This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here.
Over recent years there have been a number of legal and policy reforms that have benefitted the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community (not the least of which was the passage of same-sex marriage).
However, many of these changes have been piecemeal in nature, and too often they have been unnecessarily compromised by limitations or religious exceptions (once again including same-sex marriage, see No, we don’t have marriage equality yet).
At least part of the reason for the ad hoc and incomplete nature of these reforms is the lack, or insufficient amount, of representation of the LGBTI community in decision-making.
For the purposes of this article, by LGBTI representation I mean:
- Representation in Parliament
- Representation in the Executive, and
- Representation through Consultation
I will address each of these areas in turn.
LGBTI Representation in Parliament
It is fair to say that there has been rapid improvement in this area in the last four years, especially in relation to Commonwealth Parliament.
When I wrote about this issue early last term (see LGBTI Voices Absent from the Chamber), there had still never been an out LGBTI member of the House of Representatives. Now there are five:
- Trent Zimmerman, who was the first out gay man elected to the lower house in late 2015
- Julian Hill, Trevor Evans and Tim Wilson, who were all elected at the 2016 federal election, and
- Kerryn Phelps, who became the first out lesbian elected to the House of Representatives in late 2018.
These MPs have joined the four current LGBTI Senators:
- Penny Wong, who was the first out lesbian elected to either chamber
- Louise Pratt and Dean Smith, and
- Janet Rice, who I understand was the first out bisexual elected at Commonwealth level.
There have also been three previous gay Senators (Bob Brown, who was the first out gay man elected to either chamber, Brian Greig and Robert Simms).
So, in the lead-up to the 2019 election, we now have nine LGBTI MPs and Senators, out of 226 in total, which is an encouraging start.
However, if one of the main benefits of having LGBTI representation in Parliament is to ensure it hears from a diversity of views, then those LGBTI representatives should themselves reflect the diversity of our community.
Unfortunately, at this stage that is clearly not the case. As with the Parliament more generally, LGBTI MPs and Senators have so far been predominantly cis white men.
There have been twice as many male LGBTI MPs and Senators as female ones (with a similar discrepancy in the NSW Parliament as well).
There has still never been a transgender MP or Senator in Australia, or even an MP at state or territory level (for comparison, New Zealand’s first transgender MP, Georgina Beyer, was elected almost two decades ago).
Despite making up a large proportion of the LGBTI community, there has only been one out bisexual MP or Senator.
There has also been only limited representation of queer people of colour, with Penny Wong federally, Harriet Shing in Victoria’s upper house and Chansey Paech, the first gay Indigenous MP in the Northern Territory Parliament, and
There has never been an out intersex MP, at Commonwealth or state and territory level, although Tony Briffa was the first intersex person elected mayor in the Western World.
While increasing the number of MPs and Senators who are LGBTI is important, so too is ensuring that they come from across the LGBT and I communities, so that we do not continue to have a mostly white, mostly gay male, with some lesbian and one bisexual, but not transgender or intersex, parliamentary contingent.
LGBTI Representation in the Executive
Perhaps just as important as having LGBTI voices in the Parliament, is having LGBTI representation formally embedded within the executive arm of Government.
The most obvious example of this would be having a formally appointed Minister for Equality, a role Martin Foley has played in the Victorian Government for more than four years.
There is no equivalent position within the Morrison Liberal-National Government federally, although Louise Pratt is currently the Shadow Assistant Minister for Equality in the Labor Opposition (and would presumably fulfil this role in a Shorten Government, should they be elected in May).
As far as I am aware, there is also no current Minister or Shadow Minister for Equality in NSW, although perhaps that is something that could change after the upcoming state election on Saturday 23 March 2019.
At the Commonwealth level at least there is another way in which LGBTI issues should be represented, and that is through the appointment of a standalone Commissioner for LGBTI issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission.
As I have written previously (see 5 Years of Commonwealth LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws. 5 Suggestions for Reform), the Commission is currently unable to adequately perform this function, with LGBTI issues forming just one part of the overall policy responsibilities of the Human Rights Commissioner, sitting alongside ‘religious freedom’ (with which it often competes for attention, sometimes unsuccessfully).
Fortunately, the appointment of a standalone LGBTI Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission has been promised by the Shorten Labor Opposition, so this is potentially something that may change in the near future.
Another model of LGBTI representation that has been adopted in Victoria is a Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality within the public service, to coordinate LGBTI policy and programs across Government. This is something that again should be considered elsewhere, including at Commonwealth level and in NSW.
Any Minister for Equality and/or public service LGBTI Commissioner should also be supported by an office for equality within a central agency, preferably the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and its respective state and territory equivalents.
Adopting any of the above formalised representation structures within executive government (and preferably all of them), will hopefully ensure that LGBTI issues are adequately considered by Governments of all persuasions.
LGBTI Representation through Consultation
The third and final means of LGBTI representation is no less important than the first two – and that is ensuring Government hears from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities themselves about the issues that affect them.
While this happens occasionally now (with Governments consulting directly with a few key groups on select policy proposals) what is needed is an ongoing, formalised structure whereby LGBTI organisations, and individuals with relevant expertise, are appointed to panels to represent the views of the LGBTI communities to decision-makers on a consistent basis.
Given the impact of justice, health and education laws and policies on LGBTI communities, especially at state and territory level, I would suggest (at least) three standing committees on each of these respective portfolio areas, and in other areas on an ‘as needed’ basis.
There are of course risks to this model, including that panel members do not accurately, or adequately, reflect the views of the communities they are supposed to represent.
These risks can be minimised by ensuring there are open application processes, and that applicants demonstrate how they propose to reflect the opinions of the LGBTI community in performing their role. Consideration could also be given to term limits to ensure appointees are not ‘captured’ by the bureaucratic process, thereby reducing their effectiveness in advocating to Government.
Ultimately, if LGBTI representation can be increased in Parliament, the Executive and through Consultation, we will see better decision-making by Governments on LGBTI issues, for the benefit of the entire community.
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