No Referendum. No Plebiscite. Just Pass the Bill.

The following is my submission to the current Senate Inquiry into whether there should be a referendum or plebiscite into marriage equality. As you can tell from the title of this post, I am strongly against both.

For more information, or to make your own submission, go here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Marriage_Plebiscite

Committee Secretary

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

PO Box 6100

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

legcon.sen@aph.gov.au

Saturday 29 August 2015

Dear Committee Members

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO “THE MATTER OF A POPULAR VOTE, IN THE FORM OF A PLEBISCITE OR REFERENDUM, ON THE MATTER OF MARRIAGE IN AUSTRALIA”

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission on the question of whether Australia should hold a ‘public vote’ on the issue of marriage equality, and if so what form and timing such a vote should take.

My overall response to this question is that a marriage equality plebiscite or referendum would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore should not be held.

My detailed responses to the terms of reference to the inquiry are set out below.

a. An assessment of the content and implications of a question to be put to electors

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

b. An examination of the resources required to enact such an activity, including the question of the contribution of Commonwealth funding to the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

c. An assessment of the impact of the timing of such an activity, including the opportunity for it to coincide with a general election

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

d. Whether such an activity is an appropriate method to address matters of equality and human rights

It is absolutely inappropriate to use a ‘public vote’ to determine whether all people should be treated equally under the law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The recognition of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should not be subject to a popularity contest, and only granted if enough people express the view, through such a vote, that we are ‘worthy’.

In circumstances where it is not already formally recognised, the right for all couples to be married under secular law should be recognised in the usual place and in the usual way – in our nation’s parliament.

Turning specifically to the question of a referendum, the High Court has already found that the Commonwealth Parliament has the constitutional power to introduce marriage equality.

In the 2013 case overturning the Australian Capital Territory’s same-sex marriage laws, the High Court stated, unequivocally, that: “[w]hen used in s51(xxi), “marriage” is a term which includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.”[i]

This makes those who argue for a ‘constitutional referendum’ on this subject, or who even suggest that one could be held, seem to be one of two things, either:

  1. Completely lacking in understanding of the Constitution, and the Australian system of government generally (and arguably dangerously ill-informed where such people are current parliamentarians)

Or

  1. Motivated by a desire to block the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex Australians by whatever means necessary, even by holding an unnecessary referendum, solely because it imposes a higher threshold for success (the requirement to be passed by both a majority of voters, and a majority of voters in a majority of states).

While there are fewer legal arguments against holding a plebiscite on marriage equality, there remain strong reasons why it would be inappropriate.

First, as described above, whether human rights are recognised or not should not be determined through a popularity contest.

Second, the result of any such plebiscite would not be binding on the Parliament, and there would obviously be no requirement for a successful result to be recognised immediately (as demonstrated by the 1977 plebiscite on the national anthem, which was not legislated until 1984).

Third, and related to the above, the suggestion to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality appears to be nothing more than a delaying tactic, designed to hold off the prospect of full equality for LGBTI Australians for at least another term, or more (especially given Prime Minister Abbott has expressed his desire for it to be held after the next federal election, and even then after the referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians).

Fourth, and finally, it should be noted that the same people who are arguing for a plebiscite now (including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Deputy Liberal Leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Treasurer Joe Hockey) voted against marriage equality in the Parliament in August 2004 and, joined by Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, did so again in September 2012.

At no point did they express the view that parliamentarians voting on marriage equality was somehow inappropriate – at least while the Parliament was voting ‘No’.

Indeed, in May, responding to the Irish marriage equality referendum and rejecting a similar proposal here, Prime Minister Abbott said that: “questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth Parliament”.[ii]

The only thing that appears to have changed is that, unlike 2004 and 2012, and were a Liberal Party conscience vote to be granted, marriage equality legislation would have a reasonable chance of success in 2015.

Which only makes the decision to reject the concept of a parliamentary vote, in favour of a plebiscite, appear even worse.

It is not just moving the goalposts, it is changing the fundamental rules of the game, to thwart opponents who simply want the right to be treated equally under the law.

It is beyond unreasonable, it is hypocritical and grossly unfair, and should be rejected.

A referendum or plebiscite on marriage equality would also be extraordinarily wasteful.

Public estimates of the cost of holding such a vote (particularly when it is a standalone ballot, which is the preference of Prime Minister Abbott) have put the figure at in excess of $100 million.[iii]

This is extraordinarily expensive, particularly given introducing marriage equality is something that could be done by our nation’s Parliament in the ordinary course of events, at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, if the Abbott Liberal-National Government genuinely wants to spend $100-150 million on issues of concern to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, then might I suggest the following:

  • Implementing the reforms recommended by the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, to end this gross violation of human rights
  • Removing out-of-pocket medical expenses for transgender Australians
  • Increasing funding for the Safe Schools Coalition to ensure it reaches students in every school across the country and
  • Funding housing services for LGBTI young people, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

All of these suggestions, and indeed a great many others, would be better uses of public monies than throwing millions of dollars away on an unnecessary, inappropriate and wasteful plebiscite or referendum.

In addition to the above reasons, it should also be acknowledged that a public vote on marriage equality has the potential to be incredibly divisive, and therefore dangerous.

This is because any referendum or plebiscite would necessarily stir up homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in the community, and especially in the media.

We experienced a small taste of what such a debate would look like this week when the Daily Telegraph newspaper devoted its front page, and several pages thereafter, to attacking the idea that students should be exposed to the reality that rainbow families exist, and are normal (with one columnist even ‘bravely’ telling a 12 year old girl that her family was not normal).

The only positive aspect of this outrageous and horrific ‘beat-up’ is that it has gradually receded in prominence, replaced by other stories as part of the regular news cycle.

Unfortunately, the holding of a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would all but ensure that such stories were featured prominently for days, weeks or even months on end.

We should not underestimate the damage that such a vote would cause.

Research consistently finds that young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, and have substantially higher rates of suicide than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts, with one of the main causes being the discrimination and prejudice to which they are exposed every day.

A bitter and protracted public debate, about whether who they are should be treated equally under the law or not, would inevitably have a significant, negative impact on their mental health.

But they would not be the only ones adversely affected. A nasty campaign against the equality of LGBTI families, which would be an inevitable part of any public vote, would also negatively impact on the wellbeing of the children of these families.

Indeed, nearly all LGBTI Australians would probably be affected in some way by the holding of a public vote to determine whether we should continue to be treated as second class citizens by our own country or not. Such a vote should not be held.

A plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive. It should be comprehensively rejected by this Inquiry, and by the Commonwealth Parliament.

e. The terms of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive.

I therefore call on all Senators to reject the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate, and to resist any and all attempts to hold a plebiscite or referendum on this subject in the future.

f. Any other related matters

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever to hold a referendum on something which the High Court has already found is within the power of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Nor is there any justification to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality. I am 37 years old, and there has not been a federal plebiscite in my lifetime.

It is bizarre, and offensive, that the first plebiscite since 1977 should be held to determine whether my relationship should be treated equally under the law.

My fiancé Steven and I recently celebrated our 7th anniversary. We have been engaged for more than five and a half years. We, like thousands of other LGBTI couples in Australia, are done waiting.

We have gone to protests, we have written submissions, we have commented in the media, we have patiently (and sometimes less than patiently) campaigned for change.

Finally, when the numbers for reform appear to exist within the Parliament, if not this year then certainly after the 2016 election (irrespective of who wins), Prime Minister Abbott and the Liberal-National Government he leads seek to change the rules.

Despite voting against my equality for more than a decade, without reservation, he and his colleagues now believe that this is not something which can be determined by the Commonwealth Parliament.

Plainly, they are wrong. Marriage equality can and should be passed, in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the same places where it was banned in August 2004.

And, if our current House of Representatives MPs and Senators will not do their job, if they refuse to legislate for the equal right to marry for all Australians irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then the Australian people must do their job next year and vote them out. Because LGBTI Australians have waited long enough.

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

[i] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55, para 38.

[ii] “Gay Marriage Referendum in Australia Dismissed by Tony Abbott”, ABC News Online, 25 May 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-24/leaders-dismiss-same-sex-marriage-referendum-in-australia/6493180

[iii] “Williams said the average cost of a referendum was between $100m and $150m outside an election and half that if it was held in conjunction with an election”: “Tony Abbott says no to referendum on same-sex marriage, despite Irish vote”, Guardian Australia, 24 May 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/24/tony-abbott-says-no-to-referendum-on-same-sex-marriage-despite-irish-vote

Why I Don’t Support the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

Tonight is the 1st anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s historic decisions in the Proposition 8 and Defense of Marriage Act cases – reinstating marriage equality in California, ensuring couples legally married under state law could not be denied federal benefits, and giving impetus to a surging tide of marriage equality litigation across the US [As an aside, if you get the chance to watch recently released documentary The Case Against 8, do, it’s amazing].

And from tomorrow, Australian couples where one partner has British citizenship will be able to start marrying in UK consulates in (selected) capital cities around the country.

Both developments mean that the question of how marriages solemnised by countries which already have marriage equality are treated under Australian law is firmly back on the public, and political, agenda.

As you may already be aware, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young earlier this year introduced the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 in Commonwealth Parliament. If passed, it would ensure that same-sex couples validly married under the laws of another country would be treated as married under Australian law.

Which sounds eminently reasonable. Indeed, as someone who is a long-term LGBTI advocate himself, is engaged to be married (and has been for four and a half years already), and has contemplated using the laws of either New York or New Zealand to marry his own partner, what problem could I possibly have with this proposed legislation?

Here goes then – at the risk of making myself unpopular with (at least some) other marriage equality advocates, the following is why I do not support progressing with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014:

My problem is not necessarily about what is included in the Bill (although there is an issue in the drafting which I will come to later). It almost goes without saying that I completely support the legal recognition of the marriages of same-sex couples that have been wed in other countries.

Instead, my problem concerns what is not included in the Bill – the recognition of domestic marriages – and the consequence of only recognising marriages conducted ‘outside’ Australia, and not those ‘inside’ at the same time.

If passed, such legislation would create a situation whereby there would be three main distinct categories of same-sex couples who wish to be treated as married in Australia:

  • Couples who have the financial resources to take advantage of the opportunity to marry under the laws of another country;
  • Couples who have been or are able to marry under the laws of another country because of their current or former nationality (including where one partner has UK citizenship or where the couple has emigrated from a country with marriage equality); and
  • Couples who do not have the financial resources or nationality to be able to take advantage of marriage equality elsewhere.

Only couples in the first two categories would be able to be considered legally married.

In effect, if the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill were to succeed, Australia would have a system which, far from recognising genuine ‘marriage equality’, would actually create new types of marriage inequality, only this time based on distinctions around class and nationality rather than sexual orientation.

Put simply, I cannot advocate for a Bill which would provide the opportunity for a couple who can afford it to get married overseas and have that marriage legally recognised here, but which would tell an elderly couple barely surviving on the age pension that they cannot be married under Australian law because they do not have the money.

If we are genuinely interested in marriage equality, then both couples must have the same right to wed. To put it another way, I am only interested in advocating for a Bill which attempts to redress the injustice perpetrated against both couples, not just the one that can afford to.

Now, some advocates might draw parallels between the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 and the various state and territory same-sex marriage bills that were pursued in Tasmania, NSW and the ACT in recent years. They could argue that both reforms are about gradual or incremental change and therefore both should be supported.

I disagree. While the state and territory same-sex marriage bills raised a range of complex ethical issues, including that they were never genuinely ‘equal’ under Commonwealth law, and more substantively that their final versions were deliberately non-trans* and intersex inclusive (see Notes below), they at least had some substantive arguments in their favour.

Those Bills involved asking state and territory MPs to step in where Commonwealth Parliamentarians had clearly abrogated their responsibility to treat all couples equally. In doing so, advocates were asking state and territory parliaments to do all that they legally could to reduce the discrimination experienced by same-sex couples.

State and territory same-sex marriage bills, and most notably the Bill that was passed in the ACT, also had the benefit of clarifying the constitutional position of marriage equality in Australia. The High Court, in its decision on 12 December 2013, found that while state and territory-based same-sex marriage laws were invalid, Commonwealth parliament clearly has the legal authority to introduce marriage equality through amendments to the Marriage Act 1961.

Which means that, while the Court’s decision to invalidate the marriages of 31 same-sex couples who had been wed in Canberra during that five day window of opportunity was obviously heartbreaking for them, the overall outcome was also of immense benefit to the wider marriage equality movement – it put the pressure squarely back on Commonwealth MPs as the only people who can remove marriage discrimination in the law.

Which makes it incredibly odd – and that’s putting it kindly – that the first Bill to be introduced after that decision, and (from an outsider’s perspective anyway) what seems likely the first Bill to be debated, is legislation which asks for something less than what is necessary to achieve full equality.

The Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 essentially involves asking the same people, sitting in the same place and exercising the same powers, who could deliver us full equality, to pass a law which falls far short of what we want, and fails to deliver the rights we deserve. In this light, the current Bill is inferior to the – already problematic – state and territory same-sex marriage laws.

It is also difficult to work out what the tactics might be in pursuing such a strategy. After all, it is hard to imagine many, or indeed any, Commonwealth MPs voting to recognise marriages solemnised elsewhere who would not also vote to recognise marriages entered into domestically.

The level of opposition to such a Bill would also probably be the same – while the people who support ongoing discrimination against LGBTI people in the Marriage Act might be a little bit slow to grasp the concept of equality, they would be quick to reject anything which ended up with the recognition of married same-sex couples on Australian shores.

Which makes the decision to pursue the recognition of overseas marriages first, isolated from the question of domestic marriages, seem too clever by half. Perhaps the only benefit is that it has instigated another parliamentary inquiry into marriage equality (although even that might not feel like much of a benefit as we all write another submission, to yet another inquiry, arguing for our equality, when what we really need is for Commonwealth MPs to just get it done already).

For those interested, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently considering Senator Hanson-Young’s Bill, and is accepting public submissions until Thursday 31 July (details here: <http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Recognition_of_Foreign_Marriages_Bill_2014 ).

I do commend Australian Marriage Equality for ensuring that their ‘pro forma’ online submission encourages people to call for both the recognition of foreign marriages and for marriages performed here (details here: <http://www.australianmarriageequality.org ).

Nevertheless, I would go further than that. I would explicitly argue to Senator Hanson-Young, and to anyone who wishes to proceed with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014, that they should reconsider. Once the Senate inquiry is completed, and presents its final report to Parliament by Wednesday 3 September, I believe this legislation should be abandoned.

The next Bill to be debated in the Senate Chamber should be, must be, legislation which provides for genuine marriage equality, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and not one which would allow some same-sex couples to marry, but only those from certain classes or nationalities.

Still unconvinced? There is one more problem with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 which, as I alluded to earlier, lies in the drafting of the Bill itself. And it is not a minor problem, either.

The Bill would leave in tact the current definition of marriage in section 5 of the Marriage Act 1961 (“marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”). Instead, it replaces section 88EA with the following:

(1)  Despite the definition of marriage in subsection 5(1), a union between:

(a)  a man and another man; or

(b)  a woman and another woman;

solemnised in a foreign country under local law as a marriage is recognised as a marriage in Australia.

(2)  The parties to a union mentioned in subsection (1) have the same rights and obligations under this Act, or under any law of the Commonwealth, as the parties to a marriage between a man and a woman.

This is explicitly, and only, a same-sex marriage Bill. It is not genuinely inclusive of any marriages of people who may not be, or who may not identify as, a man or a woman. Some couples which include trans* or intersex individuals may not be able to utilise such laws or may not want to, because the language does not reflect who they are, and therefore denies the nature of their relationships.

The Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill does not challenge the unnecessary inclusion of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in section 5 of the Marriage Act, something which we should be moving away from – instead, it further entrenches these concepts, by replicating this language in additional subsections. Which, for me, is yet another reason – and a fairly compelling one at that – to not advocate for this Bill as it currently stands.

In conclusion, while the intentions of those who have drafted this legislation are sound, the outcome that its passage would deliver is not. It is time to go back to the drawing board, and return with a Bill that genuinely delivers marriage equality, not just to some couples, but for all.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, author of Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, author of Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

Notes

  • In terms of state and territory same-sex marriage laws, I acknowledge that the question of whether they should have been supported at all was a complex one, with different people coming down on different sides of that debate. My own view was that the drafting of those Bills should have attempted to set out a range of possible relationships which could have been recognised, allowing the High Court to strike out whichever it believed did not have a constitutional basis. As it turns out, all of them would have been– but at least we would have been struck out together.
  • As with all other posts (except where explicitly stated), these are my own views, and not those of any organisation with which I am associated.
  • Finally, there are still five weeks left until submissions close to the Senate inquiry. At this stage, I plan on writing a submission that reflects the above, and calls for the Recognition of Foreign Marriage Bill 2014 to be dropped, and replaced with a genuine marriage equality bill. Of course, I am willing to hear any arguments countering what I have written, and change my position/submission if I am convinced that I have got it wrong.

Dear Joe Hockey, If you’re serious about cutting expenditure, you must axe school chaplains

As promised during the 2013 federal election campaign, one of the first actions of the Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National Government was to establish a National Commission of Audit, to review all Commonwealth expenditure in an effort to reduce spending and ultimately deliver a Budget surplus.

Indeed, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Audit described it as a “full-scale review of the activities of the Commonwealth government to:

-ensure taxpayers are receiving value-for-money from each dollar spent;

-eliminate wasteful spending; …

-identify areas or programs where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate…” [among other objectives].

The Commission’s first report was delivered to the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in mid-February, and the second was handed over at the end of March. The contents of both reports were, quite cynically, kept from the public ahead of the Western Australian half-Senate election on 5 April (because you wouldn’t want an electorate to actually be informed about impending spending cuts before they vote), although, with only one month left until the Federal Budget is handed down it’s highly likely they will be released in the next week or two.

It is expected that the Commission will recommended that the axe fall on (or at least make significant cuts to) a wide range of different programs, with apparently ‘authorised’ leaks focusing on things like the aged pension, Medicare (through a $6 co-payment) and other vital health, education and welfare services.

However, there is one program that, I believe, meets all of the above criteria and thoroughly deserves to be cut as part of any serious expenditure review: the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. It is almost impossible to argue that putting ministers of religion into government schools could ever be value-for-money, when compared with almost any other government expense. As well as being enormously wasteful spending, it would also seem to be the definition of a program where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate.

And yet, given the highly political nature of the Commission of Audit, I suspect it is unlikely the National School Chaplaincy Program is under any real threat. Even if the Commission were to recommend its abolition, it is hard to believe that Joe Hockey would actually follow through on any such advice when he rises to the dispatch box on the night of Tuesday 13 May.

More’s the pity. The National School Chaplaincy Program is amongst the worst examples of public policy over the past decade (and there have been some absolute shockers in that time). It was introduced by John Howard in the dying days of his government (2007), as he realised his grip on power was loosening with age – basically, it was a sop to ultra-conservatives and religious fundamentalists (both of which can be found in the form of the Australian Christian Lobby) to entice them to remain aboard his sinking electoral ship.

Alas, in a demonstration that poor policy, and religious pork-barrelling, can be bipartisan, the incoming Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, maintained the National Schools Chaplaincy Program throughout his first stint in the Lodge. When it came time to review the first three years of its operation, frustratingly he and his then Deputy, Education Minister Julia Gillard, chose to continue, rather than close, the program.

As Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, Gillard then announced a $222 million extension of the program til the end of this year (2014). This money was also provided to allow for expansion of the scheme’s coverage, from 2,700 schools up to 3,550 schools.

The only figure that accomplished anything to at least partially mitigate the genuine awfulness of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program over the past seven years was Education Minister Peter Garrett, who changed the program guidelines from the start of 2012 to allow schools to choose between chaplains or qualified student counsellors (hence the revised name). He also attempted to introduce a requirement that all workers, including chaplains, have some level of relevant qualifications, although recognition of ‘prior learning’ on the job was also encouraged.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of people employed as a result of this scheme remain ministers of religion. Imagine that: in 2014, the Commonwealth Government provides up to $24,000 per year to more than three and a half thousand schools to subsidise the employment of someone whose primary ‘qualification’, indeed whose primary vocation full stop, is to proselytise.

Ironically, the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program Guidelines then go to great lengths to attempt to limit the ability of chaplains to proselytise or evangelise from their position of authority within the school community, which is about as useful as telling a tree to stop growing leaves (or telling Cory Bernardi to stop being a bigot). It seems like the apotheosis of a set of rules where adherence, rather than breach, will be the exception.

The Guidelines themselves are also full of loopholes, allowing chaplains to “provid[e] services with a spiritual content (excluding religious education) including facilitating discussion groups and lunch time clubs” with approval and consent, as well as “performing religious services/rites (such as worship or prayer during school assembly etc), with… appropriate prior consent”.

This is an obvious and serious contravention of the principle of the separation of church and state. In the United States, such a program – paying for men (and some women) of faith to introduce their religion into government schools – would be struck out as unconstitutional by their Supreme Court.

Sadly, the anaemic interpretation of section 116 of the Constitution adopted by the High Court of Australia in the “DOGS case” [Attorney-General (Vic); Ex Rel Black v Commonwealth [1981] HCA 2; (1981) 146 CLR 559 (2 February 1981)] meant that it was never going to be struck down here, or at least not on those grounds.

Even after the program was successfully challenged by Toowoomba father, and man of principle, Ron Williams in 2012, with the High Court finding that the scheme did not have a legislative basis to appropriate money, the Government squibbed the ideal chance to abandon a flawed program and instead rushed through legislation to support its ongoing operation [as an aside, the High Court will be hearing a further challenge from Mr Williams, on May 6-8 2014, that the rushed omnibus Bill was itself unconstitutional].

And even if the National School Chaplaincy Program is ultimately found to be constitutional, there is still absolutely zero evidence that it is effective at improving the overall welfare of students.

If any of the Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd (again) or now Abbott Governments genuinely considered that student welfare was a matter of priority, they would properly fund, rather than part subsidise, actual student counsellors or social workers to perform that function in every school, not implement a scheme where cashed-up churches could target individual cash-starved schools and offer the ‘services’ of ministers of religion, essentially as a backdoor way of indoctrinating a fresh generation of children.

There are ways in which the introduction of ministers of religion into schools can lead to direct harm too, not least of which being the issue of potential child sex abuse. In fact, at the same time as the hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, the Government continues to encourage the employment of ministers of religion in public schools, with a code of conduct that allows them to have physical contact with students because “there may be some circumstances where physical contact may be appropriate such as where the student is injured or distraught”. [NB Obviously I am not saying that most, or even many, school chaplains are child sex abusers, but it seems unnecessary, and unnecessarily risky, to bring in people from institutions with a long history of covering-up such abuse and placing them in positions of trust in public schools.]

In addition, some (although obviously not all) ministers of religion also present a clear and present danger to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, given the blatant homophobia adopted by particular churches and their officials. This threat is explicitly acknowledged by the Guidelines, which in response attempts to prohibit discriminatory behaviour on the basis of sexuality (although it doesn’t appear as though either gender identity or intersex status are mentioned at all).

In the same way as the prohibition on ‘proselytising’ described above, however, it is inevitable that there will be some ministers of religion, in some schools, who deliberately flout those rules, and in the process cause untold harm to young LGBTI students.

In short, the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is philosophically unsound, has no evidence that it benefits student welfare, is expensive, potentially causes harm and is clearly an inappropriate activity to be funded through taxpayers’ money. Surely, out of all of the programs funded by the Commonwealth, across almost all areas, it should be at or near the top of any Commission of Audit ‘hit-list’.

Even if the Commission of Audit abrogates its basic responsibility to recommend that the National School Chaplaincy Program be axed, Treasurer Joe Hockey will still have to make a decision on the future of the program as part of the 2014-15 Budget, because, as noted earlier, funding for the scheme runs out at the end of this year.

What action Joe Hockey takes on this will reveal a great deal about what kind of Treasurer he intends to be. Of all the incoming Abbott Ministers, Hockey has been the loudest in condemning middle-class welfare, in arguing that the role of Government must be smaller, and that inappropriate or unjustifiable programs should be cut.

Well, here is an ideal opportunity to live up to at least some of that rhetoric, savings upwards of $222 million in the process (that’s the equivalent of one and a half $6 GP co-payments for every person in Australia). If he does so on 13 May, then he should be applauded for it (noting of course that there might, just might, be some other things in the Budget that warrant a somewhat different response).

If Hockey fails to rise to the occasion, and extends or even expands funding for ministers of religion in our public schools, then it will show that he is not serious at all about reining in inappropriate spending, and does not believe in small Government – instead, it will simply demonstrate that he believes in big government of a different kind, one that takes money from genuine welfare programs and places it in the hands of ministers of religion for the propagation of their beliefs.

So, now it’s over to you Joe: would you rather take money from people who simply want to see their doctor via a bulk-billed appointment, or from a program which funds the placement of ministers of religion into our public schools? I know which one I would choose. I guess we’ll find out on Budget night which one you do.

No 9 Still No Marriage Equality in Australia

This is an issue where there were a number of different highs – and lows – over the course of the past 12 months. Given my naturally glass half empty personality, we’ll start with the lows.

The most obvious ‘low’ was the High Court’s ruling last Thursday (12 December), overturning the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws as unconstitutional, after just five days of operation, as well as annulling the marriages of all the couples who had taken the opportunity to tie the knot under the law.

One can only imagine how awful the past few days would have been for these couples, experiencing the elation of being married, at long last, to the frustration of having that status ripped from their grasp just days later.

In fact, 2013 was not a good year for the idea of state and territory same-sex marriage laws generally. State-based marriage was defeated, narrowly, in votes the Tasmanian upper house (after passing the lower house, yet again), and by one vote in the NSW upper house (although it was likely headed for defeat in the lower house there). A similar Bill was defeated by a much larger margin in South Australian Parliament.

Now, it seems the High Court has ruled out the option of state-based marriage permanently (at least as far as they are close enough to marriage under the Commonwealth Marriage Act to deserve the title ‘marriage’).

And the Federal Election was also not a good one as far as marriage equality was concerned. A Prime Minister who supported marriage equality, leading a party the majority of whose MPs had voted yes just 12 months earlier, was replaced by a Prime Minister who remains staunchly opposed to equality (even that of his own sister), leading a Liberal-National Coalition of whom exactly ZERO MPs voted yes in September 2012.

Overall, then, there was a lot of bad news to spread around. But 2013 was not universally negative for marriage equality in Australia.

The same High Court decision that overturned the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws also included a key finding – that the Federal Parliament unambiguously has the power to introduce marriage equality.

That might sound, to some, as merely a small win, but it actually takes one of the main arguments against marriage equality in the Commonwealth arena off the table (namely that s51xxi of the constitution – aka the ‘marriage power’ – could only mean marriage of opposite-sex couples).

In what turned out to be a quite progressive judgment (despite the outcome), the Justices wrote:

“”marriage” is to be understood in s 51(xxi) of the Constitution as referring to a consensual union formed between natural persons in accordance with legally prescribed requirements which is not only a union the law recognises as intended to endure and be terminable only in accordance with law but also a union to which the law accords a status affecting and defining mutual rights and obligations.”  Link to full judgment here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/high_ct/2013/55.html

In short, marriage can be the union of two people (or more, if the Parliament so chooses) irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. That is a statement of what is ‘possible’. It is up to our parliamentarians to make it real.

Another ‘high’ was that those couples in the ACT were able to marry in the first place. The fact that, for five full days, newspapers and TV stations around the country carried pictures of happy couples getting married, where the only difference was that their spouse was the same sex as themselves, can only be of cementing victory in the long war of acceptance.

Same-sex couples were married, the sky didn’t fall, nobody else’s marriage was diminished and, for the benefit of people like Senator Bernardi, no pets were interfered with either.

Another glimmer of hope is that the Liberal Party’s position was slightly better at the 2013 election than it was at the 2010 one. While previously the Liberals and Nationals were universally committed to voting no on marriage equality, prior to September 7 they adopted the line that whether there was a conscience vote would be “a matter for the post-election Coalition party-room”.

Given Tony Abbott’s strong opposition, there is no guarantee of a conscience vote happening, but the door is at least slightly ajar – it is now up to people like Malcolm Turnbull to force it open.

Another door that is slightly ajar is the possibility of the 2014 ALP National Conference adopting a binding vote in favour of marriage equality. Something that should have happened in 2011, when the platform was changed, were it not for the homophobic position adopted by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, is a live option because of recent remarks by AWU National Secretary Paul Howes, who conceded that he had been wrong to support a conscience vote back then.

With Howes’ crucial support, and another three years of time elapsed, there might, just might, be enough support from conference delegates to impose a binding vote on Parliamentary members of the Labor Party. And that is definitely something worth fighting for. Because, mathematically, we may well need a conscience vote from the Coalition, and a binding vote from Labor, for any marriage equality Bill to pass the Commonwealth Parliament, at least this term anyway.

The formation, last week, of a cross-party group to work towards marriage equality in the Parliament, drawing members from the Coalition (Sue Boyce), ALP (Louise Pratt) and Greens (Sarah Hanson-Young), will also likely be remembered as a key step along the road to equality.

The final ‘high’ from 2013 is something which now probably doesn’t hold a lot of sway, but which was a powerful statement of intent at the time: then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ‘Bartlet’ moment on the ABC’s Q&A. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdU3ooAZSH8)

When asked by a Christian pastor how, as a Christian, Rudd could support marriage equality when the Bible commands him to believe differently, Rudd rebuked him with a smackdown that was brilliant both in its argument and in its eloquence. It was Rudd at his best – and, watching it three months later, it still brings a smile to my face.

Even if it was only for a few fleeting months, we finally had a Prime Minister join the majority of the Australian population in the 21st century in believing that all couples must be treated equally.

How much longer we have to wait for that community belief to be reflected in the statute books will depend a lot on what happens in 2014, inside the Coalition Party-room and at ALP National Conference. I guess it’s time to prepare to protest once more.

No 12 The End (Almost) of the Homosexual Advance Defence in NSW

One of the more pleasing aspects of law reform in NSW over the past 12 months has been signs of progress – at last – on the subject of the homosexual advance (or “gay panic”) defence.

The Legislative Council Select Committee on the Partial Defence of Provocation, chaired by Mr Fred Nile, handed down its long-awaited report on 23 April. (http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/Prod/Parlment/committee.nsf/0/61173c421853420aca257b5500838b2e/$FILE/Partial%20defence%20of%20provocation_Final%20report.pdf)

The Committee explicitly and unanimously recommended that the homosexual advance defence should be repealed. Recommendation 6 of their Report reads: “[t]hat the NSW Government introduce an amendment to section 23 of the Crimes Act 1900 to ensure that the partial defence [of provocation] is not available to defendants who… respond to a non-violent sexual advance by the victim.”

One month later, on May 22, Premier Barry O’Farrell confirmed that the NSW Government would indeed act to ensure that the partial defence of provocation, which if successful reduces a murder conviction to manslaughter, does not apply in circumstances where there is only a non-violent sexual advance. (http://www.news.com.au/national/breaking-news/provocation-laws-to-be-changed-in-nsw/story-e6frfku9-1226648578317)

In October, the Government tabled its response to the Committee. It accepted the policy intention of the Committee’s Report, and included an Exposure Draft Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013 for public consultation. (http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/Prod/Parlment/committee.nsf/0/61173c421853420aca257b5500838b2e/$FILE/Partial%20defence%20of%20provocation%20-%20Govt%20response.pdf)

As part of that Exposure Draft Bill, which reframes the partial defence of provocation to a partial defence of extreme provocation, it is proposed that the new section 23 would include a clause providing that “[c]onduct of the deceased does not constitute extreme provocation if… the conduct was only a non-violent sexual advance to the accused.”

In short, if this Bill is introduced into and passed by the NSW Parliament then the stain of the homosexual advance (or ‘gay panic’) defence will finally be removed from the law books of NSW for good. And the signs continue to be encouraging – just this week, Premier O’Farrell told 2GB radio that it was the Government’s intention that the Bill will be “hopefully through the Parliament by the end of February” (audio starting at 6mins40seconds: http://www.2gb.com/audioplayer/25171#.Uqf1xyct2RM).

Which would be not a moment too soon. Because this is not some historical artefact, gathering dust somewhere, sitting neglected on a shelf. The homosexual advance defence has been used, and used regularly, over the last 20 years. When successful, it dishonours the victim of a brutal killing, implying that he was at least partly at fault, all for simply making a non-violent pass at someone else.

It is somewhat ironic that one of the most eloquent rebuttals of the homosexual advance defence comes from the very same case in which the High Court of Australia upheld its validity. In Green v The Queen [1997] HCA 50, then Justice Michael Kirby dissented, writing:

“If every woman who was the subject of a “gentle”, “non-aggressive” although persistent sexual advance… could respond with brutal violence rising to an intention to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm on the male importuning her, and then claim provocation after a homicide, the law of provocation would be sorely tested and undesirably extended… Any unwanted sexual advance, heterosexual or homosexual, can be offensive. It may intrude on sexual integrity in an objectionable way. But this Court should not send the message that, in Australia today, such conduct is objectively capable of being found by a jury to be sufficient to provoke the intent to kill or inflict grievous bodily harm. Such a message unacceptably condones sexual violence by people who take the law into their own hands.”

At the core of this partial defence lies unbridled homophobia, an irrational fear, and stereotyping, of gay men as “predators”, lurking and waiting for any opportunity to pounce on any unsuspecting “normal” heterosexual men. And it tells these “normal” men that they are entitled to use lethal force to repel any type of unwanted, non-violent sexual advance, that it is, at least in part, justified to somehow help defend their “honour”.

It is a law that has always been unjust. It seems that Members of the NSW Parliament have at last recognised that fact. To that I say, better late than never. But never forget the victims whose murderers have escaped the full convictions, and punishments, that they deserved, solely because the victim made a non-violent sexual advance to them.

Assuming that the Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill is passed early next year, I am sure that the actual repeal of the homosexual advance defence would feature highly on any list of the highs and lows of 2014. Til then, it is up to us to make one final push to ensure this abhorrent piece of law is finally abolished, once and for all.

Related posts:

My 2012 submission to the Select Committee Inquiry: https://alastairlawrie.net/2012/08/10/submission-on-homosexual-advance-defence/

My 2013 Submission on the Exposure Draft Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/11/14/submission-on-crimes-amendment-provocation-bill-2013-re-homosexual-advance-or-gay-panic-defence/

Denying Marriage Equality is Theft

Next week, the High Court will hear the Commonwealth’s application for the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws to be overturned. Arguments will focus primarily on whether the 2004 amendments to the Commonwealth Marriage Act ‘cover the field’ in terms of legislating under sub-section51(xxi) of the Constitution, or whether the amendments have instead left the door open for State and Territory Governments to establish a new category of marriage, namely same-sex marriage.

But perhaps the Court should also consider sub-section 51(xxxi), which gives the Commonwealth Parliament power for “the acquisition of property on just terms from any State or person for any purpose in respect of which the Parliament has the power to make laws.” Maybe our High Court Justices should ask whether laws which take away the right of LGBTI couples to get married are tantamount to theft.

Allow me to explain. The most direct way in which the marriage equality ban takes money from LGBTI couples is that, currently, it forces couples overseas in order for their marriage to have any legal standing at the time of the ceremony. The couple obviously incurs significantly higher costs than for a domestic wedding. Even if the ACT laws are allowed to stand, for Australian couples who wish to have a ceremony with legal standing, however briefly, the vast majority will need to hold their wedding a long distance from home.

With recent estimates of the average cost of weddings being in the vicinity of $35,000, or even $54,000, it is grossly unjust to force some couples to pay even more, merely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Compounding this, a system which forces LGBTI couples to travel, either interstate or overseas, to get married reinforces a financial threshold on which couples can tie the knot, with only the well-off able to do so. Someone’s class should never determine whether they can access a legal institution like marriage.

The next theft comes when the couple returns home – at customs, they are summarily, and completely without justification, stripped of their state of being married. Something which means so much to the couple – enough for them to travel to undertake it – is confiscated, without any compensation. Surely an argument could be mounted that this amounts to “the acquisition of property on [un]just terms”?

Something else which is stolen from LGBTI couples is the ability to celebrate their wedding with their desired guests. This happens in two ways. For those who choose to travel to get married, many of their family and friends will be unable to attend the ceremony due to cost, or the need to take extended time off work. For other couples, like my fiancé Steve and myself, who instead choose to wait until they can legally wed in Australia, the passage of time will have the same effect.

In our case, we both have elderly grandmothers who we love dearly and who we would love to have at our nuptials. That would have been possible when we first got engaged, at the start of 2010, although, sadly, my grandmother is probably now too frail to travel to our wedding, even in Australia. By the time marriage equality is eventually passed, I fear the same will be the case for Steve’s grandmother – and he will be devastated by that.

The ability to celebrate our wedding with the people who matter most to us has been ripped from our grasp by the Commonwealth Parliament. We, and other couples like us, feel it acutely. As an aside, perhaps so-called ‘family values’ campaigners should consider how they would react to government intervention on their wedding guest list – because that is what has been imposed on us.

The theft which is a consequence of the ban on marriage equality will not even stop whenever a Bill is finally passed – it will keep on stealing from us into the future. Explaining this ‘future theft’ is what eventually helped my rural, LNP-voting conservative parents understand why I feel so passionately about this issue.

Earlier this year, they had their 40th wedding anniversary. Which is something worthy of celebration – and so they did. Because these things, anniversaries, matter. One day, Steve and I hope to do likewise. Except that, the longer the ban on our marriage lasts, the less likely we will both be alive in order to celebrate a 50th, or even 40th, wedding anniversary. Even after the ban is eventually lifted, it will still be lifting precious things from our pockets.

Of course, what is being stolen from us is likely too intangible to be considered by the High Court under sub-section51(xxxi). But this theft is exactly what should be reflected upon by any Parliamentarian who is considering voting against the right of LGBTI couples to get married.

What makes the current ban ever harder to stomach is that, everyone, from Tony Abbott down, knows that marriage equality is inevitable. Which makes the ongoing refusal of our MPs to pass it seem extremely petty. Especially when what they are stealing from us, both now and in the future, is something grand.

Letter to Premier O’Farrell about renaming Taylor Square

10 days ago, the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell suggested that Taylor Square could be renamed after former High Court Justice Michael Kirby. While I support recognising his achievements, I think that it would be better to rename the square after both Mr Kirby and current, lesbian High Court Justice Virginia Bell. The outcome would reflect both the gay and lesbian history of this location. Below I have included the text of a letter which I sent to the NSW Premier on this subject this afternoon.

Taylor Square Rainbow Crossing

Dear Premier O’Farrell,

RENAMING TAYLOR SQUARE

I am writing in relation to comments which you made in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday 28 February 2013, in response to a question from the Member for Sydney, Mr Alex Greenwich MP, regarding the Government’s commitment to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community.

In particular, during your answer you suggested that Taylor Square could be renamed after former High Court Justice Michael Kirby, who, as you said in the Chamber, is “a great individual who epitomises that good community.”

While I agree with the sentiment of your proposal, I note that Mr Kirby is already highly decorated, including having the former National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (NCHECR) at the University of New South Wales renamed the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society in his honour.

Of course, this does not mean the state of New South Wales, and the City of Sydney, should not further celebrate the contributions of such an eminent jurist, and the first openly gay man appointed to the High Court.

However, I would humbly like to suggest that, if you wish to pursue this proposal, you could also consider co-naming the square after the first openly lesbian woman appointed to the High Court, Ms Virginia Bell. The location could then be known as either the Kirby-Bell Square or the Bell-Kirby Square.

I make this suggestion because I think it is important to recognise and celebrate the achievements of both the gay and lesbian communities, who each have a historical connection to Taylor Square.

Ms Bell, who replaced Mr Kirby on the High Court following his retirement, is another distinguished resident of Sydney, and one who began her legal career in the inner-city working at the Redfern Legal Centre.

Ms Bell was also a participant in the very first Sydney Gay Mardi Gras on 24 June 1978, which, fortuitously, assembled at Taylor Square before commencing the march. Renaming Taylor Square in Ms Bell’s honour, alongside Mr Kirby, would therefore acknowledge some of the important LGBTI history of this particular location.

Thank you in advance for considering my suggestion for renaming Taylor Square to be Kirby-Bell or Bell-Kirby Square, which I think would be more inclusive of the lesbian and gay communities of Sydney.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie