Quit Playing Games

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

 

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Dear MP/Senator

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Nor are any of these new religious exceptions necessary.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

That simply isn’t good enough.

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And so, I make this final plea to you:

 

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

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

George Brandis 25

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

 

Footnotes:

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

How Dare You

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

James Paterson

Liberal Senator James Paterson.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

How dare you.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Seriously, how dare you.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Malcolm Turnbull, If you want to ‘strengthen’ anti-vilification laws, here’s something you can do

Update 29 April 2017:

In early April, I wrote to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis suggesting that, it they genuinely wanted to ‘strengthen’ Australia’s anti-vilification protections, they should introduce laws prohibiting vilification against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

In that letter, I included statistics from The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia Survey Results, Part 1: Verbal Harassment and Abuse which found that 74% of LGBTIQ Australians experienced homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic verbal abuse at some point in their lives, with 48% reporting anti-LGBTIQ harassment in the past 12 months alone.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Australian Government isn’t particularly interested in doing anything to address this epidemic of anti-LGBTI abuse – there is no LGBTI equivalent to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and, based on the response I received this week from the Attorney-General’s Department (see below), the Turnbull Government will not introduce one.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the Government’s letter is the reference to ‘sexual harassment’ provisions within the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, as offering protections against anti-LGBTI vilification. The definition of sexual harassment under that legislation is as follows:

Section 28A

Meaning of sexual harassment

(1) For the purposes of this Division, a person sexually harasses another person (the person harassed) if:

(a) the person makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours, to the person harassed; or

(b) engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person harassed…

(2) In this section:

‘conduct of a sexual nature’ includes making a statement of a sexual nature to a person, or in the presence of a person, whether the statement is made orally or in writing.”

This definition, and its focus on ‘of a sexual nature’, means that while LGBTI people are protected against ‘sexual harassment’ under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, only a small fraction of the anti-LGBTI verbal abuse that is experienced by LGBTI Australians would be covered by this provision – the vast majority of harassment and abuse, including nearly all of the comments reported in The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia, would remain entirely legal.

Of course, given their ongoing refusal to pass marriage equality without a completely unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite, and the attacks on and dismantling of the Safe Schools program, it was always unlikely that the Turnbull Government would do anything substantive to tackle anti-LGBTIQ verbal harassment and abuse.

Still, now that they have been presented with the evidence, they can no longer claim that there is no problem with homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in Australia. They know it exists – they are simply choosing to ignore it.

Here is the full response from the Attorney-General’s Department:

27 April 2017

Dear Mr Lawrie

Thank you for your correspondent of 3 April 2017 to the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, regarding Commonwealth anti-vilification laws. Your letter was referred to the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, as the matter falls within his portfolio. The Attorney-General has asked me to respond on his behalf.

The Australian Government believes that people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society and receive the protection of the law regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) prohibits discrimination on these grounds in a range of areas of public life.

The Sex Discrimination Act also prohibits sexual harassment in a number of areas of public life. Under the definition of sexual harassment, the circumstances to be taken into account include, but are not limited to, the sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status of the person harassed.

Criminal laws in Australia generally prohibit conduct which threatens or results in harm to a person, regardless of the individual attributes of the victim.

The Australian Government considers these protections, in conjunction with other protections under Australian law, are appropriate in addressing the behaviour outlined in your letter.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to the attention of the Australian Government.

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Director, Human Rights

Civil Law Unit

 

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Original Post:

 

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Monday 3 April 2017

Dear Prime Minister

Commonwealth Anti-Vilification Laws

I am writing to you about a subject that has preoccupied your Government in recent weeks: Commonwealth anti-vilification laws.

However, I do not wish to re-litigate the debate over your proposed amendments to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, especially now that those changes have been comprehensively rejected by the Senate (happily from my perspective, presumably less so from yours).

Instead, I wish to discuss an area where it appears that, at least based on your public statements, you and I agree.

Specifically, during the course of the debate around 18C, two key principles emerged from media releases and speeches made both by yourself, and by the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis.

First, your Government believes that there is a place for legal protections against vilification.

This is apparent not just from the fact that you chose to try to amend section 18C, rather than repeal it (therefore acknowledging the overall legitimacy of anti-vilification laws), but also through your comments at the joint Press Conference on 21 March, announcing the changes:

“We are defending the law by making it clearer. We are defending Australians against racial vilification.”

And from the Attorney-General’s Second Reading Speech:

“I have always believed that there is no inconsistency whatever between effective, appropriately-worded racial vilification laws, and the robust defence of freedom of speech.”

Second, your Government believes that such legal protections against vilification should be ‘strong’.

Indeed, both you and your Attorney-General repeatedly claimed that the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 would strengthen existing vilification protections.

At your joint Press Conference you stated that “[W]e are announcing changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Commission legislation, which will strengthen the protection of Australians from racial vilification” and that it was time to “defend Australians with effective laws, clear laws, against racial vilification.”

The Attorney-General similarly claimed in his Second Reading Speech that the changes were being proposed “to strengthen its anti-vilification provisions.”

Taking you at your word(s) then, you both believe there is a place for anti-vilification laws, and that such laws should be strong and effective.

I agree with these two principles (even if we disagree on how they should be reflected in the Racial Discrimination Act).

Which is why, now that your changes to section 18C have been defeated, I write to suggest an additional way in which you can protect Australians against vilification: by introducing anti-vilification protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

As you would be aware, there is currently no Commonwealth protection against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Nor are there LGBTI anti-vilification protections under the laws of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia or the Northern Territory (meanwhile, the protections that exist under NSW law are overly-narrow, and fail to protect some parts of the community).

This leaves a significant proportion of Australia’s LGBTI communities without any legal protections against homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification.

Unfortunately, such vilification remains all-too-common in Australia.

In a survey that I conducted at the start of 2017, 74% of LGBTIQ respondents reported being subject to anti-LGBTIQ verbal abuse or harassment at some point during their lives[i].

Disturbingly, 48% of respondents reported that at least one instance of such abuse or harassment occurred during the last 12 months.

These figures were even higher for some sections of the LGBTIQ community:

  • 68.2% of trans respondents
  • 65% of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ respondents, and
  • 74.5% of LGBTIQ respondents aged 24 or under

reported verbal abuse or harassment in the past 12 months alone.

I hope that you agree these rates of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic verbal abuse are simply unacceptable.

And if you are unconvinced by the raw numbers, then I suggest that you read the even rawer, and in some cases quite horrific, examples of anti-LGBTIQ harassment shared by the 1,672 people who took part in my survey (attached).

The challenge for you is that this abuse is happening on your watch.

If you genuinely believe there is a place for anti-vilification laws, and that such laws should be strong and effective, then I believe you should respond to this epidemic of anti-LGBTI verbal abuse and harassment with Commonwealth anti-vilification laws covering sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, on an equivalent basis to existing racial vilification protections.

After all, if racist vilification is considered so serious as to require legislative intervention, then there is no logical reason why homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification should not be similarly prohibited.

If you do not take action to address this issue, then by implication you are suggesting that you and your Government find anti-LGBTIQ vilification to be less offensive, and arguably more ‘acceptable’, than racial vilification.

In conclusion, I will return to another comment made by you at the joint Press Conference on 21 March:

“Ensuring Australians are protected from racial vilification, likewise, is part of that mutual respect of which I often speak, which is the foundation of our success as the greatest and most successful multicultural society in the world.”

My question to you is: do you believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians also deserve ‘mutual respect’?

If you do, then please take action to protect LGBTI Australians from the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification that far-too-frequently mars our own participation in the country you currently lead.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Cc Senator the Hon George Brandis

Attorney-General

PO Box 6100

Senate

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Malcolm Turnbull Hands

Whether LGBTI Australians receive anti-vilification protections under Commonwealth law is now in Malcolm Turnbull’s hands.

Footnotes:

[i] For full results, see The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia, Survey Results Part 1: Verbal Harassment and Abuse

The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is Unacceptable

This time last week, our major focus was, understandably, on ensuring Bill Shorten and the Australian Labor Party listened to the concerns of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community and agreed to block Malcolm Turnbull’s unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

With that particular mission (almost) accomplished – although the plebiscite’s enabling legislation won’t be ‘dead, buried and cremated’ until it is finally voted down by the Senate in November – it is time to turn our attention to another battle, and that is the issue of religious exceptions.

Last Monday night (10 October 2016), the Government, via Attorney-General George Brandis, released an exposure draft of the legislation it would put before parliament in the event the plebiscite is held, and if that vote was successful.

Since that time, a number of people have expressed their serious concerns about the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, and especially about the broad ‘rights to discriminate’ contained within. Now that I have had the opportunity to examine this Bill in detail, I am afraid I must join their condemnatory chorus.

Nearly everything about this Bill, from its title down, is unacceptable. It is far more focussed on ensuring that religious organisations, and even individuals, can refuse to serve LGBTI people, than it is about ensuring LGBTI couples are treated equally, and above all fairly, under the law. And, for the reasons that I will outline below, I sincerely believe it should be rejected in its current form.

**********

First, let’s start with that title, and specifically the phrase ‘same-sex marriage’, which is also used in the Bill’s long title (“A Bill for an Act to provide for same-sex marriage, and for related purposes”).

For the umpteenth time, and for the benefit of slow learners like Prime Minister Turnbull and Senator Brandis, ensuring that all LGBTI Australians can marry is not ‘same-sex marriage’, but ‘marriage equality’.

The former phrase is narrow and excludes non-binary trans people, as well as many intersex individuals. Only the latter phrase captures all couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Fortunately, the substance of the Bill actually does include all people – the primary clause would amend the homophobic definition of the Marriage Act enacted by John Howard’s Liberal-National Government in 2004 to read “marriage means the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

If that is the case, then why has the Government used the inaccurate phrase ‘same-sex marriage’ in the Bill’s title?

Perhaps it is simply politics, and the ongoing inability of the Coalition’s right-wing to acknowledge that this is, fundamentally, an issue of equality (although not referring to it as marriage equality even after the majority of the population voted for it – which is the precondition for this Bill – would seem to me incredibly petty).

On the other hand, maybe Turnbull and Brandis are right to shy away from describing this legislation as ‘marriage equality’ – because, in the vast majority of its provisions, it is nothing of the sort. Indeed, most of the Bill’s clauses are actually concerned with ensuring couples other than ‘a man and a woman’ are able to be refused service in a wide range of circumstances.

Which means that a far more accurate title for this legislation might be the ‘Marriage Amendment (Allowing any 2 adults to marry, but then allowing them to be denied service if they are LGBTI) Bill’. But, as well as being a mouthful, that might be a little too much ‘truth in advertising’ for this particular Government.

**********

Turning to the more substantive faults of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, and the first concerns the rights of ministers of religion to refuse to conduct LGBTI weddings.

Now, let me begin by saying that I actually agree that ministers of religion should legally have the ability to accept, or reject, any couple who wishes to be married by them through a religious ceremony (even if I personally believe that such discrimination is abhorrent).

Indeed, that ‘right’ is already provided to ministers of religion under section 47 of the Marriage Act 1961: “Ministers of religion not bound to solemnise marriage etc. Nothing in this Part: (a) imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage…”

Which means that no amendments are required to the Act to allow ministers of religion to refuse to officiate LGBTI weddings (and none have been proposed by previous marriage equality Bills from Labor, the Greens and even last-year’s cross-party Bill from MPs including Liberal Warren Entsch). So why then does the Bill repeal section 47 and replace it with the following:

Ministers of religion may refuse to solemnise marriages

Refusing to solemnise a marriage that is not the union of a man and a woman

(3) A minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite any law (including this Part) if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) any of the following applies:

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

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

(iii) the minister’s conscientious or religious beliefs do not allow the minister to solemnise the marriage.”

Ministers of religion will still have exactly the same right to refuse to perform any wedding, including newly-recognised LGBTI weddings[i], that they have now. Arguably, it would provide a greater ability for religious organisations to impose their official doctrine on ministers of religion within their faith – although, as we have seen recently, imposing such views is already commonplace.

But the overall power will remain basically the same. So, why introduce these new provisions, spelling out in detail the ability to decline non- ‘man/woman’ marriages, at all?

It is difficult to see any other motivation than plain old homophobia and transphobia.

And that becomes apparent when comparing it against another issue that is also contrary to some religious views – divorce and remarriage[ii]. The Catholic Church in particular espouses an official view against both, and its ministers would therefore reserve the right to decline to officiate second (or third, fourth or even fifth) weddings.

Under both the existing, and the proposed new, sections 47 a minister of religion has the ability to reject couples in these circumstances – without it being spelled out. Just as the wording of the existing section 47 would allow them to reject LGBTI couples, were it to be retained following the introduction of marriage equality, without it necessarily being spelled out.

Which means there is absolutely no valid reason to insert new provisions that single out LGBTI couples (or non- ‘man/woman’ couples) for special, and detrimental, treatment, as part of a redrafted section 47.

Therefore, while the continuing ability of ministers of religion to decline to officiate weddings is not particularly problematic (from a legal point of view anyway), the unnecessary insertion of clauses which specify the right to discriminate against LGBTI couples – but not any other couples – definitely is.

The proposed new section 47 is homophobic and transphobic. It is unacceptable, and it must be rejected.

**********

Sadly, it only gets worse from here. The second substantive fault of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is the creation of an entirely new ‘right’ to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

Currently, only ministers of religion have an explicit ‘opt-out’ clause. No equivalent provision or power exists for civil celebrants[iii] – which is entirely reasonable, given they are essentially ‘small businesses’, providing a service that the government has authorised them to, and explicitly not acting on behalf of any religion or religious organisation.

However, the Government is proposing, through this Bill, to allow even these ‘secular’ civil celebrants to reject LGBTI couples simply because of who they are (again, this is something that has not been included in most previous Bills, other than that from Senator David Leyonhjelm[iv]). Proposed new section 47A reads:

Marriage celebrants may refuse to solemnise marriages

(1) A marriage celebrant (not being a minister of religion) may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite any law (including this Part) if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) the marriage celebrant’s conscientious or religious beliefs do not allow the marriage celebrant to solemnise the marriage.”

This is, to put it simply, outrageous.

There is absolutely no reason why someone who is engaged in small business should be able to discriminate in such a way, against people who are LGBTI, simply because of their ‘personal beliefs’. It is the equivalent of encouraging them to put up a sign saying ‘no gays (or lesbians, or bisexuals, or trans people, or intersex people) allowed.’

And exactly how outrageous, and offensive, is revealed by once again comparing it to the situation with divorce and remarriage.

Despite whatever personal beliefs a civil celebrant may hold, and even after the Government’s Bill was passed, they would still not be able to formally decline to officiate someone’s second (or subsequent) wedding. Indeed, it is likely such discrimination would be unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which includes ‘marital or relationship status’ as a protected attribute in section 6[v].

In contrast, if the new section 47A was included in any amendments to the Marriage Act, these same celebrants would be able to reject LGBTI couples on the basis that they were not ‘a man and a woman’[vi], and for no other reason.

In effect, Malcolm Turnbull and his Government are saying that the religious beliefs of civil celebrants can be used to justify discrimination – but only if those religious beliefs are anti-LGBTI (and not, for example, if they are opposed to divorce).

Once again, I am forced to conclude that the proposed new section 47A is homophobic and transphobic. It is unacceptable, and it must be rejected.

**********

But it’s not just civil celebrants who will be allowed to put up unwelcome, on multiple levels, signs saying ‘no gays (or lesbians, or bisexuals, or trans people, or intersex people) allowed’. Religious bodies or organisations will also be able to do so as part of proposed new section 47B, which reads:

Religious bodies and organisations may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services

(1) A religious body or a religious organisation may, despite any law (including this Part), refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) the refusal:

(i) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the religious body or religious organisation; or

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

If this provision were solely concerned with providing clarity that religious bodies were not obliged to conduct any weddings that they did not condone in their places of worship, like churches, then it may have almost been reasonable.

However, section 47B goes far beyond what would be required to achieve that limited goal. Instead, it provides a wide-ranging ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBTI couples, one that is problematic in at least three key ways:

  • It applies to more than just facilities, but also to the provision of ‘goods and services’, which, given the extent of influence of religious bodies and organisations in Australia, is incredibly broad
  • Sub-section (2)[vii] makes it clear that this right extends to religious bodies or organisations that are engaged in providing commercial services, for profit, and
  • The phrase “for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage” is vague, and left undefined, and could potentially capture a range of facilities, goods or services that are not directly connected to either a wedding ceremony or reception.

This section is also cause for concern in that it establishes a precedent whereby discrimination against LGBTI couples is encouraged. One consequence is that, while the current Bill does not allow florists, wedding cake-bakers, photographers or reception venues to refuse service (unless of course they themselves are run by a religious organisation), their voices demanding such exceptions in future will only get louder.

But again the major problem with this section is that it is singling out LGBTI couples – or anyone who doesn’t fit within the definition of ‘a man and a woman’[viii] – for special, and detrimental, treatment. And literally nobody else.

As with civil celebrants, it is only homophobic and transphobic religious belief that is preferenced here – other sincerely-held religious beliefs, for example, against divorce and remarriage, do not attract any such right. Which means that, yet again, the Liberal-National Government is expressing its support for religious freedom, but only as long as the beliefs concerned are anti-LGBTI.

The only possible conclusion is that proposed new section 47B is homophobic and transphobic, which makes it unacceptable. It must be rejected.

**********

The fourth and final substantive fault in the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is the addition of a note to section 81, which deals with the rights of Defence Force chaplains to refuse to solemnise weddings.

The new note reads: “Example: A chaplain may refuse to solemnise a marriage that is not the union of a man and a woman where the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the chaplain’s church or faith group.”

I am strongly opposed to allowing these chaplains to discriminate against LGBTI couples in this way. Which might be surprising to some, especially given my view, expressed above, that ministers of religion should legally have this right.

Surprising, that is, until you consider that Defence Force chaplains are public servants, paid for out of everyone’s taxes – LGBTI and non-LGBTI, and religious and non-religious, alike[ix]. Indeed, the Defence Jobs Australia website indicates that chaplains are paid over $94,200 following completion of basic training.

The same website also claims that chaplains must “administer spiritual support to all members, regardless of their religion.”

Therefore, allowing discrimination by Defence Force chaplains fails in principle on two counts:

  • As public servants they should not be able to discriminate against members of the public simply because of their personal beliefs (otherwise we are allowing the Australian equivalent of Kim Davis), and
  • In providing spiritual support to Defence Force personnel, they are expected to do so for all people, not just those who are cisgender and/or heterosexual.

Which means that, if Defence Force chaplains are to continue to be authorised to officiate any weddings, then that must include the weddings of LGBTI people.

To do otherwise is, once again, homophobic and transphobic. It is unacceptable, and it must be rejected.

**********

There follows a few provisions that are actually positive in nature – removing the existing prohibition on the recognition of foreign marriages between two men, or two women[x] – before one final provision that establishes, clearly, that the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is more concerned with promoting homophobia and transphobia than in addressing LGBTI inequality.

That is an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act provision[xi] that currently provides an exception for conduct which is “in direct compliance with” the Marriage Act – because, for example, a civil celebrant is unable to lawfully marry an LGBTI couple.

The introduction of genuine marriage equality should lessen that discrimination, and potentially even obviate the need for such a provision to begin with.

Instead, this amendment expands the exception, by adding conduct that is “authorised by” the Marriage Act, thus ensuring that the exceptions to Australia’s federal LGBTI anti-discrimination framework, which are already too broad[xii], are broadened even further.

**********

SENATE SINODINOS DEBATE

Attorney-General George Brandis’ Bill is not aimed at achieving genuine marriage equality, and should perhaps be renamed the Marriage Amendment (Allowing any 2 adults to marry, but then allowing them to be denied service if they are LGBTI) Bill.

It is disappointing, although perhaps not entirely surprising, to observe that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Government just don’t get it when it comes to marriage equality.

First, they sought to impose an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on LGBTI Australians in order for our relationships to simply be recognised as equal under secular law.

Then we discover that their planned ‘reward’ – if the plebiscite is held, and if we are ultimately successful in their $200 million+ national opinion poll – is actually a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation, that spends more time and effort in expanding the rights of religious bodies, and civil celebrants, to discriminate against us than in actually implementing marriage equality.

We all know, far too well, that the equal recognition of our relationships is long overdue in Australian law. Unfortunately, that equality, genuine equality, will not be achieved via passage of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill.

At its core, it is homophobic and transphobic, making it unacceptable. I believe that, just as we have campaigned for Parliament to reject the plebiscite, and adopt a better process, we must also demand that they reject this ill-conceived legislation, and replace it with a better Bill.

If you believe that marriage equality should be exactly that – equality – please sign & share this petition to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: Equal Love Should Not Be Treated Unequally.

Footnotes:

[i] It would appear that this provision does not explicitly allow ministers of religion to discriminate against trans individuals or couples where the union is between two people who identify as a man and a woman – although the catch-all ‘right to discriminate’ in 47(1) “A minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this part” would nevertheless still apply.

[ii] Please note that I am not expressing support for such beliefs (against divorce and remarriage). I am merely using this example because, given many people sincerely hold such views, their differential treatment under the Bill makes it clear that the legislation is not concerned with protecting religious freedom, but instead aims to legitimise homophobia and transphobia.

[iii] Curiously, both the Attorney-General’s Media Release announcing the Exposure Draft Bill, and sub-section 2 of the proposed new section 47A, imply that civil celebrants do have such a power. This may be based on a very generous interpretation of section 39F of the Marriage Act 1961 which notes that “A person who is registered as a marriage celebrant may solemnise marriages at any place in Australia” – and in particular that the word may is used here rather than must.

However, it is just as easily argued that the fact ministers of religion currently enjoy an explicit ‘right to discriminate’ under section 47, while there is no equivalent section for civil celebrants, means civil celebrants cannot simply reject couples for any reason whatsoever.

More importantly, without an explicit power, it is likely the actions of civil celebrants would be captured by the anti-discrimination protections of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 – currently, with respect to sex and relationship status, and, if marriage equality is passed, with respect to sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status (unless a new right to discriminate is inserted).

[iv] For more, please see: Senator Leyonhjelm’s Marriage Equality Bill undermines the principle of LGBTI anti-discrimination. Should we still support it?

[v] With the definition of ‘marital or relationship status’ in section 4 of the Sex Discrimination Act explicitly including “(d) divorced”.

[vi] Interestingly, my interpretation of this provision means that, unlike ministers of religion, civil celebrants would not be able to reject trans individuals or couples who identify as a man and a woman, particularly because there is no other stand-alone right to refuse.

[vii] Which reads “Subsection (1) applies to facilities made available, and goods and services provided, whether for payment or not.”

[viii] Interestingly, this section would not allow religious bodies or organisations to refuse to provide facilities, goods or services to weddings involving one or two trans people where the couple identified as a man and a woman, although it is possible religious exceptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 would make such discrimination lawful.

[ix] Of course, I would argue that the High Court should find this arrangement – the use of taxpayer funds to hire people to perform an explicitly religious function – to be unconstitutional under section 116, but that is an argument for another day (and probably for a more adventurous High Court too).

[x] Sections 88B(4) and 88EA.

[xi] Subsection 40(2A)

[xii] For more, please see: What’s Wrong With the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984?

Letter to ALP MPs and Senators Calling on Them to Block the Plebiscite

Wednesday 14 September 2016

 

Dear ALP MP/Senator

 

Please Block the Marriage Equality Plebiscite

 

I am writing to call on you to cast your vote against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s enabling legislation to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Given the public declarations by Senators from the Greens, Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch that they will oppose this Bill, Labor Party MPs and Senators have the power, and I would argue the responsibility, to block Turnbull’s Bill, thereby preventing the plebiscite from proceeding.

 

Instead, it should be up to parliamentarians from across the political spectrum to debate, and vote on, a Bill that would hopefully make marriage equality a reality – using exactly the same procedure in which the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians were denied 12 years ago.

 

**********

 

Even as someone who has studied, been employed in and continues to be engaged with Australian politics, I must admit I knew little about ‘plebiscites’ before the Liberal-National Government first adopted one as their position on marriage equality on 11 August last year.

 

But there’s a pretty good explanation for that – despite the fact I am (far-too-rapidly) approaching the age of 40, there has not been an Australia-wide plebiscite, of any kind, since I was born.

 

Of course, given the Turnbull Coalition Government proposes to use this kind of national public vote to determine whether my relationship should be recognised equally under Commonwealth law, I have spent the past 13 months becoming better acquainted with this supposedly ‘democratic’ phenomenon.

 

In that period I have thought about, and written about, the idea of plebiscites generally, and the proposed marriage equality plebiscite specifically, enough to last a lifetime. And the more I have considered this issue in detail, the stronger my view has become that a plebiscite is an entirely unsuitable means to determine the human rights of LGBTI Australians.

 

From my perspective, and reflecting the multiple blog-posts, submissions and letters to politicians I have written about the plebiscite over that time, there are ten main reasons why I believe it should be blocked:

 

  1. A plebiscite is unnecessary[i]

 

The High Court has already determined that Commonwealth Parliament has the constitutional power to pass legislation introducing marriage equality. There is absolutely no need for a national public vote to be held beforehand, whether that be a referendum, plebiscite or otherwise. Instead, marriage equality should be passed in the same way it was originally banned – through a vote in Parliament.

 

  1. A plebiscite is inappropriate

 

The fact that the relationships of some people are not recognised equally under the law, solely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, is a denial of their fundamental human rights. Remedying this injustice should not be dependent on ‘popularity’, thus rendering a plebiscite an inappropriate method to resolve this issue.

 

Even if the plebiscite was ‘unsuccessful’, the denial of human rights caused by marriage inequality would not disappear, perhaps explaining why LGBTI people will continue to push for the laws to be amended irrespective of the result.

 

  1. A plebiscite is divisive

 

Some people (aka Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull) have argued that the plebiscite will involve a ‘respectful’ debate between proponents and opponents of reform, who, when the votes are tallied, will all accept the outcome, with the overall process bringing the nation closer together.

 

I disagree. It will instead see LGBTI Australians forced to publicly ‘beg’ for our rights, in the face of anti-equality campaigners, such as Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director, Lyle Shelton, who have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to denigrate LGBTI people and our relationships (with Mr Shelton linking same-sex parenting with the Stolen Generations on multiple occasions, comparing the introduction of marriage equality and the Safe Schools program with the rise of Nazism, and inciting ‘bathroom panic’ against trans women[ii]).

 

It is, at-best, naïve (and, at-worst, wilfully ignorant) to suggest that, after three-to-six months of divisive debate, with the worst kinds of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia thrown about by people like Mr Shelton, the passions and prejudices whipped up by the plebiscite will ‘magically’ subside.

 

  1. A plebiscite is wasteful

 

It is difficult to think of many examples where the Government, any Government, is willing to spend several months, and at least $170 million, doing something it could do for free, in a matter of weeks. That is exactly what the Turnbull Liberal-National Government is proposing, wasting time and money on a plebiscite when a Parliamentary vote could resolve the issue by the end of October. At no cost.

 

The money involved could be better spent on literally almost anything else, including:

 

  • Resettling an extra 2,297 refugees from Syria and Iraq
  • Supporting an additional 1,975 postgraduate students
  • Hiring 477 more registered nurses over four years
  • Employing an extra 578 teachers in public schools, or
  • Funding the Safe Schools program 20 times over.[iii]

 

If Turnbull and his Treasurer Scott Morrison were serious about ‘restoring the nation’s finances’, they could even use this money to reduce Government debt[iv], rather than throwing it away on an exercise that is basically a national opinion poll, one that isn’t even binding on the MPs and Senators putting it forward.

 

  1. A plebiscite is unprecedented[v]

 

I mentioned earlier that there has not been a nation-wide plebiscite in my lifetime. The last one – a multiple choice poll to select a new national anthem – was held in 1977 (although its result was not implemented for another seven years). The last plebiscite on a substantive matter of public policy was more than 98 years ago – the second of two plebiscites conducted during World War I regarding conscription. And that’s it, Australia’s entire history of plebiscites in one short paragraph.

 

There has never been a plebiscite to determine the rights of a minority group. And there is no person alive who has voted in an Australian plebiscite on an issue of substance – indeed, no-one born since Federation has ever voted in one. The decision to hold one, on the issue of marriage equality, is essentially unprecedented in contemporary history.

 

  1. A plebiscite is bizarre

 

The fact that there has not been a substantive plebiscite in almost a century means that Australia has managed to negotiate extraordinary amounts of change without the need to hold a national public opinion poll.

 

We’ve been through numerous wars (including introducing conscription, more than once), economic booms and busts, massive social reforms (such as the rise of feminism, the recognition of Aboriginal land rights and the decriminalisation of homosexuality), and revolutionary change to the institution of marriage itself (with the introduction of ‘no-fault divorce’ in 1975), all without a plebiscite.

 

In this context, it is downright bizarre that, of all the possible issues that theoretically could have been the subject of a plebiscite since 1917, Malcolm Turnbull and his Coalition Government believe the simple question of whether two men, or two women, can marry is the one worth making the subject of an expensive and time-consuming public vote.

 

  1. A plebiscite is inconsistent

 

The Government’s proposed marriage equality plebiscite is entirely inconsistent with recent political history. Or, if we’re being less charitable, it is hypocritical given the actions of the Liberal and National Parties over the past 12 years. This includes not just the banning of marriage equality via an ordinary parliamentary vote in August 2004 – then-Prime Minister John Howard did not hold a plebiscite before introducing his Marriage Amendment Act – but also repeatedly voting against overturning the ban in parliament in the decade since, again without the benefit of a $170 million national public vote.

 

The only thing that seemed to change before the Coalition’s August 2015 decision to adopt a plebiscite as their policy is the fact that the numbers in parliament shifted, such that, were a free vote to be held, marriage equality would have finally passed. The inconsistent decision to adopt a plebiscite can therefore be seen as a cynical manoeuvre to do more than just shift the goalposts, but to change the rules of the game entirely, solely to avoid defeat.

 

  1. A plebiscite is radical

 

An argument regularly made by people pushing a plebiscite is that it is ‘the most democratic way’ to resolve a controversial issue. A clear implication of such a statement is that dealing with these kinds of debates in the ordinary way, via our nation’s parliament, is consequently, ‘second-best’.

 

Following this logic to its natural conclusion, whenever a controversial matter of public policy arises in future there will be calls for it to be the subject of a plebiscite – and the Liberal and National Parties will have no rational reason to reject these demands. By holding a plebiscite on marriage equality, they are opening the door to plebiscites on issues like euthanasia or, more worryingly, the reintroduction of the death penalty or even ‘banning Muslim immigration’.

 

A plebiscite on marriage equality is therefore not a conservative position – in fact, it is an extremely radical view, one that could potentially change Australia’s entire system of Government, and not for the better.[vi]

 

  1. A plebiscite is unfair

 

Another argument against the plebiscite was perhaps best articulated recently by former High Court Justice Michael Kirby, and that is to note it is a process that is inherently unfair on Australia’s LGBTI community:

 

“[I]t’s a discriminatory step. It’s a step that is designed by those who propose it in the hope of defeating and delaying equality for citizens. It’s unfair to people who are of a different sexual orientation or gender identity and it’s a bad precedent for our law-making.”[vii]

 

The imposition of a plebiscite in order for LGBTI people to be treated fairly under secular law is a hurdle that has not been placed in front of any other minority group in order for them to attain equality. Erecting this barrier is effectively singling out people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status for differential, and detrimental, treatment.

 

It is particularly offensive given the issue of marriage equality, at its core, is about fairness, fairness to LGBTI people and to our relationships. The method in which this issue is resolved should also be fair – a plebiscite is anything but.

 

  1. A plebiscite is dangerous

 

Holding a plebiscite on marriage equality is dangerous in (at least) two ways. First, and this is something that is thankfully starting to receive coverage (including by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in the Second Reading Speech of his private member’s Bill), is that the divisive debate in the lead-up to the vote will be dangerous to young and/or vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, as well as to the children of rainbow families.

 

Should a plebiscite proceed, it is inevitable these groups will be subjected to hate-speech, and personal attacks. It is sadly also inevitable that, for some, it will have a negative impact on their mental health, including causing or exacerbating depression and, tragically, possibly leading some to take their own lives.

 

A plebiscite is also dangerous because it has the potential to lead to violent attacks on the LGBTI community. No, I am not talking about a tragedy similar to the recent heart-breaking events in Orlando. But I am talking about the more ‘everyday’ heart-breaks of homophobic and transphobic assaults, as well as the rise of hate-groups opposed to the mere existence of LGBTI people.

 

Two recent examples spring to mind here. The first was a shocking incident from February this year where a young man, who happens to live in the same apartment complex as my fiancé and I, was the victim of two homophobic assaults on the same night.[viii]

 

After being ‘gay-bashed’ by a group of people nearby he was assisted back to our block by a ‘good Samaritan’ who, upon discovering he had a boyfriend waiting upstairs (rather than a girlfriend), said “you’re one of those fags ya f**king queer c**t”, turned on the young man and hit him in the face. I challenge anyone, anywhere, not to be horrified that this sequence of events could occur in 2016.

 

The second example was the counter-demonstration to the 25 June marriage equality demonstration outside Sydney’s Town Hall, where a small, but obviously well-funded and well-organised, group shouted ‘paedo scum, protect our young’ loudly and insistently across George Street. I’ve been a regular attendee of marriage equality rallies since the first anniversary of Howard’s ban, but in those 11 years have never seen anything like it.

 

In this context, when people can be the victims of multiple acts of homophobic violence on the one night, and where homophobic and transphobic hate-groups are emerging (or re-emerging), I would argue it is grossly irresponsible to hold a vote that can only inflame the situation. Turnbull’s plebiscite is the spark that could ignite an explosion of hate-crimes, and he should call it off.

 

**********

 

Based on the thousands of words I have written in the 13 months since the plebiscite was first announced, and the couple of thousand more included above, my fiancé Steve and I both arrived at the same conclusion: that the plebiscite should be blocked, even if that carries with it a risk that marriage equality could be delayed as a result.

 

We have been together for more than eight years, having met in August 2008. And we have now been engaged for more than six and a half years, after Steve made me an extremely happy man by replying “Of course I will” to my proposal in January 2010.

 

At the time, we knew that it would take several years for the legal situation in Australia to change, and therefore accepted (or at least acknowledged) that we would be ‘waiting’ some time for the day when we would walk down the aisle. On an optimistic day, we thought we would probably be married by now: on a pessimistic day, perhaps not until later this decade, or even 2020.

 

But we didn’t envisage that in 2016 we would be comparatively so close to achieving equality, while simultaneously being so far way. And by that I mean that the numbers clearly exist in Parliament for marriage equality to be passed today – but the Turnbull Government will not allow that to happen unless it holds an unnecessary, inappropriate, divisive, wasteful, unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent, radical, unfair and frankly dangerous plebiscite beforehand.

 

Anyone with any amount of empathy would understand that, given the length of time we have already waited, we are becoming increasingly desperate to finally have the chance to marry our partner, in front of our families and friends, in exactly the same way that my brother and sister have already married theirs. Ideally, we want to be able to say “I do” while both of our grandmothers are still alive, and at some point before or on our 10 year anniversary, in August 2018.

 

But, we are not so desperate that we are willing to accept a fundamentally flawed process, designed by people and organisations that clearly do not have our best interests at heart, and imposed upon LGBTI Australians in a way that no other group has been forced to endure.

 

And we are not so focused on our own happiness that we are prepared to ignore the potential harms to young and vulnerable LGBTI people, who are yet to come to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity or intersex status in a country, and a world, in which they are still told, far too often, that who they are is not okay. And who would have to hear that message frequently, for months on end, if the plebiscite goes ahead.

 

Because Steve and I have both been that teenager, alone and in the closet, struggling to make sense of the homophobia coming from schools, and families, and politicians, and the media – and we owe it to those kids in the same situation now (as well as to our younger selves) not just to tell them that “It gets better”, but to make sure that it actually does get better.

 

That’s why we made the joint decision that we would rather wait even longer for our own right to get married if it means that these harms to others could be lessened, or even avoided altogether. And we remain proud of our choice.

 

**********

 

Of course, it is not just Steve and I who are affected by these discriminatory laws, or who would be impacted by any move to block the Government’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality. As you are no doubt aware, there are literally tens of thousands of couples in similar situations right around Australia.

 

And the impact of any decision which has the potential to cause a delay in the recognition of marriage equality will be even greater on some of these, depending on their age, health and other factors. There are of course some couples for whom a delay will mean, tragically, they do not get the opportunity to marry their own partner before their death(s).

 

Cognisant of this fact, and recognising that calling on political parties to block the plebiscite even if this has the consequence that marriage equality may not be achieved during this term is a ‘big ask’, I decided I could not actively advocate this view to members of the new Parliament without first ascertaining the views of other members of the LGBTI community.

 

Following the federal election on Saturday 2 July, I designed a short online survey, which included a range of questions of which the central one was this:

 

“What do you think should be the LGBTIQ community’s approach to the proposed marriage equality plebiscite?

 

  1. Block it, if possible – because it is unnecessary, wasteful and will cause harm to the LGBTIQ community, even if there is a risk marriage equality will not be passed for another 3 years as a consequence.
  2. Accept it, and fight to win – because, following the re-election of the Turnbull Government, holding the plebiscite may be the clearest path to achieving marriage equality, despite the potential for harm to the LGBTIQ community.
  3. Wait to see the details – because the plebiscite may or may not be acceptable, depending on the question asked, the criteria for success and the extent of ‘religious exceptions’ that are included.”

 

The survey was distributed, from 17 to 31 July, via my website[ix], through social media, via paid advertisements and by direct contact with networks to ensure there were responses from across the LGBTIQ community. It ultimately received 1,140 completed responses, including 840 from LGBTIQ people.

 

The results of this survey were totally unambiguous:

 

  • Block it, if possible: 786 respondents or 69%
  • Wait to see the details: 231 or 20%, and
  • Accept it, and fight to win: 123 or 11%.[x]

 

This outcome – two thirds or more of people wishing to see the plebiscite blocked, even if it meant marriage equality may be delayed – was replicated across nearly all demographic groups, including lesbian (75.4% block), gay (66.4%), bisexual (69.5%), transgender (71.4%) and queer (75.8%) respondents, as well as the parents in rainbow families (73.3%).

 

In fact, the only cohort that was somewhat lower than this figure was from non-LGBTIQ people who completed the survey – of whom ‘only’ 62.7% wished to see the plebiscite blocked, compared to 71.2% of respondents from within the LGBTIQ community.

 

Despite this, it is instructive to observe that those who have the most to gain from the recognition of marriage equality, but are exposed to the greatest risk from the process, and who have therefore probably considered the issue in the most detail, are more likely to oppose it than others who support marriage equality but who have less personally at stake.

 

Based on these results, as well as the results of recent surveys from other organisations (including PFLAG Australia, just.equal and GetUp) which have reported similar results, I have absolutely no hesitation in calling on you, as ALP members of the House of Representatives and Senators, to exercise your vote to block the plebiscite.

 

Steve and I want it. The majority of the LGBTIQ community want it. It is the right thing to do. And, I believe, it is the only fair thing to do in the circumstances.

 

**********

 

But you do not need to take my word for it. As part of my survey on the plebiscite described above I included a question inviting respondents to explain their decision – specifically, to outline why they wanted to block, accept, or wait to see the details of, the plebiscite[xi].

 

I include with this letter a document containing all of the 725 answers provided by the 786 respondents who indicated they wanted the plebiscite to be blocked:

Survey Results Part 2 Block – Reasons

 

They are passionate, thoughtful and eloquent (far more eloquent than this letter) explanations for why the idea of waiting another three years for marriage equality, even though we have waited far too long already, is a far more appealing option than engaging in a bitter and nasty public debate. I encourage you to read as many of them as you have the time to before you meet to determine your caucus position.

 

However, and noting that it is a near impossible task to choose some people’s intimate responses over other, equally-personal explanations, I will highlight a few of the answers which I found most affecting:

 

“Block, even though I am 66 and another 3 yrs wait or longer is unacceptable. I will marry in May next year, here if possible, if not in the US. The date is set. Public votes are very divisive, and there will be so much harm done, even if we win, that I simply cannot support it. It also sets a very dangerous precedent, subjecting people’s rights to a vote.”

 

“I think we should block the plebiscite because it is unnecessary, wasteful and divisive. The homophobic and transphobic debate that precedes it will cause real harm to young and vulnerable LGBTI people. Parliament should do its job to protect them from, rather than expose them to, abuse.”

 

“If I were bombarded at 17yrs by the kind of rhetoric we are likely to see spouted in the lead up to the plebiscite, I likely would have killed myself. We are killing ourselves fast enough without extra help.”

 

“I think we should block the plebiscite because it will encourage hate speech, it may lead to violence against homosexual couples and their children, it may cause even more same-sex attracted teens to contemplate suicide, it will be a waste of money, and even if the vote is overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality, politicians still have the option to vote against it so it’s not legally binding and doesn’t actually mean anything anyway.”

 

These three comments from trans respondents should be mandatory reading for anyone who, in September 2016, still supports a plebiscite:

 

“As a visible member of the transgender community I believe the plebiscite will be used by homo/bi/transphobic bigots to spread hate which will have a direct impact on my safety. I have experienced verbal and physical harassment in the recent past as a direct result of hate speech in the media and link it to an anti- safe schools television debate the night before. Visible trans, gender non conforming and queer people will be most at risk if the ACL is given a free-for-all platform. It’s easy to say yes to the plebiscite if you’re not at risk of experiencing violence.”

 

“I think we should block the plebiscite because it gives angry fringe members of a powerful majority a soapbox to use to hurt our most vulnerable members. Marriage equality is important, it’s our right and we know that having it improves the mental health of queer people, but we also know that young and questioning members of our community are more at risk than many people old enough and secure enough to be thinking about marriage. Young people trying to come to terms with their identities, struggling to accept themselves and cope with school and life do not need powerful wealthy leaders in society telling them that they are wrong and do not deserve human rights or basic decency. These are people who have been proven time and time again to be at high risk of mental illness and suicide, and we have to stand up for them and protect them. As sad as it is, it is worth forgoing our right to equal marriage, if it protects the young and vulnerable members of our society. It is worth holding off until we can all be validated equally. And so it is not worth giving these bigots an opportunity to attack us.”

 

“Firstly, I believe it is absolutely offensive that the entire country should have to vote on whether or not I should have the same rights as my heterosexual friends and neighbours. Secondly, as we are already seeing the damaging consequences of creating a platform, via the plebiscite, for homophobic hate speech. Violently homophobic flyers are already being dropped in letterboxes all over the country, and this is only the beginning. I fear for the safety of myself, my partner, and my friends. I fear for the safety of LGBT youth. And for what? A plebiscite will not even bind the government to action. Turnbull promised us equality, and he has utterly failed to deliver on that promise.”

 

Finally, these five answers from LGBTIQ parents demonstrate more ‘family values’ in a few short paragraphs than the Australian Christian Lobby has shown in a decade of campaigning against marriage equality:

 

“I do not want to give a platform to people who will turn this into a debate about whether society wants the children of gay and lesbian people. For some weird reason this is exactly what happens every time they start to have their say. My children are 11 and 8 and it is hard enough as it is being the ‘gay mums’ kids in their suburban school. It would be good if the legislation was passed, but I do not want the debate as it will injure my kids’ sense of being wanted in society.”

 

“Block it because it is unnecessary, expensive and not binding. But mostly because I have three kids and they will be the focus of the ‘no’ campaign. I am extremely fearful of the effect it could have on their mental health and general well-being.”

 

“It’s enough that my wife and I aren’t legally recognised by the Australian government, we constantly face discrimination daily, but to give the horrible people who are hell bent against my family a platform to spread their hate is ludicrous. Why should I have to explain to my 3yr old that his family is as valid as any other?”

 

“I think the plebiscite is an expensive, invasive process. I don’t like the idea of my human rights being put to a public vote, and I fear the negative impact a public opinion poll on same sex relationships could have on my 4 year old daughter and other children like her raised in rainbow families.”

 

“I would rather wait for real equality than expose my 3 young kids to a hate campaign about their families. The hate campaign by the ACL etc is already having a negative impact on my 9, 8 and 6yo kids. I do not want a full on, federally funded hate campaign that we all know is going to be aimed at children. It is wrong. It is not a price I am willing to pay to get marriage equality.”

 

As I said earlier, these are passionate, thoughtful and eloquent reasons for why so many members of the LGBTI community want to see the plebiscite blocked. I sincerely hope that, even if you do not listen to me, you do listen to them.

 

**********

 

Given the failure of the Turnbull Government to provide any information about its proposed plebiscite ahead of the federal election on 2 July this year, LGBTI people responding to my survey indicating they wanted to see the plebiscite blocked were doing so on the basis of principle – essentially saying that, irrespective of any details that might eventually be announced, they did not believe a plebiscite was the right way forward on this issue.

 

One-in-five respondents did indicate that they wanted to see more details before making up their minds. Unfortunately, on the basis of the Government’s announcements yesterday (Tuesday 13 September) – where they finally added some flesh to the bare bones of their plebiscite – it is highly unlikely many would now be convinced to support their proposal.

 

That is because there are significant problems with the mechanism outlined by the Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, and Special Minister of State, Senator Scott Ryan, via their media release and press conference yesterday.

 

First of all, and the issue that seems to have attracted the most attention, is that the Turnbull Government is proposing to allocate $7.5 million to the ‘Yes’ case, and $7.5 million to the ‘No’ case (bringing the overall cost of this exercise to $170 million), despite the fact that the arguments surrounding marriage equality have been made for more than a decade.

 

The prospect of the Australian Christian Lobby, Marriage Alliance and Australian Marriage Forum being provided with taxpayer’s money to spread homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia is horrifying to many people, myself included. And the idea of publicly-funded television commercials linking rainbow families with the Stolen Generations, the introduction of marriage equality with the rise of Nazism, or inciting ‘bathroom panic’ against trans women – comments ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton has made just this year[xii] – is particularly offensive.

 

But, from my perspective, an even bigger problem with the proposed plebiscite is the question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” This question does not mean marriage equality, because, based on this wording, it would not include many transgender (and especially non-binary identifying people) and intersex people who are currently prohibited from marrying but whose relationships do not fall within the category of ‘same-sex’ couple.

 

It is possible that this issue will be addressed in the amendments to the Marriage Act itself. But we have not seen the Government’s proposed substantive changes, and do not know when these will be released. Without being satisfied that all LGBTI people will be allowed to marry, I believe it is impossible for people of good conscience to pass the enabling legislation.

 

Other problems that have already emerged with the details announced yesterday include:

 

  • The proposed plebiscite will not be ‘self-executing’, nor will it be binding on any Government MP (with some indicating that they will vote against, irrespective of the result) – which means that, even after spending $170 million and wasting three-to-six months on this exercise, amendments to the Marriage Act will still be subject to a conscience vote (leaving the fundamental question, of what the point of the plebiscite is, unanswered).
  • While the Government has indicated that the ‘criteria for success’ will be 50% +1 vote nationally, it has also confirmed that results will be reported based on individual electorates and by state or territory, making it easier for MPs and Senators to vote against equality on the basis of their individual constituency, even if the nominated hurdle has been cleared.
  • The limit on tax-deductible contributions, of $1500 per individual, may prima facie appear fair but in practice disadvantages the ‘Yes’ case, because a number of religious organisations – who do not pay tax to begin with – will still be able to accept donations and spend this money on public advertising promoting the ‘No’ side, and
  • It has already been revealed[xiii] that, outside of any publicly-funded commercials, there will be absolutely no requirement for ‘third party’ advertisements to be truthful, increasing the likelihood of anti-LGBTI vilification on the nation’s airwaves.

 

These are just the problems that are already in the public domain. We are still not aware, because the Government has not made the details of its amendments to the Marriage Act itself known, whether it will introduce new ‘religious exceptions’ allowing people to discriminate against LGBTI couples, and if so how broad these new ‘rights to bigotry’ might be (noting that anything beyond the existing right for ministers of religion to refuse to perform a religious ceremony is completely unacceptable[xiv]).

 

In the same way that the more I considered the idea of a plebiscite, the stronger my personal opposition became, the more that is revealed about Turnbull’s proposed mechanism to conduct this vote, the less it is able to be supported.

 

**********

 

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my call on you, as Labor Party MPs and Senators, to cast your vote against Malcolm Turnbull’s enabling legislation to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Please block the plebiscite because it is unnecessary, inappropriate, divisive, wasteful, unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent, radical, unfair and frankly dangerous.

 

Please block the plebiscite because it will inevitably harm young and vulnerable members of the LGBTI community.

 

Please block the plebiscite in the name of thousands of couples like Steve and I, who desperately want to get married but who are prepared to wait rather than risk seeing that harm inflicted others.

 

Please block the plebiscite because the majority of LGBTIQ Australians believe that is the right course of action.

 

And please block the plebiscite, even if there is a risk doing so might result in marriage equality being delayed by three years.

 

Of course, that does not have to be the case. There is absolutely no reason why 226 representatives of the Australian people, sitting in the House of Representatives and Senate in Canberra, could not debate, vote on and resolve this issue, all before the end of October.

 

Despite yesterday’s protestations by the Prime Minister, and Attorney-General, and their attempts both to apportion blame and to speak on behalf of gay and lesbian couples around Australia, we are more than capable of thinking, and speaking, for ourselves.

 

We know who the real roadblock on the path to equality is. We are completely aware of who it is standing in the way of our relationships finally being treated fairly under the law.

 

It is a Government that, rather than vote on the issue of marriage equality in the ordinary way – in parliament – has instead chosen to engage in a $170 million glorified national opinion that will take up to six months and won’t even be binding on its own MPs.

 

It is an Attorney-General, and Cabinet, and Party-room, who have engineered a ‘mean and tricky’ process, designed to increase the chances of the plebiscite’s defeat, one which will allow taxpayers’ money to be spent on vilifying LGBTI Australians, our relationships and our families.

 

And it is a Prime Minister who claims to support marriage equality, but who is not prepared to do so on the floor of our nation’s parliament. Who says he is on our side, but will not actually do anything that demonstrates that commitment. Who is more interested in retaining his job than in recognising the rights of LGBTI people.

 

They are who I will blame, as will the vast majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, should the current Parliament be unable to pass marriage equality during this term.

 

So, I implore you to listen not just to me, but to the views of literally hundreds of LGBTI people who undertook my survey, who want you to block the plebiscite.

 

Please join with the Greens, Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch in voting against the Government’s enabling legislation, thereby increasing pressure to resolve this issue in Parliament – the same place that prohibited equal treatment of our relationships in the first place.

 

Please, please, please block Malcolm Turnbull’s marriage equality plebiscite.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

**********

 

Hon Bill Shorten MP Official portrait 20 March 2013

Will Bill Shorten be the leader that Malcolm Turnbull clearly isn’t?

 

Footnotes:

[i] For more on the first four arguments raised, please see my submission to the Senate Inquiry which considered this issue in late 2015: No Referendum. No Plebiscite. Just Pass the Bill. https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/08/29/no-referendum-no-plebiscite-just-pass-the-bill/

[ii] For more on exactly how bitter and nasty the campaign is likely to become, please see: Lyle Shelton’s ‘Respectful’ Debate. https://alastairlawrie.net/2016/09/06/lyle-sheltons-respectful-debate/

[iii] For a longer list, please see: 7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million. https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/12/22/7-better-ways-to-spend-158-4-million/

[iv] Please also see my 2016-17 Pre-Budget Submission: Save $158.4 million – Scrap the Marriage Equality Plebiscite. https://alastairlawrie.net/2016/02/02/2016-17-pre-budget-submission-save-158-4-million-scrap-the-marriage-equality-plebiscite/

[v] The next four reasons (5-8) are based on the following post: Malcolm Turnbull’s Proposed Marriage Equality Plebiscite is Truly Extraordinary. https://alastairlawrie.net/2016/05/22/malcolm-turnbulls-proposed-marriage-equality-plebiscite-is-truly-extraordinary/

[vi] An argument which at the very least has seen WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith indicate he will not vote for the enabling legislation, although so far he is alone in this position. Brisbane Times, Dean Smith: Not voting for plebiscite is a vote for parliamentary democracy, 13 September 2016. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/openly-gay-liberal-senator-dean-smith-wont-vote-on-samesex-marriage-plebiscite-20160913-grf006.html

[vii] Lateline, Interview with Michael Kirby, 26 August 2016: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2016/s4527742.htm

[viii] Daily Telegraph, Gay man bashed twice in Waterloo: “I’ve never been so scared in my life and I thought I would die”, 23 February 2016. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/gay-man-bashed-twice-in-waterloo-ive-never-been-so-scared-in-my-life-and-thought-i-would-die/news-story/f269aa5cb3d623754e7e16109e0a1147

[ix] Please see: To Plebiscite or not to plebiscite? https://alastairlawrie.net/2016/07/17/to-plebiscite-or-not-to-plebiscite/

[x] Please see: Plebiscite Survey Results: Part 1. https://alastairlawrie.net/2016/08/07/plebiscite-survey-results-part-1/

[xi] Please see: Plebiscite Survey Results: Part 2, In your own words. https://alastairlawrie.net/2016/08/21/plebiscite-survey-results-part-2-in-your-own-words/

[xii] Please see: Lyle Shelton’s ‘Respectful’ Debate. https://alastairlawrie.net/2016/09/06/lyle-sheltons-respectful-debate/

[xiii] Guardian Australia, Marriage equality plebiscite ads run by third parties won’t need to be true, 13 September 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/sep/13/marriage-equality-plebiscite-campaign-ads-run-by-third-parties-wont-need-to-be-true

[xiv] Please see: Senator Leyonhjelm’s Marriage Equality Bill undermines the principle of LGBTI anti-discrimination. Should we still support it? https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/12/21/senator-leyonhjelms-marriage-equality-bill-undermines-the-principle-of-lgbti-anti-discrimination-should-we-still-support-it/

Response to Letter to Malcolm Turnbull About the Marriage Equality Plebiscite

A lot has happened in the 10 days since I first posted my letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the marriage equality plebiscite.

To begin with, a number of Coalition MPs have publicly revealed that, irrespective of the outcome of any plebiscite, they will continue to vote against the equal recognition of LGBTI relationships.

This conservative crusade was led by Senator Eric Abetz who told The Guardian that:

“everyone knows my view is very strongly that a marriage between a man and a woman is the foundational institution for socialising the next generation. And every member of parliament will make up his or her mind after the plebiscite is held. People will take into account the views of the electorate, the views of the nation and their own personal views… There will be people in the parliament who could not support the outcome of a plebiscite whichever way it went.”

His view – that if the voters of Australia supported marriage equality at a plebiscite they could essentially ‘get stuffed’ – was soon supported by both fellow Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, who told Sky News that “[a] plebiscite is a glorified opinion poll, and no government should be bound by that” and Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie, the latter so committed to opposing LGBTI equality she is willing to deny legal rights to her own brother.

Then, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott (who similarly thinks his own relationship more worthy of recognition that that of his sibling) jetted off to address an audience of homophobes in the US, telling them that:

“[w]e shouldn’t try to change something without understanding it, without grasping why it is one that one man and one woman open to children until just a very few years ago has always been considered the essence of marriage and the heart of family… We can’t shirk our responsibilities to the future, but let’s also respect and appreciate values and institutions that have stood the test of time and pass them on, undamaged, when that’s best. That’s a goal we should all be able to share” [emphasis added].

Despite claiming that he still supports holding a marriage equality plebiscite, it is clear which outcome he wanted, placing into serious doubt his sincerity in introducing legislation following a successful ‘yes’ vote (were he still Prime Minister – a position to which he obviously wishes to return).

The Australian Christian Lobby has also done its job in undermining the credibility of any marriage equality plebiscite, with comments reported by The Guardian that:

“Abbott emerged from that meeting announcing the Coalition had decided to use its numbers to block the introduction into the Australian parliament of yet another bill to change the definition of marriage… Instead, a people’s vote known as a plebiscite would be held sometime after the 2016 election, kicking the issue into the long grass (putting the issue off) and blunting the momentum of same-sex marriage lobbyists” [emphasis added].

Australian Marriage Equality head Rodney Croome, quoted in the same article, quite accurately summed up these developments with the following: “[a]s a policy option, the plebiscite is collapsing under the weight of its own cynicism.”

Indeed, one of the most pleasing aspects of this week’s debate has been the increasing media scrutiny of the proposal to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, with respected journalists such as Lenore Taylor describing it asdaft and Mark Kenny observing that:

“Malcolm Turnbull’s commitment to the plebiscite can be seen for what it really is: an internal matter – the price of entry to the leadership. Slow and costly… his own credibility with voters is also at stake if he is seen to trade principles in pursuit of power and an easier life.”

The final major development of the past 10 days was yesterday’s (Friday 29 January 2016) announcement by Australian Marriage Equality that it now believes there is majority support for passing majority equality legislation in both houses of parliament – if only the Coalition were willing to grant their MPs and Senators a free vote.

All of which puts the issue of marriage equality squarely in the Prime Minister’s court (the current one, Malcolm Turnbull, not Prime Minister-in-exile Tony Abbott). The original proposal to hold a marriage equality plebiscite may not have been his, but, now that he is in the Lodge, he owns it.

It is up to Malcolm Turnbull to decide whether Australia will be subjected to a pointless plebiscite on this issue. The time has come for him to show whether he is a leader who is strong enough to back a free vote, or whether he is instead prepared to allow this farce to drag on for not just months, but years, solely for reasons of political expediency.

The signs, however, are not good. Turnbull reiterated the Government’s position in support of a plebiscite to 3AW Radio just yesterday, saying it will “absolutely” pass parliament following a successful vote (something which Abetz, Bernardi, McKenzie and others may have more to say about in coming weeks).

Finally, he has responded to my letter to him on this subject – well, sort of anyway. Given he seems to have outsourced his decision-making on marriage equality to his homophobic predecessor Tony Abbott, it is possibly unsurprising, although nevertheless disappointing, that he has outsourced responsibility for answering correspondence regarding the marriage equality plebiscite to Attorney-General Senator George Brandis, who in turn has delegated it to his Department.

Here is the Government’s response to my letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the marriage equality plebiscite:

 

“27 January 2016

 

Mr Alastair Lawrie

[Address withheld]

 

Dear Mr Lawrie

Thank you for your recent correspondence to the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, about same-sex marriage. Your correspondence was referred to the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, as marriage falls within his portfolio responsibilities. The Attorney-General has asked that I reply to you on his behalf.

I appreciate you taking the time to write to the Government on the issue of same-sex marriage and for sharing your personal experiences. It is clear that this issue holds particular significant for you.

The Government appreciates that, like you, many Australians have strong personal views about same-sex marriage. That is why, last year, it was decided that this issue should be resolved through a national vote that gives every Australian the opportunity to have their say.

The Government believes it is thoroughly democratic to ask the Australian people whether the Marriage Act 1961 should be amended to allow for same-sex marriage, provided there are appropriate safeguards in place to protect religious freedom[i].

Although a plebiscite will cost money, the Government is of the view that every Australian should be able to have their say on this important issue.

Thank you for bringing your views to the Government’s attention.

 

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Marriage Law and Celebrants Section”

 

Croome on Plebiscite

 

[i] The reference to “appropriate safeguards in place to protect religious freedom” is obviously of major concern, given the push for exceptions to be granted to civil celebrants and other businesses that supply weddings to allow them to discriminate against LGBTI couples. This is an issue that will be addressed in a future post.