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

Update 29 April 2017:

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

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

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

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

Section 28A

Meaning of sexual harassment

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

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

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

(2) In this section:

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

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

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

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

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

27 April 2017

Dear Mr Lawrie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Director, Human Rights

Civil Law Unit

 

**********

 

Original Post:

 

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Monday 3 April 2017

Dear Prime Minister

Commonwealth Anti-Vilification Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Cc Senator the Hon George Brandis

Attorney-General

PO Box 6100

Senate

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Malcolm Turnbull Hands

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

Footnotes:

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

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.

If we want genuine marriage equality, we’re going to have to fight – & write – for it

2017 might be the year that Australia finally introduces marriage equality[i].

If it is, it will only be because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, and our families, friends and allies, have fought long and hard to make it happen.

However, there is also a very real risk that we end up with something less than genuine equality.

This is because there are some members within the Liberal National Coalition who are willing to support the right of LGBTI couples to marry, but only on the condition that new special rights to discriminate against us are included in any amendments to the Marriage Act.

That is simply not good enough.

As the US Supreme Court found more than 60 years ago[ii], separate but equal is not equal. And so we must reject any attempt to impose a 2nd-class system of marriage for LGBTI Australians, where we can be treated differently to cisgender heterosexual couples, merely because of who we are.

In the same way that we have fought, and continue to fight, for the right to marry, we must also fight for the right to marry equally.

The battleground for this campaign is the Government’s Exposure Draft Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, released in October 2016. This is the legislation that the Government would have introduced had its (unnecessary, wasteful and divisive) plebiscite been held, and had it been successful.

While the Bill allows any two people to marry – and therefore would provide LGBTI Australians with the ability to finally tie the knot – it also proposes four new special rights to discriminate against any relationship that is “not the union of a man and a woman[iii].” This includes:

  1. A specific provision allowing ministers of religion to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[iv] – even though ministers of religion can already reject any couple for any reason. That means this clause is both unnecessary, and unfairly targets our relationships.
  1. An entirely new right for civil celebrants to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[v]. No other section of the Marriage Act 1961 currently allows these celebrants to discriminate. This homophobic provision is especially concerning given three out of every four weddings in Australia are conducted by civil celebrants.
  1. A specific provision allowing ‘religious bodies and organisations[vi] to deny facilities to, and withhold goods and services from, LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[vii]. This has been included despite existing religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws, at both Commonwealth and state and territory level, and applies even where these groups are engaged in commercial enterprise.
  1. A new right for Defence Force chaplains to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[viii]. This is despite the fact these chaplains are public servants, paid for by all taxpayers – including LGBTI Australians – and that they are expected to “administer spiritual support to all members, regardless of their religion” (emphasis added)[ix].

None of these new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples are necessary. All are completely unjustified. All must be challenged.

Fortunately, this Bill generally, and these proposed new ‘religious exceptions’ specifically, are currently the subject of a Senate inquiry.

The Select Committee examining this Bill has called for public submissions, which close next Friday (13 January). Full details of the Inquiry, including how to lodge, can be found here.

I encourage you to make your own submission, calling for the Committee, and ultimately the Parliament, to reject these four new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

In doing so, you could make the following two main points:

  • This Bill is NOT marriage equality

While the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill would allow LGBTI couples to finally marry, by including new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples – and only LGBTI couples – the Bill actually establishes a 2nd-class system of marriage for some Australians based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. ‘Separate but equal’ is not equal – which means this Bill would not deliver genuine marriage equality.

  • The exceptions included in this Bill do not protect religious freedom, they promote homophobia and transphobia

There are a variety of different religious beliefs about marriage. Some people believe only cisgender heterosexual couples should be able to marry[x]. Others do not believe in divorce, and therefore oppose the right of people to participate in second (or subsequent) weddings. Some even continue to hold the (once widespread) belief that people of different faiths should not marry.

If the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill reflected genuine concerns about protecting ‘religious freedom’, it would allow civil celebrants, religious bodies and organisations and Defence Force chaplains to discriminate against divorced people, or against inter-faith couples[xi].

The fact that it does not, and that it establishes new special rights to discriminate solely against LGBTI couples, reveals the fundamental truth of this legislation: it has very little to do with protecting religious freedom, and much more to do with promoting homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia[xii].

**********

3 Ways to Take Action

If you agree with me, then now is the time to get involved, to get fighting – and writing – to let the Senate Committee, and the Government, know that marriage equality should mean exactly that: equality. And we won’t accept anything less.

Here are three ways you can take action in the next week:

  1. Write your own submission to the Senate Inquiry. As noted above, details on how to do so can be found here. Alternatively, two LGBTI organisations have designed web platforms to make writing a submission easier:
  1. Complete these surveys about the Bill. Both the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby and just.equal (& PFLAG Australia) are consulting the LGBTI community about what they think of the proposed religious exceptions. Let them know your views here:
  1. Sign and share this petition to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, demanding that Equal love should not be treated unequally.

Above all, if you think that equal means equal, no ifs, buts, or maybes, then it’s time to get writing…

equalmeansequal-3

Footnotes:

[i] Of course, if Malcolm Turnbull continues to fail to show any leadership on this issue, we might instead be forced to wait until 2019 or 2020.

[ii] Brown v Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954)

[iii] Interestingly, this phrase would not cover all LGBTI couples – for example, civil celebrants, religious bodies and organisations and Defence Force chaplains would not be able to reject heterosexual couples where one or both members are transgender and where the couple identifies as a man and a woman.

[iv] Proposed sub-section 47(3)

[v] Proposed new section 47A

[vi] It is worrying that these terms are not defined in the Bill, meaning the number of bodies or organisations allowed to discriminate against LGBTI couples could be high.

[vii] Proposed new section 47B

[viii] Proposed new note to section 81

[ix] For more on why these new special rights to discriminate must be rejected, see The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill in Unacceptable.

[x] Of course, they should not be able to impose that belief on others through secular law.

[xi] I am not arguing for either to be made lawful, merely highlighting the double-standard that lies at the heart of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill.

[xii] The Government, having revealed its (homophobic) intentions, also cannot now turn around and extend these new special rights to discriminate against divorced people and inter-faith couples because they will only be doing so to ‘cover up’ the anti-LGBTI nature of its original legislation.

2016: Annus Homophobicus

 

In November 1992, the Queen of England (and, unfortunately, still the Queen of Australia too) gave a speech in which she described the previous 12 months as her ‘annus horribilis’.

 

To be fair, it had been a rough year for Ms Windsor, with the separation of her eldest son from his wife, the divorce of her only daughter from her husband, frequent tabloid scandals (hello toe-sucking!) and even a fire in one of her (many) houses[i].

 

But, as bad as Elizabeth II’s year was back then, it’s frankly got nothing on how depressing, and frustrating, 2016 has been for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

 

So, as the year draws to a close, and we look back on the (too few) highs and (far too many) lows, it feels apt to declare the past 12 months to be our very own ‘annus homophobicus’.

 

It started in January with the launch of a ferocious, and well co-ordinated, attack on the Safe Schools program by the Australian Christian Lobby, The Australian newspaper and extremists in the right-wing of the Liberal-National Government.

 

And, even after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ‘gutted’ the program in early March, the campaign against what is a vital anti-bullying program designed to help LGBTI students has continued, as unyielding as it is lacking in compassion.

 

The year ended with the tragic death of 13-year-old Brisbane high school student, Tyrone Unsworth, in late November. Indigenous and gay, Tyrone had suffered relentless bullying because of his sexual orientation, until he ultimately took his own life.

 

A death that, understandably, shook many members of our community to the core, it was particularly hard for LGBTI Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[ii] It was a tragedy that demonstrated the very need for a program that homophobic bigots had spent the best part of a year trying to dismantle.

 

In between, 2016 was dominated by Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality – a policy that was completely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and, if held, would inevitably be harmful for countless young and vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, including the children of rainbow families.

 

It took the collective efforts of a variety of LGBTI groups, alongside the work of many individual activists, over several months, to finally defeat the planned plebiscite in early November. But that sustained campaign, against a proposal that had been put forward simply to delay or defeat rather than achieve equality, left a large number of people almost completely drained (myself included).

 

The past 12 months has also witnessed a rise in homophobic and transphobic hate-speech. It seems that anti-LGBTI rhetoric is both more common, and more ‘acceptable’, in Australia now than at any point over the past 10 to 15 years.

 

And it certainly does not help that the frequent abuse of LGBTI people coming from inside the Government, by the likes of Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, has gone without any obvious punishment from an allegedly-moderate Prime Minister too scared to stand up to his more-conservative colleagues.

 

Even worse than hate-speech, 2016 has seen plenty of horrific hate-based actions, both here and around the world.

 

This includes the almost unspeakable tragedy in Orlando on June 12th, with the mass murder of 49 people, and wounding of 53 others, at Pulse. With the popular gay nightclub holding a Latin night, most of the victims were young and Latinx. Six months later, it remains impossible not to cry when reading or watching tributes[iii] to the casualties of this terror attack.

 

pulse-tribute

Tributes to victims outside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

 

Acts of homophobic and transphobic violence were not limited to the United States, however. In Australia, too, there were countless assaults on LGBTI people.

 

The one that hit closest to home – both literally[iv] and figuratively – was the young Sydney man who was ‘gay-bashed’ twice in one night[v], the second time by a supposed ‘good Samaritan’ who had initially helped him after the first attack, only to assault the victim himself after learning he was gay.

 

This was a crime based on homophobia that could happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, including my fiancé Steven and me.

 

**********

 

The net effect of these events, alongside other shocking outcomes of the past year (including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump), has been sufficient to undermine the belief that progress is somehow inevitable, that the future will always be better than the past.

 

But, as LGBTI Australians, we don’t need the fear-fuelled success of a xenophobic campaign against immigrants in the UK, or of a sexist and racist tyrant-in-training in the US, to remind us that political change is not inherently positive.

 

As many of you would know, the past few years have seen a number of areas where progress on LGBTI policy and law reform hasn’t just stalled, but been actively wound back.

 

One of the first acts of the Campbell Newman-led Liberal-National Queensland Government in 2012 was to abolish ceremonies as part of the recently-passed civil partnership scheme in that state[vi].

 

In Victoria, the Baillieu Coalition Government repealed the ‘inherent requirement’ test from that state’s Equal Opportunity Act – which had required religious employers to demonstrate that discrimination against LGBT employees was an essential part of the role – before it had even commenced operation in 2011[vii].

 

The Tasmanian Liberal Government not only made discrimination by religious schools easier in 2015 (thereby undermining what has been the nation’s best anti-discrimination scheme), it is currently committed to reducing protections against vilification, including those enjoyed by LGBTI Tasmanians.

 

And we shouldn’t forget the decision by Prime Minister Turnbull to discontinue funding for the Safe Schools program (with Commonwealth money to cease from 2017), an initiative that his predecessor, Tony Abbott, had actually implemented less than three years earlier.

 

It is clear then, that progress on LGBTI issue is not inevitable. And it is almost enough to challenge the wisdom of one of Martin Luther King, Jr’s many note-worthy quotes, namely that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

 

Almost, but not quite.

 

As painful as the past 12 months have been for many, especially for members of Australia’s LGBTI communities, we nevertheless must see these events in their historical context, and recognise that – at least on a (much) longer time-scale – overall, things are still headed in a positive direction. And that remains the case even if there are twists and turns, even significant bumps, along the way.

 

But the most important lesson to remember is that, while the arc may ‘bend toward justice’, it only does so because good people come together to take action to make change happen.

 

Just as US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously observed: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 

One of the best examples of this maxim actually comes from one of the major LGBTI victories of 2016 – the long overdue equalisation of the age of consent for male homosexuality in Queensland.

 

While this was discriminatory legislation that affected many, its repeal was only a priority for a dedicated few[viii], including long-time LGBTI activist John Frame[ix] among others.

 

Through painstaking, and often thankless, campaigning over years and eventually decades, they chipped away at an unjust law until it was finally amended in September this year, almost 25 years since it was first introduced.

 

There were other wins this year too. The Palaszczuk Labor Government in Queensland also passed legislation to allow adoption by same-sex couples, while the Weatherill Labor Government in South Australia ended 2016 with a flurry of pro-LGBTI law reform, including relationship recognition, same-sex adoption and trans birth certificate changes[x].

 

And of course, there was the LGBTI community’s success in defeating the marriage equality plebiscite, a victory that was by no means guaranteed at this point last year[xi].

 

All of which is to show that, despite the increasingly toxic political environment that we appear to be operating in, and the significant losses cited above, positive change is still possible – if we keep our sights on the country, and world, that we want to create, and work towards it patiently, gradually, relentlessly.

 

**********

 

For my part, as I look ahead to 2017, I will be redoubling my efforts to improve Australia’s incomplete, inconsistent and in many cases inadequate system of LGBTI anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws.

 

I know others will concentrate their energies on (finally) achieving marriage equality, as well as a myriad of other reforms, from ending the involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants, to further trans birth certificate changes, ending the inhumane detention of LGBTI refugees and reinvigorating the Safe Schools program.

 

So, let’s end 2016 by reflecting, relaxing and hopefully recuperating, so that when the new year rolls around we are ready to dust ourselves off, fight once more and bend that arc towards a more just country for LGBTI Australians.

 

**********

 

I have one final favour to ask. Could you please take 5-15 minutes to complete this short survey about your experiences of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination, over the past 12 months, and previously?

 

The results of this research will be used to advocate for better protections against discrimination for LGBTI people across Australia, as well as to campaign for the introduction of LGBTI anti-vilification laws where they do not currently exist.

 

Please TAKE THE SURVEY NOW.

**********

 

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 every day)
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au

 

Footnotes:

[i] See The Guardian “How the Royal Family Bounced Back from its Annus Horribilis” 24 May 2012.

[ii] If you have a chance, please read Dameyon Bonson’s excellent op-ed “I am Indigenous. I am Gay. Unlike Tyrone Unsworth, I Survived” in The Guardian Australia, 28 November 2016.

[iii] For example, see Anderson Cooper’s emotional tribute on CNN in the days after the tragedy here.

[iv] The victim lived in our apartment complex, with the second attack happening just 50 meters from our building.

[v] The 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.

[vi] Thankfully, these ceremonies were reintroduced by the subsequently (and surprisingly) elected Palaszczuk Government.

[vii] The current Victorian Liberal-National Opposition, led by Matthew Guy, defeated Andrews Labor Government legislation to reinsert this test in November 2016.

[viii] With many focusing on more ‘popular’ issues like marriage equality.

[ix] See samesame.com.au “It’s time to update Queensland’s sex laws” 23 August 2015.

[x] For more on LGBTI successes of the past 12 months, see Lane Sainty’s summary in Buzzfeed “13 Times Australia’s LGBTI Community Had a Win in 2016” 16 December 2016.

[xi] For more, see Pride, Pressure & Perseverance.

It’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace

Commonwealth Parliament returns this week, for the final sitting fortnight of the year.

 

During the previous sitting week, on Monday 7 November, the Senate finally killed off, once and for all, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

The welcome actions of Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team Senators, and even Derryn Hinch, have spared the country from what would have been an entirely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and inevitably divisive public vote on the human rights of a minority group.

 

In doing so, they have also ensured that the public, and political, pressure to finally pass marriage equality sits squarely where it should have been all along – on Liberal and National MPs and Senators.

 

After all, they are the ones sitting on the Government benches, meaning they shoulder the responsibility to introduce legislation to treat all couples equally, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

From now until the next federal election, likely to be held in the 1st half of 2019, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should put pressure on Coalition parliamentarians to fix this mess.

 

More specifically, we will need to target one of the three main groupings within the Government, the cohort who are more likely to be receptive to our messages – Moderate Liberals.

 

It is difficult to see the other two ‘factions’ changing their respective tunes. National Party MPs, who are supposed to represent all people in rural and regional areas, have instead shown themselves completely uninterested in the relationships of the many LGBTI couples that live in their electorates.

 

In fact, the old ‘Country Party’ rump of the Coalition have been so determined to delay and potentially defeat marriage equality that they included the plebiscite as a core component of its formal agreement with Malcolm Turnbull when he became Prime Minister in September 2015.

 

Apparently, it is far more important to spend at least $170 million, and probably more than $200 million, on a non-binding opinion poll, than on meeting the health, education and infrastructure needs of non-metropolitan Australians.

 

The other major grouping within the Coalition – Conservative Liberals – are even less interested in recognising the human rights of LGBTI people. They would prefer just to see marriage equality blocked, and only agreed to holding a plebiscite under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott because they saw it, correctly, as a stalling tactic.

 

With the plebiscite now dead, the terrible Tory trio of Abetz, Bernardi and Christensen, and their factional colleagues, are comfortable in seeing this issue left off the political agenda – from their perspective, hopefully permanently.

 

All of which is to say that the only hope of passing marriage equality in the remainder of this term rests with what is, in 2016, perhaps the smallest and least powerful of the Coalition groups – Moderate Liberals[i].

 

These MPs and Senators are the only ones within Malcolm Turnbull’s Government who could foreseeably take any action on marriage equality, at least in the short-term.

 

That’s because, if they are genuinely moderate in their beliefs, they are likely to understand the following three things:

 

  1. There is no justification for discrimination against people solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status under secular law – and that includes in the Marriage Act 1961.

 

  1. The plebiscite was the wrong process to achieve marriage equality. Not only was it unacceptable to the vast majority of LGBTI people, it also contravened the traditions of Australian democracy[ii], which has only ever witnessed three national plebiscites, and none on substantive policy for almost a century, and

 

  1. Most importantly, LGBTI Australians have already waited long enough (far too long actually) for their relationships to be treated equally under the law, meaning a parliamentary vote should not be delayed until 2019.

 

But, while they may understand these points, the real question is: What will Moderate Liberal MPs and Senators now do about it?

 

Will they stand up for their principles and push for a parliamentary vote, or will they continue their modus operandi from the past ten to 15 years and adopt the path of least resistance against their National Party and Conservative Liberal counterparts, by maintaining their official support for the discredited plebiscite?

 

Unfortunately, the signs to date are not encouraging. North Queensland LNP MP, Warren Entsch, who has pushed for marriage equality inside the Coalition for several years, has indicated that he is choosing right now, when we arguably need him most, to ‘give up the fight’[iii] on this issue for the remainder of this term.

 

He has, in effect, walked away from the LGBTI community rather than walking five metres across the chamber floor to vote for reform.

 

Disappointingly, few if any of Entsch’s colleagues have so far suggested they are interested in picking up where he left off.

 

warren-entsch

Warren Entsch, introducing his private member’s bill for marriage equality in 2015. Sadly, it seems he is unwilling to even vote for equality for the next two and a half years.

 

What would we ask them to do if they were ‘ready and willing’? There are two ways in which Moderate Liberals could progress marriage equality this term.

 

The first, and most challenging, path would be for them to push for a conscience vote inside the Liberal Party room (and in the absence of National MPs and Senators who, as Christopher Pyne accurately pointed out, were included by Tony Abbott in August 2015 as a means of ‘branch-stacking’ against equality).

 

Their arguments would be strong – the Government has tried and failed to implement its election policy (to hold the plebiscite), so it needs to find another way to recognise the legal equality of LGBTI relationships. A free vote also has the benefit of being far more consistent with the past practices of Australia’s main right-of-centre party than a public vote.

 

But they would also face strong resistance, led by PM-(again)-in-waiting Tony Abbott, among others, meaning it is unclear what the outcome would be.

 

If they failed, the second way in which Moderate Liberals could help pass marriage equality would be by ‘simply’ crossing the floor.

 

It would only take one or two principled Senators to secure passage in the Upper House, and probably only a small handful of MPs, perhaps half-a-dozen, to do so in the House of Representatives.

 

In the absence of a Prime Minister, Ministers or Assistant Ministers who were prepared to give up their positions of power for the sake of the human rights of their fellow citizens, they would all need to come from the backbench. And, by taking such a step, these backbenchers would know they were potentially jeopardising any future advancement within the Party.

 

It is unclear whether there are enough Coalition MPs and Senators to make that crucial difference. But, it is incredibly important that Moderate Liberals find these numbers, one way or another.

 

Not just for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and our family members and friends, who have already endured 12 years – and counting – of John Howard’s homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ban on our weddings.

 

It is also important for the future of Moderate Liberals themselves.

 

Make no mistake, this is a fundamental test for the section of the Liberal Party who identify as moderate, even ‘progressive’, on social issues.

 

Their ‘slice’ of the Coalition has been diminishing for decades, and their influence has waned noticeably from even the time when I was growing up.

 

On many issues, from the (mis)treatment of people seeking asylum, to the prioritisation of ‘national security’ over civil liberties, and even their growing obsession with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, they are now almost indistinguishable from their National Party, and Conservative Liberal, colleagues.

 

So, if they cannot stand up to the rabid right-wing on this, a straight-forward question of inclusion versus discrimination – a clear-cut choice between granting human rights or actively denying them – it is difficult to see them standing up on anything.

 

If Moderate Liberals fail to ‘deliver the goods’ on marriage equality by the time the next election rolls around, it will be tempting for most Australians to reach the conclusion that they are ‘good-for-nothing’.

 

And, in my view at least, the public would be right – if Moderate Liberals cannot make progress on this issue before 2019, then they will have demonstrated that they have no place in contemporary Australian politics. It probably won’t be that much longer before they discover they have no place in Commonwealth Parliament either.

 

All of which means that, if they want LGBTI Australians to be able to walk down the aisle – and if they want to retain their seats on the ‘right’ side of the political aisle – it’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace.

 

**********

 

Footnotes:

[i] Irrespective of their actual factual alignment, for the purposes of this article this grouping includes the four out gay men in the Government: Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson, Trevor Evans and Senator Dean Smith.

[ii] The argument made by WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith in declaring that he could not, in good conscience, support the plebiscite enabling legislation.

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 2016, The same-sex plebiscite is dead. So what happens now?

Do you feel proud, Malcolm?

Update 18 February 2017:

 

Over the past five years I have written to a number of Immigration Ministers (including Chris Bowen and Brendan O’Connor under Labor, and Scott Morrison under the Coalition), expressing concerns about the mistreatment of LGBTI people seeking asylum, and especially the policy of detaining, processing and resettling LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise homosexuality (such as Papua New Guinea and, until May 2016, Nauru).

 

It is fair to say that I have received an equal number of disappointing replies to my correspondence – my letters, and the responses to them, are published here.

 

I was prompted to write again in October 2016, this time to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, following the exchange between Labor Senator Louise Pratt and the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Security, Mr Michael Pezzullo, at Senate Estimates.

 

During that exchange, not only did Mr Pezzullo display a stunning lack of awareness of the ongoing criminalisation of homosexuality in our nearest neighbour, he also seemed uninterested in the issue of how PNG’s criminal laws might impact LGBTI people seeking asylum sent there by the Australian Government.

 

Predictably – although still shocking – Mr Pezzullo argued that Australia’s obligation towards these people seeking asylum ended at the point of transfer to Manus Island, and therefore we collectively bore no responsibility for ensuring that their human rights were respected.

 

The full letter I wrote to the Prime Minister is reproduced below. Almost four months later I have finally received a response, not from Mr Turnbull, nor even from the current Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, but instead from the Department of Immigration of Border Protection. This is what they sent:

 

Dear Mr Lawrie

 

Thank you for your correspondence of 9 November 2016 to the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, concerning the treatment of homosexual, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers. Your correspondence has been referred to the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection as the matters raised fall within his portfolio responsibilities. 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 apologise for the delay in responding.

 

As out lined in the Department’s response to your previous letters to the former Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, the Hon Scott Morrison MP, and the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, the Hon Chris Bowen MP, Australia takes its international obligations seriously, including those under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (the Refugees Convention).

 

As previously advised, 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 a regional processing country where any asylum claims they may have will be assessed. The Government has signed Memoranda of Understanding with the Governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG), which support this.

 

As previously noted in the Department’s response to your letter to the former Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, the Hon Scott Morrison MP, any claims made against a regional processing country by the IMA, including claims concerning the treatment of homosexuals in the regional processing 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 regional processing country, or an alternative regional processing country, or whether the IMA’s case should be referred to the Minister for consideration of exemption from transfer.

 

As previously advised, the enforcement of PNG domestic law is a matter for the Government of PNG. The Australian Government is aware of laws relating to homosexual activity in PNG but also understand that there have been no reports of prosecutions under those laws since 2012. As of May 2016 same-sex activity is legal in Nauru.

 

Further, I confirm that if homosexual activity should occur in the Regional Processing Centres, there is no mandatory obligation under PNG or Nauru domestic law for Australian officers or contracted service providers to report such activity to the respective Government or police.

 

Thank you for brining your concerns to the Government’s attention.

 

Yours sincerely

[Signature withheld]

A/g Director ABF Ministerial Correspondence Section

Support Group – Australian Border Force

14 February 2017

 

There are obviously a number of worrying statements in this letter, including:

 

  • The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has reiterated the process that LGBTI people seeking asylum who arrive by boat must, in the short period between arrival and transfer, declare their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, and express their specific concerns about being detained in PNG. This ignores the lived experience of LGBTI people seeking asylum, their often legitimate safety concerns in disclosing their status especially in close proximity to other people seeking asylum who may be unaware and/or not accepting of them, and the fact that for many people seeking asylum it takes months or even years for them to disclose anti-LGBTI persecution as the basis of their refugee claim. It also presumes that they are aware of the current criminal laws of Papua New Guinea, something of which even the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Security was ignorant.

 

  • The letter also repeats previous ‘assurances’ that there is no mandatory reporting obligation in relation to homosexual activity in the Manus Island detention facility. However, this avoids the real problem – the criminal laws of PNG do apply to LGBTI people seeking asylum and refugees on Manus Island, and homosexual conduct can be reported to PNG police. The mere threat of such referral is sufficient to cause real fear among LGBTI people in this situation, alongside legitimate safety concerns (after all, it is difficult to report anti-LGBTI violence to police when the same authorities can prosecute you for simply being who you are).

 

Overall, then, there is nothing in the response from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to suggest that the situation for LGBTI people seeking asylum detained on Manus Island will improve anytime soon. Shamefully, the human rights abuse of LGBTI people put there by the Australian Government will continue for the foreseeable future. Which means that our responsibility to stand up for them, and campaign for change, must continue too.

 

Original Post:

 

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister of Australia

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

 

Tuesday 25 October 2016

 

Dear Prime Minister Turnbull

 

LGBTI Refugees and People Seeking Asylum

 

I am writing to you about a subject that is incredibly important, but one that does not often attract significant attention – from the media, from the public and, above all, from the Australian Government.

 

That subject is the mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees, and people seeking asylum, including the decision by successive Australian Governments to detain, process and even seek to resettle these people in countries that criminalise homosexuality.

 

I believe that this approach, exposing people who have sought Australia’s protection to persecution and prosecution in other countries, simply because of who they are, is a fundamental breach of human rights.

 

I have expressed concerns about this mistreatment from the very beginning of Australia’s current offshore processing regime. Within one month of the passage of legislation authorising the removal of people seeking asylum who arrived in Australia by boat to Nauru and Manus Is, Papua New Guinea (PNG) in August 2012, I wrote to both then Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, and then Shadow Immigration Minister – and now Treasurer – Scott Morrison.

 

In that letter I asked: “Do you agree that asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity (or indeed who are fleeing on other grounds but are LGBTI), should not be sent to any country which criminalises or discriminates against LGBTI people?

 

“Are you aware that homosexuality is current illegal in all three countries[i] to which the Australian Government currently intends to send asylum seekers? [And] Will the laws of these jurisdictions apply to asylum seekers being detained by the Australian government?”

 

It took nine months to obtain a reply, not from Minister Bowen, nor from his successor (Brendan O’Connor), but instead from the Department of Immigration. But the reply I did receive was incredibly disappointing.

 

Not only did it fail to answer whether LGBTI people transferred to Nauru and PNG could be subject to criminal prosecution, it then indicated that, in order to avoid the risk of mistreatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in those countries, people seeking asylum needed to raise those concerns in the extremely short ‘window period’ prior to transfer[ii].

 

It seems the Australian Government was completely uninterested in LGBTI people transferred to Nauru and PNG if they only disclosed their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status after being transferred.

 

Someone else who was uninterested in this subject was Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who never even bothered to reply to my correspondence.

 

Undeterred, following the change of Government in September 2013 and with Mr Morrison assuming the role of Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, I wrote to him again in February 2014.

 

In that letter I repeated my concerns about the mistreatment of LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum transferred to Manus Island and included reference to the Amnesty International Report This is Breaking People, which had 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 [and]
  • 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…”

 

I then included a personal challenge to Mr Morrison: “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.”

 

This time around, it only took the Department of Immigration and Border Security five and a half months to respond to my concerns[iii]. Their underwhelming response included the following statement:

 

“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 [Offshore Processing Centre], there is no mandatory obligation under PNG domestic law for Australian officers or contracted service providers to report such activity to the PNG Government or police.”

 

In short, the then Australian Government – of which you were a senior Minister – rejected the claim that there was mandatory reporting of ‘homosexual activity’ to PNG police, but explicitly did not deny that the laws of that country, outlawing sex between men, applied to the refugees and people seeking asylum that we, as a country, had placed there.

 

In March of this year, I raised the issue of the mistreatment of LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum again, this time through a submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry into conditions and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru and PNG.

 

Unfortunately, that Senate inquiry lapsed due to your calling of a double dissolution election but, before Parliament was dissolved, the Committee issued an interim report, including the following paragraph:

 

“1.57 The committee received some evidence focused on the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people held in the [Regional Processing Centres]. Mr Alastair Lawrie noted that male homosexual conduct remained a criminal offence in both Nauru[iv] and PNG, and expressed the view that ‘the Australian Government inflicts serious harm on LGBTI people seeking asylum by detaining, processing and resettling them in countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality.’ Mr Lawrie cited reports of abuse, assault and marginalisation of homosexual asylum seekers in the [Regional Processing Centres], and the lack of appropriate health and community services in the two countries…”

 

Thankfully, post-election the Senate has decided to initiate a new inquiry looking at the issue of abuse, self-harm and neglect of asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG, and its investigation is ongoing.

 

On a more negative note, however, it is unclear how the Government will respond to any findings from such an inquiry, given Liberal and National Party Senators recommended, in the interim report, that “examination of Australia’s border protection activities be referred to the more reliable and cost-effective forum of Senate Estimates.”

 

Coincidentally, it is Senate Estimates that leads me to write to you, in your role as Prime Minister, today.

 

Last Monday, 17 October 2016, during the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s Senate Estimates Hearing of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, there was an extraordinary exchange between WA Labor Senator Louise Pratt, and Departmental Secretary Mr Michael Pezzullo.

 

And by extraordinary, I mean extraordinarily dismissive of the legitimate concerns of Senator Pratt, and others including myself, about the mistreatment of gay, bisexual and same-sex attracted refugees and people seeking asylum placed on Manus Island by successive Australians Governments.

 

I have included the full text of this exchange as an Attachment with this letter[v]. I strongly encourage you to read it. If you do, you will see how little priority has been given to this issue, including by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection under the Prime Ministerships of your predecessors and now of course under you.

 

First, it was surprising to witness, via the following exchange, Mr Pezzullo appear not to know that male homosexuality is criminalised under PNG law:

 

“Senator PRATT: And in the meantime, no homosexual conduct is allowed.

Mr Pezzullo: I do not know whether it is allowed or not.
Senator.

PRATT: Well, it is illegal.

Mr Pezzullo: I am not an expert on those laws in the domestic jurisdiction of PNG.”

 

Given, as we have seen above, I have raised this issue with successive Ministers for Immigration, and received multiple responses from the Department of which he is now the head, not to mention the ongoing advocacy on this subject by organisations like the Human Rights Law Centre, Amnesty International, Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation and NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, it is alarming to hear the Secretary’s lack of knowledge about the risk of prosecution for LGBTI[vi] people detained and processed on Manus Island.

 

Second, and less surprisingly but even more worryingly, was the distinct lack of concern on display by Mr Pezzullo, with the implication that the mistreatment of LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum was not something that had crossed his desk, or that he had actively turned his mind to, in his two years as Secretary:

 

“Senator PRATT: In that context, how is the issue of people’s sexual identity and the illegality of that in PNG being addressed within that?

Mr Pezzullo: You will need to ask the PNG government. I do not know, is the answer.” [And later]

“Senator PRATT: Or homosexual law reform in PNG perhaps?

Mr Pezzullo: Well, that is not something that my department has any role in.

CHAIR: Nor has the Australian government.

Mr Pezzullo: We have enough on our plate. I do not mean to belittle the point, but the pursuit of law reform around same-sex attraction in foreign jurisdictions is not on my to-do list.”

 

Third, and perhaps least surprising – but most worrying – of all, was the position stated by Mr Pezzullo, at multiple points, that the Australian Government has no responsibility towards LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum that it has sent to Manus Island after they have been transferred. For example:

 

“Senator PRATT: Australia has a responsibility in this regard, because we are not supposed to engage in these activities in offshore processing as a way of in a sense refoulement of the refugee process, because people might be subject to further persecution.

Mr Pezzullo: The historical basis of the transfers—noting that there has not been a transfer into regional processing for some 2 1⁄2 years; the Australian government acquitted its nonrefoulement obligations over 2 1⁄2 years ago, at a minimum—“ [And later]

“Senator PRATT: So it has no further responsibility to the human rights of those men?

Mr Pezzullo: Not pursuant to—Australia observes its human rights, diplomacy and policy objectives in all manner of ways that the foreign minister and her officers discharge. But in terms of ensuring that through the transfer mechanisms that were agreed in 2012 and 2013 we did not refoule persons who had come into our jurisdiction we acquitted those obligations at that time.”

 

In effect, Mr Pezzullo was arguing, on behalf of the Australian Government – your Government – that, once Australia had transferred refugees and people seeking asylum to Manus Island, and unless those LGBTI refugees had explicitly raised concerns in the hours or at most days between their arrival by boat and their transfer, Australia had no ongoing responsibility towards them.

 

Now, Mr Pezzullo may or may not be correct from a legal viewpoint. I am sure there are human rights advocates, and potentially courts and tribunals both in Australia and in Papua New Guinea, who might take a different view.

 

But he is definitely wrong in every other respect. Australia, and the Australian Government, absolutely has a responsibility towards LGBTI refugees that, through its actions, it has caused to be sent to Manus Island for detention, processing and even resettlement.

 

It has a moral obligation. An ethical obligation. A social obligation. A human obligation.

 

These are people who sought the protection of the Australian Government, which then chose to send them to countries where, far from being safe from persecution, they were – and still are – at risk of criminal prosecution simply because of who they are.

 

I cannot see how anyone could possibly assert that the successive Australian Governments, and Prime Ministers, who have created this situation and exposed these people to potential harm, do not have a responsibility towards them.

 

And obviously that means that your Government, and now you as Prime Minister, also have a moral, ethical, social and above all human responsibility to do something about it.

 

The question I have for you is: will you?

 

Will you take action to remove LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum from Manus Island, where they were placed by the Australian Government and where they are still subject to criminalisation?

 

Prime Minister, you are a Member of Parliament representing one of the ‘gayest’ electorates in Australia, with literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of LGBTI people living in the seat of Wentworth.

 

You claim to support the equality of LGBTI people, both legally and socially. Earlier this year, you even became the first sitting Prime Minister to attend Australia’s largest ‘Pride’ event, the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

 

That night, you joined in celebrating the hard-fought and hard-won freedom, and increasing equality[vii] and acceptance, of Australia’s LGBTI community, surrounded by tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, as well as their families and friends.

 

That very same night, and for hundreds of nights beforehand and every night since, just 3,500km to the North, a much smaller number of gay, bisexual and same-sex attracted refugees had far less reason to celebrate: certainly not freedom, and instead of equality and acceptance, a fear of prosecution and persecution by a Government that considers them criminals.

 

And the only difference between these two groups – between the ‘loud and proud’ crowd on Oxford St, and the isolated and vulnerable individuals on Manus – is where they were born.

 

The actions of successive Australian Governments have put the latter group where they are, directly in harm’s way. As the Prime Minister since September 2015, and leader of the current Liberal-National Government, you now keep them there.

 

You might have celebrated ‘pride’ with Australia’s LGBTI community almost 8 months ago, but contributing to the detention, processing and resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise them is nothing to be proud of.

 

And I think, deep down, you understand that. In which case, it is up to you to do something that you, your Government and the country you lead can be proud of:

 

Bring. Them. Here.

 

Your predecessors negotiated with the PNG Government for Manus Island to become the site of the ‘Regional Processing Centre’. You have the power to negotiate with the PNG Government to close that same centre and bring the refugees and people seeking asylum there back to Australia.

 

In fact, after the PNG Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that the detention of refugees and people seeking asylum on Manus Island was illegal, and in breach of the PNG Constitution’s right to personal liberty[viii], I suspect their Government would welcome such a move.

 

Bring them here and end the frankly horrific situation whereby LGBTI people who have fled persecution in other parts of the world, including those fleeing persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, have been deliberately left in a place where they are subject to criminal laws on the basis of those same attributes.

 

Successive Australian Governments put them there. You, as Prime Minister, and leader of the current Government, can get them out. Do something that makes us all proud. Please, Prime Minister Turnbull, bring them here.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

malcolm-turnbull-mardi-gras

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, celebrating ‘pride’ at the 2016 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. Not pictured: The gay, bisexual and same-sex attracted refugees and people seeking asylum detained on Manus Island, PNG.

 

**********

 

Attachment A

Senate Estimates Monday 17 October 2016

Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Hearing re Department of Immigration and Border Protection

Senator PRATT: I would like to know how many men on Manus have been given positive refugee status determinations on the basis of their sexuality.

Mr Pezzullo: Their claim of persecution relates to sexuality?

Senator PRATT: That is right.

Mr Pezzullo: I will ask Ms Noble or other officers to join me, but I am not sure that we would immediately have that data to hand, because we do not do the refugee status determination. Unless Ms Moy can answer the question directly, we will take it on notice.

Senator PRATT: You would agree that some would have had to have been found as refugees, basically?

Mr Pezzullo: Possibly. I do not know.

Ms Moy: The RSD process in Papua New Guinea is run by ICSA. We are not privy to the information of each claim. We would need to go to Papua New Guinea and ask them that question. So we would need to take it on notice.

Senator PRATT: But that is a difficult thing, given that homosexuality is actually illegal in PNG. They are having to make these disclosures to the PNG government, in which case they may even have a well-founded fear of persecution from within PNG. Is that not correct?

Mr Pezzullo: We will have to take on notice how the PNG authorities have dealt with the assessment of claims pursuant to both their international legal obligations and the operation of their domestic law.

Senator PRATT: Well, homosexuality is a criminal offence there. It is illegal.

Mr Pezzullo: I understand the point you are making. What I am saying is that how the PNG authorities have assessed those claims is a matter that would not be readily known to Ms Moy and myself.

Senator PRATT: What is the government’s advice to those men who are currently on Manus who are refugees because they are gay and who are about to be resettled in PNG?

Mr Pezzullo: Which government’s advice? The advice of the Australian government?

Senator PRATT: Yes.

CHAIR: Well, that is not a question for you, Mr Pezzullo. You are not here to give advice to people in detention in another country.

Senator PRATT: Australia has a responsibility in this regard, because we are not supposed to engage in these activities in offshore processing as a way of in a sense refoulement of the refugee process, because people might be subject to further persecution.

Mr Pezzullo: The historical basis of the transfers—noting that there has not been a transfer into regional processing for some 21⁄2 years; the Australian government acquitted its nonrefoulement obligations over 21⁄2 years ago, at a minimum—

Senator PRATT: In that context, how is the issue of people’s sexual identity and the illegality of that in PNG being addressed within that?

Mr Pezzullo: You will need to ask the PNG government. I do not know, is the answer. Australia, through two agreements, two heads of agreement—one initiated under the Gillard government and one under the Rudd government and then consolidated under subsequent governments—entered into agreements to transfer persons who arrived here by illegal maritime means into the jurisdictions of either Nauru or PNG, two separate transfers. At that point our nonrefoulement obligations had to be addressed and acquitted, and they were. There is no ongoing—

Senator PRATT: In what manner were issues of sexuality addressed within that agreement? Or were they not?

Mr Pezzullo: You cannot refoule persons back to the country of origin where they have raised claims of persecution. There were no claims of persecution against the states or the regimes of Nauru and PNG.

Senator PRATT: I understand that that is about returning people to their country of origin. But in effect we have taken them to a country where they could be subject to exactly the same form of persecution, where they are supposed to be having their claim for asylum processed.

Mr Pezzullo: Well, you speculate that. When you say we have ‘taken them to a country’—we cannot simply drop people off. We entered into intergovernmental agreements, to transfer persons from the Australian migration jurisdiction to other migration jurisdictions. At that point, the last of which occurred 21⁄2 years ago, because there have been no transfers since, all of Australia’s obligations in that regard were discharged.

Senator PRATT: In other words, the Australian government has no responsibility to those gay men who are currently detained on Manus in terms of whether their human rights in relation to their sexuality will be upheld in PNG or not.

Mr Pezzullo: I understand the question you are asking. You say that the Australian government has no responsibility in that circumstance, but the Australian government—a number of governments, actually, that straddle several parliamentary terms—discharged all of its legal undertakings at the time of the transfer, yes.

Senator PRATT: So it has no further responsibility to the human rights of those men?

Mr Pezzullo: Not pursuant to—Australia observes its human rights, diplomacy and policy objectives in all manner of ways that the foreign minister and her officers discharge. But in terms of ensuring that through the transfer mechanisms that were agreed in 2012 and 2013 we did not refoule persons who had come into our jurisdiction we acquitted those obligations at that time.

Senator PRATT: But we have a contract with the PNG government that—

Mr Pezzullo: We have an agreement, yes.

Senator PRATT: We have an agreement for which the PNG government is paid, and within that agreement there are men whose original claim for protection was based on their homosexual identity. Their claims are being processed in a country in which homosexuality is illegal.

Mr Pezzullo: Senator, you state, as an assertion—in what I think is a question—that their original claims were founded on sexuality.

Senator PRATT: They may or may not have been.

Mr Pezzullo: Thank you.

Senator PRATT: The question is that people who are homosexual and who are currently detained or being processed on Manus—their homosexuality may or may not have been part of their original claim—are being processed in a country in which homosexuality is illegal and they are being forced to be there.

Mr Pezzullo: Which might mean, in the circumstances that you describe—and this is a matter for the government of Papua New Guinea—that the government of Papua New Guinea is not able to resettle those gentlemen within their domestic jurisdiction. In that case, the government of PNG will need to enter into arrangements with so-called third country resettlement options where that clash with domestic law—or that contradiction with domestic law, if I can characterise it in those terms—is not applicable.

Senator PRATT: And in the meantime, no homosexual conduct is allowed.

Mr Pezzullo: I do not know whether it is allowed or not.
Senator

PRATT: Well, it is illegal.

Mr Pezzullo: I am not an expert on those laws in the domestic jurisdiction of PNG. I understand the point of the question you are asking. What I am saying is: those persons—the single adult men who are on Manus—are in the legal jurisdiction of the government of Papua New Guinea. They have both international obligations that pertain to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which include non-refoulement, and other complementary protections that attach to various other covenants that that government has entered into. Then they have domestic laws which, as I understand from reporting, can be characterised in the way that you have described. It is now a matter for the government of Papua New Guinea to resolve: how do you settle a person who you know to have a well-founded fear of persecution—across a range of matters, one of which might be related to sexuality—within your domestic jurisdiction? I do not know—Ms Moy might be able to assist me—if we have been asked for technical assistance in terms of how to perhaps assist with the country options. I just do not know.

Ms Moy: Not at this stage.

Senator PRATT: Or homosexual law reform in PNG perhaps?

Mr Pezzullo: Well, that is not something that my department has any role in.

CHAIR: Nor has the Australian government.

Mr Pezzullo: We have enough on our plate. I do not mean to belittle the point, but the pursuit of law reform around same-sex attraction in foreign jurisdictions is not on my to-do list.

Senator PRATT: I think I have exhausted that. Clearly the government has no further responsibility.

**********

Footnotes:

[i] At the time the Australian Government continued to advocate the transfer of refugees and people seeking asylum to Malaysia, in addition to Nauru and PNG.

[ii] From the response: “Pre-Transfer Assessment is undertaken prior to a person’s transfer to a [Regional Processing Country] to consider whether there are specific circumstances or special needs that mean it is not reasonably practicable to transfer an asylum seeker to an RPC at this time.

Where a person raises concerns against a designated RPC, the Departmental officer refers to relevant country information, as well as assurances received by Australia from the RPC governments, to assess if those charges are credible. If the person makes credible protection claims against all RPCs, the case is brought to the Minister’s attention in accordance with his guidelines for considering the exercise of is power under section 198AE of the Migration Act 1958 to exempt that person rom transfer.”

[iii] The response is included with the original letter, here.

[iv] Since the time of my submission to that inquiry, and in very welcome news, Nauru has finally decriminalised male homosexuality.

[v] The original transcript for this hearing can be found on pages 132-134 here.

[vi] I note that only ‘male’ refugees have been transferred to Manus Island, in which case the majority of people affected by these laws will be gay, bisexual and same-sex attracted ‘men’. However, for consistency with previous letters (to Ministers Bowen and Morrison) that also dealt with Nauru (to which women and children have been sent) the term LGBTI will continue to be used throughout this post.

[vii] Although obviously still not full equality, not just on the issue of marriage, but also in relation to trans birth certificates, non-consensual surgeries on intersex infants and extensive religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws, among other issues.

[viii] ABC News, PNG’s Supreme Court rules detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island is illegal, 27 April 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

Ministers of religion may refuse to solemnise marriages

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

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

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

(b) any of the following applies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

Marriage celebrants may refuse to solemnise marriages

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

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

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

This is, to put it simply, outrageous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

(b) the refusal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

**********

SENATE SINODINOS DEBATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xi] Subsection 40(2A)

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

Pride, Pressure and Perseverance

I am a naturally introverted person, and someone who is more likely to express an opinion about an issue of public policy, than to wear my heart on my sleeve.

 

Which means that, when it comes to something like the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, I am more likely to understand the philosophical importance of ‘pride’ – of a community coming together to express pride in who they are – than to actually feel it. Think more political expression than personal emotion.

 

But today is different. Today I definitely feel pride, deeply and sincerely, in my community, in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australia.

 

I feel pride not just because of what we as a community have accomplished, but also because of the reasons we took on the task in the first place.

 

By now you would know that, this morning, the Australian Labor Party caucus formally decided to block Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Given the numbers in the Senate, and the already stated positions of the Greens, Nick Xenophon Team, Derryn Hinch and even Liberal Senator Dean Smith, that means the plebiscite’s enabling legislation will not pass the upper house, when it is ultimately voted on (whether that is in a few weeks’, or a few months’, time).

 

We have, through collective effort, killed the plebiscite. It merely remains to be buried.

 

I probably don’t need to explain to regular readers of this blog just how hard many, many people have had to work to make that happen – in the face of stiff opposition.

 

The plebiscite was the policy of not one but two Prime Ministers, and of a (narrowly) re-elected Liberal-National Government.

 

It had a vocal cheer squad across large sections of the mainstream media, and even many of those who knew it was poor public policy nevertheless urged us to accept it as a supposedly ‘pragmatic’ way forward.

 

It was, at least initially, popular in the electorate – although now, after we have spent months painstakingly highlighting the fact it is both non-binding, and extraordinarily expensive, it is less popular than Donald Trump.

 

The Government even had the easiest argument to make – ‘Let the people decide’ – despite the fact using a plebiscite to determine the rights of a minority group is a perversion of Australia’s system of representative democracy.

 

And it would have been comparatively ‘easy’ to adopt the path of least resistance, to roll over and accept the offer that was on the table, and the possibility it could have led to marriage equality by the middle of next year.

 

Given we have already been waiting so long for marriage equality, and that there are many couples who have now been engaged for many years, or even decades, waiting to simply be treated equally under Commonwealth law, that may have even been an understandable choice.

 

But it would not have been the right one. And I am proud we did not make it.

 

The LGBTIQ community decided, following much debate over the course of several months, not to roll over and ‘put up with’ a fundamentally flawed model put forward by people who clearly did not have our best interests at heart.

 

Instead, we stood up to say no to their unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

 

We stood up to say that, given marriage equality is, at its heart, about fairness, the manner in which it is recognised must be fair as well (contrary to Attorney-General George Brandis’ recent bleatings that ‘the ends justifies the means’).

 

Above all, we stood up to say that, while a plebiscite may have helped some members of our community to have their rights recognised more quickly, it would also have caused real and potentially long-lasting harm to young and vulnerable members of the LGBTIQ community, and to rainbow families.

 

And that trade-off was unacceptable to us.

 

Which means that, as well as having the right objective, we were also motivated by the right reasons – and that makes me immensely proud, too.

 

As an aside, I am also personally satisfied in the small but hopefully meaningful role I played in this much broader collective effort – whether that was by writing multiple submissions and letters to decision-makers, engaging in community education, refining arguments and messaging, conducting my own survey to ascertain community attitudes towards the plebiscite or even designing simple little memes that somehow managed to reach a wide audience.

 

As with any significant campaign, there are obviously many, many people (too many to event attempt to name here) who have all helped achieve this particular victory. I am just happy to be among them.

 

Of course, this is not the ultimate success that we crave – the equal recognition of our relationships under the Marriage Act 1961, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

Defeating the plebiscite is just another battle (albeit a significant one) on the long road towards that objective. And there are, unfortunately, plenty more battles left to fight to reach that goal.

 

Which means that, rather than being able to sit back and rest on our laurels at this point, we must keep the pressure up – just as we have done for the past 12 years.

 

We must keep the pressure up on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a man who claims to support the LGBTIQ community generally, and marriage equality specifically. Well, if that is the case, then it is his responsibility to actually demonstrate that support by providing a free vote in the Parliament, so that this issue can be resolved as quickly as possible (and potentially before the end of this year).

 

And if Turnbull is unwilling or unable to lead on this (and all indications are that he will not show the same leadership that Bill Shorten today has), then we must keep the pressure up on other MPs and Senators within the Coalition who back marriage equality, and encourage them to follow their conscience and cross the floor to support the legislation put forward by Labor and/or the Greens.

 

Hon Bill Shorten MP Official portrait 20 March 2013

In blocking the plebiscite, Bill Shorten has shown the leadership that Malcolm Turnbull sadly has not.

 

We must also keep the pressure up on the Government over their proposals, released last night, to dramatically expand religious exceptions as part of any amendments to the Marriage Act – including by providing civil celebrants with the power to effectively put up a sign saying ‘No gays allowed’, and religious-operated businesses and services to turn away LGBTIQ couples.

 

Anything beyond the existing right of ministers of religion to refuse to officiate a ceremony is unacceptable and must be rejected.

 

And we must keep the pressure up by continuing to defend our principled stance against the plebiscite.

 

It is inevitable that many within the Liberal and National Parties will now turn around and blame the LGBTIQ community, and the Australian Labor Party for listening to us, for their failure to achieve marriage equality in the short-to-medium term.

 

But that view is based on a falsehood – because, if those same MPs and Senators are genuinely interested in resolving this issue, then they should be reminded that they sit in the place where they can do exactly that, by passing legislation in the ordinary way (and in exactly the same way that our rights were denied by John Howard’s Government in August 2004).

 

For however long it takes us to achieve marriage equality, we will likely need to continue to explain our justification for saying a firm ‘No thanks’ to the plebiscite – and that is because it is unnecessary, inappropriate, divisive, wasteful, unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent, radical, unfair and dangerous.

 

Right now, it remains to be seen just how long that wait will be. As indicated above, if Turnbull were to do the right thing and call for a free vote immediately, marriage equality could be passed within a matter of weeks, and LGBTIQ couples could be able to marry by the start of 2017.

 

Or it could take slightly longer, with sustained pressure forcing the Government to change its position over the course of the next 12-18 months (or compelling enough backbenchers to summon the courage to walk 12-18 feet across the parliamentary chamber to pass the Bill).

 

It may even be that we will not achieve marriage equality for another three or four years, following the possible election of a Shorten Labor Government – or the Coalition coming to its senses and abandoning the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

 

No matter how long it takes, we know that marriage equality will eventually be recognised under Australian law.

 

Why? Not just because it is the right thing to do. But because of one quality that LGBTIQ Australians have shown, in abundance, since Howard’s unjust ban. A quality that we continue to demonstrate today: perseverance.

 

Over the past 12 years, we have been let down by multiple Prime Ministers, and Governments of different persuasions. But we have kept fighting.

 

We have been legislated against, and then largely ignored, and yet we have continued campaigning until we made marriage equality a central issue in Australian politics.

 

And we have been underestimated, time and time again – most recently about the plebiscite itself (you can bet that most senior figures within the Coalition, and indeed many people in the media, believed that the LGBTIQ community would simply acquiesce to their problematic proposal).

 

But we have persisted in arguing for what we believe is right and fair, including the fairest way to achieve it.

 

We do this because it’s personal. Because, while prima facie this is an issue simply of legal discrimination, it is about far more than that.

 

It is about who we are as people, and our fundamental right, not just to equal treatment under the law, but to dignity and respect.

 

It is about our relationships, about seeing them be recognised as being as worthy as those of everyone else – and about having the same choices as others, including whether to get married or not (rather than having that decision made for us by 226 people in Canberra).

 

It is about our families, both the rainbow families who are raising thousands, or tens of thousands, of happy and healthy – and above all, loved – children, and our parents and siblings and extended families, who share the entirely understandable desire that their family members be treated fairly.

 

And it is about generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australians still to come, who have the right to grow up in a country that does not discriminate against them simply because of who they are.

 

For all of these reasons, we will continue the fight for marriage equality for as long as it takes.

 

We will persevere. Until it is finally done.

Malcolm Turnbull wants YOU to pay $10.83 so HE can keep HIS job

 

Some of the details of the proposed marriage equality plebiscite were finally revealed on Tuesday (13 September), more than 12 months after it was first agreed as Coalition policy under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

 

That includes the estimated cost: a massive $170,000,000.

 

In the days since, there has been plenty of coverage of the wastefulness of this national public opinion poll, especially when the alternative – passing a Bill through Parliament, in the ordinary way – would cost exactly $0.

 

There are, of course, an almost limitless number of ways in which this enormous sum of money could be better spent, including on funding additional nurses, teachers or postgraduate students[i].

 

But we also shouldn’t forget where this money comes from: from us, the taxpayer. Or, in this context, from us, the Australian voter.

 

The Australian Electoral Commission estimates that, at 30 June 2016, there were 15,696,874 people on the nation’s electoral roll[ii].

 

Which means that EVERY AUSTRALIAN VOTER – cisgender, heterosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) alike – is effectively being charged $10.83 for the ‘privilege’ of participating in a plebiscite which nobody can provide a compelling justification for.

 

Indeed, there are very few people or organisations who are clamouring for the marriage equality plebiscite to be held. The extreme right-wing of the Liberal-National Government. The Australian Christian Lobby and other religious fundamentalists. And the Prime Minister, one Malcolm Turnbull MP.

 

Yes, the same Malcolm Turnbull who argued against the plebiscite in the Coalition party-room in August 2015.

 

The same Malcolm Turnbull who claims to support marriage equality, but who cannot bring himself to do so on the floor of the House of Representatives.

 

The same Malcolm Turnbull who, even as he introduced the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016 on Wednesday, conceded that the cost of the vote is ‘substantial’, and that this is a ‘valid argument’ against holding it[iii].

 

So why exactly is he pushing ahead with a policy that he knows is wrong, both in principle and in practice?

 

The answer, as it nearly always is, is politics. Turnbull is tied to the plebiscite because it is only way he keeps himself tied to his job.

 

One year to the day before he introduced his plebiscite bill, and the day after he had rolled Tony Abbott to become Leader of the Liberal Party, Turnbull signed a new Coalition agreement with the National Party in which he committed to holding a plebiscite. In doing so, he signed away any principles he may have once held on this issue.

 

Even now, he is so single-minded in pursuing the plebiscite because he continually needs to appease the narrow-minded Abetz, Bernardi and Christensen, the ultra-conservative Senators and MP who, it seems, are the ones actually running the Government.

 

There is no moral justification for this pursuit – it is all about base political motivations. And so we are left to draw the following conclusion:

 

There are no good reasons to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, but plenty of bad ones.

 

Chief among them is that it is being held so that Turnbull can keep his job.

 

You, the Australian voter, are being charged $10.83 each, so that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull can stay on as our 29th Prime Minister.

 

We are all being charged a ‘Turnbull Tax’.

 

10 dollar note

Malcolm Turnbull wants YOU to pay $10, and change, so HE can keep HIS job as Prime Minister.

 

Of course, the great irony of this situation is that we are all expected to pay $10.83 so he can keep his job, despite the fact he is refusing to actually do his job (by passing legislation), and is instead making us do it for him.

 

What a wonderful system for him. And what a horrible outcome for Australia’s LGBTI community, and indeed for all those who believe people should be treated equally under secular law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

 

Okay, so maybe the above is a little bit unfair – no, not on Malcolm Turnbull, who is after all the Prime Minister who wants to inflict an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on the population.

 

Instead, it is unfair because there are others who are also responsible for this abhorrent policy, and who therefore should be both named and blamed.

 

As I indicated above, this includes the extremists within the Liberal and National Parties who have advocated the plebiscite as a way to delay the equal recognition of LGBTI relationships.

 

And so, just as you are being asked to pay the Turnbull Tax, you will also be contributing to the ‘Extremist Excise’ if the plebiscite proceeds (I would have called it the ‘Fringe Fee’, except that these bigots are no longer fringe-dwellers within the Coalition, they seem to be in the majority).

 

It would also be unfair to overlook the role of the Australian Christian Lobby in this mess, as one of the few non-government organisations who believe an extended national debate about the validity of LGBTI relationships is a good idea.

 

Which means that the $170,000,000 spent also represents the ‘Australian Christian Lobby Levy’ – or perhaps even the ‘Lyle Levy’, so-named after its managing director Lyle Shelton.

 

Finally, we shouldn’t forget that of this $170 million, $15 million is being allocated towards the cost of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns ($7.5 million each).

 

Except that the ‘Yes’ side doesn’t want this money. Indeed, this public funding is one of the main reasons why practically every LGBTI organisation in the entire country came together on Wednesday to reject Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite[iv].

 

Only the ‘No’ side wants it, presumably so that the Australian Christian Lobby can have a bigger platform to compare marriage equality and safe schools to the rise of Nazism, or link rainbow families with the Stolen Generations, or to incite ‘bathroom panic’ against trans people, and trans women in particular[v].

 

Mr Shelton and the ACL want your money to be able to promote intolerance against LGBTI Australians on the basis of who they are. In effect, you, me, all of us, will be paying an ‘Intolerance Impost’, on top of the Turnbull Tax, Extremist Excise and Lyle Levy.

 

I mentioned earlier that there are no good reasons to hold the plebiscite. Well, as we all know there are plenty of reasons to oppose it[vi].

 

The fact that we are expected to pay for the ‘privilege’ of participating in this pointless exercise – of paying the Turnbull Tax, the Extremist Excise, the Australian Christian Lobby Levy and the Intolerance Impost – is just one more. And it’s a reason that affects all of us – because we are all being asked to cough up.

 

**********

 

Footnotes:

[i] Mamamia, There are so many better ways we could spend the same-sex marriage plebiscite funding, 15 September 2016.

[ii] Australian Electoral Commission, Enrolment Statistics, 30 June 2016.

[iii] “The other one is the cost – and that is substantial – but then you have to ask yourself: what price democracy? So those are two arguments that are valid.” Hansard, Wednesday 14 September 2016.

[iv] Media Release, LGBTI Groups Joint Statement on the Plebiscite, Wednesday 14 September 2016.

[v] Please see: Lyle Shelton’s Respectful Debate.

[vi] Please see: Letter to ALP MPs and Senators Calling on Them to Block the Plebiscite.

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

Wednesday 14 September 2016

 

Dear ALP MP/Senator

 

Please Block the Marriage Equality Plebiscite

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. A plebiscite is unnecessary[i]

 

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

 

  1. A plebiscite is inappropriate

 

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

 

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

 

  1. A plebiscite is divisive

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. A plebiscite is wasteful

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. A plebiscite is unprecedented[v]

 

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

 

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

 

  1. A plebiscite is bizarre

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. A plebiscite is inconsistent

 

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

 

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

 

  1. A plebiscite is radical

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. A plebiscite is unfair

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. A plebiscite is dangerous

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The results of this survey were totally unambiguous:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

Survey Results Part 2 Block – Reasons

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

**********

 

Hon Bill Shorten MP Official portrait 20 March 2013

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

 

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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