Letter to Scott Morrison about Treatment of LGBTI Asylum Seekers and Refugees Sent to Manus Island, PNG

UPDATE: Sunday 20 July 2014

On Friday 18 July, I received the following response from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, to my correspondence about the treatment of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees:

Dear Mr Lawrie

Treatment of homosexual, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers

Thank you for your letter of 2 February 2014 to the Hon Scott Morrison MP, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, concerning the treatment of homosexual, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers. The Minister appreciates the time you have taken to bring these matters to his attention and has asked that I reply on his behalf. I regret the delay in responding.

As a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (the Refugees Convention), Australia takes its international obligations seriously. Australia is committed to treating asylum seekers fairly and humanely, and providing protection to refugees consistent with the obligations set out in the Refugees Convention, and other relevant international treaties to which Australia is a party.

The Australian Government has taken a number of measures to deter people smuggling and to ensure that people do not take the dangerous journey to Australia in boats organised by people smugglers. Under Australian domestic law, all illegal maritime arrivals (IMAs) entering Australia by sea without a visa will be liable for transfer to Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) where any asylum claims they may have will be assessed, and if found to be a refugee, they will be resettled in Nauru and PNG or in another country.

Any claims made against Nauru and PNG by an IMA, including claims concerning the treatment of homosexuals, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers in either country, are considered prior to transfer. Where an IMA makes such a claim, consideration is given to whether the IMA can be transferred to the proposed country, or an alternative country, or whether the IMA’s case should be referred to the Minister for consideration or exemption from transfer.

Nauru and PNG are also both parties to the Refugee Convention. The Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) they have signed with Australia on the offshore processing arrangements reaffirm their commitment to the Refugees Convention and to treating people transferred with dignity and respect in accordance with human rights standards.

The enforcement of PNG domestic law is a matter for the Government of PNG. The government is aware of laws relating to homosexual activity in PNG and understands that there have been no recent reports of prosecution under those laws.

If homosexual activity should occur in the OPC, there is no mandatory obligation under PNG domestic law for Australian officers or contracted services providers to report such activity to the PNG Government or police.

The department notes the release of the reports by both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Amnesty International on the Manus OPC. Any reports received by the department will be reviewed, and observations or comments verified. Where reports make practical observations that can be implemented and would improve the operations of the centres, the government will address these in partnership with Nauru and PNG to address any deficiencies in good faith.

Any claims of mistreatment at the Manus OPC would be primarily a matter for the Administrator of the OPC. The Manus OPC is administered by PNG under PNG law, with support from Australia. The PNG Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration appoints the Administrator of the Centre (a PNG national) under section 15D of the Papua New Guinea Migration Act 1978 (the Act). The Administrator, who, under the Act has control and management of the Centre (currently the Chief Migration Officer, Head of the PNG Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority) has an Operations Manager at the OPC reporting to him, who has oversight of the day-to-day operations of the OPC.

To assist PNG in the implementation of the MOU, the government has contracted appropriately trained and experienced service providers to ensure that transferees’ needs are adequately met, including through the provision of health and welfare services. Transferees can report any concerns to OPC staff.

Regarding the distribution of condoms, I can assure you that condoms are available at the Manus OPC, and the department’s contracted health service provider, International Health and Medical Service, conduct regular health information sessions on safe sex practices.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to the Minister’s attention.

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Acting Assistant Secretary

Community Programmes Services Branch

9 / 7 / 2014

Some quick thoughts on the above:

  • Even though we are more than a decade into our post-Tampa nightmare of refugee policy in Australia, it is still shocking to see people simply seeking asylum in Australia described, by government officials, as Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMAs). And it is probably almost as shocking realising that the same government official doesn’t even need to spell out what an OPC is anymore, instead it is taken as a given.
  • While the letter acknowledges there is no mandatory reporting of homosexual activity under PNG law, it explicitly does not state that there is no reporting of homosexual activity to PNG Police, or refute the claim that asylum seekers have been told they will be reported if found to engage in such activity.
  • It is difficult to accept the statement that “[t]o assist PNG in the implementation of the MOU, the government has contracted appropriately trained and experienced service providers to ensure that transferees’ needs are adequately met” from the same Government that is responsible for the death, in custody, of Reza Berati just over two weeks after I wrote my initial letter.
  • It is obviously welcome that, at least on paper, the Government claims it makes condoms available to asylum seekers on Manus Island – although whether they are made available in reality would be difficult to verify (given the shroud of secrecy surrounding, and lack of journalist access to, the detention facilities in PNG and Nauru).
  • The main problem remains however, and that is there is no firm commitment not to send LGBTI asylum seekers for ‘processing’ to countries which criminalise homosexuality, and no commitment that LGBTI refugees will not be permanently resettled in countries where they are liable to punishment merely for sexual intercourse.
  • The process outlined in the letter – that an asylum seeker must make a claim against the laws of PNG or Nauru prior to their transfer, is farcical given what we know about the current way asylum seekers are being assessed: while they are detained on navy or customs vessels, on the open sea, through a short interview (with as few as four questions by some reports) via teleconference to officials in mainland Australia. It is outrageous to suggest that the only way a gay asylum seeker can avoid being sent to another country which criminalises their sexual orientation is to declare their sexual orientation at short notice, whilst intimidated by naval or customs personnel (and potentially while intimidated by other asylum seekers, including possible family members), and to specifically claim protection against countries which they may not even be aware they are being taken to, and may not know criminalise homosexuality.

While I certainly wasn’t expecting to take much comfort from this response from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, it is still depressing to realise that, yet again, so little solace is to be found.

ORIGINAL LETTER

The Hon Scott Morrison MP

Minister for Immigration and Border Protection

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Sunday 2 February 2014

Dear Minister

TREATMENT OF LGBTI ASYLUM SEEKERS AND REFUGEES SENT TO MANUS ISLAND, PAPUA NEW GUINEA

I am writing regarding the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers and refugees sent to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, both for offshore processing and permanent resettlement.

In particular, I am writing about concerning allegations raised in the Amnesty International Report This is Breaking People: Human rights violations at Australia’s asylum seeker processing centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, which was released on 11 December 2013.

Chapter 8 of that report, titled ‘Asylum claims on the basis of sexual orientation’ (pages 73-75), details a range of serious allegations about the mistreatment of LGBTI asylum seekers sent to Manus Island for processing.

Specifically, Amnesty International found that:

  • Section 210 of the PNG Penal Code, which makes male-male penetrative sexual intercourse a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment, applies to asylum seekers detained on Manus Island
  • Section 212 of the PNG Penal Code, which makes other sexual activity between men, termed ‘gross indecency’, a criminal offence carrying a maximum penalty of 3 years’ imprisonment, also applies to asylum seekers detained there
  • Asylum seekers held on Manus Island have been informed that if they are found to have engaged in male-male sexual intercourse, they will be reported to PNG Police (despite no requirement for mandatory reporting)
  • Gay asylum seekers have reported being subject to bullying and harassment from other detainees and staff, including physical and verbal abuse and attempted molestation, but are not reporting this abuse because of fear of prosecution for their homosexuality
  • Interviewees have indicated that some gay asylum seekers have changed or are considering changing their asylum claim, from persecution on the basis of sexual orientation to persecution on another ground, in order to avoid prosecution (thereby jeopardising the chances of their claim ultimately being accepted)
  • Interviewees have indicated that some gay asylum seekers have chosen to return home, despite the risks involved to the personal safety/liberty, rather than be subjected to ongoing mistreatment because of their sexual orientation on Manus Island and
  • Condom distribution has been banned within the Manus Island detention facility, despite the risk of HIV transmission.

In these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ms Renate Croker, the senior official from the Department of Immigration & Border Protection located at the Manus Island detention facility, told Amnesty International that “she was unaware of any asylum claims being made on the basis of LGBTI identity.”

Not only is this contradicted by the Amnesty Report – which interviewed a man who reported that his claim was based on persecution due to his sexual orientation, and who expressed concern about being transferred to Manus Island for this reason – it also ignores the fact that some gay asylum seekers may have changed their claims to other grounds (for the reasons outlined above), or that some asylum seekers may happen to be LGBTI but their claim is in fact based on persecution on other grounds (for example, race or religion).

Irrespective of how their claim is being dealt with, the Australian Government has a responsibility to protect the human rights of any and all LGBTI asylum seekers who have sought protection in Australia. This includes the right to freedom from prosecution on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, the right to claim asylum and the right to health.

From the information contained in the This is Breaking People report, it seems the Australian Government is falling well short of its obligations in this area.

I should note at this point that I am strongly opposed to the offshore processing and permanent resettlement of any asylum seekers by the Australian Government. This policy does not constitute a humane response, nor does it live up to our international humanitarian and legal responsibilities.

However, the mistreatment of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees raises particular problems, problems that do not appear to be recognized by the Australian Government. Nor does there appear to be any evidence the Government is taking action to remedy them.

Even if the offshore processing and permanent resettlement of refugees continues, this must not include the processing and resettlement of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality (which both PNG and Nauru currently do).

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and therefore Minister responsible for the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees, cannot guarantee that sections 210 and 212 of the PNG Penal Code do not apply to detainees on Manus Island, then you cannot send LGBTI people there in good conscience.

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, cannot guarantee that LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees will not be subject to homophobic bullying and harassment, and will be free to lodge claims for protection on the basis of persecution due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then you must not detain them in such facilities.

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, cannot guarantee that all asylum seekers and refugees, including but not limited to LGBTI people, have access to condoms, then you are potentially endangering their lives and you should be held accountable for any health problems which occur as a result (noting that HIV continues to be life-threatening in the absence of treatment).

It has been clear since the reintroduction of offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, passed by the previous Labor Government and supported by the Liberal-National Opposition in mid-2012, that the criminalisation of homosexuality in these countries constituted a significant threat to the human rights of LGBTI asylum seekers sent there.

Indeed, I wrote to you as Shadow Minister for Immigration expressing my concerns about this exact issue in September 2012. I did not receive a response addressing the subject of LGBTI asylum seekers prior to your assumption of the role of Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in September 2013.

I sincerely hope, now that you are the person directly responsible for the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers and refugees, and especially after the Amnesty International Report This is Breaking People has confirmed that these human rights abuses are real, that you take this issue, and your responsibilities, seriously.

I look forward to your response on this important issue.

Yours sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

A copy of the Amnesty International Report This is Breaking People, can be found here: <http://www.amnesty.org.au/images/uploads/about/Amnesty_International_Manus_Island_report.pdf

No 5 Homosexuality Still Criminal in 77 Countries

The past four posts have looked at one issue (marriage equality, both domestically and around the world) and gay rights in two specific countries, Russia and India.

The subject matter of each of these four posts has received significant media coverage – for some pretty obvious reasons. Same-sex couples seeking the right to marry provide both a ‘human interest’ story, and usually some compelling images to accompany it. Putin’s crackdown on LGBTI Russians has inevitably received widespread attention, particularly in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics. And it is pretty hard to ignore the re-criminalisation of homosexuality in a country with more than 1.2 billion people.

But, comparatively, it has been much easier for the media to ignore the ongoing criminalisation of homosexuality in 77 countries across the world (including India after the recent Supreme Court decision, but excluding Russia where, despite the anti-propaganda law homosexuality itself remains legal).

To put that figure into perspective, that is five times the number of countries that have full marriage equality (or more than four times the number of countries including those where some parts have adopted marriage equality, like the United States). So, while some parts of Europe and North and South America (together with South Africa and New Zealand), push forwards towards full equality, more than a third of countries around the world still treat homosexuality as a criminal offence.

This includes 38 countries in Africa, while 41 countries come from the Commonwealth (which is pretty extraordinary when you consider there are only 53 member states in total).

Tragically, the are five countries – Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen – where homosexuality attracts the death penalty, while capital punishment also applies in parts of Nigeria and Somalia.

Which is a scandalous state of affairs, and something that the media – including but not limited to the LGBTI media – should report, and reflect, more on.

There have been some encouraging recent signs – in terms of coverage, if not subject matter. Over the past week, moves to increase criminal penalties in Uganda and Nigeria have attracted attention globally. The murder of Eric Ohena Lembembe in Cameroon mid-year was also covered, as have, periodically, anti-gay developments in Zimbabwe, Iran and elsewhere.

What has also been encouraging during 2013 has been the debate, within the Australian LGBTI community, about the need for advocacy for global LGBTI rights. Sparked in part by the situation in Russia, there has finally been a discussion about the relative priority we give something like marriage equality, compared to decriminalisation around the globe.

After all, while we are fighting for the right to walk down the aisle, our LGBTI comrades elsewhere are fighting simply for the right to exist. I’m not suggesting that we have those priorities right – in fact far from it. But I get the feeling that we are closer to achieving a better balance at the end of 2013 than at the beginning.

Some of the organisations that have helped to promote the global push for decriminalisation include the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA: http://ilga.org), AllOut (https://www.allout.org), the Kaleidoscope Trust (http://kaleidoscopetrust.com), and of course Amnesty International (a link to the NSW LGBTQI Network here: http://www.amnesty.org.au/nsw/group/12065/). I would encourage you to support any or all of them.

One final point I would like to make is that there are things that the Australian Government can and should be doing with respect to this issue, not just raising it (diplomatically, in all senses of the word) through international forums and bilaterally, but also by providing aid to global campaigns for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status equality.

One special burden which falls upon Australia is its own responsibility for the criminal laws which still exist in our former ‘colony’, Papua New Guinea, which were in place before Independence in September 1975. Because of that fact, it is imperative that the Australian Government – and the Australian LGBTI population generally – helps to encourage moves in our closest neighbour to decriminalise homosexuality. Hopefully that day, not just in PNG but right across the South Pacific, is not too far away.

No 10 The Federal Election on September 7

This would possibly have been higher on the list, were it not for the fact the outcome was pretty much inevitable, long before polling day (and certainly by the time I finished working at Parliament House in mid-2012).

But the September 7 election was still a significant moment, because it drew the final curtain on the Rudd & Gillard (& Rudd again) Labor Government that, in less than 6 years, achieved more for LGBTI rights than any other federal Government in history.

Perhaps we, as a community, took some of those achievements for granted. Perhaps, because many of those reforms were so long overdue (case in point: de facto relationship recognition) that they didn’t feel like achievements at all, instead they were simply the actions of a Parliament finally catching up to where the population already was.

More likely, for many of the LGBTI people of Australia, the achievements of the Labor Government were overshadowed by one major law reform which they didn’t implement. As someone who is engaged to be married myself, I understand that frustration (and I would add another couple of major policy failures as well – but more on them later in this countdown).

Nevertheless, the fact that the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Government did not introduce marriage equality should not mean that we completely disregard their achievements in other areas. After all, they accomplished infinitely more in a little over 5 and a half years than the Howard Government did in twice that time (to be honest, the only positive Howard Government LGBTI achievement I can think of was allowing same-sex couples access to their partner’s superannuation, but even that wasn’t mandated, didn’t cover Commonwealth public sector employees, and was only passed as a trade-off when they introduced the marriage ban in 2004).

The positive list of Labor achievements between 2007 and 2013 includes:

  • De facto relationship recognition (and access to the Family Court on relationship breakdown)
  • The inclusion of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status in federal anti-discrimination legislation for the first time (again, more on that later in the countdown)
  • Another first, this time the first National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy
  • Providing funding for the National LGBTI Health Alliance for mental health projects
  • Providing funding for QLife, the national network of LGBTI telephone counselling services, to allow a 1800 number to be operational across the country 7 nights a week (the importance of which really shouldn’t be underestimated)
  • Introducing trans* and intersex passport reform, with M, F and X categories (where X includes indeterminate/unspecified/intersex)
  • Permitting LGBTI inclusive couples to access Certificates of No Impediment, to at least allow them to be married overseas, if not at home
  • Providing Gardasil vaccinations to teenage boys, so that future generations of gay and bisexual men are protected from anal, penile and throat cancer
  • Introducing Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, and
  • Removing some gender requirements for PBS medicines, meaning easier access to some treatments for trans* and intersex people.

The above list (which I am sure is not exhaustive) is, all things considered, a pretty impressive one.

It is a shame that, through their own actions (or, more specifically, inaction), the Rudd and Gillard Government will, for many, be remembered more because of the failure to recognise the fundamental equality of love, than any of the things I have noted above. Because, in reality, they left the state of LGBTI affairs in Australia a far better place on 7 September 2013, than what they inherited on 24 November 2007.

Still, there is one way in which the outgoing Labor Government could be remembered more fondly over time – and that is if the actions of the newly-elected Abbott-led Liberal and National Government make them seem better in hindsight.

Already, that looks like a distinct possibility. The first LGBTI-related action of the Abbott Government was taking the ACT and their same-sex marriage laws to the High Court (thus seeing them overturned). And there are plenty of other tests to come over the next 12-24 months, including deciding whether to continue funding for some of the above-named initiatives. Not to mention the potential threat to anti-discrimination reforms, and in particular the possibility of Brandis & co reintroducing an exemption for religious aged care service providers.

So, while we (quite rightly) criticise the Rudd & Gillard Labor Government for what it didn’t do, perhaps every once in a while we should also reflect on the good things that it did accomplish.

13 Highs & Lows of 2013: No 13 (Alleged) Police Brutality at Sydney Mardi Gras

As I did last year, I am going to end the year by writing about the highlights – and lowlights – of the last 12 months. As always, choosing the best and worst of the year is a subjective process, and reflects my own experiences as a cis-gender gay man, who engages in LGBTI advocacy, in Sydney. But I hope that the list I have selected is reflective of some of the major issues of 2013, at least in Australia anyway. If not, please feel free to tell me why I’m wrong in the comments section below.

No 13. (Alleged) Police Brutality at Sydney Mardi Gras

Let’s begin by remembering one of the true low-points of this year – the (alleged) actions of NSW Police officers which marred Australia’s, and one of the world’s, premier LGBTI events, the Sydney Mardi Gras, in February and March.

As we approach the end of the year, almost 2 million people, from right around the world, have watched the Youtube clip of the way Police officers treated Jamie Jackson on Oxford St on the night of the Mardi Gras Parade. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxtFtVfAeeE)

Jamie Jackson Mardi Gras

Others have read about the way long-term LGBTI activist Bryn Hutchinson was (allegedly) treated by NSW Police officers, also on Oxford St after the parade had finished. Now that all charges against Mr Hutchinson, and his sister Kate, have been dismissed by the courts, he has written about his experiences in the Star Observer. (http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/soapbox-opinion/my-terror-of-crossing-oxford-street-at-mardi-gras/113785)

But it is important to remember that it was not just these two isolated incidents that left a sour taste in the mouths of many after what is supposed to be a celebration of pride and diversity. Nor were instances of alleged Police brutality confined to the night of the Parade and Party, but instead occurred throughout the Mardi Gras Festival.

In fact, Sydney Mardi Gras and ACON received at least 58 complaints about the way people had been treated by NSW Police over the entire Mardi Gras season. These complaints included allegations of intimidation and aggression by Police on Oxford St after the Parade had finished, reports of homophobic language and behaviour at the main Party, of intimidation, violence, excessive physical force and coercion during drug operations at both the Harbour Party and main Party, and other aggressive and intimidating behaviour in LGBTI venues along Oxford St during the Festival.

Since March, Sydney Mardi Gras, ACON, the Inner City Legal Centre (ICLC) and the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) have been attempting to work through these issues in consultation with the LGBTI community. They recently released an advocacy document outlining 12 recommendations to the NSW government, although, with just 2 months left til the 2014 season gets underway, it is currently unclear how many will be accepted by Premier Barry O’Farrell, Police Minister Michael Gallacher and others. (http://glrl.org.au/images/stories/Publications/20131115_policing_at_lgbti_events_and_venues.pdf)

What is likely is that NSW Police will be much better behaved – at least for the 2014 Mardi Gras Festival, Parade and Party. They will be told by their superiors that to repeat what happened this year would reflect badly on the Government (in the media), as well as potentially jeopardising the money that is brought into the NSW economy by Mardi Gras and associated events. They will also be keenly aware that all eyes will be on them come February and March 2014, to see if their poor behaviour is repeated (on camera).

Nevertheless, the real test will come in 2015, 2016 and beyond, when the immediate controversy has died down, media interest has waned, and the temptation will emerge for some elements of the Police (because it should always be remembered that not all Police act poorly) to slip back into the (alleged) intimidation and outright aggression of 2013.

If the majority of the Mardi Gras, ACON, ICLC and GLRL recommendations are adopted (especially recommendations 1-3), then we may see some positive long-term cultural changes within NSW Police, meaning that future Mardi Gras patrons may not suffer in the same way that Jamie, Bryn and others did this year.

But, in my opinion, the two best recommendations for helping to ensure that NSW Police are ‘well-behaved’ at future Mardi Gras events are perhaps the two that are least likely to be adopted by the NSW Government.

The first, recommendation 7, calls for an end to drug detection dog operations. The evidence against the use of sniffer dogs has piled up since legislation was first passed authorising their use, without warrants, in NSW public places in 2001. The 2006 Ombudsman’s Report was damning in terms of their lack of effectiveness, as well as the risks, including health risks, of their ongoing use. In 2011, just 20% of drug dog indications resulted in Police actually finding drugs on the person searched.

The 2013 Mardi Gras experience, especially for attendees of the Harbour Party, simply confirmed the vagueness of what constitutes ‘reasonable grounds’, as well as the gross invasion of civil liberties and indeed bodily integrity involved in a subsequent drug search.

The use of drug detection dogs should end, end of story. And yet, with both the current Coalition, and previous Labor, Governments seemingly addicted to ‘law & order’, that outcome seems incredibly unlikely.

Something which is slightly more feasible is the subject of the other key recommendation (11), which calls for the establishment of a “transparent, representative civilian-led police complaints and investigatory body with the appropriate resources, capabilities and knowledge” to oversee NSW Police. Obviously, such a body would help remedy issues experienced, not just by the LGBTI community, but also by other vulnerable groups across NSW, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, young people and people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds.

It should be acknowledged that the NSW Government has taken a small step down this path, by appointing the former Commonwealth Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, to review the investigation and oversight of police critical incidents (those where police actions have resulted in the death or serious injury of a member of the community). But this represents just a small sub-set of police actions which should be subject to independent review, and it is undeniably a long, and hard, road from this narrow review to the introduction of a broad-based, independent complaints body. We’ll see what happens on this in coming months (and, I suspect, years).

There is one final comment which I feel compelled to make. In the aftermath of the incidents during this year’s Mardi Gras, some members of Sydney’s LGBTI community focused on the possible involvement of Police officers from outside the Surry Hills Local Area Command. Specifically, they argued that if we could somehow return to a (simpler) time when Surry Hills Police were sufficient to patrol the Mardi Gras, supplemented by others from around Sydney who volunteered to be on duty, then the problems of 2013 would somehow disappear.

To me, that ignores a much deeper problem. If a Police officer is going to behave in an allegedly homophobic and aggressive way on the busiest gay night of the year, on Oxford St, in front of thousands of people, then how are they going to treat an individual LGBTI person, when nobody is looking, in other parts of Sydney, or indeed elsewhere in the state?

I am not interested in just having an LGBTI-friendly Police force serving the inner-city enclaves of Surry Hills and Newtown, while simultaneously ignoring the potential for homophobia outside those supposedly safe borders. Any officer, from any part of the State, should be able to be called up for duty around Mardi Gras and behave in a responsible and respectful manner.

Above all, every single officer, in every single station across NSW, must be able to deal with, and respond appropriately to, the concerns of LGBTI people. If they can’t, they should have their badges taken off them, because they’re not fit to be a Police officer.

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.

Image

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].

Submission on Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013 re Homosexual Advance (or ‘Gay Panic’) Defence

I am writing to make a submission on the Exposure Draft Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013, as released by the Attorney-General, the Hon Greg Smith MP, on 17 October 2013.

First, I would like to commend the Attorney-General, and the O’Farrell Government more broadly, for developing a Bill which, if passed, would finally abolish the homosexual advance (or ‘gay panic’) defence.

The homosexual advance defence has long been a stain on the fabric of our criminal justice system, resulting in the ‘downgrading’ of convictions from murder to manslaughter where it is not justified, and in doing so implying that the victim was in some way at fault, even to a small extent that they ‘deserved’ what happened to them.

Sadly, this has not been an abstract injustice, restricted to the statute books, but a defence that has been used, successfully, in multiple criminal trials over the past 20 years. This means that there is every chance that it could be used again, unless and until this Bill is passed.

Which brings me to my first recommendation: The Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013 should be passed as soon as possible. This will help ensure that no future victim is disrespected by the fact their murderer escapes with a lesser conviction, and probable reduced sentence, simply because that murderer had a homophobic reaction to the victim’s non-violent sexual advance.

If, for whatever reason, the NSW Government is unable to progress this legislation with the urgency that it requires then, as a fall-back, I suggest that it consider amending clause 2 of the Bill to ensure that the Act has retrospective application.

Specifically, if the legislation is not passed by the end of the first sittings in 2014 (on Thursday March 27th), consideration should be given to back-dating the legislation to take effect from the date the Government formally confirmed its intention to introduce these reforms through the release of this Exposure Draft (ie on 17 October 2013).

I acknowledge that this would be a drastic step for any Parliament to take. No-one should casually amend the criminal law in such a way, especially where the offence involved carries significant penalties, without a compelling justification.

But I sincerely believe that a case for doing so could be made in these circumstances: that the injustice of our legal system effectively saying that a killing is less offensive, less contrary to community standards, less worthy of punishment than other killings, simply because the non-violent sexual advance involved was from one man to another, is so great that the question of retrospective application at least merits further debate.

Despite this, my overall preference would be for the Bill to be passed without including such provisions, and that this happen in the shortest possible timeframe, making retrospectivity less of a pressing concern.

My second recommendation deals with another potential issue which would remain unresolved even if the Exposure Draft Bill was passed, and that is: The new Crimes Act section 23, introduced by the Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013, should specify that the ordinary person is not homophobic.

The Exposure Draft Bill includes multiple safeguards to help ensure that a non-violent sexual advance, whether same-sex or heterosexual, cannot be used as the basis of the partial defence of extreme provocation.

Specifically, proposed new sub-section 23(2)(b) requires that the conduct of the deceased was a “serious indictable offence”, which would clearly not include a non-violent sexual advance. Even more categorically, sub-section 23(3)(a) ensures that the partial defence cannot be raised in circumstances where “the conduct was only a non-violent sexual advance to the accused.” I strongly support the inclusion of both provisions.

However, in the event of a contested murder prosecution, there can be doubt about the boundary between what constitutes a non-violent sexual advance and a violent sexual advance. This doubt can, and often will, be exploited by a defendant, especially because the victim is not available to provide their version of events. It would be a potentially perverse, although perhaps unavoidable, consequence of the Government’s reforms that it would introduce an even greater incentive for a defendant to establish that the victim’s sexual advance was itself violent.

If the defendant is successful in establishing that the victim’s sexual advance was indeed violent (or that there is at least some evidence to support this: see proposed sub-section 23(7)), then proposed sub-section 23(2)(d) becomes relevant, and it maintains the existing ‘ordinary person’ test to assess whether the loss of self-control is accepted as the basis of this partial defence.

It is possible that, given hardening community attitudes against rape, any violent sexual advance, irrespective of the sexes or genders of the people involved, would now satisfy the ‘ordinary person’ test in terms of partially excusing that loss of self-control. If that is the case, then there would be no unjustified discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the law would not require further amendment.

However, it is also possible that a male defendant could claim a violent sexual advance from another man is more egregious or offensive, and therefore more worthy of the application of the partial defence, than a violent sexual advance in other circumstances (eg a violent sexual advance from a woman to a man).

Based on the existing case-law (including Green v The Queen 1997), there is a possibility that this argument would be accepted – the consequence of which being that, once again, the killing of someone who makes a same-sex sexual advance would be treated as less serious than the killing of someone who makes a heterosexual sexual advance in the same circumstances (the only difference being that both would now be violent).

Given the significant step forward overall which would be achieved by the passage of this Bill, I do not wish to see it undermined by the ongoing possibility of such homophobic discrimination, which is why I propose that new section 23 include a provision that, at least for the purposes of this partial defence, the ordinary person is not homophobic, bi-phobic, trans-phobic or prejudiced towards intersex people (specifically, the ordinary person does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status).

As with  the suggestion about retrospectivity, discussed earlier, this would be an unusual step for a Parliament to take, and leaves open for consideration a range of other factors which may or may not need to be prescribed (for example, that the ordinary person is not racist or sexist). I make no comment here about those or other factors (other than noting that, whatever list may be deemed necessary include, it should be inclusive rather than exhaustive).

Nevertheless, given we are fully aware that the law has allowed homophobic discrimination within the partial defence of provocation in the past, I believe we should be actively considering how to prevent further such discrimination in the future within the new partial defence of extreme provocation. Even if the section itself is not amended, alternatives could include either or both the explanatory memorandum and second reading speech noting that it is not the Parliament’s intention that the new partial defence should operate in a homophobic manner.

Leaving aside these two recommendations, it is my firm belief that the passage of the Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill 2013 would be a significant, and long-overdue, achievement. This is something that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community has been campaigning on for many years: it is my sincere hope that the homosexual advance (or gay panic’’) defence will finally be consigned to the dustbin of history in the very near future.

Liberal-National Policies on LGBTI Issues for Federal Election 2013

I was tempted to leave the content of this article completely blank, because that would be a reasonably accurate reflection of the LGBTI policies of the Liberal-National Parties for the election that is now only two days away. That is because, outside of two not very encouraging exceptions, the Coalition doesn’t appear to have any LGBTI policies for this year’s poll.

The Real Solutions booklet, which Tony Abbott and his team have been clutching tight for most of this year, makes no mention of LGBTI Australians. And, as far as I can tell, none of the policies which have been put up on the Liberal campaign website do so either (although I am happy to be corrected).

The two exceptions that I mention include Abbott’s signature Paid Parental Leave scheme (covered in my blog post earlier this week, a commitment which does not include references to same-sex couples in the formal policy document, but which Abbott, Hockey and O’Dwyer have subsequently been forced to confirm will include LGBTI parents).

And the second exception is marriage equality, which does not actually involve a policy commitment at all, only that the decision will be left to a post-election party-room to decide whether to have a conscience vote in the next term, rather than having a formal position against (although the Opposition Leader has made his own views – which remain strongly opposed to marriage equality – very clear).

This paucity of policies was confirmed through the 2013 LGBTI Federal Election Survey, which was recently conducted by the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Transgender Victoria and Organisation Intersex International Australia. This was a question and answer document, with 43 different questions spread over 12 distinct topics.

Unfortunately, while the ALP and Greens provided individual answers to all 43 questions, the Liberal-National Coalition did not provide individual answers, instead they provided a cover letter, and two-and-a-bit page attachment, which provided broad brushstrokes but very few details of what they will (and won’t) do.

The LGBTI groups I mentioned then analysed this response according to four different categories: Yes/Good Response, Qualified/Partial Response, No/Bad Response and Response does not answer the question. (For a copy of the survey documents, including the Liberal-National letter and the assessment made by the four groups, go to www.lgbti2013.org.au)

The result: for a full 29 of the 43 questions asked (ie two thirds of the total), the Liberal-National Parties’ response was deemed to not answer the question at all. In fact, in only 4 out of 43 responses (less than 10%) were the Liberal-Nationals deemed to give a positive response, with 8 qualifieds, and 2 outright nos. By way of comparison, the LGBTI groups deemed that the ALP did not answer 4 questions out of 43, and the Greens only 1 out of the 43 questions, and the clear majority of both responses were deemed to be Yes/Good.

Given that they answered less than a third of the questions asked, it is no surprise that there are entire policy areas which the Liberal-National Coalition have simply not taken a position on, and these touch a number of things which are very important to different sections of the LGBTI community.

Specifically, the Abbott Liberal-National Coalition failed to provide an answer on:

  • Whether they support the recent amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act which have prohibited discrimination against LGBT people by religious organisations in aged care services
  • Whether they oppose the introduction of civil unions before the passage of marriage equality
  • Whether they will continue to issue Certificates of No Impediment, which currently allow Australian couples to marry in other countries which have already legislated for marriage equality
  • Whether they will attempt to overrule States and Territories that introduce marriage equality (either through new legislation or High Court challenge)
  • Whether they will continue to fund dedicated LGBTI health initiatives, outside of HIV, and (possibly) some mental health initiatives
  • Whether they will retain the dedicated National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy, and keep LGBTI as a special needs group in the Aged Care Act
  • Whether they will provide public funding for trans* surgeries
  • Whether they would help end ‘normalising’ surgery (including coerced sterilisation) on intersex infants
  • Whether they will use foreign policies resources to advocate specifically for decriminalisation of homosexuality around the world and
  • Whether they support the ‘resettlement’ of LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise homosexuality (such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru).

As you can see, that is a pretty impressive roll-call of issues which the Liberal-National Coalition failed to provide an answer on. In my personal opinion, I think that this is a pretty disappointing (*alert: possible understatement) level of detail from people who will likely be occupying the Government benches from next week.

One interpretation of this would be that, by not answering these questions, they are leaving open the possibility of doing any and all of them (which could include doing positive things which they have not answered, but could equally involve doing a range of negative things, including taking away rights for LGBTI people or funding for LGBTI initiatives).

Another interpretation would be that, by failing to outline any concrete negative plans – for example, by failing to state that they will bring back religious exemptions in aged care services in the Sex Discrimination Act – even after being specifically asked, they will not have a mandate to do these when in Government. After all, it is difficult to claim a mandate to roll back rights or strip funding when you keep those policies (if you have them) a secret. And that is an argument that I expect the LGBTI community will be using if the Abbott Government does adopt negative policies in these areas after the election.