Wedding Dates and Mandates

Centennial-Park heart

Centennial Park, Sydney.

 

A couple of weeks ago, my fiancé Steven and I were walking around Centennial Park in Sydney when we started discussing possible wedding dates.

 

That shouldn’t be remarkable: an engaged couple talking about the timing of their nuptials. Except it was probably the first time in about five years that we seriously considered when and where we might hold our ceremony.

 

The previous conversation coincided with the last proper vote on marriage equality in Commonwealth Parliament – way back in September 2012. But now, with the same-sex marriage postal survey drawing to a close, there is a real prospect that marriage equality might finally become law in the months ahead.

 

Of course, there are some major hurdles still to overcome before Steven and I start booking venues and sending out save-the-date cards.

 

The first, and most obvious, hurdle is that the Australian Bureau of Statistics must announce a majority Yes result at 10am on Wednesday 15 November, just ten days from now.

 

Assuming that outcome is favourable, the second hurdle is for our 226 parliamentarians to pass legislation to respect the wishes of the Australian population.

 

That part should be relatively straight-forward – amending the Marriage Act to make the definition of marriage inclusive of LGBTI couples, and to recognise the marriages of thousands of couples that already exist.

 

But it is highly likely the debate around what should be included in, and excluded from, a marriage equality bill will be just as divisive as the postal survey that preceded it, if not more so.

 

That is because the same groups who have steadfastly opposed the equal recognition of LGBTI relationships, including the Australian Christian Lobby and conservatives within the Coalition, are now arguing that any bill to introduce marriage equality must be weighed down by new special privileges allowing discrimination against us across multiple spheres of public life.

 

As reported by news.com.au these changes: “could include lessening hate speech laws, axing legislation that gives same-sex parents the same rights as straight parents, barring gay couples from accessing IVF and allowing parents to remove kids from any school lesson that even fleetingly mentions gay people. There is also the prospect of businesses being given the green light to refuse to serve anyone who is gay, not just those organising same-sex weddings.”

 

The introduction of such amendments would fundamentally alter the purpose of the legislation being debated. It would no longer be a marriage equality bill, it would instead be a bill to promote discrimination against LGBTI Australians, where expanding the right to marry would be purely incidental.

 

Obviously, these changes must be resisted, and resisted strongly, which means it will once again fall to LGBTI Australians, and our allies, to argue for the equal treatment of our relationships.

 

Once again, we have the arguments on our side. From the principle that secular law should not discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics, to the ideal of a fair go which means one form of discrimination should not simply be replaced by another.

 

We must also highlight the inconsistency of those claiming these rights to discriminate are necessary to protect ‘religious freedom’ – if they have not historically been required to allow discrimination against divorced couples remarrying, they are not necessary to permit discrimination against same-sex couples now.

 

But there is another argument against the introduction of these new special privileges to discriminate that I would like to talk about, and that is the theory of political mandates (I know, I know, this is far less romantic than discussing possible wedding dates, but please hear me out).

 

For those who don’t know, a mandate is defined as ‘the authority to carry out a policy, regarded as given by the electorate.’

 

In this case, the Australian electorate has just participated in a $122 million, three month long, nation-wide postal survey to determine whether it supports same-sex marriage. If the result is Yes, as is widely-expected, what does that mean for the ‘mandate’ of the Government, and the Parliament more broadly?

 

  1. There is a mandate for same-sex marriage

 

The first, and least controversial, outcome is that, if the population has voted yes, there is a clear mandate for Parliament to introduce amendments that allow all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians to marry. Not even Lyle Shelton could argue against that (well, he might try, but should be ignored).

 

  1. There is no mandate for new special privileges to discriminate against same-sex couples

 

On the other hand, a Yes vote does not provide the Government or Parliament with a mandate to introduce new special privileges allowing individuals and organisations to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

Why? Because of the question that Australians were asked to answer: ‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’

 

What is not there is just as important as what is. There were no asterisks at the end of the question, no footnotes on the survey form saying ‘different terms and conditions apply’.

 

Nor were there any extra clauses – it did not ask whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry subject to additional rights to discriminate against them.

 

The absence of asterisks, terms and conditions or extra clauses on the postal survey question means Parliament does not have a mandate to introduce asterisks, terms and conditions or extra clauses to our equality in the Marriage Act.

 

Indeed, this point was (inadvertently) conceded by former Prime Minister John Howard in September, when he called for current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to release details of the Bill it would put forward in the event of a Yes vote:

 

“On the evidence to date, it would seem that the only protections in that bill will not go much beyond stipulations that no minister, priest, rabbi or imam will be compelled to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony… It is precisely because parliament should reflect the will of the people that the people are entitled to know what, if anything, the government will do on protections before they vote.”

 

The fact the Turnbull Government did not put forward any official legislation means, by Howard’s own rationale, it does not have a mandate to introduce new special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

Postal survey form

No asterisks, terms and conditions or extra clauses – the postal survey only asked whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

 

  1. There is a mandate for marriage equality

 

The wording of the postal survey question means a Yes vote does provide the Parliament with a mandate to introduce genuine marriage equality. In fact, I would argue they have an obligation to do exactly that.

 

Unless the question specifically stated that same-sex couples would be treated as lesser than cisgender heterosexual couples are now – which, as we have seen, it did not – then the logical inference is that they would and should be treated the same.

 

And that is exactly how the question was interpreted by the Australian population.

 

As reported by Buzzfeed this week, a Galaxy poll: “canvassed 1,000 Australians on their views on same-sex marriage from October 26 to 30.

 

“In response to the question, ‘If the majority vote ‘yes’ in the postal survey, should same-sex couples be treated the same under the law compared with other couples?’, 78% of respondents said yes.

 

“This figure consisted of 98% of respondents who said they had voted ‘yes’, and [even] 43% of those who said they had voted ‘no’.”

 

As noted by PFLAG’s Shelley Argent in the same article: “This poll couldn’t be clearer. Australians want marriage equality and we want it without any of the caveats and exemptions that will further entrench discrimination against same-sex couples.”

 

And so, if the outcome of the postal survey on 15 November is a Yes, then the message to our Parliamentarians will be unambiguous – they should provide LGBTI Australians with the right to marry, and they must do so on exactly the same terms as it is enjoyed by cisgender heterosexual couples today.

 

**********

 

Nobody should underestimate the scale of the challenge that lies ahead of us. Even if we win the postal survey in ten days time, the debate that follows, about what same-sex marriage looks like in practice, is going to be a messy one.

 

Our opponents will fight just as hard, and just as dirty, as they have over the past few months. We will need to rely once more on our patience, our passion and our principles to win.

 

It is also unclear how long this debate will last. While some express the hope that marriage equality could be passed by Christmas, it is possible that this process will take several months to resolve, lasting well into 2018. There is even the chance that same-sex marriage is not passed this term, because the legislation that is put forward has to be rejected as it falls short of true equality.

 

All of which means that, while Steven and I have (re)started our discussion about possible wedding dates, we still have no clear idea when that might ultimately be.

 

But I do know this: when I asked him to marry me on that January day in Melbourne almost eight years ago, there were no conditions attached. When Steven and I finally get married, there shouldn’t be any conditions attached either.

Advertisements

Malcolm Turnbull – ‘Mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’

When Malcolm Turnbull’s political career is finally over – and that could be sooner rather than later – it is likely that the ‘highlights’ package run by TV stations – which, based on his ‘achievements’ to date, will also be shorter rather than longer – will include at least a brief mention of his role as head of the unsuccessful ‘Yes’ campaign in the 1999 republic referendum.

 

The footage they will probably show will be his (in)famous description of John Howard as ‘the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart’.

 

Almost 18 years later, it is somewhat ironic that this description could just as easily be applied to Turnbull’s own stint as the country’s leader.

 

Despite coming to the top job with enormous public good will, amid widespread relief that Tony Abbott was no longer Prime Minister, just 18 months later he has seemingly squandered it all.

 

It is almost as if he consciously set about smashing the high hopes and expectations the public once held, as the modern, moderate Malcolm rapidly became traditional ‘Tory’ Turnbull.

 

We may not be ‘broken-hearted’ (that description always was a touch grandiose), but we have certainly been left disheartened, and deeply disillusioned, by a man who has sold out his principles across a wide range of issues – from climate change to marriage equality, and most things in between – merely to keep his place in The Lodge.

 

This past week it appears Malcolm’s stint as PM has officially reached its nadir. And this time it is a different quote about John Howard that springs to mind.

 

On both section 18C, and the postal plebiscite, the Turnbull Government has revealed itself to be ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’, which is how then Liberal Party President Shane Stone notoriously described the Howard Government in an internal memo in early 2001.

 

**********

 

The proposed reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which will make it easier to vilify people on the basis of their race (or, as Attorney-General Brandis once admitted, ensure people ‘have the right to be bigots’), are nakedly ‘mean-spirited’.

 

The Liberal-National Government is seeking to undermine anti-vilification laws that have protected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and other Australians from ethnically diverse backgrounds, for more than two decades.

 

The entire justification for their unrelenting assault on section 18C is to simply repeat the word ‘freedom’ over and over again, and hope nobody notices that a largely homogeneous group of MPs and Senators, most of whom will never experience racism, are taking away protections from people who, depressingly, still need them.

 

The move to change the wording of section 18C, by replacing the words ‘offend, insult, humiliate’ with ‘harass’, is tricky, too.

 

Not just because the Prime Minister has tried, on multiple occasions, to describe this amendment as ‘strengthening’ anti-vilification laws (sorry, Prime Minister, we’re not that gullible).

 

But also because, on at least five separate occasions before the July 2016 federal election, Malcolm Turnbull said that his Government had no plans to change the Racial Discrimination Act.

 

Being confronted with this inconvenient history this week led Mr Turnbull to engage in this, frankly, extraordinary exchange:

 

“Journalist: But on backflips, you back flipped on 18C, you changed your mind on 18C. Don’t you agree this is what politicians do, they change their position?

 

Prime Minister: Again, I don’t accept that proposition at all.

 

Journalist: You said five times before the election that you wouldn’t change 18C and now you’re pushing through changes?

 

Prime Minister: What we said before the election was that we did not have any plans to change 18C and that was absolutely true. So again, as a guardian of the truth, you should be more careful with the language you attribute to me…”

 

‘Honest’ John Howard would be proud of that evasion. And it seems like the Australian electorate are the ones who need to be more careful, and not believe any future promises that Malcolm Turnbull might make.

 

Amending the wording of 18C is also the definition of a niche political issue, demonstrating that the Government is comprehensively out of touch with the concerns ordinary Australians.

 

It doesn’t take Einstein to realise most Australians are far more interested in health, education and employment – and increasingly, the cost of housing – than the supposed troubles of Andrew Bolt or (the late) Bill Leak.

 

Speaking of which, even Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce spoke against the proposals in the joint party room meeting on Tuesday (21 March), reportedly saying ‘the move to amend 18C is really dumb and it will lose the Coalition votes’.

 

Barnaby knows that this issue is not what John Howard called a ‘barbecue stopper’. For many people, if 18C came up at all it would most likely be in the context of wondering why the Turnbull Government is so obsessed by an issue that, as Treasurer Scott Morrison previously conceded, ‘doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour’.

 

Of course, that is not to say nobody is focused on, or affected by, this issue. For a significant minority, and especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Australians from ethnically diverse backgrounds, the changes to 18C are a threat to vital protections against the hate-speech that remains far-too-common.

 

And they have been making their voices heard, providing literally hundreds of submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee that considered this issue at the start of the year.

 

In the five days since these reforms were announced, there have also been joint statements against proposed changes to 18C by ‘[r]epresentatives from Greek, Armenian, Indigenous, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese and Lebanese organisations.’

 

But the Turnbull Government is not listening to the millions of people who would be adversely affected by these new definitions.

 

Quite literally, in fact, as the Aboriginal Legal Service discovered when it attempted to provide evidence to the Senate Inquiry into the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 on Friday, and Liberal and National Party Senators voted not to hear them.

 

Instead, the Turnbull Government is listening to the (maybe) tens of people – at the Institute of Public Affairs, and the Herald Sun and The Australian newspapers – who have been clamouring for these changes.

 

Or, as Barnaby Joyce acknowledged (and yes, I’m just as surprised as you are that I’m quoting him, approvingly, twice in the same article):

 

“This is an issue, it is an issue but I’ll be frank, it lives in the extremities of the bell curve. Where do you meet those people [who care about 18C]? At party meetings, they are absolutely blessed people and they are terribly politically involved and they have an intense interest in some of the minutiae of debate. They come into your office to rant and rave about it, all four of them.”

 

It is hard to summarise the proposed changes to 18C much better than that – the racial vilification laws that protect millions of Australians from hate-speech are being wound back because of the passionate and vocal interest of extremists inside the Liberal and National Parties who ultimately won’t be affected by it in the slightest.

 

**********

 

Not content with displaying its fundamental flaws in relation to 18C, the past week also saw the Turnbull Government debating another subject on which it is consistently ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’: marriage equality.

 

Specifically, the man most likely to replace Malcolm as Prime Minister, Peter Dutton (now that’s a phrase I’d hoped never to write), has been actively pushing a proposal to hold a ‘postal plebiscite’ on this issue.

 

To be fair to the incumbent, Turnbull has so far not expressed formal support for this idea. But then he hasn’t ruled it out either, and, given he maintains his predecessor, Tony Abbott’s, policy in favour of a ‘traditional’ plebiscite, there is a real risk the postal plebiscite will become Government policy.

 

This is, at its core, another mean-spirited proposal.

 

Imposing a plebiscite – traditional or postal – to determine whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should enjoy equal rights under the law is a hurdle that no other social group has been forced to overcome.

 

The idea that we need to hold such a vote to determine whether couples like Steve and me can say ‘I do’ is so ridiculous that it should have been laughed off. But it isn’t just couples like Steve and me, who have only been together eight and a half years, affected by the ongoing ban on marriage equality.

 

It also denies the rights of couples like Peter de Waal and Peter Bonsall-Boone, who have been together for more than 50 years, and who simply want to be married under the law just like any other couple.

 

Holding a postal plebiscite will take several months, and a positive result would still need to be confirmed by legislation afterwards. This is time that some couples do not have:

 

“I doubt that I will live long enough to see same-sex marriage,” said Bonsall Boone, who is now battling cancer. 

 

Therefore, the idea that the Government could hold a postal plebiscite on marriage equality isn’t just unprecedented, or ridiculous, it is downright offensive, especially when the alternative is so obvious.

 

As De Waal says: “[t]he simplest, cheapest, quickest and fairest way to resolve this inequality is a free vote in federal parliament now!”

 

The postal plebiscite is also tricky in two key ways. First, the legislation to hold a traditional plebiscite on marriage equality was firmly rejected by the Senate in November last year.

 

Having failed in that attempt, for the Government to turn around and hold one anyway, this time via post and therefore not requiring parliamentary approval, is both sly and underhanded.

 

Or, as Liberal backbencher Trent Zimmerman acknowledged: “it [is] the wrong path because it would be seen as ‘tricky and sneaky’, it would be non-binding and its result could be disregarded” [emphasis added].

 

Second, the nature of a postal plebiscite would effectively stack the decks against marriage equality. The group most likely to engage via post – older Australians – are also the least likely to support marriage equality. The converse is also true – many younger people, who are overwhelmingly in favour of the equal rights of LGBTI people, would be less likely to vote this way.

 

A postal plebiscite would also inevitably be a contest between passionate advocates at either end of the debate, instead of the middle Australia who, as demonstrated by opinion poll after opinion poll, are, to use John Howard’s phrase, entirely ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about the idea of two men, or two women, marrying.

 

Finally, as Mr Zimmerman suggests, the lower turnout of a postal plebiscite would also reduce its legitimacy, making a public ‘yes’ vote easier for MPs to ignore (remembering that the same conservatives who now support a plebiscite questioned the validity of the Irish marriage equality referendum because ‘only’ 60% of people voted).

 

Just as with the changes to section 18C, the push for a postal plebiscite on marriage equality also reveals just how out of touch the current Liberal-National Government has become.

 

While the proposal to hold a traditional plebiscite was initially popular, that support dropped away dramatically through 2016 as people increasingly understood it would be unnecessary, wasteful and divisive.

 

A postal plebiscite is just as unnecessary, and would still be preceded by a bitter and hate-filled public debate. Perhaps the only ‘improvement’, if you could call it that, is that it would waste tens, rather than hundreds, of millions of dollars.

 

The idea itself seems to have appeared out of nowhere. I cannot recall any news story, or opinion piece, published prior to last week where anyone was calling for the plebiscite to be revived and for it to be conducted via post.

 

That simply confirms that this proposal is not about meeting any demonstrated need from the community – instead, it is being driven by the internal politics of a dysfunctional Government that steadfastly refuses to do the one thing that would actually end this issue once and for all: hold a free vote in parliament.

 

Finally, this is another instance of the Turnbull Government not listening to the people who are affected by this issue: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

As a community, we said a very firm ‘no’ to the idea of a traditional plebiscite in the second half of 2016, in large part because of the harm it would cause to young and vulnerable members of our community.

 

Based on everything that has been said since the absurd notion of a postal plebiscite was floated last week, we reject the idea of an optional opinion poll via return mail, too (perhaps even more strongly).

 

As Rodney Croome of just.equal notes: “[r]egardless of the model, a plebiscite does not mean more power to the people, but an abdication of responsibility by politicians. It is the coward’s way out.”

 

Or, in the words of Alex Greenwich from Australian Marriage Equality, it is a ‘desperate ploy’, and “[i]t would be seen as a pretty sneaky and underhanded way to do it, I mean, bypassing the parliament.”
All-in-all, this is an issue that only really affects LGBTI people, and our family members and friends. And we’ve already made our views on this topic very clear – we want marriage equality, we want it now, and we want it passed in the ordinary way: in parliament.

 

Almost 13 years after marriage equality was originally banned by John Howard’s Coalition Government in August 2004, it is time for Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition Government to start listening to us and just get it done already. If they don’t, they might find themselves with a lot more free time come 2019.

 

**********

 

These two policies – the proposed reforms to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and the possible postal plebiscite – don’t just reveal a Government that is ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’. They are also two of the worst, and most indefensible, policies of an era that is already renowned for poor governance.

 

This Government actually wants to make it easier to vilify people on the basis of their race. Voluntarily holding a national public vote on marriage equality will see people vilified on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, too.

 

They also share another similarity – they are things not even John Howard did. He had almost twelve years as Prime Minister, including two and half with a Senate majority, in which to wind back our racial vilification laws, and chose not to do so.

 

And, even though he legislated the ‘wrong’ way, he also knew that the issue of marriage equality was one that could and should be settled by our 226 elected representatives, sitting in our nation’s parliament.

 

In this way, we can see that Malcolm Turnbull won’t just be remembered as one of our most disappointing, and disheartening, Prime Ministers, someone who has comprehensively failed to live up to such high expectations. He will also go down as one of the worst. Period.

 

Howard and Turnbull

One of these things is too much like the other.

Dear Malcolm Turnbull, You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it

UPDATE 23 June 2016:

 

On Monday June 20, I received the following response from the Liberal Campaign Headquarters to my letter to the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, calling for him to abandon the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on marriage equality:

 

Campaign Support (Liberal Party of Australia)

Jun 20, 18:10 AEST

 

Dear Mr Lawrie,

 

The Turnbull Government believes that a decision on same-sex marriage should be made by a vote by all Australians via a plebiscite as soon as possible after the election.

 

The Prime Minister has publicly supported same sex marriage for a long time and will be voting in favour of same sex marriage.

 

If the majority of Australians vote ‘yes’ in the plebiscite, the Parliament should respect that decision and legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.

 

Thank you for taking the time to write.”

 

It is perhaps unsurprising that, given the brevity of this response, what it doesn’t say is just as interesting as what it does.

 

Specifically, the email does not include ANY qualifications about what would constitute a majority – all it says is “if the majority of Australians vote ‘yes’ in the plebiscite, the Parliament should respect that decision and legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.”

 

Indeed, that is exactly the same language used by the Liberal-National Coalition in their response to the pre-election survey by LGBTI organisations across the country (for more, see #rainbowvotes).

 

In the last few days, there have been multiple reports (on The Stirrer, on samesame.com.au and in crikey) highlighting the possibility some conservative Liberal and National MPs might seek to sabotage the outcome of a plebiscite by imposing additional requirements for ‘success’ – for example, that it would need to be supported by a majority of people, AND in a majority of electorates.

 

In fact, it is almost inevitable that the likes of Cory Bernardi and Eric Abetz will try, and there must be a real risk that they will succeed.

 

But, the response from Liberal Campaign HQ – both to my letter, and to the #rainbowvotes survey – means that, if Malcolm Turnbull and his Government are re-elected, and then seek to include any additional hurdles whatsoever to the passage of the marriage equality plebiscite, they will be nothing short of liars.

 

For a range of reasons (including that, if there is a change of Government on July 2, the plebiscite can still be avoided), I hope we don’t find out –but if we do, and the requirement of a majority of votes in a majority of electorates is imposed, then ‘dishonest’ will be one more adjective we can use to describe the disappointing prime ministership of one Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.

 

ORIGINAL POST:

 

Full Title: Dear Malcolm Turnbull, You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it. You can give me my rights for free, and in doing so spare Australia a divisive and harmful plebiscite campaign.

 

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister of Australia

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

 

Thursday June 16 2016

 

 

Dear Mr Turnbull

 

You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it

 

I am writing to you once again on a subject I have previously written to you about[i].

 

Specifically, I am writing one last time in the hope you might abandon your Government’s proposal to hold an entirely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and inevitably divisive and harmful plebiscite on marriage equality should you win re-election on 2 July.

 

I call on you to demonstrate the leadership on this issue that, so far, has been lacking. Please drop the proposed plebiscite, and commit to passing marriage equality in the ‘ordinary way’: through a parliamentary vote.

 

A marriage equality plebiscite is entirely unnecessary

 

Given you have previously argued before the High Court, I know you can read a court decision. In which case, I am sure you are aware the High Court has already conclusively found[ii] that Commonwealth Parliament has the power to introduce marriage equality. There is absolutely no need to hold a referendum or plebiscite on this topic.

 

Indeed, holding a national public vote on such an issue, where constitutional change is not required, is almost unprecedented in our nation’s history[iii] – the last time a plebiscite was held on a substantive matter of public policy was 99 years ago (the second plebiscite on conscription during World War I).

 

Even if you haven’t familiarised yourself with the Court’s decision, or the history of plebiscites in this country, you have been a Member of Parliament since late 2004, just months after then Prime Minister John Howard passed legislation to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians the right to marry simply because of who they are.

 

Since then, there have been several further parliamentary votes on this issue, including the last major vote in September 2012, when, with the exception of one Senator, the Liberal and National Parties again collectively voted to deny equal rights to LGBTI people.

 

It seems extraordinary to me, and to a large number of other Australians, that Coalition MPs and Senators are comfortable in using their position in parliament to reject the human rights to fellow citizens but insist on holding a plebiscite before they will use that exact same power to allow LGBTI people to wed the person they love.

 

A marriage equality plebiscite is fundamentally wasteful

 

As confirmed in the Federal Budget on 3 May, you and your Government have set aside $160 million to hold the marriage equality plebiscite[iv]. With some decisions yet to be made (including whether there will be public funding for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns), the final cost could turn out to be even higher.

 

For context, the Australian Electoral Commission has announced that there are 15,676,659 Australians enrolled to vote at this year’s election[v].

 

In other words, it is your policy to charge every Australian voter $10 for the ‘privilege’ of returning to the polls less than 12 months later to vote on something your Government could pass in a matter of weeks, for no cost.

 

10 dollar note

A marriage equality plebiscite, which is entirely unnecessary, will cost every voter at least $10 to hold.

 

That is incredibly wasteful, especially at a time of ongoing Budget deficits and with both Labor and the Coalition now forecasting a ‘return to surplus’ in 2020-21 (at the earliest).

 

Of course, for many people $10 remains a lot of money and it would be preferable to leave this money in the hands of voters rather than spend it on something as entirely unnecessary as a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

But, if you remain committed to spending this $160 million, there is a very long list of better ways to allocate these funds[vi], including:

 

  • Programs to alleviate poverty and homelessness
  • Funding more nurses
  • Funding more teachers
  • Undoing cuts to foreign aid or
  • Supporting the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

 

It would be remiss of me not to also mention that the amount of money you currently plan to waste on this plebiscite is twenty times the funding which was allocated to Safe Schools ($8 million over four years), a vital program to address homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia, and one your Government has announced will have its funding cut in 2017[vii].

 

So, as someone who can afford to pay the $10 but who fundamentally disagrees with your proposed plebiscite, I implore you: please take my money and give it back to the people who need it, or spend it on something worthwhile, not on an exercise that could be avoided simply by parliamentarians doing their jobs.

 

A marriage equality plebiscite will inevitably be divisive – and harmful

 

There is one aspect of a plebiscite that is already crystal clear, beyond any doubt whatsoever – and that is it will be incredibly divisive. The reason I can say that with such confidence is the behaviour of one organisation that will play a central role in publicly advocating a ‘No’ vote: the Australian Christian Lobby.

 

Not only have they argued for anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws to be suspended for the duration of any campaign[viii] (which, logically, would only be necessary if they intended to breach them), ACL ‘homophobe-in-chief’ Lyle Shelton has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to denigrate the lives and relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

This includes recent comments linking Safe Schools and marriage equality to the rise of Nazism[ix], as well as his repeated suggestions[x] that same-sex parenting would create a new ‘Stolen Generation’ – statements that are at once offensive to both rainbow families and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

 

An extended national debate during which groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, and individuals like Mr Shelton, would be granted a ‘megaphone’ to express their views will inevitably cause harm, in at least two profound ways:

 

  • First, it will create an environment of division, hatred and fear in which violent attacks on LGBTI people become more likely.

 

Just this week, we have seen the terrible consequences of widespread and systemic homophobia, in the tragic deaths of at least 49 LGBT people in an Orlando nightclub. But violence based on prejudice, even on a much smaller scale, can still be devastating for the people affected.

 

Earlier this year, a man who lives nearby to my fiancé and me, in inner-city Sydney, was ‘gay-bashed’ twice in one night. Once, by a group of people on the street. And then a second time, by a so-called ‘good Samaritan’, who helped him back to his apartment block but then, upon discovering there was a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend waiting upstairs, turned around and said “you’re one of those fags ya f**king queer c**t” before hitting him in the face again.[xi]

 

If this is the level of verbal and physical violence that is happening in 2016 in ‘our’ Australia, the country that you and I both call home, then I shudder to think what will happen after three, six or even 12 months of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic hate-speech is inflicted upon the population.

 

  • Second, it will lead to, or exacerbate existing, mental health issues among young and vulnerable LGBTI people.

 

There is also absolutely no doubt that subjecting young and vulnerable LGBTI people to months and months of negative public debate, in the political sphere and in the media, will cause harm.

 

They will hear people and groups repeatedly saying that LGBTI Australians do not deserve to be treated equally under the law simply because of who they are. That they should not have children simply because of who they are. That their relationships are lesser simply because of who they are.

 

For months and months, young and vulnerable LGBTI people will be told that they are lesser simply because of who they are. This campaign will have an adverse impact on the mental health of many – far, far too many – Australians.

 

I know because I am one of the many who have experienced depression because of the homophobic environment in which they grew up. Yes, there were multiple sources of that homophobia – including the religious boarding school I attended, and the discriminatory attitudes of my conservative parents (although, thankfully, my family ‘got better’).

 

But the homophobic comments in political debate, and the media, were one factor that definitely contributed to my depression. And I weep for the 12 year-old boy today, still discovering who he is, and then discovering that who he is, and who he loves, isn’t accepted by significant sections of the community.

 

Even though there will obviously be many other voices in the plebiscite campaign telling him that who he is is okay, if he is anything like I was back then, he will just hear the criticisms. Only the homophobic barbs will pierce that firmly-shut closet door, exacerbating the fear and isolation he already feels.

 

What he needs to hear is much less homophobia, not more – and particularly not months and months of vitriol from organisations whose primary concern is to ensure he never enjoys the same rights as his cisgender heterosexual peers.

 

You might think a ‘Yes’ vote for marriage equality at a plebiscite will be a unifying national moment, a genuine celebration of inclusiveness – and, should it succeed, there will certainly be elements of that.

 

But I will instead remember the young and vulnerable LGBTI people harmed by the divisive debate that preceded it, including those that tragically never make it to see their country accept them, and others who will be left scarred for years or even decades afterwards by the hateful comments a plebiscite will stir up.

 

**********

 

As you can see from the above discussion, I sincerely believe that a marriage equality plebiscite is not just entirely unnecessary, and fundamentally wasteful, it will also inevitably be divisive.

 

But it is not inevitable per se. As Prime Minister you have the power to stop this harmful exercise, and instead ensure marriage equality is passed in exactly the same way it was banned by John Howard back in August 2004 – via legislation.

 

I acknowledge that changing this policy involves standing up to, and in some cases upsetting, some of your colleagues within the Liberal and National Parties. But showing leadership in this way would also be warmly welcomed by many more people across Australia, none more than members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities, and our families and friends.

 

And so, I tell you for the final time:

 

You can take my $10 and shove it… into the hands of someone who needs it. You can give me my rights for free, and in doing so spare Australia a divisive and harmful plebiscite campaign.

 

All it takes is leadership, from you. Are you willing to show any?

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

**********

 

If this post has raised any issues for you, you can contact:

 

  • QLife, Australia’s national telephone and web counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. Freecall: 1800 184 527, Webchat qlife.org.au (3pm-midnight everyday)

 

Footnotes:

[i] Letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the Marriage Equality Plebiscite 

[ii] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55

[iii] Malcolm Turnbull’s Marriage Equality Plebiscite is Truly Extraordinary 

[iv] Media Release: Attorney-General’s Portfolio Budget Measures 2016-17, 3 May 2016.

[v] Media Release: More than 15.6 million Australians ready to vote, 1 June 2016.

[vi] Starting with 7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million 

[vii] Star Observer, “Safe Schools Won’t be Funded Beyond 2017”, 18 March 2016.

[viii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Christian Lobby seeks anti-discrimination override for plebiscite campaign”, 16 February 2016.

[ix] Sydney Morning Herald, “Australian Christian Lobby likens gay marriage and safe schools to unthinkable Nazi atrocities”, 31 May 2016.

[x] Sydney Morning Herald, “Senator Wong condemns Christian Lobby’s stolen generations comment”, 21 May 2013 and

Sydney Morning Herald, “Q&A debate flares over claims same-sex marriage will lead to new stolen generation”, 1 March 2016.

[xi] Daily Telegraph, “Gay man bashed twice in Waterloo: I’ve never been so scared in my life and thought I would die”, 23 February 2016.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #3: Because it makes attending weddings a bittersweet experience

Weddings are supposed to be joyous occasions, a celebration of two people coming together to express their love and commitment to each other in front of their family members and friends. If ever an event was meant to provoke happiness – pure, unambiguous happiness – surely a wedding would be it.

But, when I go to weddings I cannot help but find them to be bittersweet. The joy of the ceremony, and my happiness for the couple involved, is tempered by sadness at the knowledge that I, and the man who I love, currently cannot participate in the exact same ritual, solely because of our sexual orientation.

Obviously, the main source of this frustration is the legislative ban on marriage equality, introduced by the Howard Liberal-National Government in 2004 (an event which itself celebrates its ‘tin’ anniversary next week), and perpetuated by his successors including Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

However, this hurt and anger is compounded by the section of the wedding ceremony where the celebrant is compelled to read out the following:

“I am duly authorised by law to solemnise marriages according to law. Before you are joined in marriage in my presence and in the presence of these witnesses, I am to remind you of the solemn and binding nature of the relationship into which you are now about to enter.

Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” (emphasis added).

Talk about rubbing salt into the wound. Section 46(1) of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) makes it clear that these words must be read out by the celebrant (although, bizarrely enough, only by civil celebrants – ministers of religion for a recognised denomination are exempted from this requirement).

The Guidelines on the Marriage Act 1961 for Marriage Celebrants also confirm that, while there is some scope to make minor variations to the first two sentences above, there is no scope to change the third. Specifically:

• “do not replace ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with ‘people’ or ‘persons’. This could signify the marriage of two people of the same sex which is specifically excluded by the definition.

• do not change the first part of the sentence to read: “Marriage as most of us understand it is…” (from page 75 of the Guidelines).

It is appalling that there is this level of government interference into something so personal, on what is supposed to be a special, some might say unique, day for the couple involved (and especially galling that it is supported by Australian conservatives who like to proclaim their support for ‘small government’).

It is even more appalling that LGBTI Australians, and indeed all people who support equality irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, must sit through this recitation each and every time they simply wish to attend the wedding of their family members or friends.

I must admit that, at the last few weddings I have been to, this recitation, together with the fact that – more than four years into Steve and my engagement – there is still so little sign we will be able to marry in our own country any time soon, really got me down.

At one of these receptions, I recall looking up at my fiancé and, from the expression on his face, seeing that he felt exactly the same way at exactly the same moment. I don’t know if that makes it better or worse – to feel comfort in the fact that someone so close shares that burden with you, or to feel anger that the government makes the person who you care about most in the world experience pain. Actually, that’s not true, it’s definitely the latter.

And I’m sure that we’re not the only LGBTI-inclusive couple, or LGBTI individuals, who experience these emotions at weddings, who are hurt by the continuing rejection of our own love as equal, and who resent, bitterly at times, that the ban on marriage equality has transformed joyous occasions into bittersweet affairs.

This is not to say the ban doesn’t affect cisgender heterosexual people too, it does. It has become increasingly common for couples who are getting married and who value their LGBTI family members and friends, or who simply reject the discrimination against LGBTI relationships contained in the Marriage Act 1961, to either say themselves, or have their celebrant say, that they support the right of all couples to marry.

In fact, this ‘disclaimer’, usually read out before the abhorrent words of section 46(1), has become so commonplace that it has almost become modern wedding etiquette itself.

And it is truly lovely that so many people have chosen to do so. On a day that is marked by symbolism, expressing their disagreement with the prejudice of Australia’s marriage laws is an important symbolic gesture, and one that does make things that little bit easier (for this LGBTI Australian at least).

But, let’s face it, they shouldn’t have to. On their wedding day, cisgender heterosexual couples shouldn’t have to be making capital ‘P’ political statements, simply because successive Australian Governments have been homophobic in determining who can, and cannot, marry. After all, there is enough small ‘p’ politics at weddings – who is in the wedding party, who is invited/not invited, who sits where – already.

Of course, the only way to fix this is for Australia to finally catch up to the progressive world by introducing domestic marriage equality, thereby allowing couples like Steve and me to get married, and cisgender heterosexual couples to go back to arguing about what song should be the wedding waltz (come to think of it, with our music tastes I’m pretty sure Steve and I might ‘disagree’ about that too).

Until then, the fact that the ban on marriage equality makes attending weddings a bittersweet experience is definitely one of the things that I hate most about marriage inequality.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #10: Because it makes me embarrassed to be Australian

[Updated 4 August 2016]

On Friday 13 August 2004, the Senate passed the Howard Government’s shameful amendments to the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961. These amendments included a new definition of marriage – “marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” – thus confirming the second-class legal status of same-sex relationships in Australian law.

In mid-2014, in the lead-up to the 10th anniversary of the passage of that homophobic law, I wrote a series of posts on the top ten things which I hate about marriage inequality, to ‘celebrate’ (or, more accurately, to vent). Sadly, as we approach the 12th anniversary on 13 August 2016, the list remains all-too-relevant today.

As you would expect, given how much this ongoing discrimination against LGBTI-inclusive couples pisses me (and, let’s be honest, most of us) off, there are some things which I had to leave out. But I hope you will nevertheless enjoy reading the ten reasons that did end up making the cut. Anyway, on with the list:

#10: Because it makes me embarrassed to be Australian

The 1st marriage equality laws came into effect in the Netherlands on 1 April 2001. In the now 15 years since, it has been joined by 19 other countries, namely:

  • Belgium (2003)
  • Spain (2005)
  • Canada (2005)
  • South Africa (2006)
  • Norway (2009)
  • Sweden (2009)
  • Portugal (2010)
  • Iceland (2010)
  • Argentina (2010)
  • Denmark (2012)
  • Brazil (2013)
  • France (2013)
  • Uruguay (2013)
  • New Zealand (2013)
  • Luxembourg (2015)
  • Ireland (2015)
  • United States (nationwide 2015)
  • Colombia (2016)
  • Finland (from 2017)

Marriage equality is also recognised in some parts of Mexico and the United Kingdom (England, Wales & Scotland, although it remains unlawful in Northern Ireland).

I think most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians probably accepted lagging behind the Netherlands on this particular reform (well, most social changes actually), and trailing their Southern neighbours Belgium too. Although it was perhaps a little bit of a surprise that highly-Catholic Spain would get there so quickly – but I guess we got used to that.

Canada was less of a surprise. Meanwhile, no-one could begrudge South Africa, especially given it was achieved, in part, as a consequence of the inclusive Constitution adopted in the post-apartheid era. And I suppose we probably couldn’t expect to get there ahead of most of the Scandinavian countries either.

But the longer this list has become – and, sadly, it will likely be longer still by the time we eventually get there – the more embarrassing it has become to be an Australian, and that embarrassment stings whether you are an LGBTI individual, or couple, or simply someone who believes in the equality of all people irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

It didn’t need to be this way. I am old enough to remember a time, in my youth, when, at least at the Commonwealth level, Australia was capable of doing some things better than most of the world. When we adopted a world-leading response to the emergence of HIV/AIDS. When we were one of the first countries to recognise same-sex couples for the purposes of immigration. When we allowed ‘gays in the military’ ahead of, or at the same time as, the majority of our peers.

Alas, no more. On what has become one of the signature issues for progressive reform, not just for LGBTI rights but for social justice more generally, we have fallen, and are falling further, behind.

It has to stick in the craw of most decent Australians that the New Zealand Parliament managed to pass marriage equality, even with a Conservative Government, while at the same time our Parliament, with a then-Labor Government, could not. And thinking about the fact that LGBTI couples have been able to get married in the cornfields of the American mid-West (Iowa) for more than seven years (and can now marry everywhere in the US, from Alabama to Alaska), while we cannot, is enough to make one cringe.

My fiancé, Steve, likes to talk about how ‘his’ country (Portugal) has had marriage equality for six years – even though his parents left there in the 1970s. In recent years my response to that argument has been to point out that ‘my’ country (Scotland) has it, too – but then, my ancestors have been in Australia for more than two centuries, so it is even more difficult for me to stake that claim.

We only talk about our respective ancestral countries in that way because the one where we were both born, and where we are (second-class) citizens, refuses to acknowledge that our love can be the same as any other adult couple. In truth, at times we would prefer to identify with another country – even one where our links might be more (mine) or less (his) tenuous – because being a citizen of Australia is, and there isn’t really a nicer way of putting it, downright embarrassing.

There are, of course, many other reasons for Australians to feel embarrassed (including our shameful treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and also our, frankly, criminal abuse of people seeking asylum). But the ongoing failure of our country to recognise marriage equality must also take its very own place on that ignominious list. Shame, Australia, shame.

Abbott-Turnbull-Gillard-Rudd-750x393

The four Australian Prime Ministers since John Howard was defeated have all failed to overturn his 2004 ban on marriage equality.

Dear Joe Hockey, $245 million for School Chaplains? You Cannot be Serious

Just over a month ago I wrote to you arguing that, if you were serious about cutting Commonwealth expenditure, you must axe the National School Chaplaincy Program. (link: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/12/dear-joe-hockey-if-youre-serious-about-cutting-expenditure-you-must-axe-school-chaplains/ )

This program is a completely unjustifiable breach of the principle of the separation of church and state, supporting the appointment of people whose primary ‘qualification’ is their religion to positions in secular, government-run schools. It is also ineffective, with little or no evidence that employing chaplains benefits students overall (especially when compared with appointing properly-trained and qualified student welfare workers or counsellors).

Above all, with the National School Chaplaincy Program costing more than $50 million each and every year, this initiative is the epitome of waste. $50 million per year may not have seemed like a huge spend when it was first introduced (as Howard and Costello bathed in the rivers of cash flowing into the treasury coffers) but, in a post-GFC world, when the revenue stream has well and truly dried up, the largesse of this scheme is apparent.

Since I wrote to you, the final report of the National Commission of Audit has been released, and, much to my surprise, they recognised both the extravagance of, and lack of policy rationale for, this scheme, recommending that it be abolished. Even your hand-picked, right-wing Audit warriors thought funding school chaplains could not be justified.

So, when you rose to your feet to deliver the Budget on Tuesday night, the pressure was on you: were you in fact serious about cutting expenditure, including abolishing wasteful and ineffective programs irrespective of which side of politics had introduced them, or did balancing the Budget not matter as much as supporting narrow, ideological interests?

Alas, in the Budget papers, we the Australian public quickly discovered that, despite all the talk of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘repairing the Budget’, you nevertheless had chosen to provide $245 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program, to continue its operation from 1 January 2015 to the end of 2018.

That decision in and of itself was terrible, but it is made worse, by several orders of magnitude, when it is contrasted with some of the other decisions contained in the Budget, including:

  • The introduction of a $7 co-payment for visiting a doctor, as well as a $5 increase in the cost of prescriptions through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme;
  • A $7.9 billion cut in the foreign aid budget over the next 5 years;
  • A $500 million cut to expenditure on indigenous programs over the next 5 years (this under the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs’);
  • A rise in the pension age from 67 to 70 (phased in to 2035), as well as a reduction in future pension increases;
  • An increase in university fees, with loans to be charged at much higher interest rates and the repayment threshold significantly lowered; and
  • The introduction of a 6-month wait for access to unemployment benefits for people under 30 (and even then, payment at a reduced rate).

That list sounds like a ‘Tea Party’ inspired re-imagining of The New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your (global) poor, your sick, your Aboriginal, your elderly, your young, your students and your unemployed, and we will make them pay.” When you spoke of ‘sharing the burden’, it seems like you almost went out of your way to ensure that the burden was shared, disproportionately, by the most vulnerable.

In that context, it looks more than bizarre that one of the main groups who do not have to experience any Budget pain are school chaplains. The decision to give them almost a quarter of a billion dollars doesn’t even make sense when looked at exclusively in the context of the Education Budget.

The $245 million provided to the National School Chaplaincy Program is the single biggest spending initiative in the budget for schools, which implies that it is the Abbott Government’s biggest school-related priority for its first year in office. This funding also stands in marked contrast to the decision not to provide any additional funding for students with disabilities, despite that being a major pre-election commitment.

Do you really think that subsidising chaplains is more important than funding students with disabilities, or indeed funding anything else to do with schools?

The worst part is that the decision to refund the School Chaplaincy program is not even the worst part about this announcement.

In Tuesday night’s media release (“Keeping our Commitments: Funding a National School Chaplaincy Program”, issued by Senator the Hon Scott Ryan, the Parliamentary for Education) the Government stated that “[t]he renewed programme will be returned to its original intent; to provide funding for school chaplains.”

As made clear, in supporting documentation and subsequent media coverage, this means that, from 1 January next year, only religious appointees, from ‘recognised denominations’, need apply.

This is a return to the Howard Government designed scheme from 2007, and abolishes the only redeeming feature of the entire program – which was the 2012 amendment, made by then Education Ministers the Hon Peter Garrett MP, to allow schools the choice to employ secular student welfare workers rather than chaplains.

In doing away with qualified student welfare workers, you have also removed the only fig-leaf of credibility which (partially) covered up the nakedly-ideological, and evidence-free, nature of the overall scheme.

It is impossible for you, and the Commonwealth Government in general, to claim that the National School Chaplaincy Program is genuinely about improving the welfare of students, when you are explicitly denying schools the opportunity to employ the best people for the job.

In the absence of any student welfare-based rationale, everyone can now see that the decision to provide new funding to the National School Chaplaincy Program is, at its core, a joke. The changes to the scheme’s rules, which mean that all 2,900 people employed under the scheme must be religious appointees, and cannot be secular student welfare workers, make it a bad joke at that.

But maybe we only see it as a bad joke because the joke is on us. After all, we the taxpayers are the ones footing the $245 million bill to allow chaplains and other religious office-holders inappropriate access to the schoolyard, and the classroom.

There are, of course, others who are laughing at our expense: the religious organisations who have their ‘outreach’ work to young impressionable minds publicly-subsidised; the religious fundamentalists in the Liberal-National Government (and, it must be said, some in the ALP Opposition) who believe it is the role of Government to ensure Australia is a ‘Christian nation’; and the major churches who want to break down, once and for all, the already fragile separation of church and state in this country.

The group laughing hardest, though, must be the Australian Christian Lobby, because this is your, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s, extravagant, quarter of a billion dollar gift to them. It must gladden your heart that, in his post-Budget media release (where it should be acknowledged he at least made the effort to criticise the overall impact of Budget cuts on the poor and disadvantaged) ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton still found time to be thankful for the Chaplaincy Program. As an aside: Lyle, if you are genuinely concerned about cuts to foreign aid, maybe you should by lobbying for that $245 million to go overseas instead.

So, when you stood up on Tuesday night and said that ‘we are a nation of lifters, not leaners’, it was, like so much of what you said, just empty rhetoric. Because, as you have so amply demonstrated through this single, fundamentally wasteful decision, groups like the Australian Christian Lobby can always lean on you.

Of course, funding the National School Chaplaincy Program for another four years, and even changing its rules, probably wasn’t the worst decision contained in the Federal Budget. It definitely isn’t the decision that will cause the most harm to struggling individuals, both here and overseas (the list of other changes outlined above will likely all have far more deleterious consequences than simply putting 2,900 religious appointees in schools).

But the decision to award $245 million to this scheme reveals, probably more than any other choice made by you and the other members of the Expenditure Review Committee, just how twisted the Budget priorities of this Government really are. In amongst the carnage of savage cuts to health, to education, to the pension and to foreign aid, you and your colleagues nevertheless found room in your hearts, and our wallets, to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program.

The role of the nation’s Treasurer is a serious one, bringing with it solemn responsibilities. You are supposed to tax wisely, spend fairly, look after the most vulnerable and invest for our collective future. In your first Budget, you instead chose to hurt some of those who are the most disadvantaged, while still helping your – ideological and political – friends. I am sorry to say, Mr Hockey, but on May 13, you failed to live up to the serious responsibilities of Treasurer.

Treasurer Joe Hockey, not serious about cutting wasteful programs like school chaplains. Is serious about granting the wishes of groups like the ACL. (image source: news.com.au)

Treasurer Joe Hockey, not serious about cutting wasteful programs like school chaplains. Is serious about granting the wishes of groups like the ACL (image source: news.com.au).

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.