Why we need a full-time LGBTI Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission

As I have written previously, the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was a major achievement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights in Australia[1].

It provided anti-discrimination protections for LGBTI people under Commonwealth law for the first time – including historic world-first specific protections for people with intersex variations.

However, one thing this legislation did not do was establish a statutory position for a Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) Issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) – unlike existing positions for race and sex (indeed, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner is created in section 96 of the same act in which LGBTI anti-discrimination protections now live[2]).

This means there is no guaranteed advocate for LGBTI equality within the AHRC. The current President of the AHRC, Gillian Triggs, has sought to overcome this serious shortcoming by asking the Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, to also accept responsibility for SOGII issues, in addition to his existing priorities.

Nevertheless, this essentially stop-gap measure does not reconcile the challenges presented when his ‘part-time’ role – his responsibilities for LGBTI matters – conflicts with his full-time role – he was appointed by the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, with the explicit mandate to advocate for ‘freedoms’, by which he meant traditional civil liberties as opposed to more contemporary rights like freedom from discrimination.

Over the past 18 months, this tension has played out in a variety of ways, including through the failure of the otherwise worthy Resilient Individuals: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity & Intersex Rights 2015 Report[3] to adequately address the issue of state-sanctioned discrimination by religious organisations against people simply for being LGBT.

However, this conflict has come to a head in a column which Mr Wilson wrote for The Australian last week on the topic “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible”[4], in which he argued that, should marriage equality legislation be passed in Australia, new rights should be created to allow not just ministers of religion, but also businesses involved in providing wedding-related services (and yes, that includes businesses selling wedding cakes), to discriminate against customers.

Through this column, Mr Wilson has indicated that his first priority is protecting the freedom to discriminate, and that the right of LGBTI Australians not to be discriminated against comes second (and even then arguably by some distance). He has therefore demonstrated that his roles as Human Rights Commissioner, and ‘part-time’ responsibility for SOGII issues, are incompatible.

In the short-term, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians deserve a Commissioner within the AHRC whose existing responsibilities do not cause them to advocate against their interests. In the medium-term, we need a stand-alone full-time Commissioner for SOGII issues within the Commission, to avoid these problems arising in the future.

I have written below two letters, one to the President of the AHRC, Gillian Triggs, calling for Mr Wilson’s responsibilities for LGBTI matters to be reallocated within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

And I have written a second letter to the Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, asking him to support a resolution at the upcoming ALP National Conference to amend the Labor Party Platform to include a commitment to create a new Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Issues within the AHRC.

I have chosen not to write or send a third letter, to the current Attorney-General, George Brandis, given he likely agrees with the actions of Mr Wilson, and it is extremely unlikely that someone who axed funding for the position of Disability Commissioner (and therefore ended the role of the highly-respected disability rights advocate Graeme Innes) last year, would somehow find funding for the creation of a SOGII Commissioner today.

As always, I will publish any responses I receive from Ms Triggs and Mr Dreyfus.

Professor Gillian Triggs

President

Australian Human Rights Commission

GPO Box 5218

SYDNEY NSW 2001

Sunday 12 July 2015

Dear Professor Triggs

PLEASE REALLOCATE RESPONSIBILITY FOR SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY AND INTERSEX ISSUES WITHIN THE AHRC

I am writing to you about the allocation of responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Specifically, I call on you to reallocate these responsibilities, which currently lie (informally at least) with the Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Tim Wilson, to another of the Commissioners within the AHRC.

I do so because I believe that the stance which Mr Wilson has adopted, in advocating for traditional freedoms like freedom of religion, has taken precedence over and is increasingly incompatible with the responsibility to advocate for the equal rights, and freedom from discrimination, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

I cite as evidence the column which Mr Wilson wrote for The Australian newspaper, published on Monday 6 July 2015, titled “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible.”

In this piece, Mr Wilson does the following four things:

First, he argues that the legislation which finally introduces marriage equality in Australia should include new provisions which provide a substantive right to discriminate against couples, not just for ministers of religion (which are already proposed), but also for businesses that provide wedding-related services.

Second, the argument for this appears to be primarily to allow businesses the ability to discriminate against LGBTI couples (so that the individuals who operate these businesses are not “forced to act against their conscience”).

Not only is Mr Wilson raising this issue now as part of the broader discussion around making marriage non-discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status – but, just as importantly, there does not appear to be any other public calls for a greater right to discriminate for wedding service providers outside of the marriage equality debate.

Third, the ‘solution’ which he offers, which would allow discrimination by wedding service providers on the basis of the religious (or not) nature of the wedding involved, would allow increased discrimination against a wide range of couples – in practice, this would inevitably include a detrimental impact on some LGBTI couples (although of course they would not be the only ones affected).

Fourth, at a time when one of the last major legal sources of discrimination against LGBTI Australians are the wide-ranging exceptions to anti-discrimination laws which are offered to religious organisations, instead of advocating for the curtailment of these exceptions, Mr Wilson is arguing for establish new rights to discriminate in a key area of public life.

Mr Wilson may well respond to the above description of his column by indicating he is performing his primary role, which is to advocate for traditional rights and freedoms, including the freedom of religion. I am not disputing that view.

However, I submit that, in doing so, he is not fulfilling his ‘part-time’ responsibilities, which include advocating for the removal of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

LGBTI Australians deserve better than to have a ‘part-time’ Commissioner for whom, when potential conflict arises between freedom of religion and their freedom from discrimination, as it does in this situation, the former takes precedence.

I urge you to reallocate the responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission from Mr Wilson to another Commissioner, hopefully to one where there is less apparent conflict between their primary role and these additional functions.

The only way in which such a conflict can be resolved on a permanent basis would be for the amendment of the Sex Discrimination Act to create, and for Government to appoint, a full-time Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Issues Commissioner within the AHRC. I therefore also urge you to advocate for the creation of such a position by the Government.

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this correspondence.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, should reallocate responsibility for LGBTI issues within the Commission.

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, should reallocate responsibility for LGBTI issues within the Commission.

Hon Mark Dreyfus QC, MP

Shadow Attorney-General

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Sunday 12 July 2015

Dear Mr Dreyfus

PLEASE SUPPORT THE CREATION OF A COMMISSIONER FOR SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY AND INTERSEX ISSUES WITHIN THE AHRC

I am writing to you about the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

Specifically, I call on you to help address one of the outstanding issues of this historic legislation – namely, the failure to create a new statutory position of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) Issues Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Without such a position, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians are not being as effectively promoted as they could be, and certainly not as effectively as the rights promoted by the statutory Race and Sex Discrimination Commissioners, also within the AHRC.

For example, currently, and in the absence of a statutory position, responsibility for SOGII issues has been allocated, on a ‘part-time’ basis, to the Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Tim Wilson, whose primary role is to advocate for ‘freedoms’, meaning traditional civil liberties as opposed to more contemporary rights like freedom from discrimination.

This means that, not only do issues of discrimination that confront LGBTI Australians not receive sufficient time and resources, but they are also secondary to, and sometimes incompatible with, the promotion of other rights like the freedom of religion.

One example of this incompatibility comes from the column which Mr Wilson wrote for The Australian newspaper, published on Monday 6 July 2015, titled “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible.”

In this piece, Mr Wilson does the following four things:

First, he argues that the legislation which finally introduces marriage equality in Australia should include new provisions which provide a substantive right to discriminate against couples, not just for ministers of religion (which are already proposed), but also for businesses that provide wedding-related services.

Second, the argument for this appears to be primarily to allow businesses the ability to discriminate against LGBTI couples (so that the individuals who operate these businesses are not “forced to act against their conscience”).

Not only is Mr Wilson raising this issue now as part of the broader discussion around making marriage non-discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status – but, just as importantly, there does not appear to be any other public calls for a greater right to discriminate for wedding service providers outside of the marriage equality debate.

Third, the ‘solution’ which he offers, which would allow discrimination by wedding service providers on the basis of the religious (or not) nature of the wedding involved, would allow increased discrimination against a wide range of couples – in practice, this would inevitably include a detrimental impact on some LGBTI couples (although of course they would not be the only ones affected).

Fourth, at a time when one of the last major legal sources of discrimination against LGBTI Australians are the wide-ranging exceptions to anti-discrimination laws which are offered to religious organisations, instead of advocating for the curtailment of these exceptions, Mr Wilson is arguing for establish new rights to discriminate in a key area of public life.

In my opinion as an LGBTI advocate, it is simply not good enough that, when there is a conflict between the freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination, the person with responsibility for SOGII issues within the AHRC promotes the former at the expense of the latter.

The issues of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia which confront LGBTI Australians, every day, are both real and serious. We deserve a full-time Commissioner within the AHRC to help address these problems – and certainly not a ‘part-time’, informal appointee, whose primary responsibilities can conflict with, and in some instances override, LGBTI rights.

I understand that, at the upcoming ALP National Conference in Melbourne, on July 24-26 2015, there will likely be a resolution to amend the Labor Party Platform to include a commitment to create a new Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Issues Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

This resolution is based on recent developments in Victoria, where the new Labor Government has committed to appointing Australia’s first Gender and Sexuality Commissioner within the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC)[5].

I call on you, as Shadow Attorney-General, to support moves to amend the Platform in this way, so that the Federal Labor Party can establish the first stand-alone SOGII Commissioner at Commonwealth level when it returns to Government.

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this correspondence.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[1] Highs & Lows of 2013, No 2: Australia finally adopts federal anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/26/no-2-australia-finally-adopts-federal-anti-discrimination-protections-for-lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-and-intersex-people/

[2] “Section 96. Sex Discrimination Commissioner. (1) There shall be a Sex Discrimination Commissioner, who shall be appointed by the Governor-General.”

[3] The Resilient Individuals Report is available here: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sexual-orientation-sex-gender-identity/publications/resilient-individuals-sexual

[4] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/religious-freedom-and-same-sex-marriage-need-not-be-incompatible/story-e6frg6zo-1227429558684

[5] VEOHRC Media Release welcoming Budget funding for this appointment: http://www.humanrightscommission.vic.gov.au/index.php/news-and-events/media-releases/item/1225-commission-welcomes-funding-for-lgbti-community-in-state-budget

No 2 Australia Finally Adopts Federal Anti-Discrimination Protections for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People

I have already written about the significance of this achievement (link: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/06/30/federal-lgbti-anti-discrimination-protections-at-last/), so I won’t go into a lot of new detail here.

Still, as far as highlights of 2013 go, it would be pretty difficult to overlook the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act in June. From 1 August, LGBTI people in Australia finally had anti-discrimination protections under federal law. And we only had to wait 38 years after the Racial Discrimination Act, and 29 years since the original Sex Discrimination Act (and yes, that was sarcastic – the passage of this Bill was long, long overdue).

There were two particular aspects of the Sex Discrimination Amendment Act that warrant particular celebration. First, it is the first anti-discrimination law passed anywhere in the world to explicitly include intersex people. That is a pretty amazing achievement, and another testament to the great work and advocacy by OII Australia and other groups.

Second, the legislation includes an amendment that means aged care service providers operated by religious organisations are not legally allowed to discriminate against LGBTI people accessing their services. Again, this is a significant victory, and will help to ensure the generation of LGBTI people who fought so hard – and successfully – for our civil rights, have the opportunity to grow old with dignity.

Nevertheless, the fact that a special ‘carve-out’ is necessary for aged care service delivery by religious organisations emphasises the major weakness of the anti-discrimination protections that were passed: schools, hospitals and other community service organisations that are run by religious groups are legally allowed to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, both employees and service recipients (NB religious organisations do not have exceptions allowing them to discriminate against intersex people).

These religious exemptions or exceptions are contrary to the fundamental concept of anti-discrimination law – that people should not be discriminated against for things that are irrelevant to their capacity to perform a job, or their right to access a service.

Fighting to remove these religious exceptions will be the biggest test for LGBTI advocates and activists over the next 5, 10 or even15 years (achieving marriage equality will likely turn out to be both easier, and quicker, than removing religious exceptions, and religious organisations will probably fight much harder to retain them than to retain a discriminatory Marriage Act).

Still, fight them we must, because for however long a religious school can sack a teacher for being gay or bisexual, or a service organisation can refuse to provide that service because the intended recipient is transgender, then we are not truly equal.

As an indication of how difficult this fight will be, I am re-posting the exchange between myself, now Attorney-General George Brandis and Tony Jones on #QandA back in June, the night before the legislation, including the aged care carve-out, was passed (and, no this is not just – well, not entirely – because I had so much fun doing this):

ALASTAIR LAWRIE: My question is to Senator Brandis. Last Tuesday you announced that the Coalition would block any LGBTI anti-discrimination bill that did not allow religious aged-care service providers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This is despite the fact that these agencies themselves do not believe they need this exception. You seem to be putting a theoretical religious freedom above practical protections. Why don’t you believe that older lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender Australians, people who have grown up when their love was criminalised, who lost friends and lovers to HIV and AIDS, have the right to grow old in dignity and respect that they deserve?

GEORGE BRANDIS: It is a very important question that you ask and let me explain what the Opposition’s position is. But there was one statement in your question which wasn’t quite right. You said that the religious institutions, the churches, didn’t themselves want the exemption so far as concerned aged care facilities. That’s not right. Some said they didn’t want it. Most said they did. So don’t be misled by a misleading statement by the Attorney-General. On the broader issue, when the bill, the sex discrimination bill, was introduced into the Parliament, I took a submission to the Shadow Cabinet and to our party room which was, I think without a dissenting voice, endorsed that we should support it. And the reason we support it is because it is actually the policy we took to the 2010 election, that the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act should extend to sexuality as a protected attribute. The Government knew that they had the Opposition on board with this. In fact, the Government’s measure was itself taken from the Opposition’s report on the broader human rights and anti-discrimination bill, the bill that was abandoned by the Government earlier this year because it was acknowledged to have gone way too far. So we had, on this very tricky and important issue of discrimination against gay people, we had bipartisanship and unanimity. And then into the middle of this harmonious bipartisan moment, the Labor Party, out of the blue, threw in an amendment never anticipated, never expected, that would have caused the religious exemption issue to come into play. Now, if you want to build a consensus around this issue, that gay people should be protected from discrimination by the Sex Discrimination Act, then you would not have done that and the Labor Party, on all other grounds, in all other arenas, has said that it will respect the religious exemption. I am cynical about why the Labor Party did that…

TONY JONES: Okay, George.

GEORGE BRANDIS: …knowing that by introducing the religious exemption, it would make it impossible for that bipartisanship to continue.

TONY JONES: George Brandis, the questioner has his hand up so we’ll go back to you.

ALASTAIR LAWRIE: I would just like to pick up a point you seem to be making. In Senator Humphrey’s dissenting report to the sex discrimination senate inquiry, the two organisations that he quoted justifying the call for religious exception in that circumstance were the Australian Christian Lobby and the Catholic Women’s League. Neither of them provide religious aged care services. So in that circumstance, why are we trying to impose a religious exception to the detriment of older LGBT people for those groups that don’t actually run those services?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, I’m very familiar with that minority report because I was one of the signatories to it and I had a lot to do with drafting it. There were many more submissions to the inquiry from other churches and religious institutions than those two. So don’t infer that because those two were mentioned as a ‘For example’, those were the only ones, because they weren’t.

TONY JONES: Okay. George, I would like the hear other people on this subject. Anne Summers?

ANN SUMMERS: Well, I’m afraid I don’t know much about the legislation. I mean I just obviously would support the principle that LGBT people should be able to go to retirement homes and nursing homes free from any form of discrimination, which I take to be the central point and I know that, you know, one of the problems with homes that are run by some religions is they have been discriminatory in the past and I imagine what we are trying to avoid is the continuation of that discrimination and I would support that.

TONY JONES: Yeah, very briefly, George, before I go back to the other panelists, shouldn’t anti-discrimination be universal?

GEORGE BRANDIS: No.

TONY JONES: Why shouldn’t it?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Anti-discrimination laws should not be universal because the right to fair treatment is one of several very important but sometimes inconsistent values. The right of people who practice or profess a particular religious faith to live their lives and to conduct their institutions in accordance with the precepts of their religious faith is integral to religious freedom and religious freedom is also a fundamentally important value.

TONY JONES: So religious…

GEORGE BRANDIS: And if I may say…

TONY JONES: But just on principle, you are saying that religious freedom supersedes the freedom of your sexuality?

 

 

GEORGE BRANDIS: Yes, I am, as a matter of fact. Yes, I am. But I am also making a political point. There are – we in the Liberal Party have joined with people in the Labor Party to progress this agenda for years and those who wanted to see the Sex Discrimination Act extend to protect people on the grounds of their sexuality were furious that the Labor Party decided to throw in a curve ball into the debate that deprived the country of the opportunity for unanimity on this. [emphasis added].

 

That exchange, and especially Senator Brandis’ statement that religious freedoms clearly trump our right to not be discriminated against, show just how hard this battle will be.

Underscoring this point is Attorney-General Brandis’ recent appointment of Tim Wilson as a new Human Rights Commissioner, responsible for promoting ‘traditional freedoms’. Recruited from the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs, on 23 January this year Mr Wilson appeared at a Senate hearing into the then draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill (transcript here: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/committees/commsen/8eb3bdec-c603-4d2d-9564-674c7bd7b5c2/toc_pdf/Legal%20and%20Constitutional%20Affairs%20Legislation%20Committee_2013_01_23_1612_Official.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf#search=%22committees/commsen/8eb3bdec-c603-4d2d-9564-674c7bd7b5c2/0000%22).

During his testimony, he argued that anti-discrimination protections should only apply to government employees and services – basically, that anti-discrimination law should not protect people from being fired for being gay, or being expelled for being a lesbian, or being denied a service for being bisexual, transgender or intersex. Given the extremity of these views, if this is any indication of how Attorney-General Brandis will approach anti-discrimination reforms then we will need to be prepared to fight any moves to wind back our hard-won protections in 2014.

In the meantime, the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 will stand as the most significant LGBTI victory of the past 12 months. Thank you to the former Labor Government, then Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, Senators Penny Wong and Louise Pratt and everyone else who helped to make this happen.

LGBTI Refugees and the 2013 Federal Election

It appears that my previous post on LGBTI asylum seekers was overly optimistic (well, to be perfectly honest it wasn’t that optimistic to begin with – it’s just that the reality has turned out to be even worse than the already dire situation).

After more than 9 months of trying to get an answer out of the Commonwealth Immigration Minister (first Chris Bowen, and then Brendan O’Connor), when I eventually received a response from the Immigration Department instead in June, it failed to answer whether the criminal laws against homosexuality of Nauru and Papua New Guinea applied to refugees in processing centres there.

This omission clearly implied that the criminal laws do in fact apply. However, the letter left open an interpretation that refugees who were LGBTI, and feared persecution (or prosecution) in these countries, could apply to the Minister to be transferred to Australia, on the basis that their rights could not be guaranteed in those countries.

Unfortunately, that no longer appears to be the case. In the time since that response the Prime Minister changed, and within a month of Rudd’s return he had announced the ‘PNG Solution’, with a similar deal with Nauru revealed shortly afterwards. These policies moved beyond offshore processing, to include the permanent ‘resettlement’ in those countries of any and all refugees who arrive in Australia by boat.

Now, let me say from the outset that I completely oppose these policies, and believe them to be unconscionable, inhumane, and probably contrary to international law. Australia should not be in the business of abrogating its responsibility to offer protection to people who are fleeing persecution by simply dumping these people in other countries. And my opposition applies to the ‘resettlement’ of all refugees, irrespective of the grounds of their persecution (eg race, religion, nationality etc).

However, as a gay man, and in particular as a passionate advocate for LGBTI rights, I find policies that involve the resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise homosexuality particularly abhorrent. That is exactly what Australia is doing – taking any LGBTI refugee who arrives by boat and sending them to countries which make male homosexuality a criminal offence, liable to up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

I know that many other people agree with me – in fact, the only pleasing thing arising from this horrible situation has been the emergence of a variety of voices condemning these policies. This has meant that the Labor Government has been unable to avoid questions on this particular topic (something which they had largely managed to successfully do in the previous 10 months).

But it doesn’t make the answers given by Government Ministers any easier to stomach. On 8 August, Serkan Ozturk of the Star Observer reported that the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus (an intelligent man who really should know better): “confirmed the government intends to send all asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat without a visa – including LGBTI people fleeing persecution and people living with HIV – to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for processing and permanent resettlement despite laws criminalising homosexual sex, high rates of HIV infection and limited medical and social infrastructure on the impoverished island-nation…

When questioned by the Star Observer on whether LGBTI asylum seekers would be sent to PNG, Dreyfus was unequivocal.

“You’ve outlined an aspect of PNG law which is of general application but as I say we are not ruling out any group,” Dreyfus said.

“At the same time our Minister for Immigration, Tony Burke, has made it very clear that those transfers won’t occur until there is appropriate accommodation and appropriate circumstances for everyone who is sent.”

Pressed on whether that meant the Australian government would be placing pressure on PNG to reform legal codes, Dreyfus said he would not be drawn “giving a running commentary” on the laws of neighbouring countries, including PNG, Indonesia or Malaysia.

“We don’t think that’s necessary in order for Australia to comply with our international legal obligations and the obligations we have under the Migration Act.””

The fact that the Government is aware of this situation, and specifically the potential consequences of sending LGBTI refugees to these countries, but has continued on along this path irrespective of the dangers, is damning.

Sadly, the Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, isn’t any better. On 6 August the ABC reported (from what I believe was a response to an oursay question from Senthorun Raj) that Senator Carr similarly confirmed that homosexual asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat will be resettled in PNG despite facing prison under local laws, even though those laws conflict with contemporary Australia values.

“I am concerned about… what we see as a grotesquely outdated, legal position applying in PNG. I understand – and I know this is little comfort – but there have been few if any charges laid or prosecutions made under laws prohibiting homosexual activity in PNG,” he said. You are right on one thing, Senator Carr: that is little comfort.

Tony Burke, the current Minister for Immigration (and the third person to hold that post this year), also believes that this policy is appropriate. However, in one of the most Orwellian moments of the 2013 federal election campaign (or indeed in recent Australian politics more generally), he stated that he had been advised that ‘no part of the caseload so far’ had arisen (ie no LGBTI person had been sent to Nauru or PNG so far).

The transcript, from a media conference on 1 August, is as follows:

Question: Sorry Minister, just to go out to Manus Island for a moment. Given that homosexuality is still considered a crime in PNG, but our government has pledged to transfer all asylum seekers regardless of their sexuality, what efforts have been undertaken to make sure that those transferred will not be persecuted for their sexuality, either as detainees, or if they are then settled in PNG?

Tony Burke: In the first instance we have no part of the caseload so far where this issue has arisen, no part of the caseload where this has arisen. In…

Question: So does that mean…

Tony Burke: Please, please, when other people were talking over you I made sure you got the run so allow me to answer your question.

I’ve been very careful throughout all of this to not carve out any exclusions from the policy. And I explained the implications of that with the specific reference to what the Opposition have attempted to do with women and children. There are very deep implications if we start carving people out. And if you do that, you are by no means taking a – I’m saying you, but anyone doing that is by no means taking a compassionate response because of the automatic reaction that people smugglers will engage in.

My language on this has not changed, which is people will be sent when we are confident they will be safe, when we are confident that appropriate accommodation and services are in place, and I’m not going to define it further than that.”

Which raises far more questions than it provides answers. It is possible that what he meant to say was that no-one sent to Manus Island has lodged a refugee claim on the basis of persecution of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. But that doesn’t mean those claims won’t emerge at a later point (it is definitely possible that a LGBTI refugee will not disclose their status in the limited time after arrival in Australia and before transfer, but that it would instead emerge at a later point).

And it ignores the fact that someone who is seeking refugee protection on the basis of race, religion or other grounds can also be LGBTI (even if just as someone who has sexual intercourse with someone else of the same sex). This would not be immediately apparent to an interviewer and there are foreseeably several reasons why they would NOT disclose their particular circumstances (especially if fleeing as part of a family group where their family is unaware of their sexual orientation).

But the most obvious flaw in Minister Burke’s advice is that all refugees who arrive by boat, including children, are being ‘resettled’ in PNG and Nauru. Those children could grow up to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or they may have been born intersex, and it may not be known to that child, their family or indeed anyone else at the time of resettlement. It does not make it any more acceptable that as a country we exposed that child to future criminal prosecution (or at the very least, societal discrimination), simply because we didn’t know of their status.

We DO know that this policy is wrong and should be stopped, which means that we are collectively responsible for what happens in the future as a result of it.

Unfortunately, while some of the positive reforms of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Labor Governments will be dismantled by the incoming Abbott Liberal-National Government it seems there is bipartisan agreement on the idea of resettling refugees in South Pacific countries. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, and Shadow Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison, both appeared to welcome the announcement by Rudd of the PNG policy, while they have also announced their own plans to resettle refugees in Nauru (aka “tent city”).

It should also be pointed out that, last September, at the same time that I wrote to the Immigration Minister (and Prime Minister and Attorney-General), I also wrote to the Shadow Minister, Opposition Leader and Shadow Attorney-General, raising the same concerns about the processing or resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality. No-one from the Opposition ever responded to these letters, which perhaps indicates how seriously they take those concerns.

The fact that, as it stands, both major parties endorse this policy means that, no matter who is elected on Saturday, the incoming Government will continue to abrogate its responsibilities to offer protection to all refugees, including refugees who are LGBTI. That it will inevitably continue to be cheered along by sections of the press will make it even harder to endure.

Perhaps the only ray of hope in this awful mess is that the High Court might do what the public should (but won’t) on Saturday – tell our MPs, from both the ALP and the Liberal-National Coalition, that resettling refugees in PNG and Nauru is unconscionable, inhumane, and, hopefully, unlawful. So, to our distinguished High Court Justices I say: no pressure, but it seems this is now entirely up to you.

Federal LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Protections, At Last

This week, there was a major legal development which will have a direct and lasting impact on the lives of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians. No, I am not talking about the US Supreme Court decisions overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, and Prop 8 in California.

Welcome as those decisions are, they will not directly impact Australians, outside of those people who are in bi-national relationships with US citizens (of course, the SCOTUS decision could have significant indirect impact in terms of confirming the global momentum towards marriage equality and heightening the embarrassment we feel that Australia has not adopted this reform).

The major achievement which I am referring to is the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013. 38 years after the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act, three decades after the Sex Discrimination Act, two decades since Disability was protected, and nine years since Age was covered, we finally have federal anti-discrimination legislation of our own.

Five days later and I am still smiling about this. And I am still pleased that the removal of exceptions for religious organisations in the provision of aged care services was included, despite the formal Opposition of the Liberal and National Parties. This is incredibly important, not just in terms of protecting vulnerable older LGBTI Australians as they enter aged care facilities, but also in terms of its precedent value – contrary to the public statements of Shadow Attorney-General Senator George Brandis, freedom of religion should not trump the right of LGBTI Australians not to be discriminated against.

Hopefully, the removal of religious exceptions – outside of who can be a member of a congregation, how religious ceremonies are conducted and who is appointed as ministers of religion – will ultimately be delivered.

In the meantime, it is very important that we remember and pay tribute to those LGBTI activists who have helped to make this happen, as well as the politicians who have assisted to achieve this historic reform.

In terms of activists, I would particularly like to mention Anna Brown of the Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, long-term activist Corey Irlam and NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby policy officer Jed Horner, who were all on the ground in Canberra in the critical final weeks, as people who the community should thank. I think we should also congratulate people like Sally Goldner of Transgender Victoria (and likely several others who I am not aware of) for their success in ensuring an inclusive definition of trans issues in the Bill.

Above all, it was an amazing effort by Gina Wilson and Morgan Carpenter of OII Australia for them not only to raise public consciousness of the needs of intersex Australians, but also for achieving their inclusion as a specific protected attribute in the SDA Bill, the first time intersex people have been explicitly protected at federal level anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately, given the long and winding road which eventually delivered federal LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in Australia it is next to impossible to note all of those who put in the ground work which led up to this year’s Bill, but thank you nonetheless.

In terms of political support, I think it is fair to say that the legislation could not have been delivered without the hard work of Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who had oversight of the Bill, as well as the more ‘behind-the-scenes’ support of the ALP’s two queer Senators, Penny Wong and Louise Pratt. And I genuinely believe the removal of the religious aged care service provision exception would not have happened without the efforts of Minister for Mental Health & Ageing Mark Butler. Underneath all of this work, Rainbow Labor played a key role in ensuring the issue of LGBTI anti-discrimination reform remained on the ALP’s agenda.

In the current Parliament, the Bill obviously would not have progressed without the critical support of the Australian Greens and people like Senator Sarah Hanson-Young (who has portfolio responsibility for LGBTI issues). And the Independent cross-benchers should be thanked for shepherding the Bill through, as well as Liberal Senators Sue Boyce (for supporting) and Dean Smith (for abstaining), for providing moral support for the, as yet unnamed, House of Representatives Liberal MPs who were prepared to abstain to ensure its ultimate passage.

As with LGBTI activists, the long history of this issue means it is difficult to point out all of the MPs who have championed this issue over the years. But I would like to pay special tribute to the gay former Democrats Senator Brian Greig who helped to put this issue on the national legislative agenda through his private member’s bill.

Anyway, that is a not-at-all comprehensive list of people who have helped to make the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 a reality. Apologies to those people omitted – please accept that it was not deliberate. This might seem to some like an indulgent blog post, but thanking those people who make our successes happen is not something which our community has traditionally been very good at, and this is my small attempt to redress a little bit of that. Hopefully those people, named and unnamed, know the incredible difference they have made to current and future generations of LGBTI Australians.

Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 – The Final Countdown

There are now only two sitting weeks left before the upcoming federal election. Which means there are only 8 days during which Parliament can pass the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013, historic legislation which would finally provide federal anti-discrimination protections to Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community.

It goes without saying that this could go down to the wire. Which is why I sent the email posted below to all cross-bench MPs, as well as key figures in the Opposition and Greens (and a slightly re-worded version to the Government). I don’t think that we, as members of the LGBTI community, should ‘die wondering’ about this Bill. So, I would encourage you to consider sending you own emails to these parliamentarians, to help get the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 over the line.

To help you on your way, I have included the email addresses of a range of relevant MPs at the end of this post. And please feel free to ‘borrow’ any and all of the following:

I am writing to you regarding the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013.

In particular, I am requesting that you:

  • Please support the Government’s proposed amendments which exclude the operation of religious exceptions in the area of aged care service provision; and
  • Please support the passage of the amended Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 in the final two sitting weeks of this Parliamentary term.

This Bill is a significant reform that will benefit the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) citizens of Australia, because, if passed, it will be the first term LGBTI people will enjoy anti-discrimination protections under federal law.

It is historic because it will be the first time any federal anti-discrimination law, anywhere in the world, explicitly covers intersex people. And the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 will also help to protect more people than some state and territory schemes – for example, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 does not currently apply to bisexual or intersex people, both groups that are protected under this proposed law.

Unfortunately, the Bill as drafted will ensure that religious organisations are provided with wide-ranging exceptions from otherwise lawful obligations not to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. This will allow religious organisations to continue to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment and service provision, which will operate to undermine the scope and effectiveness of these anti-discrimination provisions. In principle, I do not support the operation of any religious exceptions outside the appointment of religious officials, membership of religious organisations and celebration of religious ceremonies.

However, I understand that LGBTI anti-discrimination legislation which did not contain any religious exceptions would be unlikely to pass the current Parliament. What is possible is for the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 to be passed with amendments proposed by the Government that exclude the operation of religious exceptions in the area of aged care provision.

I strongly support the removal of religious exceptions in these circumstances. Older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should not be subjected to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity when they are accessing aged care services. This is particularly important when you consider that for many people, aged care facilities will be their home for long periods of their life – nobody deserves to be lawfully discriminated against in their home.

Above all, I see this as the very least which should be done for older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians. These are people who grew up when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, who had to fight simply for the right to be who they are, who lost partners and friends through the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. These are people who deserve our respect, not the operation of provisions which could force them back into ‘the closet’ because of the fear of being discriminated against.

It is my sincere hope that all Parliamentarians will vote in favour of the Government’s amendments to exclude the operation of religious exceptions in the area of aged care services.

It is also my sincere hope that all Parliamentarians will unite and work together to ensure that the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2013 is passed, as amended, in the final two sitting weeks of this Parliamentary term.

With Parliament rising on 27 June, there is only limited time to ensure this legislation is passed. Please help ensure that the Bill receives sufficient priority, through both Chambers, that it will finally be made law before the upcoming federal election.

I believe that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex citizens of Australia, like myself, have waited long enough to be protected under federal anti-discrimination laws. I hope that you agree.

Attorney-General, The Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP Mark.Dreyfus.MP@aph.gov.au

Mental Health and Ageing Minister, The Hon Mark Butler MP Mark.Butler.MP@aph.gov.au

Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Tony Abbott MP Tony.Abbott.MP@aph.gov.au

Shadow Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis senator.brandis@aph.gov.au

Greens Spokesperson for Attorney-General, Senator Penny Wright senator.wright@aph.gov.au

Greens Spokesperson for LGBTI issues, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young senator.hanson-young@aph.gov.au

Member for Kennedy, the Hon Bob Katter MP Bob.Katter.MP@aph.gov.au

Member for Fisher, the Hon Peter Slipper MP Peter.Slipper@aph.gov.au

Member for Dobell, Mr Craig Thomson MP Craig.Thomson.MP@aph.gov.au

Member for Lyne, Mr Rob Oakeshott MP Robert.Oakeshott.MP@aph.gov.au

Member for New England, Mr Tony Windsor MP Tony.Windsor.MP@aph.gov.au

Member for Denison, Mr Andrew Wilkie MP Andrew.Wilkie.MP@aph.gov.au

Member for O’Connor, Mr Tony Crook MP Tony.Crook.MP@aph.gov.au

Member for Melbourne, Mr Adam Bandt MP Adam.Bandt.MP@aph.gov.au

Senator for South Australia, Senator Nick Xenophon senator.xenophon@aph.gov.au

Senator for Victoria, Senator John Madigan senator.madigan@aph.gov.au

Sex Discrimination Amendment (LGBTI) Bill Senate Inquiry Submission

Another week, another submission, this time to the Senate Legal & Constitutional Affairs Committee Inquiry into the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013.

Now that the Government has ‘deferred’ the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill/consolidation reforms, this Bill is the vehicle it has chosen to progress federal anti-discrimination protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendernand intersex (LGBTI) community.

It is by no means a perfect Bill – at the very least it should incorporate the Government’s own policy of removing religious exceptions for people accessing aged care services. At best, it should remove all religious exceptions outside of the appointment of ministers of religion and religious ceremonies.

Nevertheless, this Bill, if passed, would be a significant step forward in terms of LGBTI law reform. If you have a chance to write your own submission before this Friday (26 April), I strongly encourage you to do so. Details here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=legcon_ctte/sex_discrim_sexual_orientation/info.htm

NB I have also not included the appendix to this submission, because it is simply the discussion about religious exceptions from my submission on the HRAD Bill last year.

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Inquiry into Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013

Submission by Alastair Lawrie

I am writing this submission to make three main recommendations:

i)                    That the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013, which introduces federal anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians for the first time, should be supported.

ii)                   That the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 should be passed as a matter of priority by the Commonwealth Parliament; and

iii)                 That the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 should be amended to remove all religious exceptions which would otherwise allow discrimination against LGBTI Australians, outside of appointments of religious office-holders (such as priests) and religious ceremonies.

I was born in 1978. That is three years after the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. In the year I turned 6, the Commonwealth Parliament supported the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1992, about three years before I first came out as gay at age 17. Even the most recent stand-alone Commonwealth anti-discrimination law, the Age Discrimination Act 2002, has already been in operation for more than a decade.

In 2013, I am 34 years old, and I have still never enjoyed the protection of federal anti-discrimination laws on the basis of my sexual orientation. Discrimination on the basis of race has been prohibited for my entire life, and on the basis of sex for almost as long. But up until now, successive Governments have not seen fit to legislate to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Which means that the reforms contained in the Labor Government’s Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 are both incredibly welcome, and long overdue. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians deserve the right to be employed, to access services, indeed to simply go about their everyday lives, without the threat of being discriminated against on these grounds.

If and when this Bill is eventually passed, it will be another key milestone on the long journey towards full equality for our LGBTI citizens. Which is why my first recommendation is that this legislation should be supported.

My second recommendation is that the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 should be passed by the Commonwealth Parliament as a matter of priority.

There are now only five Parliamentary sitting weeks left before the end of this term, ahead of the federal election which is currently expected to be held on September 14th. Having waited so long – decades, in fact – it would be a devastating blow to the LGBTI community were this legislation to be delayed yet again because the current Parliament simply ran out of time.

The future is always unknowable: it may be that, should these reforms not be passed now, a new Parliament or even Government introduces similar legislation later this year, or early next year. That would obviously be a welcome development. But it may also be that, after the upcoming election, LGBTI anti-discrimination reforms are delayed for several more years.

The current Bill fulfils the general objective of signalling that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status is no longer tolerated, by society and by the Parliament. It is already drafted, and (leaving aside the amendments suggested in my third recommendation) it is ready to go.

That is why all serving Parliamentarians, from all political parties and independents, should pass the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 as soon as possible.

My third and final recommendation is that the Bill should be amended to ensure that religious exceptions from LGBTI-anti-discrimination requirements are narrowly drafted, only covering religious appointments, such as priests, and religious ceremonies.

The justification for this position involves my personal experience. Like many, indeed probably most, LGBTI Australians I have been discriminated against in a wide variety of different situations. I have been abused on the street, and threatened with violence, simply for holding my boyfriend’s hand. I have received sub-standard treatment from different service-providers simply because of my sexual orientation, or at least because of their perceptions of me.

I have likely been discriminated against in terms of employment, because I have always been upfront about who I am, including through my job applications. But I will probably never know for sure, because discrimination like homophobia is insidious, and its victims can never know all of the different ways in which they are mistreated.

But by far the activity in which I have been discriminated against the most was the education I received during the five years that I attended a religious boarding school. There was, from memory, a school rule against homosexuality, I was bullied on the basis of my (perceived) sexual orientation and this was effectively condoned by the school which was aware of it but failed to take any action, the sex education that was provided completely ignored homosexuality (including omitting essential safe sex/HIV-prevention messages), and I had a pastor intimate that killing yourself because you were gay was not the worst possible outcome.

It distresses me to think that, if religious organisations are granted wide-ranging exceptions under anti-discrimination laws, they will lawfully be able to (mis)treat future students in this way.

No student should be subject to prejudice, from their schools as well as from other students, because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. No teacher should have to fear for their job simply because of who they are, or who they are attracted to.

This principle extends far and wide across a range of different activities. Patients receiving hospital and other health or community services should not have to consider whether disclosing their identity will compromise the standard of care they receive. LGBTI doctors, nurses and other employees in the health and community sector should be able to be confident in talking about who they are without fearing possible repercussions.

This principle obviously also includes aged care services. And I welcome the Labor Government’s commitment that they will legislate to protect people accessing aged care services from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

However, I question why these protections are not included in the current Bill – the drafting of such provisions is not overly complicated, and I would like to believe that no Parliamentarian could argue, or vote, against such a basic proposition.

I also question why such protections should not equally apply to the employees of aged care services. If we are going to have truly inclusive aged care services, then neither the service recipients nor the employees should be subject to discrimination simply because they are LGBTI.

But, for the reasons outlined above, I do not believe that even ‘carving out’ the aged care sector from the operation of religious exceptions goes far enough. There is no justification for allowing religious organisations to discriminate against service recipients or employees in any activity which is carried on in the public sphere. For further discussion of this, please see Appendix A, which I provided to the Senate Inquiry into the Exposure Draft of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 in December last year on this very topic.

In conclusion, I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to comment on the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013. As I have indicated, I think this Bill could be significantly improved by limiting the operation of religious exceptions which undermine protections that would otherwise cover LGBTI Australians.

However, even if these exceptions are not removed by the current Bill, the fact that some LGBTI anti-discrimination protections will finally be enacted federally is sufficient justification to recommend both that the Commonwealth Parliament support the Bill, and that it be passed as a matter of priority. The Australian LGBTI community has waited long enough for these reforms. It’s time to just get it done.