGBT people to access essential healthcare)
  • Providing an unprecedented ability for religious organisations to make discrimination complaints in their own right, including allowing faith bodies to take legal action to prevent Commonwealth, state and territory governments from requiring organisations that receive public funding not to discriminate against LGBT people
  • Preventing local governments from passing by-laws to address harmful anti-LGBT ‘street preachers’
  • Introducing a totally unnecessary amendment to the Charities Act to ‘protect’ charities advocating a ‘traditional view of marriage’ (and those charities only), and
  • Expanding ‘religious exceptions’ in the Marriage Act to allow religious educational institutions to deny the use of their facilities for LGBTI-inclusive weddings, even where these facilities are offered to the public on a commercial basis.

Overall, the Religious Discrimination Bill promotes rather than prohibits discrimination. It must be blocked.

(999 words)

*****

The above summary does not even cover all of the many problems created by the Religious Discrimination Bill. If you would like to know more of the technical details, I encourage you to read the public submissions made by:

  • the Public Interest Advocacy Centrehere;

and

  • the Australian Discrimination Law Experts Grouphere

to the two Parliamentary committees (Joint Committee on Human Rights, and Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs) which have been holding inquiries into this legislation over summer.

Both Committees are due to table their final reports to Parliament on Friday 4 February, meaning the Religious Discrimination Bill could be debated, and passed, in the sitting weeks beginning on Tuesday 8 February.

There is, however, still time to stop this extraordinary and extreme, radical and unprecedented – and downright dangerous – law, but only if you make your opposition to it known right now.

There are a number of actions you can take, today:

  • Contact the following list of moderate and/or lesbian and gay Liberal MPs and Senators, expressing your serious concerns about the Bill and asking them to cross the floor to protect the rights of all Australians (using their contact details from Parliament House):
    • Angie Bell (Member for Moncrieff)
    • Dave Sharma (Wentworth)
    • Katie Allen (Higgins)
    • Fiona Martin (Reid)
    • Trevor Evans (Brisbane)
    • Tim Wilson (Goldstein)
    • Trent Zimmerman (North Sydney)
    • Warren Entsch (Leichhardt)
    • Bridget Archer (Bass)
    • Andrew Bragg (Senator for New South Wales)
    • Richard Colbeck (Senator for Tasmania), and
    • Dean Smith (Senator for Western Australia).

Together, we can ensure the Religious Discrimination Bill is rejected, for the benefit of women, LGBT people, people with disability, people of minority faiths and many, many other Australians whose rights would be at risk if this divisive law was allowed to pass.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

[NB This article is written in a personal capacity and does not represent the views of employers, past or present.]

LGBT kids don’t need more hollow promises

On Thursday, it was reported that Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has written to the Australian Law Reform Commission, asking for ‘detailed drafting’ to protect LGBT children from discrimination in faith-based schools.  

‘It is … the government’s position that no child should be suspended or expelled from school on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity,’ wrote Cash.

There are at least six reasons why this seemingly positive expression of support for LGBT kids is a bitterly disappointing statement of hollow nothingness.

First, we’ve heard this all before.  On 11 October 2018 the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, stated unequivocally: ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against’. He promised to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination before the end of that year.

That was more than 3 years ago. 1,137 days to be exact (and yes, I’m counting). In that time, the Morrison Government has failed to do anything concrete to implement its promise.

Second, the Attorney-General was writing to ask the ALRC to do what it was already tasked to do by her predecessor, Christian Porter, back in April 2019. His original terms of reference requested the Commission to review religious exemptions, ‘having regard to… the importance of protecting the rights of all people, and children in particular, to be free from discrimination in education.’

More than 30 months later, the new Attorney-General is trying to spin a request for ‘detailed drafting’ as being something new. Exactly how that varies from ordinary ALRC recommendations is a distinction without a difference.

Third, we don’t need ‘detailed drafting’. We know how to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination.  Four jurisdictions – Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and NT – have already done so. Tasmania has been protecting LGBT kids, successfully, for more than 23 years. The amendments required are simple. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Fourth, there’s not even a need to invent a new Bill. In response to the Prime Minister’s promise to protect LGBT kids in October 2018, the Labor Opposition introduced their own legislation the following month (the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018). The schedule of substantive amendments came to a grand total of 70 words.

If the ALRC reports in 2023, and the Government finally takes action that same year (both of which remain big ifs), it could end up taking them 5 years to draft 70 words. At just over one word per month, they’re certainly pacing themselves.

Fifth, we can see from the time and energy expended on the Religious Discrimination Bill where the Government’s real priorities lie. 

We’ve already gone through two rounds of public exposure drafts on the ‘religious freedom’ Bills package (which actually comprises three separate Bills). We’ve had 157 pages of draft legislation, before we even get to the third and final version(s) next week.

The drafting effort that has gone into the Religious Discrimination Bill demonstrates what happens when a Government wants to get something done. The comparative lack of effort in drafting straight-forward amendments to protect LGBT kids reveals what happens when they don’t.

Sixth, based on Senator Cash’s correspondence, it’s not even clear whether the Government supports ending all discrimination against LGBT students, or only removing the ability of religious schools to suspend or expel them. If it’s just the latter, then other forms of mistreatment would continue to be permitted, and the harm they experience will go on.

A child who was in Year 7 when the Prime Minister first promised to protect them from discrimination is on track to finish high school before he keeps that promise. That’s an entire generation of LGBT kids abandoned because they’re not considered a priority by their own Government.

LGBT kids don’t need more ‘detailed drafting’. They need action. What do we have instead? The Attorney-General sending the emptiest of gestures to the Australian Law Reform Commission, asking them to do something they’ve already been tasked to do.

It is a fig-leaf trying to cover up years of the Morrison Government’s inaction. But nothing can hide their lack of care about this issue. Because if they cared, it would have been fixed years ago.

The tragedy of it all is that, for as long as the Government prevaricates and obfuscates, vulnerable children are left exposed to abuse and mistreatment, discrimination, suspension and even expulsion, just because of who they are.

LGBT students deserve the right to learn in safety. Instead, Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws grant religious schools extraordinary special privileges to discriminate against them.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus