This is the easiest LGBTIQ election promise a political party could make. But the Morrison Government still probably won’t commit to it.

Problem: Transgender and intersex workers are not explicitly protected under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

While discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status are all prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), only sexual orientation is included as a relevant attribute in the Fair Work Act for the purposes of protections against ‘adverse action’ (section 351(1)), and ‘unlawful termination’ (section 772(1)(f)), as well as in sections covering the contents of awards (section 153) and enterprise agreements (section 195), and the functions of the Fair Work Commission (section 578(c)).

This means that while the ability of lesbian, gay and bisexual workers to bring complaints to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) is certain, there is significant doubt about whether trans, nonbinary and intersex employees can do the same.

In practice, a trans worker who is mistreated in the workplace because of their gender identity, or an intersex employee who is fired on the basis of their sex characteristics, may be unable to have their issue resolved quickly and at low cost via the FWC, and instead be forced to go through a much less timely, and potentially more expensive, complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission (and then in federal court after that).

This is a completely unjustified discrepancy in the rights of LG and B Australians on one hand, and transgender and intersex people on the other, and it must be resolved.

Solution: Amend the Fair Work Act to explicitly protect transgender and intersex workers.

Simple, right? Well, it certainly should be.

Sadly, however, the Liberal/National Government has proven itself to be completely uninterested in doing anything to address this most straightforward of problems.

I have been raising the lack of explicit protections for trans, nonbinary and intersex workers in the Fair Work Act since Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister. And on multiple occasions since then, to multiple Attorneys-General.

Not only have they refused to take action, but last September current Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, and the Morrison Government generally, voted *against* amendments to the Fair Work Act which would have, at a minimum, brought it into line with Sex Discrimination Act (SDA).

What makes that vote even more disappointing is the then Opposition, under Tony Abbott, had actually voted in favour of protecting transgender and intersex people in the SDA back in 2013 – meaning the Liberal/National Coalition has gone *backwards* in its support for these groups in the subsequent eight years.

In any event, with the election expected to be called today (and at the latest by Monday 18 April), it is clear the lack of explicit protections for trans, nonbinary and intersex workers in the Fair Work Act will not be addressed this term.

In which case, I think we should ensure that finally addressing this problem is made an election issue for the upcoming poll (on May 14 or 21).

What policy commitments do we want?

From my perspective, any election commitment on this issue should comprise four, inter-related parts.

First, a commitment to ensure the Fair Work Act explicitly covers trans, nonbinary and intersex workers.

Second, a commitment to use best practice terminology to do so.

This includes adding a protected attribute of ‘gender identity’, using the definition in section 4 of the Sex Discrimination Act (‘the gender-related identity, appearance or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of a person (whether by way of medical intervention or not), with or without regard to the person’s designated sex at birth’) as a starting point, and finalised in consultation with trans community organisations.

However, while the SDA currently uses the protected attribute ‘intersex status’ (defined in section 4 as ‘the status of having physical, hormonal or genetic features that are (a) neither wholly female nor wholly male; or (b) a combination of female and male; or (c) neither female nor male’) this is no longer supported by the intersex community, at least in part because it has been interpreted by some as relating to identity rather than biology.

Instead, the best practice terminology is now ‘sex characteristics’, as called for in the historic March 2017 Darlington Statement, and most recently defined in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) as:

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

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

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

The definition of sex characteristics should also be finalised in consultation with intersex community organisations, particularly Intersex Human Rights Australia.

Third, if the attribute of ‘sex characteristics’ is added to the Fair Work Act, the Parliament should use the same opportunity to update the Sex Discrimination Act, replacing the protected attribute of intersex status with sex characteristics.

Fourth, a commitment to make these reforms within the first 12 months of the next Parliamentary term.

This discrepancy has existed since the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, in June of that year.

Which means by mid-2023 it would have been a full decade of trans, nonbinary and intersex workers having less clear, and potentially lesser, workplace rights than lesbian, gay and bisexual employees.

That is far too long for workers to wait for what are basic protections, making a request that it be fixed in the next year entirely reasonable.

In this context, today I sent the below emails to the Government, Opposition and Greens.

The email to the Government highlights their rejection of amendments to the Fair Work Act in September last year, and asks them to take concrete action to protect trans, nonbinary and intersex workers as a matter of urgency.

The email to the Opposition welcomes their vote to support adding ‘intersex status’ to the Fair Work Act last September, while calling on them to go further, and commit to instead add the protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’ if they form Government.

Finally, the email to the Greens thanks them for their leadership on this issue to date (it was their amendments that were voted on last year) and urges them to continue to prioritise this reform in the upcoming term of Parliament.

*****

Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash

Attorney-General

Via email: senator.cash@aph.gov.au

10 April 2022

Dear Senator Cash

Please commit to protecting trans, nonbinary and intersex workers in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth)

All workers should be protected against adverse action, and unlawful termination, on the basis of who they are.

These protections must include transgender and intersex employees.

As you are aware, these groups are not explicitly covered by relevant provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), unlike other protected attributes like race, sex, age, disability, religious belief and even sexual orientation.

In this context, it was extremely disappointing that you, and other Government Senators, voted to reject straight-forward amendments to address this discrepancy in September 2021, thus leaving the position of trans, nonbinary and intersex workers unclear.

In light of the upcoming federal election, I call on you, and the Liberal/National Coalition, to unequivocally commit to fixing this problem as a matter of priority next term.

Not only would this be the right thing to do in principle, it would also be consistent with the actions of the then Abbott Opposition in 2013 (of which you were a member), to support the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of gender identity and intersex status in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

A commitment in four, inter-related parts

From my perspective, this commitment should include the following four, closely-linked, elements:

First, a commitment to protect transgender and intersex workers on exactly the same basis as other groups.

Second, a commitment to add the protected attributes of ‘gender identity’ (based on the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act, and finalised in consultation with transgender community groups) and ‘sex characteristics’ (which is now best practice rather than intersex status, based on the recently-added definition in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), and finalised in consultation with Intersex Human Rights Australia) to the Fair Work Act.

Third, a commitment to use the same legislation to replace the protected attribute of intersex status in the Sex Discrimination Act with the best practice terminology sex characteristics.

Fourth, a commitment to complete the above steps within the first 12 months of the next Parliamentary term, especially given trans, nonbinary and intersex workers have been waiting for these protections since mid-2013.

I look forward to receiving your response to this correspondence, and sincerely hope you are able to provide clear promises on these issues on behalf of the Morrison Liberal/National Government.

Please note that, as your commitments (or lack of commitments) on the above will be in the public interest, I will publish the contents of any response I receive on my personal website: www.alastairlawrie.net

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

*****

The Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP

Shadow Attorney-General

Via online contact form 

10 April 2022

Dear Mr Dreyfus

Please commit to protecting trans, nonbinary and intersex workers in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth)

All workers should be protected against adverse action, and unlawful termination, on the basis of who they are.

These protections must include transgender and intersex employees.

As you are aware, these groups are not explicitly covered by relevant provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), unlike other protected attributes like race, sex, age, disability, religious belief and even sexual orientation.

In this context, the ALP’s support for amendments in September 2021 to add gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes in the Fair Work Act was obviously welcome, although it was disappointing this did not extend to supporting the best practice terminology of sex characteristics.

In light of the upcoming federal election, I call on you, and the Australian Labor Party, to commit to protecting trans, nonbinary and intersex workers as a matter of priority next term.

Not only would this be the right thing to do in principle, it would also be consistent with, and build on, one of the major achievements of the most recent Labor Government, the passage of the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 (during your term as Attorney-General).

A commitment in four, inter-related parts

From my perspective, this commitment should include the following four, closely-linked, elements:

First, a commitment to protect transgender and intersex workers on exactly the same basis as other groups.

Second, a commitment to add the protected attributes of ‘gender identity’ (based on the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act, and finalised in consultation with transgender community groups) and ‘sex characteristics’ (which is now best practice rather than intersex status, based on the recently-added definition in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), and finalised in consultation with Intersex Human Rights Australia) to the Fair Work Act.

Third, a commitment to use the same legislation to replace the protected attribute of intersex status in the Sex Discrimination Act with the best practice terminology sex characteristics.

Fourth, a commitment to complete the above steps within the first 12 months of the next Parliamentary term, especially given trans, nonbinary and intersex workers have been waiting for these protections since mid-2013.

I look forward to receiving your response to this correspondence, and sincerely hope you are able to provide clear promises on these issues on behalf of the Albanese Labor Opposition.

Please note that, as your commitments (or lack of commitments) on the above will be in the public interest, I will publish the contents of any response I receive on my personal website: www.alastairlawrie.net

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

*****

Senator Janet Rice

Australian Greens

Via email: senator.rice@aph.gov.au

10 April 2022

Dear Senator Rice

Lack of explicit protections for trans, nonbinary and intersex workers under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth)

Thank you for your ongoing leadership on this issue in the Commonwealth Parliament.

This includes regularly raising the lack of explicit protections for transgender and intersex employees in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) during Senate Estimates hearings.

Most importantly, thank you for introducing amendments to the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021 in September last year which, at best, would have added gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes to the Fair Work Act or, at a minimum, would have included gender identity and intersex status instead.

As you know, I shared your disappointment when neither set of amendments was successful.

However, I also share your passion to ensure this work is finally completed.

For your information, and in light of the upcoming federal election, this morning I have written to both the Attorney-General and Shadow Attorney-General calling on the Government and Opposition respectively to promise the following:

First, a commitment to protect transgender and intersex workers on exactly the same basis as other groups.

Second, a commitment to add the protected attributes of ‘gender identity’ (based on the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act, and finalised in consultation with transgender community groups) and ‘sex characteristics’ (which is now best practice rather than intersex status, based on the recently-added definition in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), and finalised in consultation with Intersex Human Rights Australia) to the Fair Work Act.

Third, a commitment to use the same legislation to replace the protected attribute of intersex status in the Sex Discrimination Act with the best practice terminology sex characteristics.

Fourth, a commitment to complete the above steps within the first 12 months of the next Parliamentary term, especially given trans, nonbinary and intersex workers have been waiting for these protections since mid-2013.

Ideally, both major parties will commit to protecting the rights of trans, nonbinary and intersex workers, and this reform will be passed quickly and on a bipartisan basis.

However, in the event that neither of the major parties is willing to make these promises, or that they do but do not follow through on them with appropriate and timely action, I urge you to continue fighting on this issue.

In particular, if no amendments are forthcoming by mid-2023, I call on you to reintroduce your amendments to the Fair Work Act either as part of a relevant legislative package, or via a private members Bill.

I look forward to receiving your response to this correspondence.

As with my emails to the Government and Opposition, please note that, as your response on the above will be in the public interest, I will publish the contents of any correspondence I receive on my personal website: www.alastairlawrie.net

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

*****

Update, Sunday 8 May 2022:

On Friday (6 May) I received the following response from Greens Senator, and LGBTIQA+ spokesperson, Janet Rice:

Dear Alistair Lawrie

Thank you for your correspondence of 10 April 2022, in relation to improvements to antidiscrimination legislation, in order to protect members of LGBTIQA+ communities.
I would like to thank you for your tireless and important advocacy on such important issues, and in particular the legal expertise you have brought to issues which have such crucial importance for people’s lives.

Let me re-affirm the Greens’ commitment to fighting for LGBTIQA+ rights, as set out in our policy.

We will continue to advocate for the necessary changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 to ensure that workers who are trans or have intersex variations are protected on the same basis as other groups. That should include appropriate definitions in relation to gender identity and sex characteristics, developed in consultation with relevant communities. Those changes should also be accompanied by relevant updates to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 as needed.

As you are aware, the Greens have a significant opportunity in this Parliament to achieve balance of power, potentially in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. We will continue to advocate as forcefully as we are able to, for these changes and others to protect the rights of LGBTIQA+ people.

Yours sincerely

Senator Janet Rice
Australian Greens LGBTIQA+ spokesperson

This is obviously encouraging, including commitments to advocate for the introduction of gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes in the Fair Work Act, with definitions to be developed in consultation with trans and intersex communities.

Disappointingly, I am yet to receive any response from either Senator Cash on behalf of the Government, or Mark Dreyfus on behalf of the Australian Labor Party.

Today I have written again to both, asking for any response to be provided by Sunday 15 May, so that they can be published prior to the election. I will obviously update this post if and when any such response is received.

*****

Update Wednesday 18 May:

Well, the update is really that there is nothing to update.

Unfortunately, despite writing again to both the Attorney-General Michaelia Cash and her Shadow Mark Dreyfus, I have received no response from either the Morrison Liberal/National Coalition, or the Albanese Labor Party. Which is perhaps not surprising in the case of the former (given they voted against protecting trans, gender diverse and intersex workers in the Fair Work Act in September last year), but is more disappointing in the case of the latter given they actually supported including gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes at a minimum (although need to go one step further by supporting the best practice terminology of sex characteristics).

I will of course update the post further if any response is received between now (COB Wednesday) and the opening of polls on Saturday morning.

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

Commonwealth Attorney-General Michaelia Cash and Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus

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Why there MUST be a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill

There is a *lot* of news happening at the moment. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now during COP26 – and with it humanity’s last best chance to address the existential threat of global heating – it can be difficult to keep track of other serious challenges to our human rights.

In Australia, one of those is the Morrison Liberal/National Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, which they remain committed to introducing into Commonwealth Parliament before the end of 2021.

While most people outside the Government still don’t know what form the final Bill will take (unlike a select few, like religious fundamentalists including the Australian Christian Lobby, with whom the Government has been negotiating – more on that later), we did learn something new last week:

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash is seeking to avoid the scrutiny of a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald last Sunday (24 October):

‘Attorney-General Michaelia Cash signalled the government would ramp up pressure on Labor to not hold a Senate inquiry because the government “has conducted two rounds of public consultation on draft legislation, and met face to face with over 90 stakeholders in a series of roundtables”.’

This position – Attorney-General Cash wanting to avoid the usual scrutiny of a Senate Inquiry – was then confirmed during Senate Estimates last Tuesday (26 October), via the following exchange with Greens Senator Janet Rice:

Senator Rice: … Given the far-reaching impacts of this proposed legislation, will you commit to having a full and thorough Senate inquiry into the bill once it’s introduced?

Senator Cash: That’s a decision for the Senate.

Senator Rice: Is the government committed and supportive?

Senator Cash: That is a decision for the Senate.

Senator Rice: It will be a decision for the Senate, but will the government be supporting having a Senate inquiry into this legislation?

Senator Cash: Again, that is a decision for the Senate.

Senator Rice: Will the government support that by helping to provide the numbers in the Senate?

Senator Cash: If the Senate determines that there should be an inquiry then there will be an inquiry.

Senator Rice: Do you think that there should be an inquiry?

Senator Cash: That is a decision for the Senate.

Senator Rice: Do you think that there should be an inquiry given it is your legislation?

Senator Cash: The normal process would be that a bill goes to an inquiry.

*****

Count them: that’s six separate opportunities for the Attorney-General to confirm the Government would support a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill. And six refusals to do so.

The closest Cash came was stating it would be a ‘normal process’ to hold such an inquiry, not that the Government would agree to one.

Why does it matter?

This isn’t just a technical question of whether the Senate follows ‘normal process’ in holding an inquiry. Whether or not the Senate conducts an investigation into the Religious Discrimination Bill really matters, for two key reasons:

First, the Religious Discrimination Bill has the potential to affect the everyday lives of *all* Australians, religious and non-religious alike, including women, lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, people with disability, divorced people and people in de facto relationships.

Everyone.

We know this because of the content of the first two Exposure Draft Bills, released in August and December 2019 respectively, with the most recent of those including the following features:

  • Allowing health practitioners, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and psychologists, to ‘conscientiously object’ to providing health services – even where this has disproportionate adverse impacts on particular groups (for example, refusing to provide puberty blockers, to the detriment of trans and gender diverse young people), and
  • Allowing people to make offensive, humiliating, intimidating, insulting or ridiculing comments against women, LGBTI people, people with disability and even people of minority faiths, in all areas of public life, as long as those comments are motivated by religious belief. 

Both the right to access health care, and the ability to go about your daily life – in workplaces, and schools and universities, and community services, and public transport, and other public spaces – without being subjected to vile comments on the basis of who you are, are at risk.

[For more detail on these and other serious problems with the Bill, see: The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked’.] 

Legislation which carries such serious consequences deserves the highest level of scrutiny, and that must include a Senate Inquiry.

Second, the Religious Discrimination Bill has the potential to be the biggest change to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law for almost four decades.

Since the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975, and Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, the basic framework of Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws has remained relatively consistent.

This includes the general tests for what constitutes direct and indirect discrimination, and in what circumstances religious organisations are permitted to discriminate. It also includes the ‘complementary’ structure of Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, where they operate alongside each other, without seeking to override the other.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992Age Discrimination Act 2004, and even the addition of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes in the Sex Discrimination Act in 2013, did not fundamentally alter these arrangements.

However, the Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill marks a radical departure from these precedents.

For example, the ability to make offensive, humiliating, intimidating, insulting or ridiculing ‘statements of belief’ is included in a provision (clause 42) which limits the operation of all other anti-discrimination legislation: Commonwealth (including the Fair Work Act 2009), and state and territory (singling out the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 in particular).

In practice, this would be the first time the Commonwealth Government directly sought to override the anti-discrimination laws of other Australian Governments.

The ‘conscientious objection’ provision (in clause 8) discussed earlier also involves a significant departure from standard practice. That is because it seeks to amend how the test for indirect discrimination operates, in favour of health practitioners who wish to discriminate in the types of services they provide.

One of the Religious Discrimination Bill’s other, more-infamous provisions – the so-called ‘Folau clause’ (also in clause 8) – is similarly-designed, altering the test for indirect discrimination to ‘stack the decks’ in favour of employees who make otherwise discriminatory statements outside core business hours.

Meanwhile, its proposed ‘religious exceptions’ (in clause 11, and scattered elsewhere throughout the Bill) dramatically re-write the existing scope of these special privileges. Not only do they apply to an expanded range of organisations, but the two different tests for whether a ‘religious exception’ applies are *both* far easier for organisations to use than the tests in the Sex Discrimination Act (section 37) and Age Discrimination Act (section 35).

Legislation which seeks to override state and territory anti-discrimination laws for the first time, and which significantly departs from existing practice in the test for indirect discrimination and significantly expands the scope and test for religious exceptions, deserves the highest level of scrutiny. That must include a Senate Inquiry.

What is the Government’s excuse?

Attorney-General Cash did not attempt to either clarify, or justify, the Government’s opposition to sending the Religious Discrimination Bill to an inquiry in her exchange with Senator Rice.

Which means we are left with her quote in the Sydney Morning Herald, namely that she does not support an inquiry: because the government “has conducted two rounds of public consultation on draft legislation, and met face to face with over 90 stakeholders in a series of roundtables”.

This rationale does not withstand the application of even the slightest skerrick of scrutiny.

Yes, the Government released two Exposure Draft Bills, which were open for public submissions. And yes, both the Bills, and associated submissions, have been published (see the Attorney-General’s Department website for the First Exposure Draft Bills here, and for the Second Exposure Draft Bills here.)

However, unlike a Senate Inquiry, there is little transparency about these processes:

  • There is no report document summarising feedback from either process
  • There is no public list of attendees at the roundtables mentioned by Senator Cash, and
  • There is no transcript of the evidence provided by these witnesses to the Government.

Also, unlike a Senate Inquiry, there was a lack of independence to these processes:

  • They were conducted by the Attorney-General’s Department, acting on the instructions of their Minister
  • Attendees of the roundtables were presumably selected by, or with the close involvement of, the Attorney-General, and
  • There was no opportunity for Opposition, Greens and cross-bench Senators to interrogate the evidence being provided to the Government.

In short, Government-run consultation processes are no substitute for the independence and transparency of a Senate Inquiry.

But there is an even bigger problem with Attorney-General Cash’s attempted justification for not supporting a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill – and that is the First and Second Exposure Draft Bills were released in August and December 2019 respectively. That is more than, and just under, two full years ago.

Indeed, submissions in response to the Second Exposure Draft Bill closed in January 2020, less than a week after the first case of novel coronavirus was detected in Australia. A *lot* has changed in the intervening 21 months, including the Attorney-General (with Michaelia Cash replacing former Attorney-General Christian Porter in March 2021).

It is highly likely some aspects of the Religious Discrimination Bill will have changed in that period too – perhaps for the better, maybe for the worse.

Most members of the Australian community, and the community groups which represent them, will not be aware of those changes until the final Bill is introduced to Parliament. They deserve the opportunity to comment on the Bill’s final provisions, not past versions that have potentially been superseded.

Of course, some groups *are* aware, and have been closely involved in negotiations about the Bill’s contents for the past two years. This includes religious fundamentalists, such as the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).

Indeed, the same Sydney Morning Herald article in which Cash argued against a Senate Inquiry was primarily about the ACL revealing the final Religious Discrimination Bill will include some version of the ‘Folau clause’.

The article is titled ‘Christian Lobby boasts religious freedom laws will include ‘Folau clause’, and goes on to quote ACL boss Martyn Iles:

‘Mr Iles said the ACL was “very, very strongly applying pressure from a grassroots level and from our lobbying level to ensure the Folau clause remains in the bill. It was fought tooth and nail, it was really at risk for a long time there[. O]ne great win is that the final draft of the bill will contain a Folau clause. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad. And it does exist within the bill.”’

The Government’s consultations with the ACL were not denied by Attorney-General Cash, once again at Senate Estimates:

Senator Rice: Minister, we’ve seen media reports – and I’m tabling the media report that I was reading last week, that the Australian Christian Lobby say that they’re in the final days of negotiations with the Prime Minister’s office over the bill. The ACL are claiming they are ‘part of a coalition of faith leaders who jointly have been negotiating very closely with the Attorney-General, and with the Prime Minister’s Office’. Is that an accurate summation of what’s been happening with the negotiations on the bill?

Senator Cash: I’ve been negotiating far and wide in relation to the bill.

Senator Rice: Who else have you been negotiating with over the last month, for example?

Senator Cash: I’ve been negotiating with stakeholders across the board. I would take on notice whether or not they want their names provided, though, with all due respect to them. Some actually don’t want their name provided formally.

Senator Rice: Could I take on notice a list of all the stakeholders, as far as they are willing to be named?

Senator Cash: I’m more than happy to do that, absolutely. I need to go to them to get their permission, but-

Senator Rice: Can you name some others, other than those that will be part of this coalition of faith leaders?

Senator Cash: I would prefer not to, in the event they don’t want their names publicly disclosed as having discussions with me, but I’m more than happy to take it on notice for you.

Senator Rice: Have you been negotiating with any of the human rights organisations or LGBTIQ+ organisations?

Senator Cash: Yes. They’re a very important stakeholder.

*****

This exchange is deeply unsatisfactory, for a number of reasons.

The Attorney-General was unwilling to divulge the name of *any* stakeholder with whom she had been negotiating, or even consulting, over the biggest change to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law in almost four decades.

Even though Cash eventually agreed to take this question on notice (meaning she will need to respond in writing in coming months), this will unlikely be revealed until after the Bill itself has been introduced, and even then stakeholders who wish to remain secret will apparently have their names withheld from the public.

Cash’s answers also do not reveal the level of engagement with each group. For example, it is possible for the Government to be ‘negotiating’ with religious fundamentalists about the text of the Bill, but only ‘consulting’ with other groups in high-level or non-specific terms.

The final answer is also worrying; Cash uses the singular form (‘They’re a very important stakeholder’) in response to a question about negotiating with ‘human rights organisations or LGBTIQ+ organisations’.

This could imply she may only be meeting with one such body, and it is unclear who that would be, especially when there is no generalist national LGBTIQ+ organisation that is accountable to the LGBTIQ+ community (LGBTIQ+ Health Australia is the closest there is although, as the name suggests, its primary focus is health).

In fact, there are a wide range of organisations that either represent particular sections of the community (like Intersex Human Rights Australia), or advocate on LGBTIQ+ issues generally (such as Just.Equal Australia and Equality Australia), as well as several state and territory membership-based LGBTIQ organisations. Senator Cash should be ‘negotiating’ with all of them.

All of this is to say that the broader community has almost no idea who has been meeting with Attorney-General Cash about the Religious Discrimination Bill, or how much access and influence each organisation has been able to achieve. Based on her evidence to Senate Estimates last week, it is possible we will never be permitted to know.

Which simply confirms that the *only* way there can be a truly independent, and transparent, consultation process – where the names of witnesses are published, hearings are held in public with everyone able to know who has been advocating for what, as well as an opportunity for all Parties to interrogate those views – is for there to be a Senate Inquiry.

What is Labor’s position?

It remains unclear what Labor’s position is on whether there should be a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus is quoted in the same Sydney Morning Herald article as Senator Cash, although he does not address this issue (to be fair, he may not have been asked about it, or he may have provided quotes on this topic that were not included).

Of more concern is the lack of public position on this by Labor in the period since then. I am not aware of any criticism from ALP MPs or Senators about Cash’s push to avoid the scrutiny of a Senate Inquiry, nor did any Labor Senators on the Estimates Committee alongside Senator Janet Rice join her in challenging this position.

It is possible the Labor Opposition will push for a Senate Inquiry when the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of the year starts on Monday 22 November (which is presumably when the Government will introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill).

However, it is also possible that the ALP, under Leader Anthony Albanese, does not support referral to a Senate Inquiry. If so, their rationale for doing so would be just as weak as Attorney-General Cash’s.

In the Opposition’s case, they may seek to avoid any criticism they are ‘holding up’ so-called ‘religious freedom’ laws in the lead-up to the federal election, due in the first half of 2022 (even though it is the Morrison Government’s own delays that have led to this timing).

But that cannot be justification for not closely scrutinising the biggest change to Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws in nearly four decades. Nor would it excuse failing to support at least an inquiry into legislation that is a serious threat to the rights of women, LGBTI people, people with disability, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, even people of minority faiths.

If Labor fails to support a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill in an attempt to avoid being politically ‘wedged’, then it seems highly likely they would subsequently also just ‘wave through’ the Government’s legislation.

That course of events would be reminiscent of the Labor Opposition’s actions under then-Leader (and now One Nation NSW Leader) Mark Latham in supporting John Howard’s Bill banning same-sex marriage in 2004. A ban which took a long and painful 13 years to overturn.

If Albo does not support a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill, and instead simply votes for the legislation, it would be the biggest display of Labor spinelessness on LGBTI rights since Latham revealed himself to be an invertebrate on marriage equality.

Why there MUST be a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill

I know that, for some of you, whether or not there is a Senate Inquiry on the Religious Discrimination Bill might seem like a fairly technical discussion. 

I hope I’ve convinced you that’s not the case, and shown why holding a Senate Inquiry is essential to independently and transparently scrutinise the biggest change to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law in 37 years.

And why we need this investigation to shine a light on any proposals that undermine the rights of women, LGBTI people, people with disability, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, and even people of minority faiths.

Of course, a Senate Inquiry is no guarantee this harmful legislation (if that’s what it turns out to be, because most of us have yet to see the final version) is ultimately defeated, or that its worst aspects are amended or at least ameliorated. It may still end up being passed.

But it would be a terrible sign if the Government is successful in avoiding a Senate Inquiry.

Perhaps think of it like this: if the Government was proud of this Bill and its key features, if it thought it could stand up to the rigour of independent and transparent consideration by a multi-partisan Committee, then it would gladly agree to it.

That Attorney-General Cash has publicly argued against doing so, suggests the final Religious Discrimination Bill will be a fundamentally bad law.

Instead, it seems they hope to ram it through Parliament, either late this year, or early next year, while everyone is distracted by other news: COVID-19, COP26 and global heating, the impending election campaign itself, and plenty more besides.

If they are successful, then the first time some people are aware it has even happened will be when they are refused a vital health care service. At their doctor. Or by their nurse. Or pharmacist. Or psychologist.

Or when they are subjected to vile comments about who they are. In their workplace. Or at their school or university. Or at another community service. Or on public transport.

Or any other public space in which making offensive, humiliating, intimidating, insulting or ridiculing comments about other people has been permitted as long as it’s motived by religious belief.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash came empty-handed to Senate Estimates last week, unwilling to answer whether the Government supports a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill, and unwilling to disclose who she has been ‘negotiating’ with about this legislation.

Increasing LGBTI Representation

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here.

 

Over recent years there have been a number of legal and policy reforms that have benefitted the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community (not the least of which was the passage of same-sex marriage).

 

However, many of these changes have been piecemeal in nature, and too often they have been unnecessarily compromised by limitations or religious exceptions (once again including same-sex marriage, see No, we don’t have marriage equality yet).

 

At least part of the reason for the ad hoc and incomplete nature of these reforms is the lack, or insufficient amount, of representation of the LGBTI community in decision-making.

 

For the purposes of this article, by LGBTI representation I mean:

 

  • Representation in Parliament
  • Representation in the Executive, and
  • Representation through Consultation

 

I will address each of these areas in turn.

 

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Australia’s first out Commonwealth representative, former Senator Bob Brown.

 

LGBTI Representation in Parliament

 

It is fair to say that there has been rapid improvement in this area in the last four years, especially in relation to Commonwealth Parliament.

 

When I wrote about this issue early last term (see LGBTI Voices Absent from the Chamber), there had still never been an out LGBTI member of the House of Representatives. Now there are five:

 

  • Trent Zimmerman, who was the first out gay man elected to the lower house in late 2015
  • Julian Hill, Trevor Evans and Tim Wilson, who were all elected at the 2016 federal election, and
  • Kerryn Phelps, who became the first out lesbian elected to the House of Representatives in late 2018.

 

These MPs have joined the four current LGBTI Senators:

 

  • Penny Wong, who was the first out lesbian elected to either chamber
  • Louise Pratt and Dean Smith, and
  • Janet Rice, who I understand was the first out bisexual elected at Commonwealth level.

 

There have also been three previous gay Senators (Bob Brown, who was the first out gay man elected to either chamber, Brian Greig and Robert Simms).

 

So, in the lead-up to the 2019 election, we now have nine LGBTI MPs and Senators, out of 226 in total, which is an encouraging start.

 

However, if one of the main benefits of having LGBTI representation in Parliament is to ensure it hears from a diversity of views, then those LGBTI representatives should themselves reflect the diversity of our community.

 

Unfortunately, at this stage that is clearly not the case. As with the Parliament more generally, LGBTI MPs and Senators have so far been predominantly cis white men.

 

There have been twice as many male LGBTI MPs and Senators as female ones (with a similar discrepancy in the NSW Parliament as well).

 

There has still never been a transgender MP or Senator in Australia, or even an MP at state or territory level (for comparison, New Zealand’s first transgender MP, Georgina Beyer, was elected almost two decades ago).

 

Despite making up a large proportion of the LGBTI community, there has only been one out bisexual MP or Senator.

 

There has also been only limited representation of queer people of colour, with Penny Wong federally, Harriet Shing in Victoria’s upper house and Chansey Paech, the first gay Indigenous MP in the Northern Territory Parliament, and

 

There has never been an out intersex MP, at Commonwealth or state and territory level, although Tony Briffa was the first intersex person elected mayor in the Western World.

 

While increasing the number of MPs and Senators who are LGBTI is important, so too is ensuring that they come from across the LGBT and I communities, so that we do not continue to have a mostly white, mostly gay male, with some lesbian and one bisexual, but not transgender or intersex, parliamentary contingent.

 

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Australia’s first out female Commonwealth representative, Senator the Hon Penny Wong.

 

LGBTI Representation in the Executive

 

Perhaps just as important as having LGBTI voices in the Parliament, is having LGBTI representation formally embedded within the executive arm of Government.

 

The most obvious example of this would be having a formally appointed Minister for Equality, a role Martin Foley has played in the Victorian Government for more than four years.

 

There is no equivalent position within the Morrison Liberal-National Government federally, although Louise Pratt is currently the Shadow Assistant Minister for Equality in the Labor Opposition (and would presumably fulfil this role in a Shorten Government, should they be elected in May).

 

As far as I am aware, there is also no current Minister or Shadow Minister for Equality in NSW, although perhaps that is something that could change after the upcoming state election on Saturday 23 March 2019.

 

At the Commonwealth level at least there is another way in which LGBTI issues should be represented, and that is through the appointment of a standalone Commissioner for LGBTI issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

As I have written previously (see 5 Years of Commonwealth LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws. 5 Suggestions for Reform), the Commission is currently unable to adequately perform this function, with LGBTI issues forming just one part of the overall policy responsibilities of the Human Rights Commissioner, sitting alongside ‘religious freedom’ (with which it often competes for attention, sometimes unsuccessfully).

 

Fortunately, the appointment of a standalone LGBTI Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission has been promised by the Shorten Labor Opposition, so this is potentially something that may change in the near future.

 

Another model of LGBTI representation that has been adopted in Victoria is a Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality within the public service, to coordinate LGBTI policy and programs across Government. This is something that again should be considered elsewhere, including at Commonwealth level and in NSW.

 

Any Minister for Equality and/or public service LGBTI Commissioner should also be supported by an office for equality within a central agency, preferably the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and its respective state and territory equivalents.

 

Adopting any of the above formalised representation structures within executive government (and preferably all of them), will hopefully ensure that LGBTI issues are adequately considered by Governments of all persuasions.

 

LGBTI Representation through Consultation

 

The third and final means of LGBTI representation is no less important than the first two – and that is ensuring Government hears from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities themselves about the issues that affect them.

 

While this happens occasionally now (with Governments consulting directly with a few key groups on select policy proposals) what is needed is an ongoing, formalised structure whereby LGBTI organisations, and individuals with relevant expertise, are appointed to panels to represent the views of the LGBTI communities to decision-makers on a consistent basis.

 

Given the impact of justice, health and education laws and policies on LGBTI communities, especially at state and territory level, I would suggest (at least) three standing committees on each of these respective portfolio areas, and in other areas on an ‘as needed’ basis.

 

There are of course risks to this model, including that panel members do not accurately, or adequately, reflect the views of the communities they are supposed to represent.

 

These risks can be minimised by ensuring there are open application processes, and that applicants demonstrate how they propose to reflect the opinions of the LGBTI community in performing their role. Consideration could also be given to term limits to ensure appointees are not ‘captured’ by the bureaucratic process, thereby reducing their effectiveness in advocating to Government.

 

Ultimately, if LGBTI representation can be increased in Parliament, the Executive and through Consultation, we will see better decision-making by Governments on LGBTI issues, for the benefit of the entire community.

 

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LGBTI Voices Absent from the Chamber

This week marked the first sittings of the 44th Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. It also marked the 44th sittings in which there have been no openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) members of the House of Representatives. The achievements of prominent Senators over the past 15 years – most notably former Greens Leader, Bob Brown, and current Leader of the ALP Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong – mean many people, including some within the LGBTI community, are unaware of this fact.

However, the truth remains that, 38 years after the first Australian state decriminalised homosexuality (South Australia in 1975), and 16 since the last (Tasmania in 1997), no openly LGBTI MP has ever occupied a seat in our federal lower house. This ongoing absence is both an embarrassment, and means Australia is a statistical outlier amongst similar countries.

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Above: now retired, Senator Bob Brown, former leader of the Greens.

The United Kingdom has a long, and mostly proud, history of ‘out’ House of Commons MPs. Leaving aside the ‘outing’ of Labour’s Maureen Colquhoun in 1976, fellow Labour MP Chris Smith voluntarily came out just a year into his first term, way back in 1984. The first Tory to come out in office – Matthew Parris – did so the same year. In fact, with roughly 20 current openly LGBTI House of Commons Members (there’s so many it’s getting hard to keep up), even adjusting for size Westminster features the equivalent of 4 or 5 openly LGBTI Australian House of Reps MPs.

New Zealand is similarly a long way ahead of Australia. Like the UK, our Trans-Tasman cousins had a female MP who was ‘outed’ whilst in office (Marilyn Waring from the Nationals, in 1976), with the first MP to publicly come out being Labour’s Chris Carter, shortly after his election twenty years ago. New Zealand even had the world’s first openly transsexual Member of Parliament, Georgina Beyer, before the turn of the last millennium. And, despite having a national list as part of their electoral system, these (and several other openly LGBTI) MPs represented single-member geographic electorates.

Meanwhile, the Canadian history of openly LGBTI lower house MPs has already reached a quarter century, following Svend Robinson’s pubic declaration in 1988. Even the United States Congress has featured openly LGBTI members in their House of Representatives; after Democrat Gerry Studds was outed in 1983, fellow Democrat Barney Frank came out voluntarily in 1987. Heck, the first Republican Members of Congress to either be outed (Steve Gunderson in 1994) or come out voluntarily (Jim Koelbe in 1996) happened almost two decades ago.

So, what has gone wrong in the Australian political system such that, despite having six openly LGBTI Senators or Senators-elect (in addition to Brown and Wong, there’s Democrat Brian Greig, Labor’s Louise Pratt, Liberal Dean Smith and newly-elected Green Janet Rice), not one openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender of intersex MP has ever won a seat in the House of Reps? How is it that Liberal Kevin Ekendahl, contesting the seat of Melbourne Ports in September 2013, appears to be the candidate to come closest – and even he fell more than 3.5% short?

The first possible explanation is that the party machines, in particular of the Coalition and the ALP, have actively operated to prevent LGBTI politicians from rising to the top. Given Australia’s incredibly strong two-party system (much stronger than the UK, New Zealand or Canada), it’s plausible that the increasingly powerful religious/conservative wing of the Liberal and National parties, and the virulently homophobic SDA, led by Joe De Bruyn inside the ALP, have each stopped the emergence of LGBTI politicians in Australia.

Except they haven’t been completely successful – 3 of the 6 openly LGBTI Senators have come from major parties (although none yet from the Nationals). And it ignores the Senate’s position as a quasi-‘insiders club’, where the majority of people elected have themselves emerged from, or at least have the support of, the party hierarchy. Which means that, even if discrimination within the party machine offers some of the explanation, there must be more to it.

A second possible explanation is that our political parties, operating in a system of single-member electorates with compulsory voting and compulsory preferential voting, have taken conscious decisions to find candidates who do not risk alienating any specific part of the electorate, and therefore have ruled out pre-selecting openly LGBTI candidates; or have nominated them to the multi-member Senate instead. Especially in marginal suburban or regional electorates, even a small backlash from voters motivated by homophobia (or who could be made to feel so through an exploitative campaign by opponents) could arguably be the difference between success or footnote.

At least historically, that could have been a somewhat rational, albeit craven, view from inside our major parties. But over time, with the growing acceptance of LGBTI people throughout Australian society, that perspective should have become irrelevant. And, once again, it cannot offer a full explanation, because, even accounting for different electoral systems in other countries, LGBTI candidates have had to counter, and survive, explicitly homophobic campaigns against them elsewhere. That could, and should, have happened here too.

A third possible explanation is that LGBTI people themselves have ‘self-selected’ out of becoming members of the House of Reps. There are two main ways in which this could have happened. First, if LGBTI advocates and achievers, becoming disgruntled by a (real or perceived) lack of progress on equality inside the major parties, chose instead to focus their energies on minor parties like the Democrats or, later, Greens, then they have largely ruled themselves out of being viable candidates for the House of Reps. The fact that 3 of the 6 openly LGBTI Senators to date have come from these smaller parties lends some weight to this hypothesis.

The other way in which an LGBTI person might rule themselves out is that, having progressed within the major parties and been in a position to challenge for pre-selection, they instead chose not to expose themselves to public scrutiny of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, or the possibility of outright homophobia. It’s been reported before that this is one reason why Justice Michael Kirby chose the law instead of politics (as an aside, imagine the achievements of Kirby as an activist Attorney-General?). It’s possible this fear continues to be a factor today. And, given the sexism and misogyny that is still directed at our female politicians, who’s to say they’re being irrational?

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Above: Senator the Hon Penny Wong, currently Leader of the ALP Opposition in the Senate, with her family. Unfortunately, as a Senator she can no longer be promoted unless or until she moves to the House of Representatives.

Last month, Bill Shorten made addressing this issue, through the introduction of LGBTI affirmative action rules for ALP candidates, one of his policy planks in the contest for Labor Leader. The proposal, oft described as a quota, drew condemnation from a diverse range of people, including Andrew Bolt and Crikey’s Guy Rundle. Disappointingly, the debate over his solution (which, for the record, I think is worthy of consideration) ignored the fact that Shorten was talking about a real problem – that LGBTI people continue to be excluded from Australia’s House of Government, long after they have stormed the barricades in comparable nations.

It’s important this problem is addressed, not because a Parliament must automatically reflect the demographic make-up of the people it represents, but because, at a time when the rights of LGBTI people continue to be a matter of major public debate (see: marriage equality), we should at least be at the table; or on a green chair or two, anyway. But above all, removing the barriers which have, in the past, operated to prevent openly LGBTI people being elected to the House of Representatives, means clearing the way to ensure that the best possible candidates are put before the Australian people, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. That’s something we all deserve.

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UPDATE 7 JANUARY 2016:

On Saturday 5 December 2015, Trent Zimmerman became the first out gay man to be elected to the House of Representatives, in the North Sydney by-election created by the resignation of former Treasurer Joe Hockey.

A Liberal, Mr Zimmerman will be the first out member of the LGBTI community to serve in the lower house of our federal parliament when he formally takes his seat on Tuesday 2 February 2016.

While his historic victory was a long time coming, there is some hope that the 2016 Federal Election may even see other out LGBTI representatives elected to join him. The best chance at this stage appears to be gay army major Pat O’Neill, standing for Labor in the marginal seat of Brisbane.

Other candidates with admittedly longer odds include Carl Katter (ALP) and Jason Ball (Greens) in Higgins which is currently held by Liberal Kelly O’Dwyer (they both had much stronger chances before Malcolm Turnbull replaced the bigoted Tony Abbott as Prime Minister), and Labor’s Sophie Ismail who is running against Green Adam Bandt in Melbourne.

Of course, even if Mr O’Neill succeeds, two MPs out of a chamber of 150 do not a landslide make. LGBTI voices will still be under-represented when the issue of marriage equality is debated (yet again) next term, as well as other issues of importance to the LGBTI community.

And Australia remains well behind in terms of LGBTI representation, both in comparison to similar countries elsewhere, and when we remember the fact that there has still not been an out transgender or intersex member in either house. Despite Mr Zimmerman’s victory, there is still a very long way to go.

Trent-Zimmerman

Liberal Trent Zimmerman became the first out LGBTI person elected to the House of Representatives on 5 December 2015 [image source: The Weekly Times].