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.

 

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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.

 

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[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.”

Submission to Review of NSW Relationships Register Act 2010

Update 18 January 2017:

In progressively updating posts of my various law reform submissions from 2016, this one is the easiest. Why? Well, because it seems like nothing has actually happened in response to this review.

The NSW Department of Justice homepage for the ‘Statutory review of the Relationships Register Act 2010 (NSW)’ notes that submissions closed on Wednesday 6 January 2016.

It even includes links to the seven submissions it received, from the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW, Chief Justice of NSW, Jamie Gardiner, NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, ACON and the Law Society of NSW (plus yours truly – see below).

And then? Nothing. No updates for more than 12 months. Hopefully 2017 sees at least some action taken in response to this review, including potentially changing the name from registered relationship to civil partnership, especially given the ongoing failure of the Turnbull Government to take action on marriage equality federally.

Original Post:

The NSW Relationships Register Act 2010 is currently under review. Details of the review can be found here, with public submissions closing Wednesday January 6 2016. The following is my submission:

Director

Civil Law and Cabinet

NSW Department of Justice

GPO Box 31

Sydney NSW 2001

c/- policy@justice.nsw.gov.au

Tuesday 5 January 2016

To whom it may concern

SUBMISSION TO REVIEW OF RELATIONSHIPS REGISTER ACT 2010 (NSW)

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission as part of the five year statutory review of the NSW Relationships Register Act 2010 (‘the Act’).

In this submission I would like to make two main recommendations to improve the Act:

  1. The term ‘registered relationship’ should be replaced by the term ‘civil partnership’.
  2. The Act should be amended to allow people entering into civil partnerships to hold a formally recognised civil partnership ceremony if they so choose.

Nomenclature

What a relationship is called, both in society and under the law, is important for many, if not most, people.

Unfortunately, the term that is currently used in the Act – ‘registered relationship’ – is unsuitable for its purpose. This is because it fails to capture the fundamental nature of the relationship that it purports to describe, instead reflecting the process in which the relationship is recorded.

In my view, the NSW scheme adopts the worst terminology of all of the state and territory schemes that provide for the formal recognition of relationships between couples (outside of marriage).

Other state and territory approaches include:

  • ‘Significant relationships’ in Tasmania[i]
  • Both ‘civil partnerships’[ii] and ‘civil unions’[iii] in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT)
  • ‘Domestic relationships’ in Victoria[iv] and
  • ‘Civil partnerships’ in Queensland[v].

Of these options, I recommend that the NSW scheme adopt the term ‘civil partnership’, both because it would be consistent with Queensland and the ACT, and also because it is likely to be understood, and accepted, by members across the community, including by people within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

Alternatively, in my opinion any of the other terms (significant relationships, domestic relationships and civil unions) would be preferable to the current name ‘registered relationships’ (although adopting ‘civil unions’ may imply that a ceremony must be held in order to recognise that relationship, as it is in the ACT, which is an outcome that I submit should be avoided – see below).

Recommendation 1: The term ‘registered relationship’ should be replaced by the term ‘civil partnership’.

Ceremonies

The second improvement to the Act that I suggest would be the introduction of an ability for couples to hold a formally recognised civil partnership ceremony if they so choose.

Currently, the Relationships Register Act 2010 makes no provision for optional ceremonies, which differentiates it from the approach adopted in other state and territory schemes:

  • Tasmania allows for ceremonies to be held on the day on which the deed of relationship is registered[vi]
  • The ACT does not provide for formal ceremonies as part of its civil partnership scheme[vii], but a ceremony is required in order to enter into a civil union[viii]
  • Victoria does not currently provide for a formal ceremony, although this issue is being actively considered as part of debate of the Relationships Amendment Bill 2015 which is currently before Parliament[ix] and
  • The Queensland Palaszczuk Labor Government recently reintroduced optional ceremonies for civil partnerships, reversing their abolition by the previous Newman Liberal-National Government[x].

The introduction of an optional ceremony as part of the NSW relationship scheme would therefore bring it into closer alignment with other, existing schemes.

Much more importantly, however, it provides an avenue for couples to have their relationships recognised, through a formal ceremony, and in front of their families and friends, where that couple so desires.

Introducing such a scheme would show that the state of NSW is doing what it can, within the powers of a state parliament, to recognise the diversity of relationships that exist in contemporary society.

With the High Court finding in December 2013 that only the Commonwealth Parliament has the power to legislate for marriage equality[xi], but the majority of Members and Senators of that Parliament showing their continued unwillingness to recognise the full equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, I believe it is incumbent upon state and territory parliaments to provide the opportunity for all couples, including LGBTI couples, to enter into civil partnerships and to offer the choice to hold a formal civil partnership ceremony, too.

Even after marriage equality is finally enacted by our recalcitrant federal parliamentarians, the ability to enter into a civil partnership under state law would remain a material option for those couples who do not wish to marry for whatever reason (and that includes both cisgender heterosexual couples, and LGBTI couples) – and these couples should retain the ability to hold a ceremony if they desire.

Importantly, I do not believe holding such a ceremony should be compulsory – couples that wish to pursue this option should be able to do so, while other couples should be able to enter into a civil partnership without holding a ceremony.

Recommendation 2: The Act should be amended to allow people entering into civil partnerships to hold a formally recognised civil partnership ceremony if they so choose.

Thank you for taking this submission into account as part of the five year statutory review of the NSW Relationships Register Act 2010.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

[i] Under the Relationships Act 2003.

[ii] Domestic Relationships Act 1994

[iii] Civil Unions Act 2012

[iv] Relationships Act 2008

[v] Under the recently passed Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Act 2015, which will take effect later in 2016.

[vi] From the Tasmanian Births, Deaths and Marriages website: http://www.justice.tas.gov.au/bdm/relationships/ceremonies

[vii] From the Access Canberra website: https://www.accesscanberra.act.gov.au/app/answers/detail/a_id/1694/~/civil-partnership-registration

[viii] Access Canberra: https://www.accesscanberra.act.gov.au/app/answers/detail/a_id/2096/kw/civil%20unions

[ix] Details of the Bill can be found here: http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/static/www.legislation.vic.gov.au-bills.html This includes an amendment, adopted by the Legislative Council, that “[t]he Registrar may conduct a ceremony in connection with the registration of a registrable domestic relationship under this section”.

[x] Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Act 2015

[xi] The Commonwealth of Australia v The Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55: http://eresources.hcourt.gov.au/showCase/2013/HCA/55

Submission to Inquiry into Queensland Civil Partnerships Bill

UPDATE 6 January 2016:

 

The Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee tabled its report in Queensland Parliament on 17 November 2015[i].

 

The cross-party Committee failed to support the Bill: “[i]n this instance the committee was not able to reach a majority decision on a motion to recommend that the Bill be passed.”[ii]

 

Liberal-National MPs on the Committee opposed the reintroduction of civil partnerships, and optional ceremonies, to such an extent that they did not even allow submissions and relevant evidence to be included as part of the main report – this information was only included as part of the Government Members Statement of Reservation.

 

It was therefore only because of ALP Committee Members Mark Furner, Jim Madden and Mark Ryan that we know 27 of the 29 submissions made were in favour of reintroducing civil partnerships.[iii]

 

Government Members also reported that, as at 4 November 2015, 6,856 mixed-sex couples had taken advantage of Queensland civil partnership/registered relationship schemes, compared to only 1,227 same-sex couples (thus demonstrating the need to retain alternative relationship recognition options even after marriage equality is finally legislated federally).

 

I am also thankful that Government MPs saw fit to include two quotes from my personal submission:

 

  • “The decision to abolish civil partnership ceremonies, and the haste with which it was achieved, was an unjustified, divisive and mean-spirited act – and I commend the current Queensland Government for taking steps to undo the damage that was done three years ago” on page 12, and

 

  • “In my view, the term ‘civil partnership’ is a much more accurate description of the relationship which exists within couples who wish to have their partnership formally recognised under state law, whereas, to me, ‘registered relationship’ is a more sterile term which merely describes the process of recognition rather than the relationship itself” on page 19 of the report.

 

The Bill was then debated in Queensland’s Legislative Assembly on Thursday 3 December 2015. It was supported by all Labor MPs as a piece of Government legislation.

 

Somewhat surprisingly, given the behaviour of their MPs on the Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee, the LNP offered a conscience vote to its MPs and half chose to exercise their vote to support the Bill, meaning that it passed by a large majority: 64 votes in favour, compared to only 22 votes against.

 

Once again, I am grateful that Government MPs quoted my submission – both the Member for Brisbane Central, Ms Grace Grace, and the Member for Ipswich West, Mr Jim Madden, used the first quote highlighted above.

 

The Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Act 2015 received Royal Assent on 17 December 2015, and its provisions, restoring civil partnerships and once again allowing couples to hold a formal civil partnership ceremony if they so choose, will commence sometime early this year.

 

Thankfully, one sad, recent chapter of Queensland’s LGBTI history is now closed. Although there remain a variety of areas which still require action by the Palaszczuk Government, including (among others):

 

  • Equalising the age of consent for anal intercourse
  • Introducing adoption equality
  • Abolishing the homosexual advance or ‘gay panic’ defence and
  • Expunging historical homosexual convictions.

 

ORIGINAL POST:

Submissions to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Queensland’s Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015 close tomorrow (Monday 19 October 2015). Full details on the inquiry, including how to submit, can be found here: <https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/work-of-committees/committees/LACSC/inquiries/current-inquiries/07-RelationshipsCPOAAB15 Here’s my own submission:

Research Director

Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee

Parliament House

George St

Brisbane QLD 4000

lacsc@parliament.qld.gov.au

Sunday 18 October 2015

Dear Committee Members

INQUIRY INTO THE RELATIONSHIPS (CIVIL PARTNERSHIPS) AND OTHER ACTS AMENDMENT BILL 2015

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this inquiry that is considering the details of the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015.

I write in support of the Bill, for two main reasons:

  1. The term ‘civil partnerships’ is strongly preferred when compared to the term ‘registered relationships’.
  2. The Act restores the right of couples to enter into a civil partnership by holding a civil partnership ceremony if they so choose.

The first point may seem comparatively minor, considering it relates only to nomenclature, but terminology is important, particularly when it describes something as personal as the relationship between two members of a couple.

In my view, the term ‘civil partnership’ is a much more accurate description of the relationship which exists within couples who wish to have their partnership formally recognised under state law, whereas, to me, ‘registered relationship’ is a more sterile term which merely describes the process of recognition rather than the relationship itself.

It is also my view that the term civil partnership is more likely to be understood, and accepted, by members across the community, whereas the term registered relationship is less likely to attract widespread social acceptance from others.

The second reason why I support the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015 is more substantive, and that is because it restores the ability of couples to enter into a civil partnership by holding a civil partnership ceremony.

Importantly, it is not compulsory – couples that wish to pursue this option will be able to do so, while other couples will be able to enter into a civil partnership without holding a ceremony.

I wholeheartedly agree with the description of this reform contained in the letter from the Director-General of the Department of Justice and Attorney-General, Mr David Mackie, to the Committee dated 1 October 2015:

“This is being done to support the dignity and equality of each and every Queenslander by giving them the opportunity to formally declare their commitment to their significant.”

In fact, it is difficult to conceive any rational justification to oppose these provisions – after all, who would want to actively deny their fellow citizens the choice to hold a civil partnership ceremony, if that is what the couple desired?

And yet, that is exactly what the majority of Queensland Members of Parliament did in June 2012, voting to strip away the ability of these couples to hold a formal ceremony. Not only that, the removal of these rights was such a high priority for the (then) newly-elected Newman Liberal National Government that is was enacted within three months of its landslide victory.

The decision to abolish civil partnership ceremonies, and the haste with which it was achieved, was an unjustified, divisive and mean-spirited act – and I commend the current Queensland Government for taking steps to undo the damage that was done three years ago.

I also commend the Palaszczuk Labor Government because, in introducing the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015, it is doing what it can within the powers of a state government to recognise the diversity of relationships that exist in contemporary society.

With the High Court finding in December 2013 that only the Commonwealth Parliament has the power to legislate for marriage equality, but the majority of Members and Senators of that Parliament showing their continued unwillingness to recognise the full equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, it is pleasing to see a state government providing the opportunity for all couples, including LGBTI couples, to enter into civil partnerships – and offering the choice to hold a civil partnership ceremony, too.

Even after marriage equality is finally enacted by our recalcitrant federal parliamentarians, the ability to enter into a civil partnership under state law will remain an important option for those couples who do not wish to marry for whatever reason (and that includes both cisgender heterosexual couples, and LGBTI couples).

For all of these reasons, I support the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015, and urge Committee Members, and indeed all Queensland MPs, to ensure it is passed by the Parliament as a matter of priority.

Finally, I note that the renaming of civil partnerships, including restoring the right of couples to enter into a civil partnership by holding a civil partnership ceremony if they so choose, is just one of several important measures which are required to ensure LGBTI people are finally treated equally under Queensland law.

Other necessary reforms include abolition of the gay panic defence, the introduction of adoption equality, the equalisation of the age of consent for anal intercourse and the expungement of historical convictions for gay sex. I look forward to these issues, and more, being addressed by the Queensland Parliament in the near future.

Thank you in advance for considering this submission. Should the Committee require additional information, or wish to clarify any of the information above, I can be contacted at the details below.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Queensland Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath introduced the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015 in September.

Queensland Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath introduced the Relationships (Civil Partnerships) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2015 in September.

[i] Final Report: https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/LACSC/2015/07-RelationshipsCPOAAB15/07-rpt-014-17Nov2015.pdf

[ii] Ibid, p4.

[iii] Ibid, p12.

Submission on AHRC Proposal to Create a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’

Mr Tim Wilson

Australian Human Rights Commissioner

C/- rights@humanrights.gov.au

Friday 25 September 2015

Dear Mr Wilson

Submission on Religious Freedom Roundtable Proposal

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on your proposal to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’, including on its draft ‘Statement of purposes and Guiding principles.’

From the outset, I would like to express my scepticism of the need for, and purpose of, this Roundtable.

While your call for submissions[i] at least briefly acknowledges the biggest problem in this area (“how to balance religious freedom with other human rights”), the remainder instead appears to focus on the ‘expansion’ of religious freedom, with the explicit goal of developing a body of policy work “that is designed to enlarge respect for religious freedom and proper consideration of its importance in future policy development and law reform.”[ii]

This is despite the fact that no clear need is articulated for such ‘enlargement’.

Indeed, as suggested by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) in its recent Interim Report as part of its own Freedoms Inquiry:

“[g]enerally speaking, Australians enjoy significant religious freedom, particularly by comparison to other jurisdictions. Australians enjoy the freedom to worship and practise religion, as well as the freedom not to worship or engage in religious practices.”[iii]

The ALRC went on to comment that:

“[t]here are few Commonwealth laws that can be said to interfere with freedom of religion. The Law Council of Australia advised that ‘it has not identified any laws imposing any specific restriction on the freedom of religion’ and ‘that any specific encroachment is likely to arise in balancing religious freedom with other protected freedoms, such as freedom of speech’.”[iv]

Indeed, it is difficult to think of many areas where religious freedoms are genuinely encroached upon, with the exception of the mistreatment of muslim Australians, by both Governments and other Australians, in the 14 years post September 11 (and it is difficult to see how this Roundtable would help address that issue), or the ongoing abuse of refugees fleeing religious persecution who are detained, processed and resettled on Nauru and Manus Island (although sadly there is nothing unique about this mistreatment, with all refugees who arrive by boat abused by Governments, of both persuasions, in this way).

On the other hand, it is easy to identify ways in which ‘religious freedom’ is currently exercised to discriminate against other Australians, and in this way cause significant harm to them and their rights.

The most obvious, and egregious, example of this is the extremely broad exceptions under most Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws that permit religious organisations to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians.

In the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, these exceptions are contained in sections 23(3)(b), 37 and 38, with sub-section 37(1)(d) revealing exactly how broad this special right to discriminate is in practice:

“[n]othing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

In practice, this means that the Commonwealth Government tacitly endorses discrimination by religious organisations against gay teachers, lesbian students, bisexual people accessing health of community services and transgender aged care employees, among many others.

There are also a wide variety of more indirect ways in which ‘religious freedom’ has been used, and continues to be used, to oppress lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

This obviously includes ongoing advocacy by a number of mainstream christian churches, as well as by homophobic groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, to seek continued discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status through the secular Marriage Act 1961.

But it also includes things like campaigning to ensure the National Health & Physical Education Curriculum does not include content that is genuinely-inclusive of LGBTI students (thus denying their right to health information), or calling on Governments to abolish the national Safe Schools Coalition, a program with the explicit goal of reducing homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic bullying.

For all of the above reasons, I call on you to reconsider the need to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’ and that, if you do, to amend the scope of such a Roundtable to ensure that its primary focus is on addressing the many ways in which ‘religious freedom’ is currently used as a weapon, by some elements within society, to legitimise homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination that is, and should be considered, unacceptable.

Before I turn to the ‘Statement of purposes and Guiding principles’ I would like to make two additional points about the information contained in the call for submissions.

First, in relation to the dot point “[p]reserving religious freedom when an organisation receives taxpayer’s money to provide a public service”, I would note that nearly all religious organisations receive taxpayer’s money through the generous exemptions from taxation law which they currently enjoy.

I would also note that this dot point appears to relate to the ‘carve-out’ to existing exceptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which has the effect of prohibiting discrimination by religious-operated aged care services against LGBT people accessing their services, where that service receives Commonwealth funding.[v]

In my view, this carve-out is not wide enough – there is no justification for these services to be legally permitted to discriminate against LGBT employees, either.

But, most importantly, from my perspective it is not the involvement of Government funding that means such discrimination should be prohibited – it is the fact that, employment and service provision in the public sphere, which includes the operation of aged care services, should be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. Full stop.

Second, in relation to the dot point “[b]alancing the right to religious freedom and equality before the law – what are the areas of shared agreement?” I note that the right not to be discriminated against (or ‘freedom from discrimination’), is in fact much broader than just ‘equality before the law’, which could be narrowly-construed as meaning equality under legislation and/or before the courts, rather than, say, equal access to employment or service provision.

Specific Comments Regarding the Draft Statement of purpose and Guiding principles[vi]

The ‘Statement of purpose’ describes the Religious Freedom Roundtable as a forum “for representatives of religious and spiritual communities to have ongoing engagement and dialogue about freedom of religion, conscience and belief (‘religious freedom’) and its interaction with public policy in 21st century Australia.”

Given the discussion above, and the fact that LGBTI Australians are the people most negatively affected by the exercise of ‘religious freedom’ in Australia, it seems odd to establish a roundtable to look at these issues and yet not have LGBTI organisations at the table.

This omission could be seen as indicating that the Religious Freedom Roundtable is in fact concerned with prioritising or ‘privileging’ the rights of religious organisations over and above the rights of other people, including those of LGBTI Australians.

Under the heading ‘Mutual respect’, in the first paragraph, you note that “[religious freedom] interacts with other fundamental freedoms including freedoms of thought, conscience, speech and association, as well as property rights.”

In response, I reiterate the position from my submission to last year’s Rights and Responsibilities Consultation that highlighting these rights, simply because they are ‘traditional’ or even just older, but omitting other rights such as the right to non-discrimination which in practice is just as important, is unjustified.[vii]

In short, “prioritising certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society.”[viii]

Finally, I would like to make the following points in relation to specific ‘Guiding principles’:

Principle 1: Religious freedom is fundamental to the Australian way of life, and should be treated equally to all other human rights and freedoms.

and

Principle 2: Religious freedom is a fundamental human right that should be respected and not limited unless it infringes on the rights of others.

I agree with these statements, and particularly the observations that religious freedom should be ‘treated equally to all other human rights and freedoms’ and respected ‘unless it infringes on the rights of others’.

In practice, this should mean that the right to non-discrimination should be ‘treated equally’ to the right to religious freedom.

More importantly, it means that, given exceptions to anti-discrimination law allowing religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT Australians in health, education, community services and aged care are clearly an infringement on the right to non-discrimination in public life, and that they cause significant harm to these people, such exceptions should be abolished.

Principle 3: Religious freedom has an essential and important role in our public life or civic affairs to contribute to the moral and spiritual guidance of our nation; and faith is as legitimate basis for participation in public life and civic affairs as any other.

I disagree with this statement for two reasons. First, as an atheist, and noting that Australia is a secular state, I reject the notion that ‘our nation’ as a whole necessarily requires ‘moral and spiritual guidance’ from organised religion.

Second, while people should not be prohibited from participation in public life on the basis of their religious beliefs, I do not believe it is appropriate for religious individuals and/or organisations to seek to impose ‘religious laws’ on their fellow citizens.

An example of this is the ongoing campaign by christian fundamentalists to impose a narrow religious interpretation of marriage on their fellow citizens through the secular Marriage Act 1961, in this way denying the human rights of those who do not share the same faith – and even of other christians who do not subscribe to their particular homophobic definition of this institution.

Thus, while participation in public life and civic affairs should be open, such participation should not be abused by using religion as a tool to oppress others.

Principle 6: No Australians should be unnecessarily excluded from participation in public life or civic affairs because of their faith, age, disability, gender, race, sexual orientation, or other irrelevant personal attribute.

While I agree with the underlying sentiment of this principle, I find it disappointing that, as both the ‘Freedom Commissioner’ and also the Commissioner with responsibility for LGBTI issues, you have not explicitly mentioned gender identity or intersex status as part of this principle. These two protected attributes from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 should be included.

Principle 8: When considering issues that affect the rights of others, it is necessary to provide equal opportunities to enlarge and consider their perspectives with the objective of accommodating and enlarging the human rights of all.

This principle appears to contradict the Statement of purpose, described above – specifically, given most contentious issues surrounding religious freedom in fact concern its intersection with the right to non-discrimination of LGBTI Australians, it is objectionable that LGBTI people and organisations are not included in this roundtable from the beginning.

Principle 10: Individuals and communities of faith will continue to constructively work with government and other public agencies to uphold the law and improve Australia’s moral and spiritual guidance.

As with principle 3, above, as an atheist I reject the implication that Australia, as a secular nation, necessarily requires ‘moral and spiritual guidance’ from organised religion.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide comments on your proposal to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Roundtable’, including on its draft ‘Statement of purposes and Guiding principles.’

If you would like to clarify any of the above, or require further information, please contact me at the details below.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[i] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/projects/religious-freedom-roundtable-call-submissions

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] ALRC, “Freedoms Inquiry Interim Report”, August 2015, para 4.1, page 97. See http://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/alrc127

[iv] Ibid, para 4.39, page 104.

[v] Sub-section 37(2): Paragraph (1)(d) does not apply to an act or practice of a body established for religious purposes if: (a) the act or practice is connected with the provision, by the body, of Commonwealth-funded aged care; and (b) the act or practice is not connected with the employment of persons to provide that aged care.

[vi] https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/DRAFT_ReligiousFreedomRoundtable_2015_AHRC_1.pdf

[vii] See my full submission here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/10/27/submission-to-rights-responsibilities-2014-consultation/

[viii] Ibid.

No Referendum. No Plebiscite. Just Pass the Bill.

The following is my submission to the current Senate Inquiry into whether there should be a referendum or plebiscite into marriage equality. As you can tell from the title of this post, I am strongly against both.

For more information, or to make your own submission, go here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Marriage_Plebiscite

Committee Secretary

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

PO Box 6100

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

legcon.sen@aph.gov.au

Saturday 29 August 2015

Dear Committee Members

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO “THE MATTER OF A POPULAR VOTE, IN THE FORM OF A PLEBISCITE OR REFERENDUM, ON THE MATTER OF MARRIAGE IN AUSTRALIA”

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission on the question of whether Australia should hold a ‘public vote’ on the issue of marriage equality, and if so what form and timing such a vote should take.

My overall response to this question is that a marriage equality plebiscite or referendum would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore should not be held.

My detailed responses to the terms of reference to the inquiry are set out below.

a. An assessment of the content and implications of a question to be put to electors

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

b. An examination of the resources required to enact such an activity, including the question of the contribution of Commonwealth funding to the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

c. An assessment of the impact of the timing of such an activity, including the opportunity for it to coincide with a general election

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

d. Whether such an activity is an appropriate method to address matters of equality and human rights

It is absolutely inappropriate to use a ‘public vote’ to determine whether all people should be treated equally under the law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The recognition of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should not be subject to a popularity contest, and only granted if enough people express the view, through such a vote, that we are ‘worthy’.

In circumstances where it is not already formally recognised, the right for all couples to be married under secular law should be recognised in the usual place and in the usual way – in our nation’s parliament.

Turning specifically to the question of a referendum, the High Court has already found that the Commonwealth Parliament has the constitutional power to introduce marriage equality.

In the 2013 case overturning the Australian Capital Territory’s same-sex marriage laws, the High Court stated, unequivocally, that: “[w]hen used in s51(xxi), “marriage” is a term which includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.”[i]

This makes those who argue for a ‘constitutional referendum’ on this subject, or who even suggest that one could be held, seem to be one of two things, either:

  1. Completely lacking in understanding of the Constitution, and the Australian system of government generally (and arguably dangerously ill-informed where such people are current parliamentarians)

Or

  1. Motivated by a desire to block the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex Australians by whatever means necessary, even by holding an unnecessary referendum, solely because it imposes a higher threshold for success (the requirement to be passed by both a majority of voters, and a majority of voters in a majority of states).

While there are fewer legal arguments against holding a plebiscite on marriage equality, there remain strong reasons why it would be inappropriate.

First, as described above, whether human rights are recognised or not should not be determined through a popularity contest.

Second, the result of any such plebiscite would not be binding on the Parliament, and there would obviously be no requirement for a successful result to be recognised immediately (as demonstrated by the 1977 plebiscite on the national anthem, which was not legislated until 1984).

Third, and related to the above, the suggestion to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality appears to be nothing more than a delaying tactic, designed to hold off the prospect of full equality for LGBTI Australians for at least another term, or more (especially given Prime Minister Abbott has expressed his desire for it to be held after the next federal election, and even then after the referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians).

Fourth, and finally, it should be noted that the same people who are arguing for a plebiscite now (including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Deputy Liberal Leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Treasurer Joe Hockey) voted against marriage equality in the Parliament in August 2004 and, joined by Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, did so again in September 2012.

At no point did they express the view that parliamentarians voting on marriage equality was somehow inappropriate – at least while the Parliament was voting ‘No’.

Indeed, in May, responding to the Irish marriage equality referendum and rejecting a similar proposal here, Prime Minister Abbott said that: “questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth Parliament”.[ii]

The only thing that appears to have changed is that, unlike 2004 and 2012, and were a Liberal Party conscience vote to be granted, marriage equality legislation would have a reasonable chance of success in 2015.

Which only makes the decision to reject the concept of a parliamentary vote, in favour of a plebiscite, appear even worse.

It is not just moving the goalposts, it is changing the fundamental rules of the game, to thwart opponents who simply want the right to be treated equally under the law.

It is beyond unreasonable, it is hypocritical and grossly unfair, and should be rejected.

A referendum or plebiscite on marriage equality would also be extraordinarily wasteful.

Public estimates of the cost of holding such a vote (particularly when it is a standalone ballot, which is the preference of Prime Minister Abbott) have put the figure at in excess of $100 million.[iii]

This is extraordinarily expensive, particularly given introducing marriage equality is something that could be done by our nation’s Parliament in the ordinary course of events, at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, if the Abbott Liberal-National Government genuinely wants to spend $100-150 million on issues of concern to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, then might I suggest the following:

  • Implementing the reforms recommended by the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, to end this gross violation of human rights
  • Removing out-of-pocket medical expenses for transgender Australians
  • Increasing funding for the Safe Schools Coalition to ensure it reaches students in every school across the country and
  • Funding housing services for LGBTI young people, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

All of these suggestions, and indeed a great many others, would be better uses of public monies than throwing millions of dollars away on an unnecessary, inappropriate and wasteful plebiscite or referendum.

In addition to the above reasons, it should also be acknowledged that a public vote on marriage equality has the potential to be incredibly divisive, and therefore dangerous.

This is because any referendum or plebiscite would necessarily stir up homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in the community, and especially in the media.

We experienced a small taste of what such a debate would look like this week when the Daily Telegraph newspaper devoted its front page, and several pages thereafter, to attacking the idea that students should be exposed to the reality that rainbow families exist, and are normal (with one columnist even ‘bravely’ telling a 12 year old girl that her family was not normal).

The only positive aspect of this outrageous and horrific ‘beat-up’ is that it has gradually receded in prominence, replaced by other stories as part of the regular news cycle.

Unfortunately, the holding of a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would all but ensure that such stories were featured prominently for days, weeks or even months on end.

We should not underestimate the damage that such a vote would cause.

Research consistently finds that young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, and have substantially higher rates of suicide than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts, with one of the main causes being the discrimination and prejudice to which they are exposed every day.

A bitter and protracted public debate, about whether who they are should be treated equally under the law or not, would inevitably have a significant, negative impact on their mental health.

But they would not be the only ones adversely affected. A nasty campaign against the equality of LGBTI families, which would be an inevitable part of any public vote, would also negatively impact on the wellbeing of the children of these families.

Indeed, nearly all LGBTI Australians would probably be affected in some way by the holding of a public vote to determine whether we should continue to be treated as second class citizens by our own country or not. Such a vote should not be held.

A plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive. It should be comprehensively rejected by this Inquiry, and by the Commonwealth Parliament.

e. The terms of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive.

I therefore call on all Senators to reject the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate, and to resist any and all attempts to hold a plebiscite or referendum on this subject in the future.

f. Any other related matters

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever to hold a referendum on something which the High Court has already found is within the power of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Nor is there any justification to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality. I am 37 years old, and there has not been a federal plebiscite in my lifetime.

It is bizarre, and offensive, that the first plebiscite since 1977 should be held to determine whether my relationship should be treated equally under the law.

My fiancé Steven and I recently celebrated our 7th anniversary. We have been engaged for more than five and a half years. We, like thousands of other LGBTI couples in Australia, are done waiting.

We have gone to protests, we have written submissions, we have commented in the media, we have patiently (and sometimes less than patiently) campaigned for change.

Finally, when the numbers for reform appear to exist within the Parliament, if not this year then certainly after the 2016 election (irrespective of who wins), Prime Minister Abbott and the Liberal-National Government he leads seek to change the rules.

Despite voting against my equality for more than a decade, without reservation, he and his colleagues now believe that this is not something which can be determined by the Commonwealth Parliament.

Plainly, they are wrong. Marriage equality can and should be passed, in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the same places where it was banned in August 2004.

And, if our current House of Representatives MPs and Senators will not do their job, if they refuse to legislate for the equal right to marry for all Australians irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then the Australian people must do their job next year and vote them out. Because LGBTI Australians have waited long enough.

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

[i] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55, para 38.

[ii] “Gay Marriage Referendum in Australia Dismissed by Tony Abbott”, ABC News Online, 25 May 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-24/leaders-dismiss-same-sex-marriage-referendum-in-australia/6493180

[iii] “Williams said the average cost of a referendum was between $100m and $150m outside an election and half that if it was held in conjunction with an election”: “Tony Abbott says no to referendum on same-sex marriage, despite Irish vote”, Guardian Australia, 24 May 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/24/tony-abbott-says-no-to-referendum-on-same-sex-marriage-despite-irish-vote

Will Christine Forster Apologise for her Pre-Election Column?

Ms Christine Forster

cforster@cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au

Monday 24 August 2015

Dear Ms Forster,

I am writing to you concerning an opinion piece you wrote before the 2013 Federal Election for the Star Observer called “Vote Liberal for Real Change”.[i]

Specifically, you began by writing:

“You only have one vote on September 7 and this election is the most important in a generation.

“For many of us in the GLBTI community marriage equality is a key political issue at a federal level and the positions of the two major parties on this important question are virtually the same. Both are leaving it up to their new members of parliament to decide, after the election” [emphasis added].

It was abundantly clear at the time that this description was inaccurate – that in no way, shape or form could the positions of Labor and the Coalition be described as “virtually the same”.

Indeed, as I commented on your opinion piece at the time:

“The second paragraph in this op-ed is rubbish. No, Ms Forster, the positions of the two major parties on this important question are NOT virtually the same.

“One major party has a party platform in favour of marriage equality, rules which guarantee its MPs a conscience vote, a majority of sitting MPs who voted in favour of marriage equality just last year, a Prime Minister who supports it, and a commitment to reintroduce a Bill within 100 days.

“The other – your brother’s Coalition – has left it up to whoever is elected at this election to decide whether to even have a conscience vote (with the possibility that there is not a conscience vote/all its MPs are forced to vote against), a Leader who continues to oppose marriage equality, and who does not expect a Bill to even arise in the next parliament, and not a single sitting MP who voted for marriage equality in 2012 (despite Liberals always saying that backbenchers can vote freely on every Bill).

“I don’t know what your definition of ‘virtually the same’ is, but it is in no dictionary that I can find.”

Unfortunately, the description that you used then has turned out to be even more inaccurate now, almost two years later.

The Labor Opposition today is led by a supporter of marriage equality, who has made a similar commitment to his predecessor (to introduce a Bill within 100 days, if elected), with the vast majority of ALP MPs and Senators indicating they will vote in favour of marriage equality when it next comes to a vote.

Meanwhile, the Liberal-National Government remains led by a Prime Minister who is strongly opposed to the full legal equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and a Coalition party room that spoke two to one against even allowing a conscience vote on the subject, meaning only a small handful of Coalition MPs will be able to vote in favour of reform.

To make matters worse, the Abbott Liberal-National Government is apparently intent on denying a House of Representatives vote on this matter during the current term of parliament (by using its numbers on the Selection of Bills Committee), instead concentrating on finding ways to defer the issue for yet another term, even considering the option of an inappropriate and unnecessary constitutional referendum to help ‘stack the decks’ against marriage equality.

Given all of the above, I have two simple questions for you:

  1. Do you now concede that your pre-election opinion piece was inaccurate?
  2. Will you apologise to anyone who was silly enough to actually believe what you wrote?

I look forward to receiving your correspondence addressing the above questions.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[i] 4 September 2013: http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/election-opinion-vote-liberal-for-real-change/108960

Christine Forster (source: ABC).

Christine Forster (source: ABC).