Submission to Inquiry into the Status of the Human Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is currently holding an inquiry into ‘religious freedom’, although sadly it is disproportionately focused on promoting the freedom to, rather than freedom from, religious belief. My submission below attempts to redress this imbalance. For more details on the inquiry, click here.

 

Committee Secretary

Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

PO Box 6021

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2066

religionorbelief@aph.gov.au

 

Dear Committee Secretary

 

Inquiry into the Status of the Human Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to the above-named inquiry.

 

In this submission, I will be focusing on Term of Reference 4, namely:

 

“Australian efforts, including those of Federal, State and Territory governments and non-government organisations, to protect and promote the freedom of religion or belief in Australia and around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region.”

 

In my view, Australian Governments, of all levels, all-too-often promote the freedom of religion – and in particular, the freedom of christian beliefs – at the expense of the equally-important freedom from religion.

 

The imposition of christianity on others, including on those who are atheist or have no religious belief, as well as its negative consequences for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians (who may or may not be christian themselves), can be observed in multiple ways.

 

Symbolically, there is a range of ways in which christianity is treated preferentially in Australian law which I believe is inappropriate in a country which is, or at least should be, secular (and by that I mean a nation that does not favour, or disfavour, any particular belief or lack of belief).

 

This includes having a formal head of state (the King or Queen of England) who is also, as a function of this role, the symbolic head of a christian denomination (the Anglican church), as well as the fact that each Commonwealth parliamentary sitting day begins with the recitation of a christian statement (the lord’s prayer).

 

More substantively, there are a number of ways in which the principle of separation of church and state – which should operate to protect both secular government, and the free exercise of religion, including freedom from religion – has been fundamentally breached by Federal, and State and Territory, Governments. This is especially apparent in education, and particularly in relation to public schools.

 

First, the inclusion of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) or Special Religious Education (SRE) in the school timetable is completely inappropriate because religious indoctrination, which is primarily christian indoctrination, should have no place in public classrooms.

 

On a practical level, SRI/SRE is also flawed for several reasons, including that it regularly operates as an ‘opt-out’ system rather than ‘opt-in’, and also because the ‘choice’ in many state schools is limited to either attending a lesson of christian indoctrination, or doing nothing (there can be few better examples of wasting time than mandating some students do not learn anything at all because other students are learning about their particular god or gods, something that should instead be taking place in the home or their respective place of worship).

 

SRI/SRE also frequently has a detrimental impact on LGBTI students. This is because it is disproportionately conducted by evangelical christians who, as numerous publicly-reported examples demonstrate, are more likely to express anti-LGBTI views, causing harm to students who are not cisgender and/or heterosexual.

 

As recently noted by crikey[i]:“While religious groups complain about the teaching of sex education issues, the [NSW Government] review found that religious instruction teachers were “overstepping the mark” in addressing issues of sexuality and explicitly expressing homophobic views.”

 

A second example of the fundamental breach of the separation of church and state in relation to government schools, which infringes upon the freedom from religion, can be found in the long-running, controversial National School Chaplaincy Program, which involves the (mis)use of public monies to pay public schools to hire people who – at least for the majority of the scheme’s existence – must be religious in order to be employed.

 

Despite guidelines that stipulate these religious (and in the vast majority of cases, christian) appointees must not ‘proselytise’ in the classroom or schoolyard, it is inevitable that many will – with evidence that they have repeatedly done so collected over many years[ii].

 

From my perspective there can be no proper policy justification for the allocation of literally hundreds of millions of Commonwealth, and therefore taxpayer, dollars on a program that preferentially employs people of a religious background (and excludes people who are not religious).

 

This breach is especially egregious because if public money is to be provided to promote student welfare, then that money should be directed towards employing the best qualified people to do so – trained school counsellors, who may or may not be religious (but whose religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are irrelevant to their ability to perform the role) – rather than ‘chaplains’ who must be of a religious background.

 

These two policies – SRI/SRE, and the National School Chaplaincy Program – are clear examples of the preferential treatment of religion, and primarily christianity, in contemporary Australia.

 

However, the most fundamental way in which the freedom from religion is infringed upon in Commonwealth, State and Territory policy is through the operation of ‘religious exceptions’ to anti-discrimination laws.

 

While appropriate recognition of freedom of religion would accord individuals and groups the right to hold beliefs, to celebrate those beliefs through religious ceremonies, as well as to appoint ministers of religion and other religious office-holders, these religious exceptions go far beyond what is necessary to achieve those aims.

 

Instead, they allow religious organisations to discriminate against employees, and in many cases against people accessing services, in an extraordinarily broad range of situations.

 

This includes discrimination in key areas of public life (including health and education), discrimination against people on the basis of irrelevant factors (for example, refusing to hire a qualified mathematics teacher on the basis of their sexual orientation), and discrimination in the use of public funds (in a number of circumstances, religious organisations are permitted to discriminate even where the service involved is part, even in large part, publicly-funded).

 

Of course, many religious organisations will argue that the ability to discriminate in each of these situations is necessary to ‘manifest beliefs in community with others’. However, such rights are not, and should not be, unfettered.

 

As observed by the Australian Human Rights Commission in their submission to this Inquiry:

 

“Legitimate limitations on the freedom to manifest a religion or belief in worship, observance or practice must be prescribed by law and necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

 

Anti-discrimination laws, such as the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, exist to protect a variety of groups against harm – effectively protecting their fundamental rights and freedoms – and they should not be undermined by the granting of special rights to discriminate to religious organisations.

 

It should also be noted that these religious exceptions are disproportionately used to adversely treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people[iii], who may or may not be religious themselves, but who nevertheless do not deserve to be discriminated against as they go about their daily lives simply because of who they are or who they love.

 

Essentially, religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws deny too many LGBT Australians the right to be free from religion, and free from the negative consequences of homophobia, biphobia or transphobia that is based on, or claimed to be based on[iv], religious belief.

 

Perhaps the worst examples of these laws – and the clearest demonstration of how they inherently lead to human rights abuses against LGBT people (among others) – are the religious exceptions that allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

For example, section 38 of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 not only permits discrimination against LGBT [school] employees and contract workers (which is unacceptable in and of itself), sub-section (3) also states that:

 

“Nothing… renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy in connection with the provision of education or training by an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”

 

Basically, under the Sex Discrimination Act, religious schools are given free rein to mistreat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, including by expelling or refusing to enrol these students (or refusing to enrol the children of rainbow families), teaching them that who they are is not okay, or in other ways treating them significantly worse than heterosexual and/or cisgender students.

 

The majority of states and territories have adopted similar provisions with NSW even going so far as allowing all non-government schools, including private schools that are not religious at all[v], to adversely treat LG and T students[vi].

 

It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of these religious schools are in receipt of Commonwealth, and State or Territory, funds, including from LGBT taxpayers – the notion that my taxes are being used by these organisations to actively discriminate against young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students is both heartbreaking, and infuriating.

 

But, even if absolutely no taxpayer funds were involved, allowing religious schools to discriminate in this way would still be a fundamental breach of the human rights of these students to be who they are – including their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, which are both inherent or essential attributes – and to not be unfairly discriminated against as a result.

 

This principle is reinforced if we substitute students of different racial or ethnic backgrounds for LGBT students. We would not legally allow schools, whether government, religious or otherwise independent, to discriminate against students on the basis of their race or ethnicity. So why should we permit any school, irrespective of its ownership, to discriminate against LGBT students for who they are?

 

In short, any student, in any school, could be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex – and they each have a fundamental right to education, free from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

Logically, the only way in which this can be guaranteed is for every school to provide a learning environment that treats all students – heterosexual, cisgender and LGBTI-alike – equally.

 

In my view, the best interests of children in this situation, who are at their most vulnerable and whose protection is the responsibility of governments of all levels, especially in education which sits squarely in the public sphere, must supersede the religious beliefs of parents, or the schools themselves.

 

To suggest otherwise is to argue that LGBTI students in religious schools are just collateral damage of the ‘right’ to freedom of religion of others, and that the adverse consequences they inevitably suffer – from mistreatment and exclusion, to bullying, mental health issues and even suicide – should simply be ignored.

 

Well, I will not ignore these consequences, and I submit that this Committee, and the Commonwealth Parliament, must not ignore them either.

 

Which means that, if the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is genuinely interested in the issue of how ‘to protect and promote the freedom of religion or belief in Australia’, then it must also consider the issues of how to protect and promote the freedom from belief, and how to protect LGBTI people from the negative consequences of the religious beliefs of others.

 

This includes investigating why religious indoctrination continues to feature in the nation’s public school classrooms (in the form of Special Religious Instruction or Special Religious Education), as well as why hundreds of millions of Commonwealth dollars continue to be allocated to employing religious people in our schoolyards (through the National School Chaplaincy Program).

 

Above all, it means questioning why religious organisations should be granted special rights to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, and people accessing services (through wide-ranging ‘religious exceptions’ to anti-discrimination laws), and why religious schools are legally permitted to mistreat LGBT students simply because of who they are.

 

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide a submission to this important inquiry. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should the Committee wish to clarify any of the above, or for further information.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

Simon Birmingham

Commonwealth Education Minister Simon Birmingham, who couldn’t find $2 million per year to continue Safe Schools, but provides $60 million+ per year to the National School Chaplaincy Program.

 

Footnotes:

[i] “Homophobic, anti-science and frightening” religious instruction teachers remain in NSW, crikey, 12 April 2017.

[ii] See Chaplains accused of pushing religion in schools, ABC News, 8 April 2011 and Brisbane school chaplain being investigated for proselytizing after claiming his mission is to disciple school children and their families, Courier Mail, 18 May 2014.

[iii] It is considered unlikely that religious exceptions under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 would be employed against intersex people.

[iv] The inclusion of religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws actually encourages individuals and organisations to claim that anti-LGBTI prejudice is based on religious belief because it is less likely to attract consequences (even if the anti-LGBTI prejudice in fact has nothing to do with religion whatsoever).

[v] See NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 sections 49ZO(3), and 38K(3).

[vi] Remembering that, in 2017, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 still does not protect bisexual people against discrimination.

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15 LGBTI Priorities for ALP National Conference 2015

There are now less than 12 months left until the next Australian Labor Party National Conference. To be held in Melbourne next July 24 to 26, National Conference is still the supreme decision-making body of the (traditionally) centre-left major party of Australian politics. National Conference is therefore the main opportunity to secure ‘progressive’ change in ALP policies during this term of Parliament, including on those issues affecting the LGBTI community.

And the first National Conference held after a loss of Government, as this one will be, offers more chance than most to help ‘reset’ the direction of the Australian Labor Party, to reject some of the worst policies of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government (including the processing and resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality) and to propose new, better policies which promote the fundamental equality of LGBTI Australians.

Which means that now is the time for LGBTI activists and advocates to be considering what our priorities should be for next year’s National Conference, and to start the process of lobbying (whether from inside or outside the party) to help achieve them.

The following is my list of priorities for LGBTI reform to the Labor Party platform. It is not comprehensive – I’m sure other people will have slightly different priorities, and I welcome feedback, particularly on issues which I have (either consciously or unconsciously) excluded. But I thought I would share this list to ‘kick off’ the debate, and help ensure we start planning our actions towards ALP National Conference 2015.

1. Remove religious exemptions from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984

One of the most important reforms of the previous Labor Government was the introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections under Commonwealth law for the first time. The passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, albeit some 38 years after the Racial Discrimination Act and 29 years since the passage of the original Sex Discrimination Act, was indeed a historic achievement.

However, it was also a fundamentally flawed one, because it included wide-ranging exemptions allowing religious organisations to discriminate against employees, and people accessing services, on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

These exemptions are a blight on the Sex Discrimination Act and will undermine lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality for as long as they exist. It is essential that ALP National Conference adopts a policy of removing religious exemptions from Commonwealth law, outside of the appointment of ministers of religion, and the conduct of religious ceremonies (ie those exemptions genuinely necessary for the exercise of religious freedom, not those which some religious organisations wish to use simply to discriminate against LGBT people across multiple areas of public life).

And while many may see this goal as unachievable, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 itself showed that it is indeed possible. By rejecting religious exemptions with respect to intersex status, and simultaneously ensuring that religious exemptions do not apply to LGBT people accessing aged care services, the last Parliament demonstrated that religious exemptions are not inviolable. It’s time to persuade the majority of delegates to next year’s National Conference to agree.

For more on this subject, see The Last Major Battle for Gay & Lesbian Equality Won’t be About Marriage <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/26/the-last-major-battle-for-gay-lesbian-legal-equality-in-australia-wont-be-about-marriage/

2. Introduce Commonwealth LGBTI anti-vilification protections

One of the major social policy debates in the 1st half of 2014 concerned Attorney-General George Brandis’ exposure draft Bill seeking to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a move that would have essentially gutted racial anti-vilification protections under Commonwealth law.

Fortunately, unlike many other social and economic ‘reforms’ put forward by the Abbott regime in its first 12 months in office, this move was soundly rejected, with a significant public backlash, as well as a strong pushback by the Australian Labor Party.

Well, now that racial anti-vilification protections have been saved, it’s time for the ALP to support the introduction of Commonwealth anti-vilification protections for LGBTI Australians.

No-one can seriously argue that homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia aren’t real, and substantial, problems in modern public life. We, as LGBTI Australians, deserve the same protections from vilification as other groups receive from different kinds of abuse. Nothing more and nothing less.

For more on this subject, see Don’t Limit Racial Vilification Protections, Introduce Vilification Protections for LGBTI Australians Instead
<https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/24/dont-limit-racial-vilification-protections-introduce-vilification-protections-for-lgbti-australians-instead/

3. Implement the recommendations of the Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia

Another key development during the last term of Parliament was the Senate’s inquiry into the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people (to see the full report, click here: <http://www.aph.gov.au/~/media/Committees/Senate/committee/clac_ctte/involuntary_sterilisation/second_report/report.ashx and to see my submission to that inquiry, click here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/01/submission-to-involuntary-and-coerced-sterilisation-senate-inquiry/ ).

These practices, which shamefully continue today, are some of the most serious human rights violations, not just of LGBTI Australians, but of any person in contemporary Australia.

While the recommendations of the Senate inquiry are by no means comprehensive, their implementation would be a good start towards ensuring that intersex children are no longer subjected to unnecessary and unjustified ‘medical procedures’, and certainly not before they are in a position to either grant, or withhold, consent.

A related reform would be to support the removal of the exemption from policy frameworks on Female Genital Mutilation which permit such surgical interventions on intersex girls for rationales that include cultural issues such as marriage opportunities. A principle of non-discrimination should apply in all circumstances. For more information on this see OII Australia’s third submission to the Senate Inquiry, here: <http://oii.org.au/22613/third-submission-senate-inquiry-sterilisation/

4. Remove all out-of-pocket costs for trans* surgeries

The ability of people to access whatever medical support they require to affirm their gender identity isn’t just fundamental to their mental and physical health, it is a fundamental human right. As such, access to trans* surgeries and related medical procedures should not be restricted by the capacity to pay, but instead should be fully publicly subsidised through Medicare.

The Shorten Labor Opposition has been strong in standing up against the Abbott Government’s moves towards a US-style ‘user pays’ health system in Australia. They should be equally firm in asserting the right to full public funding of trans*-related medical expenses, including ensuring no out-of-pocket expenses for trans* surgeries.

5. Training for health professionals on trans*, gender diverse & intersex issues

The last two priorities – intersex sterilisation and trans* medical expenses – demonstrate the ongoing influence of health professionals in the lives of trans*, gender diverse and intersex people. That influence has the potential to be positive, but unfortunately in too many situations can and does directly lead to harm, often of a serious and/or permanent nature.

One of the key ways to overcome these negative impacts is to increase the basic knowledge of health professionals about trans*, gender diverse and intersex issues through introductory, and ongoing, training (which could also be used to increase knowledge about the health needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual people at the same time – although arguably, and leaving people like Dr David Van Gend and Philip Pocock aside, sexual orientation is treated marginally better than gender identity and intersex status by health professionals).

Hopefully by addressing the sometimes woeful level of (mis)understanding of trans*, gender diverse and intersex issues by health professionals we can go some way to changing some of the health indicators where trans*, gender diverse and intersex (and also lesbian, gay and bisexual) individuals ‘underperform’ compared to other Australians.

6. Introduce a genuinely-inclusive national Health & Physical Education curriculum

The draft national Health & Physical Education curriculum was developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority (ACARA) during 2012 and 2013, primarily while Peter Garrett was Education Minister – although briefly under the responsibility of then Minister Bill Shorten, too.

Unfortunately, even before the incoming Education Minister Christopher Pyne got his hands on it, the draft HPE curriculum was unambiguously a dud. It failed to be inclusive of LGBTI students and content – it doesn’t use the words lesbian, gay or bisexual once – and also failed to ensure that all schools would provide comprehensive sexual health education to students (scandalously, it doesn’t even refer to HIV or other blood borne viruses at all in the entire document).

And after Minister Pyne delegated the review of the overall national curriculum, including HPE, to noted homophobe Kevin Donnelly (alongside Ken Wiltshire), the version which will ultimately be adopted sometime later this term is likely to be even worse, especially in terms of its LGBTI-inclusiveness (or lack thereof).

This outcome will be a huge, and sadly bipartisan, missed opportunity, to improve the lives of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people around the country.

The Labor Party should accept its share of responsibility for this – and take action at the 2015 National Conference to remedy it, by including a commitment in the party’s platform to introduce a genuinely LGBTI-inclusive national Health & Physical Education curriculum.

To see my letter to Minister Pyne calling for Kevin Donnelly to be sacked from the Students First Review, click here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/01/11/letter-to-minister-pyne-re-health-physical-education-curriculum-and-appointment-of-mr-kevin-donnelly/ and a copy of my submission to the review of the national curriculum can be found here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/

Will Bill Shorten support full LGBTI equality at ALP National Conference 2015?

Will Bill Shorten support full LGBTI equality at ALP National Conference 2015?

7. Provide long-term commitment to support Safe Schools

On the other hand, one of the best things which the Labor Government did with respect to LGBTI students and young people in its last term in office was to provide a 3-year, $8 million grant to the Foundation for Young Australians to support the national roll-out of the Victorian Safe Schools Coalition program.
Perhaps surprisingly, this initiative has (so far) not been cut by the Abbott Government, and the NSW launch of Safe Schools was held at the end of July 2014, with other states to follow.

With the need for multiple programs to address the ongoing problems of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in our schools, which we know takes a terrible, and often tragic, toll in terms of poorer mental health outcomes, I would like to see a clear commitment in the ALP platform to support the Safe Schools program on an ongoing basis into the future.

8. Provide ongoing funding for LGBTI service delivery organisations

The last Labor Government also provided a range of other important grants supporting LGBTI service delivery, including funding for the National LGBTI Health Alliance with respect to developing the aged care and ageing strategy, and $3.3 million over 2 years to the QLife counselling service, commencing July 2013.

Obviously, these issues – LGBTI aged care and ageing requirements, and the need for dedicated LGBTI counselling services – are not going away anytime soon. As such, the national platform should explicitly support the provision of ongoing funding to LGBTI service delivery organisations, including the National LGBTI Health Alliance and also other peak trans*, intersex, lesbian, gay and bisexual service delivery organisations, to ensure these types of programs aren’t simply ad hoc, disappearing after two or three years, but become a permanent part of the health and community services sector.

9. Appoint a Spokesperson for Equality

The first Commonwealth (Minister or) Assistant Minister for Women was appointed by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1976, and it has been a permanent portfolio at federal level (in some shape or form) since it was reintroduced by Prime Minister Hawke in 1983.

However, there has never been a corresponding portfolio for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and issues – and I would argue it is long overdue. The Victorian Opposition Leader, Daniel Andrews, showed the way in May 2013 by appointing Martin Foley as the Victorian Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Equality, the first position of its kind in the country.

It’s time that the federal Labor Party did the same – and, given Bill Shorten did not create an equality portfolio when he was elected leader late last year, there is no reason why the 2015 National Conference shouldn’t create one for him.

Of course, putting LGBTI policies on a sustainable footing takes more than simply appointing one spokesperson within caucus. If elected, the ALP should also introduce LGBTI ministerial advisory bodies, either reporting directly to the Equality Minister/Assistant Minister, or separate bodies advising key portfolios which affect the LGBTI community (including Health, Education and Attorney-General’s). This is essential to help ensure the voice of the LGBTI is heard, loud and clear, by the government.

10. Support anti-homophobia, -biphobia, -transphobia and -intersexphobia campaigns and initiatives

Law reforms aimed at combatting the suite of ‘phobias’, such as the removal of religious exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act, and introducing LGBTI anti-vilification protections, are absolutely essential, but are not in and of themselves enough to address the problems of anti-LGBTI discrimination in society.

That requires a more co-ordinated and sustained effort, including support for public education campaigns, like the Victorian Government’s support for the No To Homophobia initiative. There is no reason why a similar, broad-based national campaign should not be funded.

It also means supporting the efforts of organisations like the Australian Human Rights Commission in addressing discrimination outside specific complaints (such as their work with sporting groups on lesbian, gay and bisexual discrimination and, hopefully sometime in the near future, on anti-trans* and -intersex prejudice on the playing field, too).

Speaking of the AHRC, it is simply unacceptable in 2014 for there not to be a dedicated, full-time LGBTI commissioner. The challenges presented by LGBTI discrimination are complex and unique, and should not be subsumed within another policy area – and certainly not be seen as a part-time job of the so-called ‘Freedom Commissioner’, who only last year was arguing the LGBTI people should not be protected from discrimination under the law, unless that discrimination was by Government. ALP National Conference 2015 should support a real, full-time LGBTI commissioner at the Human Rights Commission.

11. Make support for LGBTI human rights an explicit goal of Australia’s foreign policy

One of the more pleasing political developments in recent years has been the growth in bipartisan support for Australian engagement to support LGBTI human rights internationally.

Of course, with roughly 80 countries criminalising homosexuality – and more than half of those countries members of the Commonwealth – there is plenty of scope for Australia to do more, and specifically to support any and all moves towards decriminalisation, as well as broader legal and cultural acceptance of diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Given the scale of this challenge, I believe the ALP should adopt support for LGBTI human rights as an explicit priority of international engagement and foreign policy in the 2015 National Platform.

12. Introduce a binding vote for ALP MPs on marriage equality

This is the issue which will dominate discussion, at least from an LGBTI perspective (and possibly in terms of media coverage as well), ahead of next year’s national conference. I have listed it at number 12, not because I think it is any more or less important than the other issues included, but to highlight the fact that there are actually other important topics that require our attention prior to next July’s gathering.

Having said that, readers of my blog would be aware that this is something that I feel passionately about, having already written a lengthy post about why #ItsTimeToBind for Australian Labor on marriage equality (see: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/ ).

In short, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever why a collectivist party, which binds on nearly all policy issues, should make an exception to allow some of its MPs to vote against the fundamental equality of all couples. That is simply legitimising prejudice on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, it is wrong, and it must end.

13. Abolish the National School Chaplaincy Program

This issue, and the next, are not explicitly (or at least not exclusively) LGBTI policy issues. But they are issues which do have an impact, and a potentially disproportionate impact at that, on the LGBTI community.

In the case of the National School Chaplaincy Program, not only is it a gross waste of money (especially in a supposedly ‘tight’ fiscal environment), as well as a completely unjustified breach of the separation of church and state, it is also a program which potentially exposes thousands of young LGBTI students to the prejudices of religious fundamentalists who are keen to tell them that they are wrong for simply being who they are.

There have already been multiple reports of such abuse (including those outlined in one of Senator Louise Pratt’s final speeches in the Senate – see here for a transcript <http://thatsmyphilosophy.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/senator-louise-pratt-on-school-chaplaincy/ ) and it would be unsurprising, to say the least, if they were simply the tip of the iceberg, given the hate-driven ideology of some groups involved in religious programs and activities in schools around the country.

Overall, the main reasons to abolish the National School Chaplaincy Program aren’t necessarily LGBTI-related (see my post Dear Joe Hockey, $245million for Schools Chaplains? You Cannot Be Serious <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/05/15/dear-joe-hockey-245-million-for-school-chaplains-you-cannot-be-serious/ ). But the LGBTI community still has an undeniable interest in supporting a platform change so that the ALP commits to abolishing the scheme, in its entirety, when it returns to office.

14. End the offshore processing & resettlement of refugees

As with chaplaincy, this is not an exclusively LGBTI policy issue – after all, the fact that Australia ‘exports’ asylum-seekers who arrive by boat, imprisoning them for several years in either Nauru or Papua New Guinea (tragically it seems at the risk of being killed, by violence or by criminal negligence), with the aim of ‘resettlement’ in those same countries despite their comparative lack of resources, is wrong no matter what the sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status of the person(s) involved.

But the fact that LGBTI refugees are being placed at increased risk, given both Nauru and PNG retain colonial (including Australian colonial) era laws criminalising homosexuality, adds both an extra layer of oppression, as well as additional motivation for LGBTI advocates and activists to call for the end of offshore processing and resettlement – something that, depressingly, was reintroduced by the last Labor Government. It’s up to delegates at the 2015 National Conference to correct this appalling mistake.

For more on this issue, see my letter to Minister Scott Morrison, calling for an end to this situation (including his Department’s exceptionally disappointing response: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/02/letter-to-scott-morrison-about-treatment-of-lgbti-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-sent-to-manus-island-png/ ) as well as my piece 13 Highs & Lows of 2013: No 1. Australia sends LGBTI refugees to countries which criminalise homosexuality (<https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/27/no-1-australia-sends-lgbti-refugees-to-countries-which-criminalise-homosexuality/ ).

15. Support the pre-selection of openly-LGBTI candidates for winnable seats

This issue potentially can’t wait until National Conference 2015, with some jurisdictions having already commenced the pre-selection process for the next federal election, due in September 2016. However, if nothing is done on this between now and next July then I believe National Conference should step in.

As I have written previously, there has still never been an openly LGBTI MP in the Australian House of Representatives (see: <
https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/11/16/lgbti-voices-absent-from-the-chamber/ ), leaving us well behind our counterparts in the UK, Canada, New Zealand and even the US.

From an ALP point of view, while former Cabinet Minister Senator Penny Wong continues to blaze a trail (and is now Leader of the Opposition in the Senate), LGBTI-community representation has actually halved this year, with the homophobe Joe Bullock replacing Louise Pratt at April’s WA election re-run.

The issue of LGBTI under-representation in Parliament was actually identified as a priority to be addressed by Bill Shorten while he was campaigning for the Labor leadership in September and October 2013. While his possible solution was controversial (he suggested that quotas be considered, in a similar way to affirmative action rules for women), he was right to highlight the lack of diversity in caucus as a long-term problem to be overcome (noting of course that it also took until 2013 for Labor to elect an Aboriginal MP in either House).

Well, history shows he won that ballot, and it is now almost 12 months later, with pre-selections commencing – so it’s time for Opposition Leader Shorten to follow through on his interest in this issue and put forward his ideas on how the ALP can overcome any structural barriers that it has that has meant no openly LGBTI candidate has ever been pre-selected for a winnable seat.

If he does not, if the pre-selection process continues as normal with LGBTI candidates continuing to be excluded, and Mr Shorten does not put forward any concrete proposals for increasing LGBTI representation inside the ALP, then I think we should be actively considering quotas, or other potential ideas to increase LGBTI representation in the Commonwealth Parliament, as amendments to the Party’s Rules at next year’s conference.

So, there you have it, my list of 15 LGBTI policy priorities for next year’s ALP National Conference. As you can see, it’s not comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination. In particular, I have not included nationally-consistent, best practice birth certificate reforms (affecting both trans* and intersex individuals, in different ways), in part because, being honest, I do not fully understand the issues involved, and in part because some activists may prefer to pursue this at state level (which currently has constitutional power), rather than federally. But I very much welcome feedback on what possible platform amendments in that area would look like (hint: feel free to leave a comment below).

Of course, this list will nevertheless still be criticised by some within the ALP – either because they see it as somehow too radical, or because they would prefer to adopt a ‘small target’ strategy ahead of the next election. And of course it would attract negative comments from those opposed to any form of LGBTI equality.

But I make no apologies for the fact that we should be pursuing what these critics might attack as a ‘gay agenda’ – because there is nothing wrong with pursuing an agenda of inclusivity and equality. None of the reforms above are unnecessary, or unjustified. Each would improve the lives of LGBTI people.

And all of them should be adopted by a Party that, even if only occasionally, still likes to use the word progressive to describe itself. It’s up to us to make sure that as many of these policies are adopted as possible at next year’s National Conference. It’s time to make sure the ALP stands up for substantive LGBTI equality.

Dear Joe Hockey, $245 million for School Chaplains? You Cannot be Serious

Just over a month ago I wrote to you arguing that, if you were serious about cutting Commonwealth expenditure, you must axe the National School Chaplaincy Program. (link: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/12/dear-joe-hockey-if-youre-serious-about-cutting-expenditure-you-must-axe-school-chaplains/ )

This program is a completely unjustifiable breach of the principle of the separation of church and state, supporting the appointment of people whose primary ‘qualification’ is their religion to positions in secular, government-run schools. It is also ineffective, with little or no evidence that employing chaplains benefits students overall (especially when compared with appointing properly-trained and qualified student welfare workers or counsellors).

Above all, with the National School Chaplaincy Program costing more than $50 million each and every year, this initiative is the epitome of waste. $50 million per year may not have seemed like a huge spend when it was first introduced (as Howard and Costello bathed in the rivers of cash flowing into the treasury coffers) but, in a post-GFC world, when the revenue stream has well and truly dried up, the largesse of this scheme is apparent.

Since I wrote to you, the final report of the National Commission of Audit has been released, and, much to my surprise, they recognised both the extravagance of, and lack of policy rationale for, this scheme, recommending that it be abolished. Even your hand-picked, right-wing Audit warriors thought funding school chaplains could not be justified.

So, when you rose to your feet to deliver the Budget on Tuesday night, the pressure was on you: were you in fact serious about cutting expenditure, including abolishing wasteful and ineffective programs irrespective of which side of politics had introduced them, or did balancing the Budget not matter as much as supporting narrow, ideological interests?

Alas, in the Budget papers, we the Australian public quickly discovered that, despite all the talk of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘repairing the Budget’, you nevertheless had chosen to provide $245 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program, to continue its operation from 1 January 2015 to the end of 2018.

That decision in and of itself was terrible, but it is made worse, by several orders of magnitude, when it is contrasted with some of the other decisions contained in the Budget, including:

  • The introduction of a $7 co-payment for visiting a doctor, as well as a $5 increase in the cost of prescriptions through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme;
  • A $7.9 billion cut in the foreign aid budget over the next 5 years;
  • A $500 million cut to expenditure on indigenous programs over the next 5 years (this under the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs’);
  • A rise in the pension age from 67 to 70 (phased in to 2035), as well as a reduction in future pension increases;
  • An increase in university fees, with loans to be charged at much higher interest rates and the repayment threshold significantly lowered; and
  • The introduction of a 6-month wait for access to unemployment benefits for people under 30 (and even then, payment at a reduced rate).

That list sounds like a ‘Tea Party’ inspired re-imagining of The New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your (global) poor, your sick, your Aboriginal, your elderly, your young, your students and your unemployed, and we will make them pay.” When you spoke of ‘sharing the burden’, it seems like you almost went out of your way to ensure that the burden was shared, disproportionately, by the most vulnerable.

In that context, it looks more than bizarre that one of the main groups who do not have to experience any Budget pain are school chaplains. The decision to give them almost a quarter of a billion dollars doesn’t even make sense when looked at exclusively in the context of the Education Budget.

The $245 million provided to the National School Chaplaincy Program is the single biggest spending initiative in the budget for schools, which implies that it is the Abbott Government’s biggest school-related priority for its first year in office. This funding also stands in marked contrast to the decision not to provide any additional funding for students with disabilities, despite that being a major pre-election commitment.

Do you really think that subsidising chaplains is more important than funding students with disabilities, or indeed funding anything else to do with schools?

The worst part is that the decision to refund the School Chaplaincy program is not even the worst part about this announcement.

In Tuesday night’s media release (“Keeping our Commitments: Funding a National School Chaplaincy Program”, issued by Senator the Hon Scott Ryan, the Parliamentary for Education) the Government stated that “[t]he renewed programme will be returned to its original intent; to provide funding for school chaplains.”

As made clear, in supporting documentation and subsequent media coverage, this means that, from 1 January next year, only religious appointees, from ‘recognised denominations’, need apply.

This is a return to the Howard Government designed scheme from 2007, and abolishes the only redeeming feature of the entire program – which was the 2012 amendment, made by then Education Ministers the Hon Peter Garrett MP, to allow schools the choice to employ secular student welfare workers rather than chaplains.

In doing away with qualified student welfare workers, you have also removed the only fig-leaf of credibility which (partially) covered up the nakedly-ideological, and evidence-free, nature of the overall scheme.

It is impossible for you, and the Commonwealth Government in general, to claim that the National School Chaplaincy Program is genuinely about improving the welfare of students, when you are explicitly denying schools the opportunity to employ the best people for the job.

In the absence of any student welfare-based rationale, everyone can now see that the decision to provide new funding to the National School Chaplaincy Program is, at its core, a joke. The changes to the scheme’s rules, which mean that all 2,900 people employed under the scheme must be religious appointees, and cannot be secular student welfare workers, make it a bad joke at that.

But maybe we only see it as a bad joke because the joke is on us. After all, we the taxpayers are the ones footing the $245 million bill to allow chaplains and other religious office-holders inappropriate access to the schoolyard, and the classroom.

There are, of course, others who are laughing at our expense: the religious organisations who have their ‘outreach’ work to young impressionable minds publicly-subsidised; the religious fundamentalists in the Liberal-National Government (and, it must be said, some in the ALP Opposition) who believe it is the role of Government to ensure Australia is a ‘Christian nation’; and the major churches who want to break down, once and for all, the already fragile separation of church and state in this country.

The group laughing hardest, though, must be the Australian Christian Lobby, because this is your, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s, extravagant, quarter of a billion dollar gift to them. It must gladden your heart that, in his post-Budget media release (where it should be acknowledged he at least made the effort to criticise the overall impact of Budget cuts on the poor and disadvantaged) ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton still found time to be thankful for the Chaplaincy Program. As an aside: Lyle, if you are genuinely concerned about cuts to foreign aid, maybe you should by lobbying for that $245 million to go overseas instead.

So, when you stood up on Tuesday night and said that ‘we are a nation of lifters, not leaners’, it was, like so much of what you said, just empty rhetoric. Because, as you have so amply demonstrated through this single, fundamentally wasteful decision, groups like the Australian Christian Lobby can always lean on you.

Of course, funding the National School Chaplaincy Program for another four years, and even changing its rules, probably wasn’t the worst decision contained in the Federal Budget. It definitely isn’t the decision that will cause the most harm to struggling individuals, both here and overseas (the list of other changes outlined above will likely all have far more deleterious consequences than simply putting 2,900 religious appointees in schools).

But the decision to award $245 million to this scheme reveals, probably more than any other choice made by you and the other members of the Expenditure Review Committee, just how twisted the Budget priorities of this Government really are. In amongst the carnage of savage cuts to health, to education, to the pension and to foreign aid, you and your colleagues nevertheless found room in your hearts, and our wallets, to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program.

The role of the nation’s Treasurer is a serious one, bringing with it solemn responsibilities. You are supposed to tax wisely, spend fairly, look after the most vulnerable and invest for our collective future. In your first Budget, you instead chose to hurt some of those who are the most disadvantaged, while still helping your – ideological and political – friends. I am sorry to say, Mr Hockey, but on May 13, you failed to live up to the serious responsibilities of Treasurer.

Treasurer Joe Hockey, not serious about cutting wasteful programs like school chaplains. Is serious about granting the wishes of groups like the ACL. (image source: news.com.au)

Treasurer Joe Hockey, not serious about cutting wasteful programs like school chaplains. Is serious about granting the wishes of groups like the ACL (image source: news.com.au).

Dear Joe Hockey, If you’re serious about cutting expenditure, you must axe school chaplains

As promised during the 2013 federal election campaign, one of the first actions of the Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National Government was to establish a National Commission of Audit, to review all Commonwealth expenditure in an effort to reduce spending and ultimately deliver a Budget surplus.

Indeed, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Audit described it as a “full-scale review of the activities of the Commonwealth government to:

-ensure taxpayers are receiving value-for-money from each dollar spent;

-eliminate wasteful spending; …

-identify areas or programs where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate…” [among other objectives].

The Commission’s first report was delivered to the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in mid-February, and the second was handed over at the end of March. The contents of both reports were, quite cynically, kept from the public ahead of the Western Australian half-Senate election on 5 April (because you wouldn’t want an electorate to actually be informed about impending spending cuts before they vote), although, with only one month left until the Federal Budget is handed down it’s highly likely they will be released in the next week or two.

It is expected that the Commission will recommended that the axe fall on (or at least make significant cuts to) a wide range of different programs, with apparently ‘authorised’ leaks focusing on things like the aged pension, Medicare (through a $6 co-payment) and other vital health, education and welfare services.

However, there is one program that, I believe, meets all of the above criteria and thoroughly deserves to be cut as part of any serious expenditure review: the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. It is almost impossible to argue that putting ministers of religion into government schools could ever be value-for-money, when compared with almost any other government expense. As well as being enormously wasteful spending, it would also seem to be the definition of a program where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate.

And yet, given the highly political nature of the Commission of Audit, I suspect it is unlikely the National School Chaplaincy Program is under any real threat. Even if the Commission were to recommend its abolition, it is hard to believe that Joe Hockey would actually follow through on any such advice when he rises to the dispatch box on the night of Tuesday 13 May.

More’s the pity. The National School Chaplaincy Program is amongst the worst examples of public policy over the past decade (and there have been some absolute shockers in that time). It was introduced by John Howard in the dying days of his government (2007), as he realised his grip on power was loosening with age – basically, it was a sop to ultra-conservatives and religious fundamentalists (both of which can be found in the form of the Australian Christian Lobby) to entice them to remain aboard his sinking electoral ship.

Alas, in a demonstration that poor policy, and religious pork-barrelling, can be bipartisan, the incoming Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, maintained the National Schools Chaplaincy Program throughout his first stint in the Lodge. When it came time to review the first three years of its operation, frustratingly he and his then Deputy, Education Minister Julia Gillard, chose to continue, rather than close, the program.

As Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, Gillard then announced a $222 million extension of the program til the end of this year (2014). This money was also provided to allow for expansion of the scheme’s coverage, from 2,700 schools up to 3,550 schools.

The only figure that accomplished anything to at least partially mitigate the genuine awfulness of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program over the past seven years was Education Minister Peter Garrett, who changed the program guidelines from the start of 2012 to allow schools to choose between chaplains or qualified student counsellors (hence the revised name). He also attempted to introduce a requirement that all workers, including chaplains, have some level of relevant qualifications, although recognition of ‘prior learning’ on the job was also encouraged.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of people employed as a result of this scheme remain ministers of religion. Imagine that: in 2014, the Commonwealth Government provides up to $24,000 per year to more than three and a half thousand schools to subsidise the employment of someone whose primary ‘qualification’, indeed whose primary vocation full stop, is to proselytise.

Ironically, the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program Guidelines then go to great lengths to attempt to limit the ability of chaplains to proselytise or evangelise from their position of authority within the school community, which is about as useful as telling a tree to stop growing leaves (or telling Cory Bernardi to stop being a bigot). It seems like the apotheosis of a set of rules where adherence, rather than breach, will be the exception.

The Guidelines themselves are also full of loopholes, allowing chaplains to “provid[e] services with a spiritual content (excluding religious education) including facilitating discussion groups and lunch time clubs” with approval and consent, as well as “performing religious services/rites (such as worship or prayer during school assembly etc), with… appropriate prior consent”.

This is an obvious and serious contravention of the principle of the separation of church and state. In the United States, such a program – paying for men (and some women) of faith to introduce their religion into government schools – would be struck out as unconstitutional by their Supreme Court.

Sadly, the anaemic interpretation of section 116 of the Constitution adopted by the High Court of Australia in the “DOGS case” [Attorney-General (Vic); Ex Rel Black v Commonwealth [1981] HCA 2; (1981) 146 CLR 559 (2 February 1981)] meant that it was never going to be struck down here, or at least not on those grounds.

Even after the program was successfully challenged by Toowoomba father, and man of principle, Ron Williams in 2012, with the High Court finding that the scheme did not have a legislative basis to appropriate money, the Government squibbed the ideal chance to abandon a flawed program and instead rushed through legislation to support its ongoing operation [as an aside, the High Court will be hearing a further challenge from Mr Williams, on May 6-8 2014, that the rushed omnibus Bill was itself unconstitutional].

And even if the National School Chaplaincy Program is ultimately found to be constitutional, there is still absolutely zero evidence that it is effective at improving the overall welfare of students.

If any of the Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd (again) or now Abbott Governments genuinely considered that student welfare was a matter of priority, they would properly fund, rather than part subsidise, actual student counsellors or social workers to perform that function in every school, not implement a scheme where cashed-up churches could target individual cash-starved schools and offer the ‘services’ of ministers of religion, essentially as a backdoor way of indoctrinating a fresh generation of children.

There are ways in which the introduction of ministers of religion into schools can lead to direct harm too, not least of which being the issue of potential child sex abuse. In fact, at the same time as the hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, the Government continues to encourage the employment of ministers of religion in public schools, with a code of conduct that allows them to have physical contact with students because “there may be some circumstances where physical contact may be appropriate such as where the student is injured or distraught”. [NB Obviously I am not saying that most, or even many, school chaplains are child sex abusers, but it seems unnecessary, and unnecessarily risky, to bring in people from institutions with a long history of covering-up such abuse and placing them in positions of trust in public schools.]

In addition, some (although obviously not all) ministers of religion also present a clear and present danger to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, given the blatant homophobia adopted by particular churches and their officials. This threat is explicitly acknowledged by the Guidelines, which in response attempts to prohibit discriminatory behaviour on the basis of sexuality (although it doesn’t appear as though either gender identity or intersex status are mentioned at all).

In the same way as the prohibition on ‘proselytising’ described above, however, it is inevitable that there will be some ministers of religion, in some schools, who deliberately flout those rules, and in the process cause untold harm to young LGBTI students.

In short, the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is philosophically unsound, has no evidence that it benefits student welfare, is expensive, potentially causes harm and is clearly an inappropriate activity to be funded through taxpayers’ money. Surely, out of all of the programs funded by the Commonwealth, across almost all areas, it should be at or near the top of any Commission of Audit ‘hit-list’.

Even if the Commission of Audit abrogates its basic responsibility to recommend that the National School Chaplaincy Program be axed, Treasurer Joe Hockey will still have to make a decision on the future of the program as part of the 2014-15 Budget, because, as noted earlier, funding for the scheme runs out at the end of this year.

What action Joe Hockey takes on this will reveal a great deal about what kind of Treasurer he intends to be. Of all the incoming Abbott Ministers, Hockey has been the loudest in condemning middle-class welfare, in arguing that the role of Government must be smaller, and that inappropriate or unjustifiable programs should be cut.

Well, here is an ideal opportunity to live up to at least some of that rhetoric, savings upwards of $222 million in the process (that’s the equivalent of one and a half $6 GP co-payments for every person in Australia). If he does so on 13 May, then he should be applauded for it (noting of course that there might, just might, be some other things in the Budget that warrant a somewhat different response).

If Hockey fails to rise to the occasion, and extends or even expands funding for ministers of religion in our public schools, then it will show that he is not serious at all about reining in inappropriate spending, and does not believe in small Government – instead, it will simply demonstrate that he believes in big government of a different kind, one that takes money from genuine welfare programs and places it in the hands of ministers of religion for the propagation of their beliefs.

So, now it’s over to you Joe: would you rather take money from people who simply want to see their doctor via a bulk-billed appointment, or from a program which funds the placement of ministers of religion into our public schools? I know which one I would choose. I guess we’ll find out on Budget night which one you do.