2,756 Days. Frustration and Love.

It’s five o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting on a bus leaving Sydney, and I finally have some time to process the extraordinary events of the past few days.

 

It really is hard to put into words just how devastating, heart-breaking and frankly appalling the actions of the Liberal Party room on Monday evening, and Turnbull Coalition Government yesterday, have been.

 

First, was the devastating decision not to adopt a conscience vote on marriage equality, but to instead push once more for a ‘traditional’ plebiscite.

 

That’s the same unnecessary and wasteful non-binding opinion poll that was rejected by the Senate in November 2016, at the request of LGBTI Australians, because of the harm it will inevitably cause young and vulnerable members of our community.

 

It is no exaggeration to say that lives could be lost as a direct result of the extreme, hateful, hurtful bigotry that would accompany any such vote.

 

Second, was the heart-breaking decision that, even if the Senate once again rejects the legislation for a ‘traditional’ plebiscite (as it appears highly likely to do), the Government will attempt to hold a ‘postal’ plebiscite on the issue.

 

A ‘postal’ plebiscite has all of the disadvantages of a ‘traditional’ plebiscite, plus a few more of its own, including that it will be voluntary rather than compulsory to participate, it will disenfranchise large sections of the community, including young Australians (as even Malcolm Turnbull conceded, about the last one held twenty years ago) and, without legislation to give it effect, is constitutionally doubtful.

 

Which brings me to the third, and perhaps worst, decision of all – that they now intend to hold it as a ‘statistical survey’ conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, rather than an actual vote overseen by the Australian Electoral Commission.

 

This ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’ is nothing more than a naked attempt to circumvent not just the will of the Parliament, but also the legitimate limitations of the Constitution.

 

Thankfully, multiple groups campaigning for marriage equality have already indicated they are seeking legal advice before potentially challenging this postal plebiscite-in-all-but-name in the High Court. Here’s hoping they are successful, and that this bad joke of a policy is stopped before it starts to wreak its damage.

 

These three decisions, taken together, reveal the absolute contempt that some members of the Liberal and National Parties have for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

No other group has ever been subjected to this kind of process merely for the chance of being treated equally under secular law. No other group has ever been expected to jump through these ridiculous hoops just to have their human rights recognised.

 

Of course, in a debate that is about symbolism as much as it is about substance, it isn’t just the process they have chosen to adopt that is offensive – it is the way in which they have carried on the debate, a depressing mixture of denial, inconvenience and frustration.

 

Denial that marriage equality is an issue that is important to everyday Australians (it is). Denial that LGBTI couples, our families and friends exist in every electorate across the country (we do).

 

And denial that access to marriage rites is a fundamental right (it is – and if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be so many Coalition MPs and Senators who have chosen to exercise that rite, and right, themselves).

 

It seems like many in the Liberal and National Parties find the entire marriage equality debate, and the ongoing demands of LGBTI Australians for equality under the law, to be terribly inconvenient (I’m sure there are some who probably find the mere existence of LGBTI people to be inconvenient too, but that is a topic for another time).

 

It is as if they are somehow ‘hard done by’ just by being forced to consider this issue, and wish it would all go away (here’s a newsflash for those MPs and Senators who mustn’t have been paying attention until now – we will not go away until we are truly equal, and we will keep on making ourselves as ‘inconvenient’ as possible in the meantime).

 

Then there are those, like Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who have actually said, out loud, that they are ‘frustrated’ by this issue, and frustrated by the fact they cannot spend their time talking about ‘more important issues’.

 

Frustrated? Are you f#$%ing serious?

 

With all due respect, they have absolutely no idea what frustration about this subject feels like.

 

Frustration is being a member of the LGBTI community, and having your human rights, your dignity and your worth as a person publicly debated, year after year, with no apparent resolution in sight.

 

Frustration is being the family member or friend of LGBTI couples, wanting nothing more than to celebrate the wedding of your loved ones, but being denied that ability because of the ongoing, unjustifiable and inexcusable inaction of Commonwealth Parliamentarians.

 

Frustration is me typing this, on day two thousand, seven hundred and fifty-six of my engagement to my fiancé Steve, and still having no idea when we will finally be able to ‘tie the knot’.

 

We have been engaged now for more than seven and a half years (it bears repeating, for the benefit of those MPs and Senators who think that marriage equality is a hypothetical issue, one that doesn’t affect the lives of real people).

 

In that time, we have been involved in campaigns to change the ALP platform to support marriage equality (which was won almost six years ago), and to adopt a binding vote (partially won, coming into effect at the next federal election).

 

We spent the better part of twelve months fighting against ‘Plebiscite 1.0’, even though it could have meant us marrying sooner, because the recognition of our relationship as adults was not worth the harm it threatened to LGBTI young people, and the children of rainbow families.

 

We could not stomach the thought of saying ‘I do’, while knowing the pain that would have been inflicted on 15-year olds around the country, just like 15-year old Steve and Alastair had once been, in order to for us to walk down the aisle.

 

And, just when we thought the marriage equality debate in this country couldn’t go any lower, it reaches a new nadir, with ‘Plebiscite 2.0’ (or a postal plebiscite, or a ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’ dressed up as a supposed statistical survey).

 

Whatever it is called, we’ll fight it too – to stop it from happening, and if it does proceed, to win it. Because, no matter how tired we are, we must.

 

The worst part of all of this is that it is a completely unnecessary battle, imposed upon us by a Government that refuses to do its job – by voting on legislation, in Parliament – but instead shirks, and outsources, its basic responsibilities.

 

Indeed, today could have been the day that a Bill to introduce marriage equality, one that stood a decent chance of success, was finally introduced into the House of Representatives.

 

That would have been a lovely way for Steve and I to celebrate nine years of being together (did I forget to mention that we first met on this day way back in 2008?)

 

Instead, we’ll remember our anniversary as the day the Turnbull Government reintroduced the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill in the Senate, its latest attempt to delay, and if possible derail, the equal treatment of our love.

 

Of course, despite that personal indignity, there is another date, and another anniversary, this week that is far, far more depressing.

 

This coming Sunday it will be 13 years since the Senate approved the Howard Government’s original ban on marriage equality, on August 13 2004.

 

The passing of a law the sole aim of which was to treat LGBTI people and our relationships as lesser than other Australians was unconscionable.

 

The fact that, today, the Marriage Act 1961 continues to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics is unconscionable.

 

That MPs and Senators in successive Parliaments have failed to take action to remove this stain from our statute books, meaning that many, many couples have died while waiting for the ability to wed, is unconscionable – and unforgivable.

 

And the fact that, through its actions, the Turnbull Government apparently wants nothing more than to unnecessarily prolong the engagements of couples of Steve and me, and to ensure all LGBTI Australians endure as much vitriol as possible in the meantime, is completely unconscionable too.

 

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It is now almost 8am and the bus will soon be pulling into Canberra, where I will be spending the next three days at a conference just across the lake from our institutions of Government.

 

From a Parliament, and Senate, that I hope will reject the reintroduced legislation to hold a traditional plebiscite.

 

From an Executive that will respond by pushing ahead with a ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’, a mean and tricky proposal that will cause serious and sustained injury to young and vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, and waste $122 million in the process.

 

And from a Judiciary who I hope will find this entire farce to be unconstitutional.

 

Like many in the LGBTI community, I know I am going to find today to be incredibly challenging, just like yesterday was and the day before – and probably tomorrow, and the weeks and months ahead too.

 

But I am going to try my best to spend the rest of today thinking about Steve, and our relationship, and not the parliamentarians who wish to do us harm.

 

Because I love him with all my heart. Because the last nine years have undeniably been the best years of my life.

 

And because one day I will marry him. It won’t be on day 2,756 of our engagement. It probably won’t be on day 3,000 either. But it will happen, and there is nothing, and nobody, who I will let stand in our way.

 

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Steve & I at one of the many marriage equality rallies we’ve attended over the years. We’ll keep fighting until it’s won.

 

Marriage equality or marriage discrimination – a simple test

Based on media coverage over the past few days, it now seems possible that Commonwealth Parliament will – finally – hold a free vote in coming weeks on the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians to marry.

 

Of course, it is just as likely (perhaps even more likely) that the Turnbull Government will instead decide to hold a non-binding, voluntary postal vote on the subject, but that unnecessary, wasteful, divisive and downright offensive proposal is a subject for another day.

 

What I wanted to write about today is the kind of legislation that might ultimately be voted upon.

 

Because, amidst the understandable excitement of activists and advocates, the LGBTI community, our family members and friends, indeed all Australians who believe in fairness and the right of all people to marry the person they love, that progress might be imminent, we must not overlook a fundamental question:

 

Is it marriage equality, or is it marriage discrimination?

 

That is, does the Bill treat LGBTI-inclusive couples exactly the same as cisgender heterosexual couples, or will it introduce new special rights for civil celebrants and/or other wedding-related businesses to discriminate against us?

 

If it is the former, it is genuine marriage equality. If it is the latter, then it is something else, something lesser: marriage discrimination.

 

Unfortunately, based on multiple news reports it appears that the private member’s bill being drafted by Western Australian Liberal Senator Dean Smith will include new ‘protections’ that provide celebrants with the right to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of LGBTI couples.

 

Given religious celebrants already have this ability, presumably Senator Smith’s Bill will extend this ‘right to discriminate’ to (at least some) civil celebrants.

 

The argument that will inevitably be put forward to justify the differential treatment of couples under the Marriage Act 1961 is that it is necessary to protect the ‘religious freedom’ of the celebrants involved.

 

From my perspective, whether we should accept this argument, and indeed whether we should accept legislation that includes these types of ‘religious exceptions’, comes down to this simple test:

 

Will it treat LGBTI couples in the future differently from, and worse than, divorced people seeking to get (re-)married today?

 

Now, I admit this might seem to be a somewhat strange comparator, so please allow me to explain.

 

There is a wide range of religious beliefs about the rite of marriage, from groups who believe in marriage between more than two people, to others who do not believe in marriage between people of different faiths.

 

One of the more common religious beliefs about marriage, and indeed still the official position of what is the second-largest religious group in Australia (the Catholic Church, after ‘No religion’), is that divorce is a sin, and consequently people who have divorced should not be allowed to re-marry.

 

The Marriage Act currently allows churches, and religious celebrants, the ability to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of couples where one or both parties have already been divorced.

 

However, despite the fact some civil celebrants are Catholic themselves (and therefore may have some qualms about second, third or even fourth marriages), there is no equivalent right for civil celebrants to decline to perform these weddings.

 

And that seems like a reasonable distinction to make – because civil ceremonies under the Marriage Act are secular, rather than religious, in nature, there is no need to provide civil celebrants with the right to reject divorced people on the basis of their personal religious beliefs.

 

But, if it is not deemed essential to protect ‘religious freedom’ by allowing civil celebrants to discriminate on the basis of marital or relationship status now, then it should not be necessary to permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in the future.

 

Indeed, by comparing the rights of divorced people seeking to re-marry today with the rights of LGBTI couples under any future legislation that seeks to permit all couples to marry, it becomes clear that:

 

Amendments that provide civil celebrants with the ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBTI couples are not based on protecting ‘religious freedom’, but instead are legislating a right to homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

 

As a result, any legislation that allows LGBTI Australians to get married, but does so on the condition that civil celebrants are able to turn them away because of their personal prejudices, is not marriage equality, it is marriage discrimination.

 

The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill that was released by the Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, during the debate on the (traditional) plebiscite way back in October 2016 clearly failed on this front.

 

Not only did it significantly expand the right of civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples, it also clarified that defence force chaplains (who are public servants) could reject people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It even allowed for-profit businesses, run by religious organisations on a commercial basis, to turn LGBTI couples away.

 

For all of these reasons, the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill was Unacceptable.

 

It is possible that Senator Smith and others have ‘learned’ from that experience, and that his private member’s bill will look significantly different to the Brandis Bill on the surface. The new ‘protections’ may not even explicitly target LGBTI couples, and instead be couched in more neutral terms.

 

But the real question will be how it treats LGBTI people in its substance. Irrespective of the wording used, if the legislation allows civil celebrants and/or other wedding-related businesses to treat LGBTI couples differently from, and worse than, divorced people seeking to re-marry today, it is simply homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in a pretty wedding dress (or tuxedo).

 

And so, by all means get excited by the possibility that the interminable debate about the right of LGBTI couples to marry in Australia might soon be over. But we should also be on guard against any proposals that provide civil celebrants and others with the ‘right to discriminate’ against us.

 

We’ve waited long enough for genuine marriage equality. We shouldn’t settle, or be forced to settle, for marriage discrimination.

 

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We should hold off on cutting the celebratory wedding cakes until we know exactly what is in the substance of any Bill, including any religious exceptions it may contain.

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Our 7-Year Engagement (and Counting)

7 years isn’t just the name of a nauseatingly awful song by Lukas Graham. It also happens to be the length of time that, as of today, Steve and I have been engaged.

 

On 23 January 2010, after about 18 months together and on a trip to Melbourne, I asked him to marry me. He made me an incredibly happy man when he said, “Of course I will.”

 

What should have followed were several months of wedding planning – including the inevitable fights over guest-lists, and the small ‘p’ politics of who sits at which table (or, more likely in our case, arguments over the music play-list).

 

What has followed has been seven years of advocacy – of fighting for the right just to be treated the same as other Australians, and the capital ‘P’ politics of trying to change the ALP national platform, then attempting to make that platform binding, of resisting an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite, and finally of arguing for Commonwealth Parliament to actually hold a vote on marriage equality, instead of countless inquiries and endless delays.

 

It’s fair to say that, after seven years of campaigning for change, Steve and I are becoming increasingly frustrated by the inability of our so-called leaders to pass this reform. After all, it should take seven seconds, rather than seven years, for most people to recognise that all couples deserve to be treated equally under the law, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

It’s also true to say that many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians are feeling worn out, and worn down, by the ongoing battle, of having exactly the same conversations, with the same nonsensical responses by those against marriage equality, ending in the same result: yet more inaction.

 

There is a real risk that many in the LGBTI community, not to mention our family members, friends and allies, will find this debate increasingly tiresome (I know that, even as someone who is clearly passionate about this topic, I am starting to find writing about it somewhat tedious).

 

To a large extent, that is what our opponents want. They would love nothing more than for people who support marriage equality to become depressed about the lack of tangible results to date, and to consequently give up the fight.

 

Groups like the Australian Christian Lobby lost the policy argument a long time ago – they are now engaged in a war of attrition, hoping that, if this issue sits in the too hard basket for long enough, it will disappear from the political agenda altogether.

 

We can’t afford to let that happen. As annoying as it is – as boring as it is – we must start the year in exactly the same way we started last year, and the year before that, and the year before that (plus several more besides).

 

By writing letters to, and calling, our MPs and Senators, by using traditional media, and social media, to keep marriage equality in the spotlight, by marching, and protesting, by making a noise, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves.

 

Our 226 elected federal representatives must be constantly reminded that we will not go away until this, the simplest of reforms, is finally passed.

 

It could even happen this year. All it would take is for Malcolm Turnbull to demonstrate the leadership that many once hoped he possessed. Or for the Liberal party-room to decide the issue has dragged on long enough, and by holding a conscience vote. Or even for a small handful of Liberal MPs and Senators to decide this is something worth crossing the floor over.

 

Of course, marriage equality may not happen this year either. It could be delayed until 2018, 2019 or even longer. But no matter how much time it takes, we will continue pushing until our parliamentarians catch up to where the Australian population has been for some time.

 

In the meantime, there are literally tens of thousands of couples just like Steve and I who are essentially stuck in limbo, unable to do the basic things other engaged couples do: pick a wedding date, book a venue, and send out invitations (to those who make the agreed-upon final cut anyway).

 

We are reminded of this discrimination every time a day like today rolls around – the anniversary of an engagement that was happily entered into, but that has been unhappily, and involuntarily, extended by our government.

 

On a personal level I must admit I am finding this particular anniversary – our 7-year ‘engagement-versary’ – to be a particularly frustrating one, and just a little bit odd too.

 

It is weird to consider that we have now been engaged so long there is even a popular myth – at least partially backed up by research[i], as it turns out – that this is the time at which many married couples actually start to divorce.

 

And it’s a strange event to ‘celebrate’ – or at least commemorate – when you would prefer to be able to reflect on your wedding instead (as an aside, if we were married, the traditional 7-year gifts are wool, or copper – does that mean I should be buying Steve a nice new jumper?)

 

It is probably fitting that I will spend our anniversary at work, listening in the background to yet another Senate Committee hearing discussing whether couples like us should have the ability to marry – and, if we do, what new special ‘rights’ civil celebrants, religious bodies and others should have to discriminate against us[ii].

 

If I had the opportunity to address that Committee, I’d let them know how large a difference they could make if they just made a small change to the Marriage Act, thereby allowing Steve and I – and thousands of couples just like us – to exchange wedding vows.

 

I’d finish my testimony by making my own vow, on behalf of Steve and I – that I will not stop fighting until our relationship is finally treated equally under the law. Because one day, hopefully not too far in the future, we deserve the right to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, and not our 8th, 9th or even 10th engagement anniversary.

 

melbourne-trip

Steve (left) and I on the January 2010 trip to Melbourne during which we got engaged. 7 years later and I only love him more.

 

Footnotes:

[i] New York Times, Study Finds a 7-Year Itch, and a 4-Year One, 5 October 1999.

[ii] The Senate is holding an inquiry into the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, with the first hearing, in Melbourne, held on Monday 23 January. Full details of the inquiry can be found here.

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.

Letter to Candidates and Parties re LGBTI Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Vilification

[Update 29 June 2016: Responses received by midday today have been posted at the end of this post, generally in the order they were received. Further responses will be added if they are received by 5pm Thursday 30 June.]

 

I will be sending the below letter to all candidates contesting my local electorate (Sydney) and all parties vying for NSW Senate seats at the upcoming July 2 Federal Election (with candidates and tickets announced by the Australian Electoral Commission on Friday 10 June 2016).

 

Specifically, I am asking for their views on how the anti-discrimination laws that cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians can be improved. This includes the removal of religious exceptions, both generally and specifically in relation to education, the introduction of LGBTI anti-vilification protections, and the establishment of an LGBTI Discrimination Commissioner.

 

It also seeks their commitment not to introduce new ‘special rights’ to discriminate against LGBTI couples as part of any marriage equality legislation – because the recognition of equal love should not be undermined by including provisions supporting differential treatment.

 

As always, I will post any responses that I receive here. Please feel free to send similar letters to the candidates and parties contesting your electorate and Senate seats respectively.

 

**********

 

Dear [candidate/party]

 

LGBTI anti-discrimination & anti-vilification

 

I am writing to you in your capacity as a [candidate for my electorate of Sydney/party contesting the NSW Senate] at the July 2 Federal Election.

 

Specifically, I am writing to seek your commitments to help improve the current anti-discrimination and anti-vilification protections provided to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

 

While the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was historic, introducing LGBTI anti-discrimination laws at Commonwealth level for the first time, the protection that it offers remains incomplete.

 

For example, the exceptions provided by sections 37 and 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (‘the Act’) to religious organisations and religious schools ensure that LGBTI people remain subject to discrimination across a wide range of areas of public life.

 

Unlike the laws prohibiting racial vilification in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, there are also no protections against LGBTI vilification under Commonwealth law.

 

Nor does the Act establish a Commissioner with responsibility to address LGBTI Discrimination – whereas the Australian Human Rights Commission does have Commissioners for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice, Age Discrimination, Disability Discrimination, Race Discrimination, Sex Discrimination and a Children’s Commissioner.

 

For more on what I believe are the limitations of current Commonwealth LGBTI anti-discrimination law, please see “What’s wrong with the Sex Discrimination Act 1984?”

 

There is one final issue relating to LGBTI anti-discrimination law that is also likely to arise in the next term of Parliament – and that is the question of whether the legislation which, hopefully, introduces marriage equality in Australia will also include new ‘special rights’ for civil celebrants, and businesses that provide wedding-related services, to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

In my opinion, the law that finally recognises equal love in this country should not be undermined by provisions that allow for differential treatment (for more on this subject, please see “In the battle for marriage equality, we must not forget to fight against religious exceptions”).

 

I am seeking your views on the above issues – and would therefore appreciate your answers to the following five associated questions:

 

  1. Will you repeal sub-section 37(1)(d) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which currently allows religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI employees, and LGBTI people accessing services, in a wide range of areas of public life?

 

  1. Will you repeal section 38 of the Act that provides religious schools with the ability to discriminate against LGBTI teachers and students?

 

  1. Do you commit to introducing new laws to protect LGBTI Australians against vilification, on an equivalent basis to racial vilification laws?

 

  1. Will you establish a position of LGBTI Discrimination Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission, with similar responsibilities to existing Commissioners covering the areas of Race, Sex, Disability and Age?

 

  1. Will you oppose the inclusion of new exceptions in any marriage equality legislation that would seek to provide civil celebrants, and businesses providing wedding-related services, with the ability to discriminate against LGBTI couples?

 

I look forward to receiving responses from you in advance of the July 2 Federal Election on these issues of concern to me, and to other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

N-3

Responses from Candidates for the Seat of Sydney

 

Tula Tzoras – Online Direct Democracy

Tom Geiser – Science Party

Peter Boyle – Socialist Alliance

Tanya Plibersek – Australian Labor Party

Sylvie Ellsmore – Greens

 

Responses from Candidates for the NSW Senate

 

Ross Fitzgerald – Australian Sex Party

Colin Broadbridge – Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group)

Phil Jobe – Family First

Ray Bennie – Veterans Party

Ingrid Ralph – Australian Cyclists Party

Jai Cooper – Australian Cyclists Party

Ken Canning – Socialist Alliance

Party Response – Socialist Alliance

Andrew Katelaris – Marijuana (HEMP) Party

Greg Frearson – Mature Australia

Ken Stevens – Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party

Ann Lawler – Citizens Electoral Council

Barry Keldoulis – The Arts Party

Stacey Dowson – Drug Law Reform

Janise Farrell – Voluntary Euthanasia Party

Darren McIntosh – Pirate Party Australia

Party Response – Australian Labor Party

Shayne Higson – Voluntary Euthanasia Party

 

Bryan Lambert – Independent

Nick Chapman – Independent

David Ash – Independent

 

 

In the battle for marriage equality, we must not forget to fight against religious exceptions

The long struggle for marriage equality does not involve waging just one battle. Instead, it includes a range of related, and sometimes overlapping, fights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) equality.

 

Obviously, there is what most would consider to be the ‘central’ fight – to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to ensure all LGBTI couples who wish to can be married under secular Australian law. Victory on that particular issue is long overdue.

 

A closely-related fight is ensuring that the definition used to amend the Marriage Act is sex and gender neutral – referring to the union of two persons (replacing man and woman which is currently used in section 5) rather than referring to man/man, or woman/woman, unions. The latter would only be gay or same-sex marriage, instead of genuine marriage equality, and would continue to deny equal rights to some members of the LGBTI community.

 

Fortunately, most recent legislative attempts to amend marriage have used this more inclusive definition[i], although this is something that we will need to be vigilant about until equality is finally achieved in Australia (whenever that might eventually be).

 

And then there is the current procedural fight about how marriage equality should be implemented – with Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal-National Government intent on holding an unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

 

The $158.4 million-plus[ii] public vote appears to be supported by only the Australia Christian Lobby and other extremists opposed to LGBTI equality, while pretty much everyone else believes Parliament should simply do its job and pass a law to introduce equality (in exactly the same way then-Prime Minister John Howard entrenched inequality in the first place, way back in 2004).

 

However, there is one fight that is inherently connected to the larger battle for marriage equality that seems to be commonly overlooked – and that is the need to ensure that, irrespective of how marriage equality is ultimately achieved, no new special rights are created allowing religious organisations, and individuals, to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

These so-called ‘religious exceptions’ could take several possible forms. The narrowest version would be the introduction of a new right for civil celebrants and other celebrants, like military chaplains, who are not ministers of religion to be able to refuse to officiate ceremonies solely on the basis of the sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status of the couple involved[iii].

 

The next, more expansive type of special rights to discriminate would allow businesses that provide wedding-related services to deny those services to couples where one or both persons are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. This is the type of exception that excites Christian fundamentalists in the United States, with claims that requiring florists and bakers to sell their products to LGBTI couples is oppressive or even totalitarian in nature.

 

The broadest form of new religious exceptions would more radically change existing anti-discrimination laws, allowing all individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBTI couples on the basis of their own religious beliefs, with such discrimination not restricted to wedding-related activities.

 

No matter how narrowly or broadly these new special rights to discriminate are defined, they are all completely unjustified – there is no reason why civil celebrants, businesses or anyone else operating in public life should be free to deny LGBTI people equal treatment.

 

But, just because they are unjustified, doesn’t mean they are not on the public agenda, as recent experience in the United States amply demonstrates.

 

From Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who found fame by refusing to perform the duties of her Government job[iv], instead denying service to members of the public solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, through to more recent state-wide Bills to ‘restore religious freedom’ (or, more accurately, to reinstate the rights of individuals and businesses to treat LGBTI people as second class citizens) in North Carolina, Mississippi and elsewhere, there has been a renewed push for religious exceptions to undermine marriage equality, and anti-discrimination laws more generally.

 

There seem to be three, inter-related and mutually reinforcing objectives behind the religious right’s latest homophobic ‘crusade’:

 

  1. In a practical sense, they genuinely want to prevent the equal treatment of LGBTI people – both by being legally permitted to refuse service to LGBTI couples themselves, and to encourage the broader population to do the same;
  2. In a symbolic sense, they want to undermine the equality aspect of marriage equality – if lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are allowed to marry under secular law, then Christian fundamentalists want to ensure that they are still treated as differently as possible, turned away by civil celebrants, wedding-related businesses and even public servants; and
  3. In a strategic sense, they want to use this ‘moment’, when marriage equality and LGBTI rights are being discussed across the community, to reassert the supposed primacy of ‘religious freedom’ and use it to dismantle LGBTI anti-discrimination laws where they exist – or hinder their development where they have not already been passed.

 

Before we judge our US counterparts too harshly, however, we must remember that conservative and other right-wing forces in Australia are engaged in exactly the same campaign here.

 

For example, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Freedom to Marry Bill 2014, that would have introduced marriage equality (of a sort), included provisions that would have granted civil celebrants the ability to reject people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status[v].

 

Others on the ‘religious exceptions’ bandwagon include former Human Rights Commissioner, and now Liberal candidate for Goldstein, Tim Wilson[vi], as well as his former employers, the Institute of Public Affairs.

 

In addition to their outrageous calls for what limited LGBTI anti-vilification laws we do have[vii] to be temporarily suspended for the duration of the plebiscite, fringe group the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) have also repeatedly argued for any Marriage Amendment Bill to include permanent special rights for individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBTI people.

 

In his own words, ACL ‘homophobe-in-chief’ Lyle Shelton believes existing anti-discrimination laws are somehow a threat to Australian democracy:

 

“The rights to a free conscience, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and freedom of expression are the nuts and bolts of democracy. If they are to fall, then we have serious questions to answer regarding out democracy…

 

“Most fair-minded Australians would accept the right of a person to maintain their belief that gender and biology still matter to marriage and family and to always be free to give voice to that belief.

 

“Marriage between a man and a woman is fundamental to a flourishing society. When the definition is changed, the law will say that gender is irrelevant to the foundation of society.

 

“Those who believe gender, kinship and biological identity do matter to society’s fabric will be fundamentally at odds with the law and the anti-discrimination laws will be weaponised against them.”[viii]

 

Leaving aside the fact the ACL have been able to use their disproportionate-sized megaphone to publicly spew forth hatred against LGBTI Australians for many years[ix], without any apparent consequence, on this as with too many other issues they have found numerous supporters within the Liberal-National Government.

 

Indeed, ongoing debate on the issue of whether a draft Marriage Amendment Bill should include new ‘religious exceptions’, and if so how broad they should be in scope, is a key reason why Malcolm Turnbull was forced to back down from previous statements he would announce the timing and details of the marriage equality plebiscite ahead of the 2016 Federal Election.

 

In reporting on the decision by Turnbull to shelve the plebiscite announcement until after the poll, Dennis Shanahan in The Australian made the following observation:

 

“The key to reassuring those opposed to same-sex marriage, including conservative Coalition MPs, is not only the wording of the proposed plebiscite question changing the Marriage Act but also the protections for freedom of religion and speech.

 

“Those involved in the talks regard it as essential that Senator Brandis provide protections for those beyond the tight circle of religious and marriage celebrants who do not want to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.”[x]

 

Lenore Taylor in the Guardian Australia had earlier reported that internal tensions over the extent of these exceptions could cause the Government to delay announcing the Bill:

 

“The Turnbull government is wavering on its commitment to reveal details of its planned marriage equality plebiscite before the federal election because of deep divisions on crucial issues such as public funding and exemptions from anti-discrimination laws…

 

“[C]conservative MPs have been demanding broad exemptions from anti-discrimination laws for officials and wedding service providers, including florists, bakers and reception centres. Government sources said there were concerns that the issue would become internally “divisive.””[xi]

 

These reports confirm that the potential creation of new special rights to discriminate is very much a live option within the Turnbull Liberal-National Government.

 

This development is something that should have anyone interested in achieving marriage equality worried, especially because, as previous debates around Safe Schools and the plebiscite itself have demonstrated, the conservative and/or religious right are not shy about throwing their weight around inside the Coalition party room – and that applies just as much, if not more, under Prime Minister Turnbull as it did under his predecessor Tony Abbott.

 

The consequences of a conservative victory on this issue would be dire. On top of the practical and strategic problems identified above, the inclusion of new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI people in the plebiscite question – or its associated legislation – would make campaigning for marriage equality significantly more challenging.

 

In effect, it would ensure that the proposal considered at a plebiscite was fundamentally flawed from the beginning and that therefore many people in favour of genuine marriage equality would be forced to campaign, and vote, for something less than ideal while effectively ‘holding one’s nose’.

 

It would also tarnish the achievements of a successful ‘Yes’ campaign – instead of a unifying moment of national celebration, where true relationship equality was extended to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians without qualification, we would be left with a law that continues to permit discrimination in certain circumstances. In short, a ‘Yes’ result would be marred, leaving the overall job half-finished – and making it bittersweet to celebrate ‘equality-lite’.

 

For all of these reasons, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that, at the same time as we fight for marriage equality, we fight against the introduction of new religious exceptions, whether in the Marriage Act itself, or the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (or its state and territory equivalents).

 

Fortunately, we already have allies in this particular fight. In addition to the Greens, who have long campaigned against religious exceptions, the Australian Labor Party is also firmly opposed to their introduction.

 

160417 Guardian Why Knot

The Guardian Australia/Australian Marriage Equality event ‘Why Knot?’ where Opposition Leader Bill Shorten gave a firm commitment that Labor will oppose any expansion of religious exceptions – and will seek to repeal any provisions that are introduced by the Turnbull Liberal-National Government.

 

At the recent Guardian Australia/Australian Marriage Equality ‘Why Knot?’ forum in Sydney, I had the opportunity to ask Opposition Leader Bill Shorten the following:

 

“There is a real risk that, when Malcolm Turnbull finally gets around to drafting it, his Marriage Amendment Bill will seek to include new special rights for civil celebrants and other wedding business-providers to discriminate against LGBTI couples. Just to get it on the record: Mr Shorten, will you commit the Labor Party to voting against any attempt to expand religious exceptions beyond existing provisions and, if they do somehow end up being passed and polluting the Marriage Act, will you seek to repeal them at the earliest available opportunity?”

 

Mr Shorten’s answer was unexpectedly strong, and reassuring: “Yes, and yes.”

 

As reported by the Guardian Australia, he went on to note that “[i]t’s not allowed now under the current law – why would we water down existing laws? We don’t need to water down anti-discrimination law to keep some people [who oppose same-sex marriage] happy.”[xii]

 

It is possible that, after the Federal election, the combined votes of Labor and the Greens in the Senate will be able to block any attempt by a re-elected Turnbull Liberal-National Government to include expanded religious exceptions as part of its legislative package creating the plebiscite.

 

However, with a double dissolution election now almost inevitable on July 2nd, and the reduced Senate quotas associated with it, the final result in that Chamber will be especially hard to predict, with a range of minor parties still chances to win the 12th and final seat in each state.

 

Which means that there are now only two ways to avoid the creation of new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI Australians: for Shorten and Labor to be elected (and then implement their own policy to introduce marriage equality legislation within 100 days), or for a re-elected Prime Minister Turnbull to publicly commit to not introducing new religious exceptions in his own Marriage Amendment Bill.

 

Given his track record on LGBTI issues since taking over from Tony Abbott last September – selling the LGBTI community out on multiple occasions by ‘gutting’ the Safe Schools program and abandoning his previous personal position against holding a plebiscite – securing any enforceable commitments from Mr Turnbull will likely be an incredibly difficult task.

 

But, if we are committed to genuine marriage equality, then I believe this is a fight we must take on. Because if we don’t, we might find that we win marriage equality in the next 12 to 18 months but, instead of being able to celebrate achieving a better, fairer and more equal Australia, we are left to deal with new forms of exclusion, discrimination and state-sanctioned homophobia.

 

**********

 

[i] Although Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 disappointingly only sought to recognize overseas marriages between “a man and another man or a woman and another woman”.

[ii] As quoted on page 22 of the Senate Committee Report: Matter of a popular vote, in the form of a plebiscite or referendum, on the matter of marriage in Australia, 15 September 2015.

[iii] Thus providing them with the same right to ‘reject’ couples that ministers of religion already enjoy under the Marriage Act.

[iv] It is instructive to consider how people like Ms Davis would be received were they to refuse to serve African-American people, rather than LGBTI people – presumably such acts of outright racism would not be tolerated, or even celebrated, in the same way her egregious acts of homophobia and transphobia have been.

[v] For more on why Leyonhejlm’s Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 was offensive, see “Senator Leyonhjelm’s Marriage Equality Bill Undermines the Principle of LGBTI Anti-Discrimination: Should we still support it?”

[vi] In Wilson’s opinion piece in The Australian on 6 July 2015, “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible” he argued for religious exceptions to be extended not just to civil celebrants but also to a wide range of wedding-related businesses.

[vii] Only four states and territories currently have vilification laws that cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people: Queensland, NSW, ACT and Tasmania. There are no protections federally. Instead of suspending the paltry laws we do have, the Commonwealth Government should actually be introducing LGBTI anti-vilification laws of its own. See also: “Don’t limit racial vilification protections, introduce vilification protections for LGBTI Australians instead”.

[viii] From ACL Media Release, 5 April 2016 “ACL Concerned by Shorten Plan to Fine Business Owners who Disagree with Same-Sex Marriage.”

[ix] With Mr Shelton’s predecessor Jim Wallace saying that smoking was healthier than gay marriage, and the ACL under both leaders drawing comparisons between LGBTI parenting and the creation of another Stolen Generation, which is not just deeply offensive to LGBTI Australians but to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well.

[x] Dennis Shanahan, The Australian, 26 March 2016, “Federal election 2016: Same-sex marriage plebiscite pause for poll”.

[xi] Lenore Taylor, Guardian Australia, 16 March 2016, “Marriage Equality: Coalition disunity puts pre-election plebiscite details in doubt.”

[xii] Paul Karp, Guardian Australia, 31 March 2016, “Shorten: Labor won’t change discrimination laws to please gay marriage opponents.”