What to Expect, and What to Fear, from the Religious Discrimination Bill

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is overdue.

 

Conceived eight months ago, when the Bill was announced as part of the Government’s response to the Religious Freedom Review in December 2018 Attorney-General Christian Porter stated that “we are well-advanced on the drafting and… we would have [it] out early [this] year, so that people can see it”.[i]

 

Yet in late August 2019 this legislation remains nowhere to be seen – at least not in public, and definitely not by the LGBTI community (although given Morrison’s consultation with 21 religious leaders,[ii] of various faiths, in early August it is a safe bet they have been advised of its key features).

 

The longer the gestational period for the Religious Discrimination Bill is, and the more details that are kept hidden from the people who it could adversely affect – LGBTI Australians, women, single parents, de factos and divorced people – the greater the levels of collective anxiety about what it may contain.

 

So, what can we expect when Morrison and Porter are ‘expecting’?

 

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If we are to take the Attorney-General at his word, we have nothing to fear from this reform. From the time it was first announced, Porter has consistently stated that it would be relatively straight-forward:

 

The architecture for discrimination legislation in Australia is well-known, it’s not overly complicated. An attribute is defined – such as age or race or sex or disability or, in this case, the adherence to a religion or the right to not adhere to a religion – and then certain prohibitions are placed on people in terms of their treatment of other Australians based on that attribute. So you are protected from discrimination because of that attribute and then there are certain exemptions drafted as is appropriate. I don’t think that that would be a very contentious bill, necessarily, it follows a very standard architecture.[iii]

 

He has made similarly reassuring comments since the 18 May election:

 

“Porter said the government was doing ‘precisely what we said we would do’ at the election. He believed a ‘classical formulation of rights’ that protected people from the behaviour of other people through the architecture of anti-discrimination bills was superior to a religious freedom bill.”[iv]

 

And just today: “Mr Porter told The Australian that the final bill would deliver a religious discrimination act that ‘mirrors other anti-discrimination acts such as those already covering race, sex and aged discrimination’”.[v]

 

Based on these comments, the Morrison Government should shortly give birth[vi] to a Religious Discrimination Bill that, similar to something like the Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Cth), protects people against discrimination on the basis of religious belief, or lack of religious belief, and nothing else.

 

Such a narrow law would in fact be a welcome development, especially because it would protect religious minorities against discrimination – something that is long overdue in multicultural Australia.

 

But it would not be welcomed by everyone, especially not religious fundamentalists like the Australian Christian Lobby, and parts of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, who have been relentlessly campaigning for a more expansive Religious Freedom Bill, one that would provide people of faith with the ability to discriminate against others on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, sex and relationship status (among other attributes).

 

And that’s why the delay in releasing the Bill is so concerning. Because preparing a genuine Religious Discrimination Bill is a relatively straight-forward task, and one that should have been completed months ago.

 

Whereas cooking up a Religious Freedom Bill is a much more complicated process, as more and more potential ‘nasties’ are added into the mix. Which is one possible reading of media reports from early July suggesting the legislation has ‘already had more than 50 drafts.’[vii]

 

So, if the Morrison Government is indeed preparing to introduce a Religious Freedom Bill, what exactly should LGBTI Australians be afraid of?

 

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My number one worry is that the legislation will undermine our existing framework of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections.

 

Now, I am the first to admit that these laws are deeply flawed[viii] (in most jurisdictions other than Tasmania anyway) and in need of significant reform, including to remove the overly-generous religious exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI people.

 

The problem is that the Religious Discrimination Bill could make things much, much worse.

 

For example, the Government could create a positive right for religious individuals and organisations to ‘manifest’ their religious belief, even where it has a negative impact on the rights of others, such as the right to be protected against discrimination.

 

They could explicitly provide that the Religious Discrimination Bill overrides the laws of state and territories that establish better protections for LGBTI people. Even if they don’t include a ‘cover the field’ type provision, depending on how they legislate any inconsistency between Commonwealth and State and Territory laws could invalidate the latter.

 

To take a specific example, the Religious Discrimination Bill could override the anti-discrimination laws in Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory which currently protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination. And it could preclude other jurisdictions, like NSW and Victoria, from adopting the same approaches in the future.

 

Another way in which the Religious Discrimination Bill could undermine anti-discrimination protections for other groups, is through the inclusion of new ‘objectives clauses’ in all Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws, as recommended by the Religious Freedom Review.[ix]

 

Recommendation 3: Commonwealth, State and Territory governments should consider the use of objects, purposes or other interpretive clauses in anti-discrimination legislation to reflect the equal status in international law of all human rights, including freedom of religion.

 

The risk lies in how this recommendation is implemented. It is possible that the Government does what then-Attorney-General George Brandis tried to do during the marriage legislation debate in November 2017, and only incorporate Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):

 

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

 

Significantly, Brandis did so while excluding the equally-important Article 18(3):

 

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.[x]

 

If the Government adopts this approach, prioritising the objective of religious freedom over other human rights, we can be in no doubt the (misnamed) Human Rights Law Alliance will file as many legal ccomplaints at it takes to have courts reinterpret LGBTI anti-discrimination laws as narrowly as possible.

 

Just this week we also discovered that the Religious Discrimination Bill could provide anti-discrimination ‘protection’ not just to individuals, but also to religious organisations[xi] – something that is unprecedented in Commonwealth anti-discrimination law.

 

As Anna Brown from Equality Australia stated:

 

It would be extremely unorthodox for the religious discrimination bill to include provisions to protect organisations or religious institutions given the historical focus of discrimination law in protecting the rights and dignity of individuals.

 

Another risk from the Commonwealth creating positive rights for people to ‘manifest’ their religious belief is that it could undermine LGBTI anti-vilification laws in Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT.[xii]

 

Currently, none of those jurisdictions include ‘religious discussion’ as a defence to their vilification provisions (although the Hodgman Liberal Government in Tasmania tried to introduce this defence in the last term of parliament, but was defeated in their upper house).

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill could instead make it easier for people in those jurisdictions to vilify LGBTI people as long as they could say this vilification was motivated by their religious beliefs.

 

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The second major fear is that we could end up with a system where religious belief attracts more rights than other protected attributes, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status/sex characteristics.

 

For example, there is a possibility (albeit small) that the Religious Discrimination Bill will create anti-vilification protections for religious belief.

 

Which, in principle, is perfectly reasonable – because nobody deserves to be vilified on the basis of who they are (although religious vilification laws would need to be carefully crafted so as not to create de facto blasphemy laws).

 

The problem arises because it would be only the second attribute to attract protection against vilification under Commonwealth law – the other being racial vilification prohibited under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

 

None of sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status attract equivalent protections. No matter how plaintively religious fundamentalists are performing their persecution at the moment (especially regarding the Folau case), it is impossible to argue that vilification against people because of their religious belief is any more common, or harmful, than homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic vilification.

 

There is another situation, however, where it is already certain that religious Australians will end up with greater human rights representation than LGBTI people – because the Morrison Government has committed to establish a ‘Religious Freedom Commissioner’ within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

In principle, a Religious Discrimination Commissioner (along the lines of the existing Race, Sex, Age and Disability Commissioners) makes sense – although its focus should be on removing discrimination against people on the basis of religion, not prosecuting the case for ever-greater ‘religious freedoms’.

 

In practice, though, even the Government’s own Religious Freedom Review, chaired by the hand-picked former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, found that a stand-alone Religious Discrimination Commissioner was unnecessary:

 

Recommendation 19: The Australian Human Rights Commission should take a leading role in the protection of freedom of religion, including through enhancing engagement, understanding and dialogue. This should occur within the existing commissioner model and not necessarily through the creation of a new position [emphasis added].

 

Appointing a Religious Freedom Commissioner would also create a stark contrast with LGBTI Australians, who, despite being protected against discrimination following the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, still do not have a human rights commissioner of our own.[xiii]

 

Therefore, if either or both religious anti-vilification laws and a Religious Freedom Commissioner are introduced, LGBTI Australians will quite rightly be left wondering why some Australians are more equal than others.

 

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My third major worry concerns a litany of other new special rights that could be created for religious individuals and organisations, across a range of other laws.

 

We have already seen a preview of this, with the Government’s legislative agenda, published on the website of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,[xiv] suggesting they will introduce not just a Religious Discrimination Bill, but also a Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill and a Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill.

 

The latter two bills in particular will ‘amend existing Commonwealth legislation relating to freedom of religion, including amendments to marriage law, [and] charities law.’

 

The reference to marriage law may be linked to Recommendation 12 of the Religious Freedom Review, which stated:

 

The Commonwealth should progress legislative amendments to make it clear that religious schools are not required to make available their facilities, or to provide goods or services, for any marriage, provided that the refusal:

(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or

(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

 

This is wrong in practice – if a religious school is offering its facilities, goods or services to the public (usually to make a profit), there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why it should be able to reject couples simply on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status.

 

But it is even worse in principle. As a result of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017, Australia already has one of the worst same-sex marriage laws in the world.[xv] That legislation allowed existing civil celebrants to register in order to be able to refuse to officiate at ceremonies for LGBTI couples based on nothing more than their personal prejudice.

 

The 2017 marriage amendments also explicitly incorporated religious exceptions into the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) for the first time, granting religious organisations the ability to refuse to provide wedding-related services (even where those services were offered to the public on a commercial basis).

 

We should be aiming to purge these discriminatory provisions from the Marriage Act, not add to them with even more religious exceptions, this time to further entrench the legal privileges enjoyed by religious schools.

 

The amendment to charities law is likely to relate to implementation of the following recommendation of the Religious Freedom Review:

 

Recommendation 4: The Commonwealth should amend section 11 of the Charities Act 2013 to clarify that advocacy of a ‘traditional’ view of marriage would not, of itself, amount to a ‘disqualifying purpose’.

 

This is despite the fact that, during the 2017 marriage amendments, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission itself advised the Senate that such amendments were unnecessary.

 

Given same-sex marriage has now been legal for more than 18 months, there have also been no real-world examples of when this protection was actually required (if there had been, nobody would have been able to miss the squeals from the Australian Christian Lobby).

 

Even worse, the charities amendment could go further and protect other specific ‘religious beliefs’, including those proposed by then-Treasurer Morrison in his unsuccessful amendment to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2019,[xvi] such as:

 

‘the family structure of a man and a woman united in marriage with their children is a fundamental building block of human society, and this family structure has significant advantages for the nurture and raising of children…

‘the gender difference and complementarity of men and women is an inherent and fundamental feature of human society and is reflected in the gender difference and complementarity of a man and a woman united in marriage… [and]

‘the normative state of gender is binary and can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be identified at birth.’

 

It goes without saying that these offensive provisions should be kept out of the Charities Act 2013, or from any Australian law for that matter.

 

There are a range of other possible amendments that would increase, rather than reduce, discrimination in Australian society.

 

This includes changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 to specifically provide that employment Codes of Conduct cannot restrict the expression of religious views in the workplace no matter how offensive they may be to their colleagues or clients.

 

It could also include allowing parents or guardians to withdraw their children from any school class they morally disagree with, along the lines of this provision from Liberal Senator James Paterson’s failed Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017:[xvii]

 

if a person genuinely believes that material taught by the educational institution in a class is not consistent with the relevant marriage belief or relevant belief held by the person, the person may request the principal of the educational institution to… release the student from attendance of that class and any subsequent class.

 

Obviously, with a definition that broad, we could see parents withdrawing their children from a wide range of classes, anything from health and physical education, to science (where evolution may be taught) or even history.

 

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There are too many other possible negative amendments to even try to mention here. The list is as long as the imagined persecution of religious fundamentalists is wide.

 

It should be acknowledged that some of these amendments are more likely to be introduced, and passed, than others. I would sincerely hope that the Government simply ignores the more extreme calls for new special rights to discriminate.

 

But this is hope rather than expectation because, despite committing to let us see their Religious Discrimination Bill early this year, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have yet to be formally consulted on its contents.

 

In this vacuum, it is only natural for all groups who stand to lose from the Religious Discrimination Bill – not just LGBTI people, but women, single parents, de factos and divorced people too – to be fearful about what it may contain.

 

The only way for the Morrison Government to assuage these fears is to ensure that it produces a Religious Discrimination Bill, along the lines of the Age Discrimination Act, rather than a Religious Freedom Bill. And then to ensure that its legislation meets community expectations by engaging in genuine consultation with all sections of society, including LGBTI Australians.

 

I guess we’ll find out which option they’ve chosen in the days and weeks ahead.

 

Christian Porter

What kind of Religious Discrimination Bill will Attorney-General Christian Porter deliver?

 

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Footnotes:

[i] Comments by Attorney-General Christian Porter, 13 December 2018, transcript.

[ii] Scott Morrison meets with faith leaders on religious freedom bill but not LGBTQI advocates, Star Observer, 7 August 2019.

[iii] Comments by Attorney-General Christian Porter, 13 December 2018, transcript.

[iv] Religious discrimination bill will safeguard people of faith, says attorney-general, Guardian Australia, 8 July 2019.

[v] Catholics, Scott Morrison to clash on religious freedom, The Australian, 20 August 2019.

[vi] And I promise that’s the end of my tortured metaphor…

[vii] ‘A pox on both their houses’: Senator warns of voter backlash if religious freedoms not protected, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 2019.

[viii] See A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

[ix] Religious Freedom Review: Final Report.

[x] Such as the right to be protected against discrimination, as found in Article 26 of the ICCPR:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

[xi] Coalition pressured to include protections for religious institutions in discrimination bill, Guardian Australia, 15 August 2019.

[xii] NSW is the only other jurisdiction that includes protections against LGT vilification, although it does allow religious discussion as a defence. See for example section 38S(2)(c) of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977:

a public act, done reasonably and in good faith, for academic, artistic, scientific, research or religious discussion or instruction purposes or for other purposes in the public interest, including discussion or debate about and expositions of any act or matter [emphasis added].

[xiii] See Why we need a full-time LGBTI Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

[xiv] See the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet website.

[xv] See No, we don’t have genuine marriage equality yet.

[xvi] From Parliament House website.

[xvii] From Senator Paterson’s website.

What Happens Now for LGBTI Rights?

It is two weeks on from the Federal election, in which the Liberal-National Coalition was surprisingly (some might say shockingly) re-elected. It was a disappointing result from an LGBTI rights perspective, given Labor had adopted the most progressive major-party platform on LGBTI issues in history.

 

The Morrison Government’s position on a range of topics that affect our community is a lot less clear. Now that the dust has settled after the May 18 poll, what does the future hold for LGBTI rights in Australia?

 

  1. Threat

 

The most immediate issue that confronts the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community is the potential threat of a Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

I write ‘potential’ because it remains unclear exactly what type of legislation the Government is proposing to implement its commitment arising from the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review.

 

On one hand, it could be a Religious Anti-Discrimination Bill, which would add religious belief, including lack of belief, as a protected attribute to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law. This would be welcome, given religious minorities in particular should be protected against discrimination simply because of who they are (something LGBTI Australians have much empathy for).

 

Indeed, that is what was promised by Attorney-General Christian Porter, in his joint press conference with Prime Minister Morrison in December 2018, when they announced the Government’s response to the Ruddock Review:

 

“The architecture for discrimination legislation is well-known, it’s not overly complicated. An attribute is defined – such as age or race or sex or disability or, in this case, the adherence to a religion or the right to not adhere to a religion – and then certain prohibitions are placed on people in terms of their treatment of other Australians based on that attribute. So you are protected from discrimination because of that attribute and then there are certain exemptions drafted as is appropriate. I don’t think that that would be a very contentious bill, necessarily, it follows a very standard architecture. But what the Ruddock Report said, is that there is a need for such a bill.

 

“I would put it to you all this way. In Australia at the moment, if you’re invited to a function at Parliament and at entry to the room of that function, you were denied entry because of the fact that you had a disability or because of your race, or because of your age, or because of your sex, that would be unlawful. But if you were turned away because of your religion, that would not be unlawful in Australia. So this, if you like, is the fifth and final pillar of an overarching architecture that prevents discrimination for Australians, directed to Australians, based on attributes which should never be the basis for discrimination.”

 

On the other hand, the Government could instead introduce a Religion Pro-Discrimination Bill, which further entrenches the special privileges of religious organisations to discriminate against others, including (but not limited to – see below) LGBTI Australians.

 

This discriminatory type of legislation was this week publicly-supported by Government MPs Barnaby Joyce and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (‘Folau’s Law: Coalition MPs push for bolder action in a ‘new dawn’ for religious freedom, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 2019). It is also being advocated for by religious fundamentalist groups like the Australian Christian Lobby, while backed by a campaign from The Australian newspaper.

 

A Religious Pro-Discrimination Bill would present the greatest threat to LGBTI rights in Australia since criminalisation. It is entirely natural for us to feel threatened by this possible development. Indeed, the Government has created the vacuum allowing this fear to arise, given it would not reveal the contents of its proposal before the election (despite Porter saying in December 2018 that: “the Religious Discrimination Bill, which we are well-advanced on the drafting of and which we would have out early next year, so that people can see it”).

 

Therefore, while it was encouraging that Porter pushed back on the calls from his colleagues (Attorney-General Christian Porter pushes back on ‘Folau’s law’ idea, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2019), we must prepare for either possibility, a Religious Anti-Discrimination Bill or a Religious Pro-Discrimination Bill.

 

And we must do so as a matter of urgency, with Porter indicating that he wants to introduce the legislation – whichever it is – when Parliament resumes in July.

 

  1. Uncertainty

 

While it is almost certain the Morrison Government will proceed with a Religious Discrimination Bill (of some kind) in the near-term, the future for LGBT students in religious schools is far less clear.

 

Despite the Prime Minister himself promising to protect LGBT students against discrimination before the end of 2018, he obviously failed to do so. Instead, the day before the election was called, Attorney-General Porter referred the issue of religious exceptions to the Australian Law Reform Commission for review.

 

At this stage, “[t]he ALRC is planning to release a Discussion Paper on 2 September 2019 which will set out proposed reforms and ask questions to assist the ALRC to prepare formal recommendations. Submissions on the Discussion Paper will be due by 15 October 2019.” The final report is due by 10 April 2020 (for more details, see the ALRC website).

 

The LGBTI community must be heavily involved in this process, to ensure that our interests are appropriately considered at every step. This includes advocating for the full removal of the ability of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), rather than allowing such discrimination to continue just under a different name. And we must engage politically (see below) to pressure the Government to finally fulfil its commitment to protect LGBT kids.

 

Unfortunately, the election result makes the removal of similar discrimination against LGBT teachers that much more difficult (although not impossible). Ditto for abolishing the exceptions that allow religious organisations to lawfully discriminate against LGBT Australians in employment generally, and in the provision of services.

 

But that doesn’t mean we give up. It just means we fight harder. Because LGBTI Australians will not truly be equal until we have the right to learn, the freedom to earn and the ability to access services without fear of discrimination on the basis of our sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

 

  1. Targets

 

As after any election, the personnel in Federal parliament have changed (even if perhaps not as much as many LGBTI Australians would have liked). This means we must adapt the targets of our advocacy regarding the above two issues.

 

In addition to lobbying (where possible) Prime Minister Morrison and Attorney-General Porter, we should also focus on the growing ‘rainbow’ group within the Liberal Party, with lesbian Angie Bell elected to represent Moncrieff in the House of Representatives, joining Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans, Tim Wilson and Senator Dean Smith, plus long-term LGBTI ally Warren Entsch.

 

The likely composition of the new Senate also means that returning Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie now wields significant power, together with the two Centre Alliance Senators from South Australia, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff. It is not an exaggeration to say that these three Senators will hold our collective fate in their hands on a large number of Bills.

 

Finally, following Labor’s election loss, and the election of new Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, the ALP’s positions on all issues, including LGBTI issues, is now up for grabs. We will need to make sure that they do not back-track on any of the positive positions which they took to the election, including the full removal of discrimination against LGBT students and teachers. In this push, we should also engage with Rainbow Labow MPs, including Penny Wong, Louise Pratt, Julian Hill and the newly-elected Queensland Senator Nita Green.

 

[I have deliberately not mentioned the Australian Greens here, including bisexual Victorian Senator Janet Rice, because their support on LGBTI issues can usually be relied upon].

 

Lambie Griff Patrick

Senators Jacqui Lambie, Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick will play a significant role in determining what LGBTI law reforms can be achieved – and whether a Religious Pro-Discrimination Bill can be defeated.

 

  1. Allies

 

One of the main lessons of the marriage equality campaign was the vital role of allies in achieving progress on LGBTI issues. This is equally important in terms of the push to protect LGBT students and teachers against discrimination and – if necessary – to fight against a Religious Pro-Discrimination Bill.

 

We have seen that the vast majority of Australians are already onside when it comes to protecting LGBT students against discrimination, with the immense public backlash against these exceptions when the Ruddock Review was leaked in October 2018 (and which prompted Morrison’s promise in the first place).

 

With regards to protecting LGBT teachers, we must work better together with education unions (including the Australian Education Union, and Independent Education Union). The same applies to building our relationship with the ACTU, and union movement more broadly, to remove all religious exceptions from employment law, including the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

 

Thinking about the potential Religious Pro-Discrimination Bill, the legislation itself presents us with natural allies – because it is not just LGBTI Australians who would be subjected to discrimination as a result.

 

A Religious Pro-Discrimination Bill could also increase discrimination against women, especially in relation to their marital or relationship status, and their ability to access reproductive health services. Unmarried/single mothers are at particular risk (alongside divorced people generally). It’s time to build bridges between LGBTI and women’s organisations to respond to this common threat.

 

Finally, perhaps the most important allies we have in this struggle are good people of faith. We simply cannot afford to let this issue be defined as ‘god versus gays’, especially because the majority of religious people support the equality of their fellow citizens – as demonstrated through the same-sex marriage postal survey.

 

Instead, our enemies are religious fundamentalist groups, like the ACL and some established churches (the formal organisations – not the followers), and any individuals who are acting in bad faith to impose their religious beliefs on others, including demanding the ability to lawfully discriminate against LGBTI people. They are who we are fighting against, not ordinary Australians.

 

This means that throughout this debate, no matter how ugly it may become, we should strive to be respectful of people’s faith, or lack of faith, in the same way we are fighting for the right to be treated fairly, with decency and respect (some might even say at this point ‘Do unto others…’).

 

  1. Opportunities

 

It may seem strange, given the current political environment in which we are operating and the threat of a Religious Pro-Discrimination Bill, to talk about opportunities for progress on LGBTI rights but there are several.

 

The first is for action to (finally) be taken to stop coercive and invasive surgeries and other medical interventions on intersex children. These human rights violations continue unabated, despite a bipartisan 2013 Senate Inquiry recommending that such surgeries and/or treatments be stopped.

 

In 2017-18, the Australian Human Rights Commission initiated a new project focusing on ‘Protecting the human rights of people born with variations in sex characteristics in the context of medical interventions’, with a final report expected shortly.

 

This will be an opportunity for non-intersex LGBT individuals and for LGBT/I organisations to support the work of groups like Intersex Human Rights Australia and their campaign to end these practices once and for all (noting that there is no right-wing, or left-wing, justification for such interventions, so there is no political rationale for the Government not to intervene).

 

The second opportunity is on ex-gay or ex-trans therapy, with the Morrison Liberal-National Government providing the following response to Equality Australia’s pre-election survey:

 

“As the Prime Minister has said, the Morrison Government does not support LGBTIQ+ conversion therapy. The use of conversion therapy has long been discredited with no scientific or medical evidence to support its use.

 

“The Morrison Government remains committed to addressing the mental health of all Australians, including the LGBTI community, and this also relates to opposition to gay conversion therapy. The Government will work with the states, which have legal responsibility in this area, to ensure such practices are not supported or occurring [emphasis added].

 

We should take them at their word and seek to make urgent progress to end this psychological torture.

 

The other main opportunities lie at state and territory level. This includes the ongoing campaign to provide trans and gender diverse people with better access to appropriate identity documentation.

 

With Tasmania recently passing best practice laws that allow individuals to update their birth certificate on the basis of self-identification – without the need for surgery, other treatment or medical approval – we must pressure the seven other jurisdictions to quickly follow suit.

 

It also includes working towards reform of state and territory anti-discrimination laws. Because, while the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 allows discrimination against LGBT students and teachers under Commonwealth law, some states and territories have adopted preferable provisions.

 

For example, last year the ACT amended its Discrimination Act 1991 to protect both LGBT students and teachers in religious schools against discrimination. Queensland and the Northern Territory already protected LGBT students against discrimination, while once again Tasmania has best practice laws in this area (their Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 only allows religious organisations to discriminate on the basis of religious belief, and not on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex variations of sex characteristics).

 

Given the vulnerability of LGBT kids in particular, there is no reason why we should not pressure state and territory governments to amend their own laws, even before the ALRC completes its report.

 

  1. Certainty

 

I have written about the threats we potentially face, as well as some of the uncertainty that now confronts us. But there is one thing that is absolutely sure: nothing will get better unless we act to make it better.

 

The Government won’t make changes on our behalf out of the kindness of its heart. Just like with countless LGBTI law reforms in the past, the only way to improve our situation – especially for vulnerable members of our community – is to get involved and collectively force them to do it.

 

This will be especially important if the Morrison Government decides to introduce a Religious Pro-Discrimination Bill. We will need all hands on deck, including people who (completely understandably) needed to take time away after the horrific experience that was the same-sex marriage postal survey.

 

And so I would conclude by encouraging you to join one or more of the many LGBTI advocacy organisations that will be fighting on our behalf in the coming months and years. This includes:

 

NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby

 

Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby

 

Equality Tasmania

 

Transgender Victoria

 

A Gender Agenda

 

Intersex Human Rights Australia

 

Just Equal

 

Rainbow Families

 

Rainbow Families Victoria

 

PFLAG Australia

 

Equality Australia

 

(as well as plenty of others I have inadvertently omitted, including in the other states and territories).

 

You can also stay up to date with latest developments by following LGBTI Rights Australia on Facebook.

 

Finally, I will continue writing regular articles about the campaign to protect LGBT students and teachers in religious schools against discrimination, as well as key developments surrounding the Religious Anti- or Pro-Discrimination Bill. To receive these posts direct to your email, please sign up via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog, or near the bottom of the page on mobile. Thanks.

Scott Morrison is Unfit to be Prime Minister

Scott Morrison became Australia’s 30th Prime Minister on 24 August 2018. In my opinion, based on his (mis)treatment of the LGBTI community, he is unfit to hold that esteemed position. Here’s why:

 

  1. As Treasurer, Morrison allocated $160million to the same-sex marriage plebiscite

 

In his first Budget as Treasurer in May 2016, Morrison allocated $160million to the unnecessary, harmful and divisive plebiscite on same-sex marriage. This is despite the fact Parliament could have voted on this issue for free, and the money better spent on literally almost anything else.

 

  1. As Treasurer, Morrison oversaw $80.5million in spending on the postal survey

 

Despite the Senate rejecting legislation to hold the Turnbull Liberal-National Government’s proposed plebiscite, it decided to hold a postal survey instead. While Finance Minister Matthias Cormann signed the cheque, the money still came from Treasurer Morrison’s Budget. Once again, Parliament could have voted on this issue for nothing – but they chose to throw away $80.5million of our taxes anyway. Liberal and National Party MPs and Senators should be asked to repay it.

 

  1. During the postal survey, Morrison campaigned for a No vote

 

Given his conservative religious background, it is unsurprising Morrison campaigned for people to be denied equality under secular law simply because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics. During the postal survey he said that:

 

“My view on this topic is as important as everyone else’s. That is why we are having a survey on it. My view is, look I am voting no, it is okay to say no and people should know that.”

To some extent, Morrison was entitled to express that opinion. However, it is included here to demonstrate he believed the postal survey was a legitimate process to determine this issue, a context that makes the next two acts substantially more objectionable.

 

  1. Morrison voted for every discriminatory amendment put forward during parliamentary debate on same-sex marriage

 

Following the announcement of the 61.6% Yes vote on 15 November 2017, the Parliament still had to pass legislation to give that result legal effect (thus demonstrating the fundamental wastefulness of the postal survey). During debate of Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, Morrison moved amendments to protect organisations and charities that espoused discriminatory beliefs including:

 

  • ‘the gender difference and complementarity of men and women is an inherent and fundamental feature of human society and is reflected in the gender difference and complementarity of a man and a woman united in marriage’, and
  • ‘the normative state of gender is binary and can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be identified at birth.’

 

Thankfully, it was defeated. Morrison also voted for every single other set of amendments seeking to add anti-LGBTI discrimination to the Bill. Perhaps the worst was an amendment to insert two separate definitions of marriage in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth):

 

‘marriage means:

(a) the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life; or

(b) the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.’

 

Again, this amendment was defeated. But we cannot forget that, despite more than 3-in-5 Australians voting for equality, Morrison voted to entrench separate definitions for marriage in the Act itself. This goes against one of the most important political lessons of the 20th century: separate but equal is never equal.

 

  1. Morrison abstained from voting on the same-sex marriage bill

 

Despite:

  • Allocating $160million to the plebiscite in his Budget
  • Overseeing $80.5million spending on the postal survey
  • Campaigning during the postal survey, and
  • Participating in debate on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017,

Morrison abstained on the final vote on this legislation.

 

As discussed above, he clearly saw the postal survey process as legitimate, but he didn’t see the outcome as legitimate when his side lost. Morrison ultimately refused to implement the will of the people.

 

This was a gross insult to the 7,817,247 Australians who voted Yes, including the 55% of people who voted Yes in his electorate of Cook.

 

Scott Morrison didn’t respect our vote on the postal survey. He doesn’t deserve our vote on 18 May.

 

However, it isn’t just on marriage that Morrison’s words and actions mean he is, in my view, unfit to hold the highest office in the land.

 

  1. As Minister for Immigration, Morrison imprisoned LGBTI people seeking asylum in countries that criminalised them

 

Morrison was Minister for Immigration from September 2013 to December 2014. During this time, he imprisoned people seeking asylum on both Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. This included lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees, despite the fact both Nauru and PNG criminalised homosexuality. This policy effectively continued their persecution – and he continued to do so even after this issue was raised with him.

 

  1. As Treasurer, Morrison axed funding for the Safe Schools program

 

Morrison as Treasurer signed off on the axing of an effective, evidence-based anti-bullying program that cost just $8million over three years but provided significant benefits to LGBTI students. This Budget cut was ideological not financial – elsewhere he found room for the $80.5million postal survey, as well as more than $60million per year for the National School Chaplaincy Program.

 

  1. As Prime Minister, Morrison tweeted against programs supporting trans children

 

On 5 September 2018 – less than a fortnight into the job – Morrison published his infamous ‘gender whisperers’ tweet:

 

Morrison gender whisperers copy

 

His ‘let kids be kids’ message in practice said that children should be protected from the very idea that trans and gender diverse people exist. Worse, Morrison was arguing trans and gender diverse children, who are some of the most vulnerable members of the Australian community, should be left to struggle in isolation, without any support from their schools.

 

If there is a better example of ‘un-Prime Ministerial’ behaviour, I am yet to see it.

 

  1. As Prime Minister, Morrison refused to condemn gay conversion therapy

 

In the same week, Morrison was asked about his policy on anti-gay and anti-trans conversion therapy, a practice that is nothing less than the psychological torture of people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. His response:

 

“I think people should make their own choices about their own lives… That’s always been my view. I’ve never been involved in anything like that, I’ve never supported anything like that. So mate, it’s just not an issue for me, and I’m not planning to get engaged in the issue.”

 

He has refused to take any action on this issue in the seven months since. Once again, Morrison has displayed his lack of concern for people whose life experiences are different to his own.

 

Indeed, on all four of these issues – LGBTI people seeking asylum, LGBTI students, trans and gender diverse children and survivors of anti-gay and anti-trans conversion therapy – he has shown that he basically does not care about some of the most disadvantaged people in society.

 

If Scott Morrison does not have empathy for others, he should not receive the votes of others.

 

  1. As Prime Minister, Morrison broke his promise to protect LGBT students against discrimination

 

In response to the leaking of recommendations from the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review in October 2018, Morrison promised he would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students against discrimination by religious schools before the end of the year.

 

That deadline came and went, and his Government never even introduced a Bill to try to give effect to this commitment. The 45th Parliament has now expired, with LGBT students just as exposed to mistreatment and abuse as they were before his hollow words.

 

In fact, Morrison delayed any action on this issue by referring the subject of ‘religious exceptions’ to the Australian Law Reform Commission for review by 10 April 2020, meaning LGBT students will not be protected until the start of the 2021 school year (at the earliest). This is an egregious breach of faith of the Australian people, who expected him to back his promise with action.

 

  1. Morrison has no policies on LGBTI issues

 

Less than four weeks before the election and it appears the Liberal Party has no policies on LGBTI issues. Try searching the Liberal Party’s website. There’s nothing there. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

 

In the first 11 days of the election campaign the only comments I can find Morrison has made on LGBTI issues is the same, re-hashed promise to protect LGBT students against discrimination – you know, the promise he has already broken once. It’s clear he does not have a plan for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

If Scott Morrison won’t govern for all Australians, he shouldn’t govern any Australians.

 

  1. Morrison won’t tell us what’s in his Religious Discrimination Bill

 

The other major outcomes of the Religious Freedom Review were a proposal for a Religious Discrimination Bill (which was recommended by Ruddock) and a promise to appoint a Religious Freedom Commissioner (which was not recommended).

 

These represent the biggest changes to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law since the introduction of the Age Discrimination Act 2004.

 

However, despite having the Religious Freedom Review for 11 months, and comments in December by Attorney-General Christian Porter about “the Religious Discrimination Bill, which we are well-advanced on the drafting of and which we would have out early next year, so that people can see it”, we are yet to see any details of this legislation.

 

Indeed, the day before the election was called, it was reported that:

 

“Attorney-General Christian Porter told The Australian the religious discrimination bill was “well advanced” but “not at the point of readiness”. “It remains clear government policy and, if re-elected, one of the first orders of business would be to pursue that legislation” (‘Religious freedom bill fails to meet election deadline’, The Australian, 10 April 2019).

 

This is particularly worrying for LGBTI Australians because, while protecting religious minorities against discrimination would be welcome, a Religious Discrimination Bill could also include new rights for religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI people (the same kinds of amendments that Morrison himself voted for during the same-sex marriage debate).

 

The reality is we are being deliberately kept in the dark about legislation that could have significant impacts on Australian society, something the Government itself says will be implemented shortly after the election. That, in my opinion, is treating voters with contempt.

 

Updated 13 May 2019:

 

13. Morrison refused to disendorse a candidate who linked same-sex marriage to paedophilia

 

Early in the election campaign it was reported that the Liberal candidate for Scullin, Gurpal Singh, had linked same-sex marriage to paedophilia in an interview during the same-sex marriage postal survey. Despite a significant public backlash, and the disendorsement of other candidates for equally-discriminatory comments, Morrison steadfastly refused to disendorse Mr Singh for more than two weeks. Singh was only forced to resign following publication of unrelated (and despicable) comments about rape. The entire saga clearly demonstrated that for Morrison – who had repeatedly used the phrase ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept’ – extreme homophobia is entirely acceptable.

 

**********

 

Of course, there are other, non-LGBTI issues that cast serious doubt on Scott Morrison’s suitability for the position of Prime Minister (other actions from his time as Minister for Immigration, and bringing a lump of coal into Parliament, spring immediately to mind).

 

But, even ignoring everything else, on the basis of his (mis)treatment of LGBTI people alone, in my view it is clear Morrison is unfit to be the leader of this country. It’s now up to the rest of Australia whether they see fit to keep him there on 18 May.

 

Updated 24 May 2019:

 

To the shock, and disappointment, of many LGBTI people, the majority of Australians did indeed see fit to keep Scott Morrison in the top job last Saturday. His surprise victory leaves him with significant personal clout within the Liberal-National Government.

 

How he uses that clout will be crucial in determining whether the re-elected Coalition Government actively seeks to wind back LGBTI rights in Australia, and if so how aggressively it pursues that agenda.

 

The first test will be the Religious Discrimination Bill (or Religious Freedom Bill), likely to be introduced in the second half of 2019. LGBTI Australians must be prepared to do everything in our power to stop this legislation if it expands the rights of religious organisations to discriminate against us. We’ll be watching, and ready to act if necessary.

 

Updated 22 December 2019:

 

Seven months after the shock federal election result, we now know the answers to the questions posed above, namely ‘whether the re-elected Coalition Government actively seeks to wind back LGBTI rights in Australia, and if so how aggressively it pursues that agenda.’

 

Unfortunately, those answers are yes, and very. Scott Morrison has continued to demonstrate he is entirely unfit to be Australia’s Prime Minister. That includes for the following, additional reasons:

 

  1. Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill is a direct attack on the rights of LGBTI people

 

Morrison likes to talk about ‘quiet Australians’. But under his Religious Discrimination Bill (which was finally released in late August), religious bigots will be allowed to loudly express their homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia. In workplaces, and classrooms, in health services, in restaurants, cafes and shops, and all other areas of public life.

 

In doing so, the Bill directly overrides, and winds back, existing protections under all other Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, including Tasmania’s best practice Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (despite Attorney-General Porter promising in August that it would not).

 

The Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill will also directly impact the health care of LGBTI Australians, including allowing doctors and pharmacists to refuse to provide hormone therapy to trans and gender diverse people, and PEP and PrEP to gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.

 

After going through a public consultation process on its first exposure draft, during which LGBTI groups, legal organisations and even the Australian Human Rights Commission pointed out the many flaws of the legislation, the Government made the Bill worse in an effort to appease religious fundamentalists like the Sydney Anglicans (which seems to have worked).

 

The overall result is that if the second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill is passed by Commonwealth Parliament in 2020, the rights of religious fundamentalists will be privileged over and above the rights of LGBTI Australians – and women, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships, people with disability, and even religious minorities. For more, see Paul Karp’s excellent summary of what we should be afraid of [spoiler: a lot].

 

  1. Morrison has effectively abandoned LGBT students in religious schools

 

As I wrote previously, Morrison broke his promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools before the end of 2018, before having Attorney-General Christian Porter refer it to the Australian Law Reform Commission the day before the election was called.

 

When Porter released the first Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill in August, he also narrowed the scope of those terms of reference, and extended the reporting date until 12 December 2020. Now that the Government has chosen to release a second Exposure Draft, it is highly likely this timeline will be extended again, and the ALRC will consequently not report until at least 2021.

 

Given the usual six-month period for the Government to respond to that report, there will be no action until at least late 2021, and it is almost certain that the Coalition Government will not seek to pass any reforms before the next election, due in May 2022.

 

This would mean that, almost four years from his initial promise to protect them, Scott Morrison would have done exactly nothing to stop vulnerable LGBT kids from being discriminated in schoolyards around the country. Discrimination that takes place. Every. Single. Day.

 

  1. Morrison spends his time as Prime Minister attacking trans-inclusive sporting policies…

 

In August, Morrison chose to criticise Cricket Australia for issuing national guidelines aimed at making community cricket more inclusive for trans and gender participants.

 

He stated that “[t]here are far more practical ways than these heavy, mandatory ways of doing it. Why there’s the necessity to get the sledgehammer on this, it’s mystifying to me and we should manage it calmly”, before adding “[i]t’s pretty heavy-handed to put it mildly. The thing about sport is it should be driven locally by local clubs.”

 

With the obvious implication that some local clubs would inevitably decide not to be inclusive, and that this would be fine with our so-called ‘leader’.

 

  1. …and trans-inclusive toilets

 

Perhaps the most bizarre, and offensive, use of Prime Ministerial time came later in August, when Morrison chose to exercise his ‘authority’ (official, certainly not moral) to have a sign taken down from a toilet door in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Yes, you read that correctly.

 

The sign in question simply said ‘PM&C is committed to staff inclusion and diversity. Please use the bathroom that best fits your gender identity.’ Direct. Inclusive. And welcoming.

 

But apparently that was too much for our fragile PM to bear, declaring “[i]t’s just political correctness over the top. It’s just not necessary. I’ve got a clear view about this and I’m sure this will be sorted… It’s ridiculous. It’ll be sorted out. I’ve had a chat to the incoming head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, who’s putting his feet under the desk on Monday… I think people can work out which room to use.”

 

Perhaps, instead of appointing himself Minister for – or, more accurately, against – trans sporting policies, and toilet door signs, Morrison could have spent that valuable time meeting with [ex-]fire chiefs about this year’s bushfire season.

 

  1. Morrison’s Government locked up gay journalists fleeing Saudi Arabia

 

As just one example of the Liberal-National Government’s ongoing horrific approach to refugees and people seeking asylum generally, and LGBTI refugees specifically, earlier this year the Morrison Government responded to a gay couple, who were journalists, fleeing the homophobic and politically repressive regime in Saudi Arabia, by locking them up in immigration detention.

 

One of the pair, Sultan, described their experience in a recent interview: “[a]lthough I’ve been threatened, intimidated and bullied in Saudi Arabia, I was never thrown in a jail cell without charge. That didn’t happen to us until we came to Australia.”

 

Just let the full horror of that statement sink in for a minute.

 

Fortunately, for Sultan and Nassar, they were released from held detention in recent weeks. However, there is no guarantee in terms of what the future holds for them. Or for other LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum, including those gay and bisexual men who have been abandoned by our Government in Papua New Guinea despite laws there criminalising them.

 

  1. Morrison’s suicide prevention announcement excluded LGBTI people

 

In July, Prime Minister Morrison announced a new suicide prevention ‘national priority’, with the goal of ‘working towards a zero suicide goal.’

 

Which is obviously a welcome development. Except in doing so, he deliberately excluded LGBTI people as a priority population, with his media release stating: “I am particularly focused on continuing our strong support for those most at risk, including our veterans, Indigenous Australians and young people.”

 

Morrison might say he wants ‘zero suicides’, but he will not achieve that lofty goal if he makes zero reference to, and devotes minimal resources to, addressing the disproportionately high rates of suicide amongst the LGBTI community.

 

Although perhaps his omission was partly-based on the self-awareness that, if he explicitly included LGBTI people as a priority population, he would have to acknowledge the fact the past six and a half years of Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government have exacerbated this problem, from axing Safe Schools, holding an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive postal survey, failing to protect LGBT students in religious schools, and Morrison personally targeting trans and gender diverse young people.

 

  1. Morrison’s Government plans to exclude LGBTI questions from the 2021 Census

 

One further area where some self-reflection might benefit the Government generally, and Scott Morrison specifically, is the issue of the 2021 Census.

 

Despite giving the Australian Bureau of Statistics $80.5 million to ask all Australians what they thought of same-sex relationships just two years ago, the Morrison Government is now rejecting calls to include questions around sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status for the next Census in 18 months.

 

This decision came after pressure from Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar’s office, with Australian Statistician David Kalisch at first saying “Sukkar’s office ‘did not provide any guidance about what should be on or off the [test] form,’ before conceding ‘they did express a preference but ultimately it was my call.’”

 

The real kicker though is the follow-up explanation that was offered:

 

“Kalisch noted there were ‘some sensitivities’ around the questions, because ‘some people in the broader community’ were ‘challenged to understand’ what the question about gender meant, given that the census already asks about sex. He said there was ‘sensitivity’ around asking Australians their sexuality and he had considered making the question optional.”

 

Is there a better example of the place of LGBTI Australians under the Morrison Liberal-National Government?

 

When we opposed the ABS holding a single-question, nation-wide opinion poll on the legitimacy of our relationships, and families, the Government held it anyway.

 

But when we seek to be included in questions in the usual 2021 Census, in order to collect robust data to address health disparities facing our communities, just asking about who we are is considered far too ‘sensitive’.

 

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians do not count under the Morrison Government. We won’t for as long as Scott Morrison is Prime Minister, an office he is manifestly unfit to occupy.

 

Morrison

 

Disclaimer: As with all posts, this article reflects my own views and not those of any employer, past or present.

 

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