Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016

Update: 15 January 2017

 

Unfortunately, this legislation was voted down by the Victorian Legislative Council on 6 December 2016.

 

As reported by The Age here (‘Coalition and conservative crossbenchers unite to vote down equal rights bills’), the Liberal and National Parties rejected the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016, describing it as an attack on ‘religious freedom’.

 

Of course, it was nothing of the sort – instead it was a modest (some might argue too modest) reform that would have simply required religious schools and other religious bodies to demonstrate that any discrimination against LGBT employees was because of an ‘inherent requirement’ of the relevant job. Nothing less, and nothing more.

 

But even that was too much for Coalition MLCs, meaning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teachers at religious schools, and LGBT employees at other religious organisations, can continue to be discriminated against for at least another two years, solely because of who they are and irrespective of the responsibilities of the actual role they are performing.

 

Hopefully, Victoria’s LGBTI community remembers this shameful sell-out by the Liberal and National Parties when they cast their ballots on 24 November 2018 – and that the next Parliament strengthens the state’s LGBTI anti-discrimination laws as a matter of priority in early 2019.

 

Original Post:

 

Ten days ago I wrote about the first of two LGBTI law reforms put forward by the Andrews Labor Government that are currently before the Victorian Parliament – the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016.

This post will discuss the second – the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016.

As the title suggests, this Bill will amend the religious exceptions currently contained in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, making it more difficult, in certain circumstances, for religious bodies and schools to discriminate against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity[i].

It does this by reintroducing the ‘inherent requirements test’ for employment by religious bodies or schools, which was part of the Act as passed in 2010, but which was subsequently repealed by the Baillieu Liberal-National Government in 2011 before it commenced operation.

This test is set out in clauses 3 and 4 of the Bill, which would amend the current exceptions applying to religious bodies and religious schools featured in sections 82 and 83 respectively:

“(3) Nothing in Part 4 applies to anything done in relation to the employment of a person by a religious body where-

(a) conformity with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion is an inherent requirement of the particular position; and

(b) the person’s religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity means that the person does not meet that inherent requirement.

(4) The nature of the religious body and the religious doctrines, beliefs or principles in accordance with which it is conducted must be taken into account in determining what is an inherent requirement for the purposes of subsection (3).”[ii]

As you can see from this proposed wording, these are very modest changes. All the Bill does is to remove the ‘blanket’ ability for religious bodies and schools to discriminate against all employees on the basis of these attributes, replacing it with a slightly narrower ability whereby, in order to discriminate, the body or school must show that such discrimination is required because of the particular position involved.

As described by Attorney-General Martin Pakula in his second reading speech:

“A large number of people are employed by or seek to be employed by religious bodies and schools in Victoria, in a range of different positions. In these circumstances, it is fair to ask these organisations to demonstrate the necessary connection between their religious beliefs and principles, and proposed discrimination in employment because of an individual’s personal attribute…

“What the test will do, and appropriately so, is require those organisations that do seek to discriminate in employment on religious grounds to demonstrate the necessary connection between their particular religious beliefs and the need to discriminate.”

pakulamartin58250

Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula

Despite the extremely modest nature of the Bill, it has nevertheless attracted strong opposition from the Australian Christian Lobby[iii] and the Liberal and National Opposition, meaning that, although it has cleared the Legislative Assembly where the Government has the numbers, it is unclear whether it will be passed in the Legislative Council where the Government does not, and where it is expected to be debated later this week (with Victorian Parliament sitting from Tuesday 11 October).

Given this, I have sent a short email to all members of the Victorian upper house, encouraging them to pass this Bill, with the text included at the end of this post.

Before we get to that, however, an important caveat. Regular readers of this blog would be aware that I am opposed to religious exceptions beyond those that are necessary for the appointment of religious office-holders, and for the observance of religious ceremonies.

Indeed, these views formed part of my criticisms of the Victorian anti-discrimination framework, expressed earlier this year in my post What’s Wrong With Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010?[iv]

On this basis, I would obviously support amendments to the religious exceptions contained in the Act that go beyond what has been proposed by the Andrews Labor Government. This would, at the very least, include extending the ‘inherent requirement test’ to protect those people accessing services, including education, from these religious bodies and schools, in addition to employees.

However, we have already seen an unsuccessful attempt by the Victorian Government, this term, to restrict the rights of religious bodies to discriminate against people accessing services – it sought to prevent discrimination against same-sex couples by religious adoption agencies as part of the broader introduction of adoption equality.

Those particular amendments to religious exceptions were defeated in the Victorian Legislative Council, while the overall reform passed.

In this context, it is difficult to see how any amendments to religious exceptions that go further than those currently proposed would be passed by the upper house[v]. Indeed, the fate of the narrow changes that are contained in the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016 still seems precarious.

As a result, I have chosen to send this short email calling for these reforms to be passed, as a minimum standard, and in the hope that more comprehensive changes may be able to be made by a subsequent parliament, one where (hopefully) the influence of the extreme right is less powerful[vi].

**********

Monday 10 October 2016

Dear Member of the Victorian Legislative Council

Please Support the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016

I am writing to call on you to support the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016 when it comes before the Legislative Council.

This Bill is an important reform that will better protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees, and prospective employees, from discrimination that has absolutely nothing to do with their ability to do their jobs.

As noted by Attorney-General Martin Pakula in his second reading speech, these reforms simply ask religious bodies and schools to “demonstrate the necessary connection between their religious beliefs and principles, and proposed discrimination in employment because of an individual’s personal attribute.”

These are modest changes, and it is difficult to see how the introduction of an ‘inherent requirement test’ can be argued against.

In practice, voting against the reforms contained in the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016 is effectively saying that LGBT people can be discriminated against simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, even where there is absolutely no reason why they cannot perform a particular role.

I do not believe such an extreme ideological position is sustainable in 2016. I sincerely hope you agree, and in doing so, vote for this Bill.

Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details provided below, should you have any questions, or wish to clarify any of the above.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Footnotes:

[i] Noting that intersex status is not a protected attribute under Victorian law.

[ii] The wording of the amendment in relation to religious schools is largely similar.

[iii] Media Release, Is this kind of Government interference really warranted?, 1 September 2016.

[iv] Also expressed through my Submission to Victorian Greens Equal Opportunity Amendment (LGBTI Equality) Bill 2016.

[v] Perhaps the only complementary change that stands some chance of success in the current political environment would be the introduction of a provision requiring religious bodies and schools seeking to use the ‘inherent requirement exception’ to advertise the fact it will discriminate against LGBT employees with respect to particular positions, rather than simply asserting this ability as part of any defence to discrimination proceedings. However, determining whether such an amendment would be passed is best left to Victorian LGBTI advocates.

[vi] In drafting this email I have been careful to avoid language that rules out the need for further reform, or that would contradict amendments to the Bill, such as those proposed by the Victorian Greens (which would limit the ability of religious bodies or schools to discriminate to a greater degree), even if it is my personal view that such amendments are unlikely to be successful at this time.

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

Mr Tim Wilson

Australian Human Rights Commissioner

C/- rights@humanrights.gov.au

Friday 25 September 2015

Dear Mr Wilson

Submission on Religious Freedom Roundtable Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ALRC went on to comment that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

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

[ii] Ibid.

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

[iv] Ibid, para 4.39, page 104.

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

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

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

[viii] Ibid.

Submission re Australian Law Reform Commission Freedoms Inquiry Interim Report

Australian Law Reform Commission

GPO Box 3708

SYDNEY NSW 2000

freedoms@alrc.gov.au

Monday 21 September 2015

To whom it may concern

SUBMISSION RE ALRC FREEDOMS INQUIRY INTERIM REPORT

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission in response to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) Freedoms Inquiry Interim Report.

This submission builds on my submission in response to the Issues Paper released in December 2014[i].

As with my earlier submission, my primary focus is on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, including:

  • The failure by the Commonwealth Government to protect LGBTI people from vilification and
  • The Commonwealth Government’s tacit endorsement of discrimination, by religious organisations, against LGBT people.

However, before I turn to these issues in detail – and specifically how they relate to Chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the Interim Report – I reiterate my concern about the Terms of Reference for this Inquiry.

From my earlier submission:

“The way in which the Terms of Reference have been formulated, and consequently the manner in which the Issues Paper has been drafted, appears to prioritise some rights above others, merely because they are older, or are found in common law, rather than being more modern rights or founded through legislation or international human rights documents.

This is an unjustified distinction, and makes it appear, at the very least, that property rights or ‘the common law protection of personal reputation’ (aka protection against defamation) are more important than other rights, such as freedom from vilification or discrimination.

My criticism of this inquiry is therefore similar to that of the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Discussion Paper released by the Human Rights Commissioner Mr Tim Wilson. From my submission to that inquiry[ii]:

“Specifically, I would argue that the prioritising of certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring that all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society.

From my point of view, chief among these rights is the right to non-discrimination, or to put it another way (which may be more favourably received), to be free from discrimination, including unfair or adverse treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The right to non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law adopted immediately post-World War II. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.”

Similarly, article 21 of the ICCPR establishes that:

“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.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has, in cases which both involved complaints by Australian citizens against actions by the Tasmanian and Commonwealth Government respectively, found that the wording of these articles includes the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.[iii]

The Commonwealth Parliament has also recognised that the right to non-discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians is worthy of protection, with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

This historic legislation, providing similar rights to non-discrimination to those already enjoyed on the basis of race, sex, disability and age, was a significant, albeit long overdue, step forward for the LGBTI community. For this reason, I would not wish to see the right to be free from discrimination on these attributes to be diminished in comparison to other, more ‘traditional’ rights.

Unfortunately, that is the almost inevitable conclusion of a consultation process which aims to consider “how effectively we protect people’s human rights and freedoms in Australia”… but which then only focuses on a small number of freedoms, including the right to property, but which neglects others.”

[End extract]

Unfortunately, while the ALRC Freedoms Inquiry Issues Paper acknowledged that “[f]reedom from discrimination is also a fundamental human right”, in my opinion the Interim Report does not reflect this view and in fact further privileges some rights over the right to non-discrimination simply because they are ‘older’ in legal origin.

Nevertheless, in the remainder of this submission I will continue to focus on the important right to non-discrimination, including associated protections against vilification, as it relates to the freedoms of speech, religion and association that are discussed in Chapters 3, 4 and 5 respectively.

Chapter 3: Freedom of Speech

My first comment relates to terminology, namely the protected attributes referred to in paragraph 3.103 on page 80.

It is disappointing that the discussion of protections against breaches of human rights and discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (and the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986) would refer to the out-dated term ‘sexual preference’, rather than the more inclusive and better practice term ‘sexual orientation’.

It is also disappointing that the two other grounds added by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 – ‘gender identity’, and ‘intersex status’ – are not included in this paragraph.

Turning now to the more substantive issue of anti-vilification laws generally, and the issue of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 specifically (as discussed on pages 80 to 84).

Despite public controversy in recent years (at least in the eyes of some conservative commentators), I do not believe that there has been any real evidence that the racial vilification protections of the RDA have, in practice, operated inappropriately, or that they require significant amendment.

Moreover, rather than repeal Commonwealth racial vilification protections, I continue to believe there is a strong case for the introduction of similar laws against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

As I wrote in my earlier submission [edited]:

“My primary question is why laws should be established to prohibit ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred’ but not to prohibit advocacy of hatred on other grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The impact of vilification on these grounds, and the negative influence of public homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia more generally, is just as harmful as racial or religious vilification, and therefore I can see no good reason why there should not also exist equivalent anti-vilification protections covering LGBTI Australians at Commonwealth level.

In short, if there should be a law to protect against the incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence on the basis of race, then there should also be a law to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The fact that there is no such Commonwealth law means that the Government is currently failing in its duty to protect LGBTI Australians from vilification.”

[End extract]

Therefore, my response to the ‘[c]onclusions’ in paragraph 3.191 is to reject the suggestion that “[a]nti-discrimination law may also benefit from more thorough review in relation to implications for freedom of speech” but to instead submit that the Commonwealth Government should amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to include vilification protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, as a matter of priority.

Chapter 4: Freedom of Religion

It is difficult to disagree with the opening paragraph of Chapter 4, where it asserts: “[g]enerally speaking, Australians enjoy significant religious freedom, particularly by comparison to other jurisdictions. Australians enjoy the freedom to worship and practise religion, as well as the freedom not to worship or engage in religious practices,” or this description in paragraph 4.39 on page 104:

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

In fact, I would go further to suggest that religious freedom is unnecessarily and unjustifiably prioritised, and provided with ‘special treatment’, within Australia.

This is because legal protections surrounding freedom of religion extend far beyond the right to worship freely (or not) to incorporate other ‘rights’, including the ‘right to discriminate’ against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This so-called ‘right to discriminate’ applies outside places and celebrations of worship, to allow education, health and community services that are operated by religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT Australians both in employment, and in service delivery.

This is reflected in the variety of extremely broad exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination law, which provide that the requirement not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity does not apply to these organisations.

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

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

It should be noted that there is nothing inherent in the freedom of religion that automatically requires religious organisations to be provided with what is essentially a ‘blank cheque’ to discriminate against LGBT employees and LGBT people accessing services in a wide variety of circumstances.

There are two reasons for this:

First, these services, whether they are in the fields of education, health or community services, are located squarely in the public sphere, and their primary nature is related to the delivery of education, health or community services, not to the ‘celebration’ of religion.

This means that, while discrimination against ministers of religion or worshippers within a church, mosque or synagogue on these grounds might conceptually fall within freedom of religion, it is much more difficult to argue that discrimination within a school, hospital or aged care facility is as essential to enjoyment of the same freedom.

Second, we accept that there are limits to religious freedom where it threatens public order, or causes significant harm to other people. It is clear that allowing religious organisations to discriminate freely in these settings causes considerable harm to LGBT Australians, including by:

a) Denying employment to people who are eminently qualified to perform a role, with this discrimination based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity, attributes which are irrelevant to the job at hand, and

b) Discriminating against people who wish to access services on the same basis, the most egregious example of which is mistreatment of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students whose parents have chosen to send to schools operated by religious organisations (and where they are often unaware that their child is LGBT).

For both of these reasons, I reiterate the view from my earlier submission that the exceptions offered to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination law should be significantly curtailed.

As I wrote previously:

“Religious exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws allow serious harm to be caused to LGBT Australians, on a day-to-day basis and across multiple spheres of public life, and, I submit, should be significantly curbed.

To this end, I believe the religious exemptions which are included in sub-sections 37(1)(a),(b) and (c) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[iv], if supplemented by exemptions covering how religious ceremonies are conducted, are both more justifiable in being better targeted to protecting freedom of religious worship itself, and less likely to result in harm to LGBT people through the breach of their right to non-discrimination across broad areas of public life. These are the only religious exemptions that, I believe, should be retained.

This, much narrower, form of religious exemptions would, in my view, also be a more appropriate outcome of a system of human rights that seeks to both protect fundamental rights, and promote the responsibility not to infringe upon the fundamental rights of others.”

[End extract]

Perhaps the most concerning part of the Interim Report is the stakeholder feedback from some religious organisations, lobbyists and lobby groups that, contrary to the above view, their rights to discriminate are currently too narrowly defined and they in fact demand a far greater ability to impose discrimination against LGBT Australians.

This includes submissions from the Australian Christian Lobby, Mr Patrick Parkinson, Freedom for Faith, Family Voice, the Wilberforce Foundation, Christian Schools Australia and the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. Their suggestions include replacing the existing, already overly generous exceptions to anti-discrimination law, with a positively-framed ‘right to discriminate’.

These groups are essentially arguing that religious freedom, no matter how broadly defined or how indirectly related to the actual celebration of religion, must always take precedence over the rights of others not to be discriminated against, even where such discrimination obviously causes significant harm.

I urge the ALRC to reject the views of these religious fundamentalists, and their attempts to impose the ‘supremacy’[v] of religious freedom over any or all other rights in Australian society, including through Commonwealth law.

Finally, while on Chapter 4, I note the discussion regarding solemnising marriage ceremonies on pages 111 to 113 of the Interim Report.

While I do not propose to comment on the content which is included in this section, I would note that one issue which is not canvassed is the proposal by some that, when marriage equality is finally introduced in Australian law, it should be accompanied by the establishment of a new right for civil celebrants to refuse to solemnise wedding ceremonies of LGBTI Australians.

Such provisions have been included in the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014, introduced by Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm, and similar rights to ‘conscientiously object’ have also been advocated for by the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Tim Wilson.

For reasons that I have outlined elsewhere[vi], such provisions should be rejected by the Commonwealth Parliament on the basis that this would set a concerning precedent whereby individuals would be able to discriminate in service delivery on the basis of their personal religious beliefs, and because a social reform which is based on love would be fundamentally undermined by provisions which legitimise hate.

Chapter 5: Freedom of Association

The issues which arise in this Chapter are similar to those raised in Chapter 4: Freedom of Religion. In particular, people like Mr Patrick Parkinson and Family Voice submit that freedom of association should allow religious organisations to discriminate against people who do not “fit with the mission and values of the organisation.”

To a certain extent I agree – churches, mosques and synagogues, indeed all formally and explicitly religious organisations, should be free to include or exclude whoever they want, on whatever basis they want, as ministers of religion and as worshippers or members of their respective congregations.

The ‘whoever they want, on whatever basis they want’ formulation is important – if the people making the case for freedom of religion, and freedom of association, to justify exempting religious organisations from anti-discrimination laws are philosophically consistent, they should be pushing for exceptions to be introduced into the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and other anti-discrimination schemes as much as they argue for the existing exceptions in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

If they do not, then it reveals that they are not genuinely motivated by the pursuit of these freedoms, but are in fact engaged in an exercise in prejudice specifically directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

In a similar way to Chapter 4, I also disagree that the freedom of association should extend to allow education, health and community services operated by religious organisations to be able to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Any argument that might be raised that these schools, hospitals or aged care facility should have the freedom to include or exclude ‘whoever they want, on whatever basis they want’ is outweighed by the public interest in having education, health and community services provided on a non-discriminatory basis, and specifically by the harm caused to LGBT people by allowing such discrimination to occur.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide a submission in response to the Interim Report. Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details below, should you wish to clarify any of the above or to seek additional information.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

[i] https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/02/15/submission-to-australian-law-reform-commission-traditional-rights-and-freedoms-inquiry/

[ii] Full submission at: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/10/27/submission-to-rights-responsibilities-2014-consultation/

[iii] Human Rights Committee, Toonen v Australia, Communication No. 488/1992, UN Doc CCPR/C/50/D/488/92 and Human Rights Committee, Young v Australia, Communication No. 941/2000, UN Doc CCPR/C/78/D/941/2000.

[iv] “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:

  • the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;
  • the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
  • the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice…”

[v] Indeed, it is especially concerning that the Australian Christian Lobby uses the language of ‘supremacy’ in its own submission: “Courts and legislatures need to acknowledge the supremacy of the fundamental rights of freedom of religion, conscience, speech and association… [it is] a freedom which must be placed among the top levels of human rights hierarchy” as quoted at paragraph 4.96 on page 116.

[vi] See: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/12/21/senator-leyonhjelms-marriage-equality-bill-undermines-the-principle-of-lgbti-anti-discrimination-should-we-still-support-it/

Letter to Bruce Notley-Smith re Baird Liberal-National Government Commitments on NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977

Mr Bruce Notley-Smith MP

80 Bronte Road

Bondi Junction NSW 2022

coogee@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Sunday 1 March 2015

Dear Mr Notley-Smith

REVIEW OF NSW ANTI-DISCRIMINATION ACT 1977

I am writing as an attendee at the recent #rainbowvotes forum, where five Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum, including yourself, outlined their respective approaches to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) issues ahead of the upcoming NSW State Election.

Specifically, I am seeking clarification of your answers concerning the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 and what action you, and the Liberal-National Government, will take if you are re-elected.

At the forum, the representative attending on behalf of the NSW Labor Opposition, Ms Penny Sharpe MLC, gave a clear commitment that, if elected, a Foley Labor Government would undertake a formal review of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

Following that clear commitment, you made several comments that appeared to indicate your personal support for such an approach.

However, later during the same forum, you indicated that you were appearing at the forum in your capacity as an individual MP only, and not as a spokesperson for the current Baird Liberal-National Government.

As a result, I sought clarification from you, via twitter, whether it is indeed NSW Liberal policy to support a formal review of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

Given I have not received a response via social media, I am now writing to you more formally, with essentially the same question: is the Baird Liberal-National Government committed to reviewing the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 if it is re-elected on Saturday 28 March 2015?

As I have written previously (see: https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/02/20/questions-for-mps-and-candidates-during-sydney-gay-lesbian-mardi-gras/ ), I believe the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is now the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination legislation in Australia.

This is because:

  • It fails for protect bisexual people from discrimination (the only jurisdiction in the country to do so)
  • It fails to protect intersex people from discrimination
  • The religious exceptions in sub-section 56(d) are the broadest in Australia
  • The exceptions allowing all private schools to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students are abhorrent
  • It fails to protect both bisexuals and intersex people from vilification and
  • The maximum individual fine for lesbian, gay and transgender vilification is only one-fifth of the maximum fine for racial vilification.

For all of these reasons, I believe that the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 should be amended as a matter of priority.

However, if you are unable to give a clear commitment that a re-elected Baird Liberal-National Government would make changes to these provisions, I submit that, at the bare minimum you, and the Government, should be able to commit to holding a formal review of this narrow and out-dated legislation.

Given there are now less than four weeks left until polling day, I would appreciate a response to this letter, outlining what commitments (if any) the Liberal-National Government is prepared to make in this area, at your earliest convenience.

I have also copied the Premier, the Hon Mike Baird MP, and the Attorney-General, the Hon Brad Hazzard MP, into this correspondence.

Thank you in advance for you consideration of the issues raised in this letter.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

cc: The Hon Mike Baird MP, NSW Premier

GPO Box 5341

Sydney NSW 2001

The Hon Brad Hazzard MP, NSW Attorney-General

GPO Box 5341

Sydney NSW 2001

office@hazzard.minister.nsw.gov.au

Will Liberal Member for Coogee, Bruce Notley-Smith, be able to provide a clear commitment to review the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

Will Liberal Member for Coogee, Bruce Notley-Smith, be able to provide a clear commitment to review the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

Submission to Australian Law Reform Commission Traditional Rights and Freedoms Inquiry

The Australian Law Reform Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into Traditional Rights and Freedoms – Encroachment by Commonwealth Laws (at the behest of Commonwealth Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis). They have released an Issues Paper for public consultation, with submissions due by Friday 27 February 2015. For more information about the inquiry, see <http://www.alrc.gov.au/inquiries/freedoms The following is my submission, focusing on LGBTI vilification, religious exceptions to anti-discrimination law, and asylum-seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees.

The Executive Director

Australian Law Reform Commission

GPO Box 3708

Sydney NSW 2001

c/- freedoms@alrc.gov.au

Sunday 15 February 2015

To whom it may concern

SUBMISSION TO TRADITIONAL RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS INQUIRY

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to the Traditional Rights and Freedoms – Encroachment by Commonwealth Laws Inquiry.

The subject of human rights and freedoms, and how they should best be protected, both by and from Government, is an important one, and is worthy of substantive consideration.

In this submission, I will focus on three particular areas in which the rights of people are currently being breached as a result of Commonwealth Government action, or in some cases, inaction:

  1. The Commonwealth Government’s failure to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians from vilification
  2. The Commonwealth Government’s tacit endorsement of discrimination, by religious organisations, against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians, and
  3. The gross violation of human rights of asylum-seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees, by the Commonwealth Government.

Before I move to these issues in more detail, however, I wish to express my concern about the Terms of Reference (provided by Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis) and therefore the overall direction of this inquiry.

The way in which the Terms of Reference have been formulated, and consequently the manner in which the Issues Paper has been drafted, appears to prioritise some rights above others, merely because they are older, or are found in common law, rather than being more modern rights or founded through legislation or international human rights documents.

This is an unjustified distinction, and makes it appear, at the very least, that property rights or ‘the common law protection of personal reputation’ (aka protection against defamation) are more important than other rights, such as freedom from vilification or discrimination.

My criticism of this inquiry is therefore similar to that of the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Discussion Paper released by the Human Rights Commissioner Mr Tim Wilson. From my submission to that inquiry[1]:

“Specifically, I would argue that the prioritising of certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring that all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society.

From my point of view, chief among these rights is the right to non-discrimination, or to put it another way (which may be more favourably received), to be free from discrimination, including unfair or adverse treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The right to non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law adopted immediately post-World War II. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.”

Similarly, article 21 of the ICCPR establishes that:

“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.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has, in cases which both involved complaints by Australian citizens against actions by the Tasmanian and Commonwealth Government respectively, found that the wording of these articles includes the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.[2]

The Commonwealth Parliament has also recognised that the right to non-discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians is worthy of protection, with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

This historic legislation, providing similar rights to non-discrimination to those already enjoyed on the basis of race, sex, disability and age, was a significant, albeit long overdue, step forward for the LGBTI community. For this reason, I would not wish to see the right to be free from discrimination on these attributes to be diminished in comparison to other, more ‘traditional’ rights.

Unfortunately, that is the almost inevitable conclusion of a consultation process which aims to consider “how effectively we protect people’s human rights and freedoms in Australia”… but which then only focuses on a small number of freedoms, including the right to property, but which neglects others.”

[End extract]

Encouragingly, the ALRC at least acknowledges, on page 31, that “[f]reedom from discrimination is also a fundamental human right.” But the Issues Paper does not include a chapter on this right, nor does it include it within the list of “[o]ther rights, freedoms and privileges” in Chapter 19.

I believe that this imbalance, in examining and prioritising some fundamental rights, while essentially ignoring others, undermines the utility of this process – and is something which must be redressed in the Final Report, expected by December 2015.

I turn now to three particular areas in which the Commonwealth Government either itself breaches human rights, or authorises others to do so.

  1. The Commonwealth Government’s failure to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians from vilification

[NB This topic relates to Chapter Two: Freedom of Speech, and its questions:

  • What general principles or criteria should be applied to help determine whether a law that interferes with freedom of speech is justified?
  • Which Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of speech, and why are these laws unjustified?]

I acknowledge the importance of the right to freedom of expression, or freedom of speech. However, I also welcome the Issues Paper’s acknowledgement that there are possible justifications for encroachment on this right. In particular, the Issues Papers notes, at paragraph 2.2.4 on page 26:

“Similarly, laws prohibit, or render unlawful, speech that causes harm, distress or offence to others through incitement to violence, harassment, intimidation or discrimination.”

This obviously includes the prohibition on racial vilification contained in section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975[3].

My primary question is why laws should be established to prohibit ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred’ but not to prohibit advocacy of hatred on other grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The impact of vilification on these grounds, and the negative influence of public homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia more generally, is just as harmful as racial or religious vilification, and therefore I can see no good reason why there should not also exist equivalent anti-vilification protections covering LGBTI Australians a Commonwealth level.

It is for this reason that I provided a submission last year in response to the Senator Brandis’ Exposure Draft Bill seeking to repeal section 18C, in which I argued that, instead of abolishing racial vilification laws, similar protections against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status should be added to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[4].

In short, if there should be a law to protect against the incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence on the basis of race, then there should also be a law to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The fact that there is no such Commonwealth law means that the Government is currently failing in its duty to protect LGBTI Australians from vilification.

Finally, I note that this answer is, in some respects, contrary to the intention of “Question 2-2: [w]hich Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of speech, and why are these laws unjustified?” because it instead proposes an additional area where freedom of speech should be limited.

I submit that such an answer is necessary to redress the imbalance contained in the Terms of Reference, and Issues Paper, because the right to freedom from vilification is equally worthy of recognition, and protection, in Commonwealth law. It is a right that should be extended to LGBTI Australians as a matter of priority.

  1. The Commonwealth Government’s tacit endorsement of discrimination, by religious organisations, against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians

[NB This topic relates to Chapter 3: Freedom of Religion, and its questions:

  • What general principles or criteria should be applied to help determine whether a law that interferes with freedom of religion is justified?
  • Which Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of religion, and why are these laws unjustified?]

I acknowledge the fundamental importance of the right to freedom of religion. However, just as importantly, I support the statement on page 31 of the Issues Paper that:

“[f]reedom of religion is fundamental, but so too is freedom from discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, sexual orientation or some other protected attribute. Freedom from discrimination is also a fundamental human right.”

Indeed, the case at paragraph 3.20 on the same page, namely R v Secretary of state for education and employment; ex parte Williamson (2005) from the UK, provides a useful formulation:

“… there is a difference between freedom to hold a belief and freedom to express or ‘manifest’ a belief. The former right, freedom of belief, is absolute. The latter right, freedom to manifest, is qualified. This is to be expected, because the way a belief is expressed in practice may impact on others.”

Unfortunately, I do not believe that Australian law currently strikes the right balance between respecting the right to freedom of religion, and protecting others from the harms caused by the manifestation of those beliefs, including through breaches of the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Specifically, I am concerned that the broad exceptions and/or exemptions which are provided to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, including those protections added by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, are far too generous.

In practice, these exceptions provide Government approval and endorsement of the discriminatory treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians by religious bodies in a large number of areas of public life[5].

For example, the combined impact of sub-section 37(1)(d) of the amended Sex Discrimination Act 1984[6] and section 38 of the same law (which applies to educational institutions established for religious purposes), means that, according to Commonwealth law:

  • Religious schools can freely discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, including expelling those students simply for being who they are;
  • Religious schools can also freely discriminate against LGBT staff members, including by refusing to provide or terminating their employment, where sexual orientation and gender identity is completely irrelevant to the ability of that person to perform the duties of the role;
  • Religious health and community services can similarly discriminate against both LGBT employees/potential employees, as well as LGBT individuals and families accessing these services, with impunity; and
  • Religious aged care services can discriminate against LGBT employees or potential employees.[7]

It is difficult to see how these exemptions, which allow LGBT people to be discriminated against simply as they seek to obtain an education, or access healthcare (which are themselves fundamental international human rights), and to be treated unfairly in employment in a large number of jobs across a wide range of areas, is not a gross breach of their human rights.

Religious exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws allow serious harm to be caused to LGBT Australians, on a day-to-day basis and across multiple spheres of public life, and, I submit, should be significantly curbed.

To this end, I believe the religious exemptions which are included in sub-sections 37(1)(a),(b) and (c) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[8], if supplemented by exemptions covering how religious ceremonies are conducted, are both more justifiable in being better targeted to protecting freedom of religious worship itself, and less likely to result in harm to LGBT people through the breach of their right to non-discrimination across broad areas of public life. These are the only religious exemptions that, I believe, should be retained.

This, much narrower, form of religious exemptions would, in my view, also be a more appropriate outcome of a system of human rights that seeks to both protect fundamental rights, and promote the responsibility not to infringe upon the fundamental rights of others.

Finally, as with my previous answer, I note that this discussion is potentially contrary to the intention of “Question 3-2: Which Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of religion, and why are these laws unjustified?” because it highlights an area where, arguably, freedom of religion should be further restrained.

I believe that providing this answer is nevertheless important because, in Australia, freedom of religion is not unduly limited. Instead, freedom of religion is unjustifiably privileged, including where it tramples upon the rights of others, and especially the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians not to be discriminated against in public life.

A mature discussion of rights and freedoms would recognise this serious imbalance and seek to redress it, by ensuring that religious exceptions to and exemptions from anti-discrimination law only protected genuine freedom of religious worship, not establishing a supposed ‘right’ to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

  1. The gross violation of human rights of asylum-seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees, by the Commonwealth Government

I am not an expert in migration and refugee law, nor in the international human rights instruments that apply in this area.

Nevertheless, I know enough about this subject matter to submit that:

  • Seeking asylum is a human right, and is not a criminal act, irrespective of the manner of arrival (whether by plane or by boat),
  • Responding to people exercising their right to seek asylum by detaining them in offshore processing centres, indefinitely, in inhumane conditions, and without free and fair access to justice, is a fundamental breach of their human rights, and
  • An inquiry into the encroachment by Commonwealth laws upon traditional rights and freedoms would be incomplete without a thorough examination of this issue.

As a long-term LGBTI advocate and activist, I also feel compelled to raise the specific issue of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees being processed and ultimately resettled in countries that criminalise homosexuality, namely Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

As I have written to several Commonwealth Immigration Ministers, under both Labor[9] and Liberal-National[10] Governments, such a policy clearly abrogates the responsibilities that the Commonwealth Government has towards LGBTI asylum-seekers.

From my letter to then Minister for Immigration the Hon Scott Morrison MP:

“… the mistreatment of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees raises particular problems, problems that do not appear to be recognised by the Australian Government. Nor does there appear to be any evidence the Government is taking action to remedy them.

Even if the offshore processing and permanent resettlement of refugees continues, this must not include the processing and resettlement of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality (which both PNG and Nauru currently do).

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and therefore Minister responsible for the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees, cannot guarantee that sections 210 and 212 of the PNG Penal Code do not apply to detainees on Manus Island, then you cannot send LGBTI people there in good conscience.

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, cannot guarantee that LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees will not be subject to homophobic bullying and harassment, and will be free to lodge claims for protections on the basis of persecution due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then you must not detain them in such facilities.”

[End extract]

As I indicated at the beginning of this section, I am not an expert in this area of law, and therefore am not in a position to provide a more thorough analysis of the (multiple) breaches of human rights law involved in the offshore processing and resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees. I am confident, however, that there will be a number of submissions from human rights and refugee organisations in coming weeks that will do exactly that.

Nevertheless, I felt obliged to include this issue in my submission, given both the severity of the human rights breaches involved, and because of their particular impact on LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees, whose only ‘crime’ is to have sought the protection of our Government.

In conclusion, I wish to thank the Law Reform Commission again for the opportunity to provide this submission, and consequently to raise issues of concern for LGBTI people, namely the absence of anti-vilification protection in Commonwealth law, the breach of our right to non-discrimination because of religious exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, and the mistreatment of asylum seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees, by the Commonwealth Government.

I look forward to these issues being addressed in the inquiry’s Final Report, to be released by the end of 2015.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

[1] Full submission at: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/10/27/submission-to-rights-responsibilities-2014-consultation/

[2] Human Rights Committee, Toonen v Australia, Communication No. 488/1992, UN Doc CCPR/C/50/D/488/92 and Human Rights Committee, Young v Australia, Communication No. 941/2000, UN Doc CCPR/C/78/D/941/2000.

[3] “Offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

  • It is unlawful for a person to an act, otherwise than in private, if:
  • the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate another person or a group of people; and
  • the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

[4] Full submission at: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/24/dont-limit-racial-vilification-protections-introduce-vilification-protections-for-lgbti-australians-instead/

[5] Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to intersex status, only to sexual orientation and gender identity.

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

[7] Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to LGBT people accessing aged care services.

[8] “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:

  • the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;
  • the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
  • the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice…”

[9] My letter to Labor Immigrations Ministers, the Hon Chris Bowen and the Hon Brendan O’Connor from 2012 and 2013: https://alastairlawrie.net/2012/09/07/letter-to-chris-bowen-on-lgbti-asylum-seekers/

[10] My letter to then Immigration Minister the Hon Scott Morrison from February 2014: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/02/letter-to-scott-morrison-about-treatment-of-lgbti-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-sent-to-manus-island-png/

Submission to Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Consultation

The Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, is currently undertaking a public consultation called Rights & Responsibilities 2014. Unfortunately, similar to the ALRC Freedoms Inquiry, it is very much focused on ‘traditional’ rights at the expense of other rights like the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. This post is my submission to this consultation process.

You can find out more about the inquiry, including downloading the Discussion Paper, at the following link: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/rights-responsibilities-2014 Written submissions, including an option to complete an online survey, are due by Friday 14 November 2014. Public consultations are also being held across the country, with a session in Sydney scheduled for Wednesday 19 November 2014 (details at the AHRC website).

Mr Tim Wilson

Human Rights Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission

c/- rights2014@humanrights.gov.au

Monday 27 October 2014

Dear Commissioner Wilson

SUBMISSION TO RIGHTS & RESPONSIBILITIES 2014 CONSULTATION

I welcome the opportunity to provide a submission to the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 public consultation, and in particular to provide feedback on the Discussion Paper, of the same name, published on the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) website.

In this submission, I will provide feedback on two of the four rights, or related sets of rights, featured in Appendix A of the discussion paper (namely, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship).

However, before doing so I would like to express my serious concern that the focus of the discussion paper is limited to some rights, which could be characterised as being more ‘traditional’ in nature (for example, the right to property), to the apparent exclusion of other rights which, I believe, are no less important in the contemporary world.

Specifically, I would argue that prioritising certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring that all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society. From my point of view, chief among these rights is the right to non-discrimination, or to put it another way (which may be more favourably received), to be free from discrimination, including unfair or adverse treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The right to non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law adopted immediately post-World War II. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that: “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.”

Similarly, article 21 of the ICCPR establishes that: “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.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has, in cases which both involved complaints by Australian citizens against actions by the Tasmanian and Commonwealth Government respectively, found that the wording of these articles includes the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.[1]

The Commonwealth Parliament has also recognised that the right to non-discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians is worthy of protection, with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013. This historic legislation, providing similar rights to non-discrimination to those already enjoyed on the basis of race, sex, disability and age, was a significant, albeit long overdue, step forward for the LGBTI community.

For this reason, I would not wish to see the right to be free from discrimination on these attributes to be diminished in comparison to other, more ‘traditional’ rights. Unfortunately, that is the almost inevitable conclusion of a consultation process which aims to consider “how effectively we protect people’s human rights and freedoms in Australia” (page 1 of the Discussion Paper) but which then only focuses on a small number of freedoms, including the right to property, and which neglects others.

In this way, the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Discussion Paper appears to reinforce the message, already made clear by the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis’ ‘Freedom Inquiry’ reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission (see http://www.alrc.gov.au/inquiries/freedoms/terms-reference for the terms of reference), that some freedoms are somehow better or more worthy of protection than others. Both inquiries appear to suggest that there is a hierarchy of rights, with ‘traditional’ rights at the top, and other rights, such as the right to non-discrimination, placed below them.

This is particularly concerning when some of those traditional rights being promoted or ‘privileged’ in these consultations, including the right to property and the right to ‘common law protection of personal reputation’ (aka defamation), are rights which are inherently more valuable to those who already enjoy ‘privilege’ within society, while other rights vital to protect the interests of people who are not ‘privileged’ are largely ignored.

Above all, I am concerned that you, in your role as Human Rights Commissioner, should actively participate in the reinforcement of this supposed hierarchy of rights, with the right to non-discrimination placed somewhere toward the bottom – especially as you are also the Commissioner at the AHRC with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status issues.

I would ask that you reconsider your approach to these issues in the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 consultation process, and, instead of promoting a narrow view of what constitutes fundamental human rights, ensure that other rights, including the right to non-discrimination – or to be free from discrimination – are also given appropriate consideration.

I will now turn my attention to two of the four rights, or related sets of rights, featured in Appendix A of the Discussion Paper.

Right to freedom of expression (page 5 of the Discussion Paper)

I acknowledge the importance of the right to freedom of expression, or freedom of speech. However, I also welcome the Discussion Paper’s statement that freedom of speech is not absolute, in particular where it notes that: “Under international law, freedom of expression may only be limited where it is prescribed by law and deemed necessary to protect the rights or reputations of others, national security, public order, or public health or morals. A mandatory limitation also applies to the right to freedom of expression in relation to ‘any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’.”[2]

In this context, I question why laws should be established to prohibit ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred’ but not to prohibit advocacy of hatred on other grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. The impact of vilification on these grounds, and the negative influence of public homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia more generally, is just as harmful as racial or religious vilification. Therefore I can see no good reason why there should not also exist equivalent anti-vilification protections covering LGBTI Australians a Commonwealth level.

It is for this reason that I provided a submission earlier this year in response to the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis’, Exposure Draft Bill seeking to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, in which I argued that, instead of abolishing racial vilification laws, similar protections against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status should be added to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (a copy of this submission can be found at the following link: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/24/dont-limit-racial-vilification-protections-introduce-vilification-protections-for-lgbti-australians-instead/ ).

Thus, while I understand the focus of this section of the Discussion Paper is on ensuring that there exist only narrow restrictions on ‘freedom of expression’ (as summed up in the question “how individuals can be held accountable for the use of their freedom of expression outside of law” emphasis added), I submit there remains a proper, indeed necessary, role for legal restrictions on this freedom to protect against the “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

I further submit that these protections should cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians against such incitements. I sincerely hope that, in your capacity as both Human Rights Commissioner and AHRC Commissioner with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status issues, you agree.

Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship (page 6 of the Discussion Paper)

I also acknowledge the fundamental importance of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship. I further agree with the Discussion Paper on page 6 where it states that “[t]he internal dimension of the right – the freedom to adopt or hold a belief – is absolute.”

However, just as importantly, I support the statement that “the external dimension – the freedom to manifest that belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching – may be limited by laws when deemed necessary to protect the public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others” (emphasis added). This is a vital caveat that allows Governments to protect other individuals and groups against both potential and real harm.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that Australian law currently strikes the right balance between respecting the right to freedom of religious worship, and the harms caused by breaches of the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Specifically, I am concerned that the broad exceptions and/or exemptions which are provided to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, including those protections added by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, are far too generous, and essentially approve the prejudicial and discriminatory treatment of LGBT Australians by religious bodies in a large number of areas of public life[3].

For example, the combined impact of sub-section 37(1)(d) of the amended Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (which provides that “[n]othing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibility of adherants of that religion”) and section 38 of the same law (which applies to educational institutions established for religious purposes), means that, according to Commonwealth law:

  • Religious schools can freely discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, including expelling those students simply for being who they are;
  • Religious schools can also freely discriminate against LGBT staff members, including by refusing to provide or terminating their employment, where sexual orientation and gender identity is completely irrelevant to the ability of that person to perform the duties of the role;
  • Religious health and community services can similarly discriminate, with impunity, against both LGBT employees and potential employees, as well as LGBT individuals and families accessing these services; and
  • Religious aged care services can discriminate against LGBT employees or potential employees.[4]

It is difficult to see how these exemptions, which allow LGBT people to be discriminated against simply as they seek to obtain an education, or access healthcare (which are themselves fundamental international human rights), and to be treated unfairly in employment in a large number of jobs across a wide range of areas, is not a gross breach of their human rights.

It is even more difficult to envisage how these exemptions fit with the statements on page 2 of the Discussion Paper that “[r]ights and freedoms… are about being treated fairly, treating others fairly…” (emphasis added) and that “[l]imits on rights have been established to ensure individuals do not harm others when exercising their own rights.” Religious exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws allow serious harm to be caused to LGBT Australians, on a day-to-day basis and across multiple spheres of public life, and, I assert, should be significantly curbed.

To this end, I believe the religious exemptions which are included in sub-sections 37(1)(a),(b) and (c) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[5], if supplemented by exemptions covering how religious ceremonies are conducted, would be both more justifiable in being better targeted to protecting freedom of religious worship itself, and less likely to result in harm to LGBT people through the breach of their right to non-discrimination across broad areas of public life. Therefore, these are the only religious exemptions which should be retained.

This, much narrower, approach to religious exemptions would, in my view, also be a more appropriate outcome of a system of human rights that seeks to both protect fundamental rights, and promote the responsibility not to infringe upon the fundamental rights of others. In this respect, I question why the Discussion Paper does not live up to its title – examining both Rights AND Responsibilities – but instead focuses primarily on the expansion of some rights, including the right to freedom of religious worship, even at the possible expense of others, such as the right to non-discrimination.

For example, the conclusion of the section on “Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship” notes that: “Rights & Responsibilities will focus on:

  • the ways you exercise your right to freedom of religion
  • where restrictions on freedom of religious worship exist
  • whether you have felt restricted or prohibited from exercising your right to freedom of religion
  • what could be done to enable you to exercise your right to freedom of religion.”

This focus presupposes that the only changes with respect to this area of law should be expansions to the ‘freedom of religion’, rather than allowing for the possibility that people claiming to exercise this freedom are in fact unjustifiably and inappropriately infringing upon the rights of others. The Discussion Paper does not seem to even contemplate the possibility that more protections may be needed to shield LGBT Australians from discrimination, perpetrated by religious organisations, but which at this stage is legitimated by exemptions to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law.

I submit that removing these wide-ranging, and overly-generous, religious exemptions is one of the most important, and effective, reforms the Government could make to improve the rights of any group of Australians. I sincerely hope that, as AHRC Commissioner with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status issues, you agree that LGBT Australians should be free to live their lives without homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia. And to do so without exception. Thank you in advance for your consideration of this submission. Sincerely Alastair Lawrie

Human Rights Commissioner and Rights & Responsibilities 2014 author, Tim Wilson.

Human Rights Commissioner and Rights & Responsibilities 2014 author, Tim Wilson.

[1] Human Rights Committee, Toonen v Australia, Communication No. 488/1992, UN Doc CCPR/C/50/D/488/92 and Human Rights Committee, Young v Australia, Communication No. 941/2000, UN Doc CCPR/C/78/D/941/2000. [2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 20(2). [3] Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to intersex status, only to sexual orientation and gender identity. [4] Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to LGBT people accessing aged care services. [5] “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:

  • the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;
  • the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
  • the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice…”

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.

Submission to Australian Human Rights Commission’s Inquiry into Self-Harm and Suicidal Behaviour in Children

The National Children’s Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission has initiated an inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children and young people.

Submissions are due on Monday 2 June: you can find more details here: <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/intentional-self-harm-and-suicidal-behaviour-children and send your submissions to nccsubmissions@humanrights.gov.au

As you would expect, my submission has focused on the particular issue of youth suicide amongst young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. As with other submissions, I would be interested in feedback about what I have written.

Thanks, Alastair

Ms Megan Mitchell

National Children’s Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission

Email: nccsubmissions@humanrights.gov.au

Sunday 1 June 2014

Dear Commissioner

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO INTENTIONAL SELF-HARM AND SUICIDAL BEHAVIOUR IN CHILDREN

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to your inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children.

This is an incredibly important topic, and I congratulate you, as National Children’s Commissioner, for utilising your position to shine a spotlight on this national tragedy.

I write this submission as an individual, and not on behalf of any organisation. I also write this as a gay man, and someone who, as a teenager, experienced significant mental health issues, including depression and suicide ideation, because of the severe homophobia that I experienced, particularly in high school.

Given this perspective, in this submission I will focus on the over-representation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in intentional self-harm and suicide.

I will also make five recommendations for how to help reduce this over-representation, although obviously this is not an exhaustive list of all the possible ways in which LGBTI youth suicide may be tackled.

Please find my submission attached. I am of course willing to be contacted to discuss anything contained in this submission, at the details below.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO INTENTIONAL SELF-HARM AND SUICIDAL BEHAVIOUR IN CHILDREN

I welcome the acknowledgement, in the Call for Submissions released on 22 April, that self-harm and suicide is a particular issue for LGBTI children and young people.

In particular, the Call for Submissions cites the 2013 Growing Up Queer report, by the Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre, in finding that, of 1,032 children and young people aged 16 to 23, 41% of participants had thought about self-harm and/or suicide, 33% had harmed themselves and 16% had attempted suicide.

These are truly shocking figures – especially that 1 in 6 young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians had attempted suicide. However, despite being shocking, they are not particularly surprising, especially as they replicate similar findings in a range of studies over the past 15-20 years.

The over-representation of self-harm and suicidal thoughts amongst same-sex attracted and gender diverse/questioning young people has been confirmed in all three Writing Themselves In reports, produced by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University in 1998, 2004 and 2010, respectively.

The over-representation of mental health issues within the broader LGBTI community, including among its young people, has also been confirmed by both the original Private Lives: A report on the health and wellbeing of GLBTI Australians study in 2005, and Private Lives 2, released in 2012 (also produced by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society).

As well as knowing that intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour disproportionately affects LGBTI children and young people, we also know the cause – the pervasive homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI youth experience, within their families, amongst their peers, in the media/culture, and especially in their schools.

As reported in Growing Up Queer, “[f]or many, rejection, alienation, bullying, and harassment often led to depression, suicidal ideation, and attempted suicide. Some participants spoke openly about multiple suicide attempts as a result of negotiating their sexual/gender orientation at school, at home, and in their broader communities” (page ix).

The Writing Themselves In 3 study also found a direct link between verbal abuse and physical abuse with thoughts of self-harm. As noted on page 51: “ [a]lmost double the number of young people who had been verbally abused (40%), in comparison to those who had experienced no abuse, had thought of self-harm (22%). Three times those who had been physically abused (62%), in comparison to those who reported no abuse, had thought of self-harm.”

Writing Themselves In 3 also confirmed that “[t]he most common place of abuse remained school with 80% of those who were abused naming school. This continues the trend of increased levels of reported homophobic violence in schools (69% in 1998; 74% in 2004)” (pix, emphasis added).

By knowing the problem – the over-representation of LGBTI children and young people in intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour – and the cause – the pervasive homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which confronts young people, including (but not limited to) at school – we must start to consider the solution.

What are the best ways to protect LGBTI children and young people from discrimination, bullying and abuse on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status? And what are the best ways to actively promote positive views of, and self-esteem and mental health within, LGBTI children and young people (noting that these are not necessarily the same question)?

The following are five reforms which I believe, if adopted, would help to reduce the continued over-representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people in self-harm and suicide:

Recommendation 1: Remove anti-discrimination exemptions/exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students

As indicated above, one of the key areas where LGBTI children and young people are discriminated against is in their schools. Unfortunately, in most states and territories in Australia, religious schools enjoy legal protections which allow them to actively discriminate against LGBT students (and, it should be remembered, to discriminate against LGBT teachers and even parents too).

NB I have excluded intersex students for the remainder of this particular discussion given I understand the two jurisdictions which have explicit intersex anti-discrimination protections – Tasmania and the Commonwealth – do not allow religious exceptions to these protections.

These exemptions allow religious schools to expel LGBT students, to tell same-sex attracted and gender-diverse/questioning students that they are somehow ‘wrong’, ‘unnatural’ or even ‘sinful’, to prohibit certain behaviours or actions on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and to ignore the educational and emotional needs to young LGBT people in general.

An example of this discrimination was found in the ‘Statement of Faith’ by the Penrith Christian School, which stated that: “[w]e believe that homosexuality and specific acts of homosexuality are an abomination unto God, a perversion of the natural order and not to be entered into by His people” and “[w]e believe the practice of attempting to or changing ones gender through surgical and/or hormonal or artificial means is contrary to the natural order ordained by God.”

These statements came to light, and attracted significant public scrutiny, only after the then Opposition Leader, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, launched the Coalition’s education policy there during last year’s election campaign. But, it must be pointed out that there is absolutely nothing unlawful for this school, or others like it, to adopt these principles, or to enforce policies based upon them to the detriment of the LGBT students in its classrooms.

This is because in NSW, section 56(d) the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 states that anti-discrimination coverage for lesbian, gay and trans* people does not protect them against “any… act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

In an absolutely extraordinary extension of these exceptions, the NSW Act also explicitly excludes all “private educational authorities” (including non-religious bodies) from having to comply with any obligation not to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality (section 49ZO(3)) and transgender status (section 39K(3)).

Sadly, despite only being introduced last year, Commonwealth anti-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are also fundamentally undermined by the granting of wide-ranging exemptions to religious organisations.

As well as an equivalent clause to NSW’s section 56(d) – section 38(1)(d) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 exempts “any… act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion” (although not in relation to aged care) – the Commonwealth Act also includes the following in section 38(3):

“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.”

In practice, both Commonwealth and NSW law gives effective carte blanche to religious schools to discriminate against, and ignore the genuine needs of, LGBT children and young people. If we are genuinely interested in the mental health and welfare of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians, then these exceptions must be removed.

Those who would argue against such a proposition cite ‘freedom of religion’ as somehow trumping the right of LGBT people to live their lives free from discrimination. Indeed, the then shadow, and now Commonwealth, Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis, made exactly that argument on the ABC’s QandA program in June 2013.

As I have written on numerous occasions, I strongly disagree with that argument – I do not believe that religious exemptions should extend beyond the appointment of religious office-holders or the conduct of religious ceremonies. I certainly do not believe there should exist a broad right for religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people in public life.

However, even if some form of religious exemption or exception were to continue in the public sphere, it is incredibly difficult for anyone to make the case that the ‘freedom’ of a religious school to discriminate should override the ability of a young lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender student to receive their education free from such discrimination – something which is and should be recognised as a fundamental right.

These are vulnerable young people, who, in the vast majority of cases, are in the process of discovering or accepting their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. In nearly all cases, they do not decide which school they attend, including whether it is religious or not (a decision which is normally made for them by their parents, often without specific knowledge of their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity). In many cases, they are also not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity at school, meaning that they are not even in a position to advocate on their own behalf when they encounter such prejudice.

In short, I think it is simply untenable to argue that the freedom of a religious school to discriminate trumps the right of LGBT students not to be discriminated against, especially when the consequence of this discrimination includes an increased risk of mental health issues, including depression, self-harm and most tragically suicide. This not a contest of equal rights, no balancing act is required – the rights of the students should always win.

In the past week, there has been discussion in the United States about trying to ‘balance’ two other supposedly competing rights – the Second Amendment ‘right to bear arms’, with the right to personal safety of others. As part of that discussion, Samuel Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber) wrote to the parent of one of the young people murdered in the Santa Barbara mass shooting and said:

“I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: As harsh as this sounds – your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

 

Mr Wurzelbacher’s comments have, quite understandably, attracted heavy criticism in the US, as well as around the world. From an Australian perspective, where more restrictive gun control laws have existed since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, it is tempting to adopt a certain smugness, and look down upon the level of public debate in the US that such a comment is even possible.

But, in some respects at least, we are prepared to strike a similar bargain here when it comes to the deaths of LGBTI children and young people. We know that they are significantly over-represented in suicide numbers, and we know that the discrimination that LGBTI students experience in school is a major contributing factor to these suicides.

Yet, as a society, we are willing to turn a blind eye to this, and say that religious freedom, and specifically the ‘freedom’ of religious schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, is more important than the lost lives of these young people. In effect, our current anti-discrimination law says that ‘dead LGBT kids don’t trump the rights of religious schools.’

It is time we recognised, and remedied, this situation. It is time we removed anti-discrimination exemptions and exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT people.

Recommendation 2: Amend the National Health & Physical Education Curriculum to be genuinely LGBTI-inclusive

One of the key issues to emerge from both the Growing Up Queer, and Writing Themselves In 3 reports, is the absence, or comparative lack of, a genuinely LGBTI inclusive curriculum, especially with respect to Health & Physical Education.

For example, Growing Up Queer reported that “[p]articipants indicated that sex education at school was heteronormative and focused on reproductive sex only. It was perceived as irrelevant to their needs.” Further, “[p]articipants noted that whilst they received no education about queer sexualities their identities were often ‘sexualised’, with teachers and peers making assumptions about their sexuality and treating them differently on the basis of these assumptions” (pix).

Writing Themselves In 3 confirms this comparative lack of attention: “[s]exuality education was not provided at all to 10% of participants, and when it was, only 15% found it useful. It was clear that quite conservative messages emphasizing heterosexual sex and danger are the norm in most Australian schools with a far smaller number providing messages inclusive of SSAGQ youth” (pxi).

Of course, LGBTI people and content should be visible across multiple parts of the school curriculum (including, for example, history and politics), rather than arbitrarily confined to Health & Physical Education (HPE). Nevertheless, if LGBTI students and issues are excluded from, and made invisible in, the HPE curriculum, it is difficult to imagine them being included elsewhere.

I also agree with the statement in Growing Up Queer that “[y]oung people’s access to comprehensive sexuality education in primary and secondary schooling is a right, and is central to sexual citizenship and the fostering of health and wellbeing in all young people” (pix).

Over the past two years, a new National HPE curriculum has been developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority (ACARA). Unfortunately, all three versions of the HPE curriculum – the original consultation draft released in December 2012, the revised consultation draft in mid-2013, and the version that was noted but not yet endorsed by COAG Ministers in December 2013 – have comprehensively failed to deliver a genuinely LGBTI-inclusive document.

For example, in none of the three versions of the HPE curriculum have the words lesbian, gay or bisexual even appeared (although, on a slightly more positive note, the most recent version of the HPE curriculum does at least include the words transgender and intersex, and, unlike an earlier version, actually distinguishes between the two).

Despite lesbian, gay and bisexual being the most common forms of identification for people whose sexual orientation is ‘not heterosexual’, these terms have never appeared in any version of this document. This is an appalling exclusion, making young people with diverse sexual orientations even more invisible in the school environment than they already are.

The aspirational ‘student diversity’ statement at the beginning of the document, which attempts to highlight the needs of ‘same-sex attracted, gender diverse or intersex’ students, is also undermined by the inclusion of a sentence noting that it “is designed to allow schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of all young people, particularly in the health focus area of relationships and sexuality” (emphasis added) and another that “[a]ll schools communities have a responsibility when implementing the HPE curriculum to ensure that teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experiences of all students” (emphasis added).

Both of these statements appear to leave the decision whether, and in what way, schools will include LGBTI students and content up to the schools themselves. In the first instance, whether LGBTI students and content are included at all is too important to be left to the ‘flexibility’ of the school itself.

Second, and far more importantly, the reference to ‘lived experiences’ could be argued to leave a loophole for schools to assert that, unless students first identify themselves or disclose their status as LGBTI, they do not exist in the eyes of the school and therefore the school does not have a responsibility to include them or content relevant to their needs.

This approach – apparently leaving it up to students to ‘come out’ before they are entitled to receive vital health information, despite the fact that doing so can, in many Australian jurisdictions, lead to the potential expulsion of that student, let alone other personal consequences for the student with their family or friends – fundamentally undermines the concept of health, and health education, as a universal human right.

There are multiple other problems in the draft National Health Physical Education Curriculum – including a lack of comprehensive sexual health education, and the complete absence of any references to Sexually Transmissible Infections (STIs) and Blood Borne Viruses (BBVs) such as HIV or viral hepatitis.

For more detail on the problems of the national HPE curriculum, and its exclusion of LGBTI students and relevant content, please see my submission to the ‘Students First’ review of the National Curriculum, provided at Attachment A (link here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ).

This review, initiated at the request of the Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, is not due to report to him until 31 July, 2013. It will then be considered by Commonwealth and State and Territory Education Ministers at their next COAG meeting, scheduled for 12 December 2014.

That means there is still time to argue for a genuinely LGBTI-inclusive Health & Physical Education curriculum. There remains an opportunity for individuals and organisations, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, to call for a document that does not simply entrench the existing exclusion and invisibility of LGBTI students in classrooms around the country, but actively tries to provide for the needs of all students, including those with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and those who are intersex.

I urge you, as National Children’s Commissioner, to intervene in this process, and call on the people undertaking the Students First Review, as well as Commonwealth, State and Territory Education Ministers, to amend the national Health & Physical Education curriculum to serve the needs of all students.

Such amendments are vital to help include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students, and content relevant to their needs. Doing this would help reduce the isolation experienced by LGBTI children and young people, and therefore contribute to lower mental health issues overall, including reduced intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour.

Recommendation 3: Ensure all schools & school systems adopt pro-active programs against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice

Combatting the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI children and young people experience in schools, and which causes mental health issues such as self-harm and suicide, is not just about anti-discrimination laws (which in some cases can be reactive, rather than pro-active), or implementing an inclusive curriculum, but it also includes ensuring the entire school environment is ‘safe’ for these students, because often what happens outside the classroom is more important than what happens inside.

This can be achieved through the implementation of comprehensive programs tackling homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice in as many schools as possible, in as many states and territories as possible, and in as many different types of schools (government, private and religious) as possible.

An example of such a program is the Safe Schools Coalition of Victoria, an initiative that has already achieved 131 member schools, trained 4,555 staff, and reached 20,557 students (data from www.safeschoolscoalitionvictoria.org.au)

From the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) website:

“Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) is a coalition of schools and individuals dedicated to creating safer educational environments where every family can belong, every teacher can teach, and every student can learn.

 

“Working in partnership with the Victorian Department of Education and the Department of Health, Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV), is a ground breaking program that aims to make all schools safe and supportive places for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse (SSAIGD) students, teachers and families.

 

“The first initiative of its kind in Australia, SSCV was founded as part of Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria within the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University in 2010. We work together with an active network of member schools across all age groups in the government, independent and faith-based sectors.

 

“This coalition model allows us to reach thousands of teachers and school staff to raise awareness and build the skills and confidence needed to actively support gender and sexual diversity in the classrooms, corridors and schoolyards of Victoria…”

 

The SSCV model supports member schools in a variety of ways including staff and student audits, professional learning, resources and consultations.

Unfortunately, a small-scale pilot project, targeting homophobia in NSW government schools from 2011 to 2013 – called ‘Proud Schools’ – was abandoned, seemingly without explanation, at the beginning of 2014 by the State Education Minister, the Hon Adrian Piccoli MP. At this stage, I am not aware of any specific initiative which has replaced it, leaving a significant gap this year where an anti-homophobia program should be.

However, I am aware that the Foundation for Young Australians will be launching a national version of the Victorian model – the Safe Schools Coalition Australia – at a national symposium in Melbourne on Friday 13 June 2014 (details here: https://www.etouches.com/ehome/87262).

It is unclear which State and Territory Governments are supportive of this new national initiative, which is being funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education (announced by the previous Government ahead of last year’s election). It is my sincere hope that all State and Territory Governments support the rollout of the Safe Schools Coalition Australia, and that as many schools as possible join.

This includes government, private and religious schools, as well as geographically diverse (metro, regional and rural/remote) schools, because it should not matter what school an LGBTI child or young person attends, or where they live, they have a fundamental right to an inclusive and supportive education.

I would also expect the Australian Human Rights Commission, and you as National Children’s Commissioner, to be supportive of different schools and school systems adopting pro-active programs against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice, as another way to improve the mental health of young LGBTI people around Australia, and thereby help to reduce the over-representation of LGBTI youth in self-harm and suicide statistics.

Recommendation 4: Ban ex-gay or reparative therapy

The practice of ‘ex-gay’ or ‘reparative’ therapy involves organisations, usually religious, offering so-called ‘counselling’ to help transform people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual into being heterosexual, and in some cases to attempt to transform people who are trans* into being cisgender. NB I am unaware of the use of reparative therapy with respect to intersex people, and so have omitted intersex from this discussion.

Ex-gay or reparative therapy attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity because of the belief that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans* is somehow ‘wrong’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘sinful’. There are three main problems with ex-gay or reparative therapy.

First, there is absolutely nothing wrong, unnatural or sinful with being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans*. Differences in sexual orientations and gender identities are entirely natural, and this diversity should be accepted and celebrated. Any attempts to prevent people from being LGBT simply demonstrate the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia of the people running ex-gay organisations.

Second, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these practices. Sexual orientation and gender identity cannot be ‘changed’ through these interventions. Indeed, the Australian Psychological Society, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and Pan American Health Organisation all note that reparative therapy does not work, and recommend against its practice.

Third, and most importantly, not only is ex-gay therapy based on homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, as well as discredited ‘pseudo-science’, but it is also fundamentally dangerous. Reparative therapy takes people who are already vulnerable, tells them that they are inherently wrong, and asks them to change something about themselves that cannot be changed. Inevitably, it leads to significant mental health problems, including self-hatred, depression and tragically, in some cases, suicide.

The people that run ex-gay organisations are guilty of inflicting psychological and sometimes physical damage on others. When it involves children and young people, it is nothing short of child abuse.

Fortunately, the practice of ex-gay or reparative therapy is far less common in Australia than it is in the United States. In recent years, the number of organisations which provide this ‘counselling’ here has also declined. Nevertheless, ex-gay or reparative therapy still exists in Australia, it still damages and breaks people, and it still requires an appropriate policy response.

Given the level of harm that is perpetrated by these people, I believe Australian jurisdictions should introduce legislative bans on ex-gay or reparative therapy. This should include the creation of a criminal offence for running ex-gay therapy, with an aggravated offence for running ex-gay therapy for people under the age of 18. This is necessary to send a signal that these homophobic, biphobic and transphobic practices are no longer tolerated in contemporary society, and especially in the case of minors.

Finally, while at this stage I am not aware of evidence linking registered medical practitioners with these discredited practices, there is evidence overseas that some counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists or other registered medical practitioners either practice ex-gay therapy themselves, or will refer patients to ex-gay organisations. Any medical practitioners found to be engaging in these practices in Australia should also receive additional sanctions, including potential deregistration and civil penalties.

 

 

Recommendation 5: Fund a national media and social media campaign against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice

 

The first three of the recommendations above specifically target schools, not only because research has shown that schools are a major source of the discrimination and prejudice which LGBTI children and young people experience, but also because schools provide an opportunity to exert significant influence in terms of improving social attitudes and directly reducing homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice.

However, it should be remembered that a) not all discrimination and prejudice originates in schools and b) it is also unfair to expect that schools themselves, acting alone and somehow magically separated from the rest of society, can overcome these serious ills on their own.

It is also important to note that, while 80% of young people in Writing Themselves In 3 identified school as a site for physical or verbal abuse, significant numbers of young LGBTI people also nominated other places in their lives where they are subjected to discrimination and prejudice.

For example, more than 40% cited a social occasion as a place of abuse in 2010 (and like schools, this was an increase from the 1998 and 2004 surveys), and almost 40% indicated they had been abused on the street (although this was down on previous surveys). Meanwhile, approximately a quarter indicated they had been verbally or physically abused at home on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

It is also not hard to find numerous examples, in the media and culture more generally, of the everyday homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice, which all LGBTI people are subjected to, but which have a particular impact on LGBTI children and young people.

For example, just in the last month, we have witnessed an NRL player describe another player as a “f—ing gay c—t”, which was subsequently defended by a prominent national columnist, in an article titled “NRL bosses are totally gay”, as somehow not being homophobic. We have had a TV host rant about NFL footballer Michael Sam simply kissing his male partner live on air (describing it as “annoyingly gratuitous”), a Senator-elect tweet that being gay as a ‘lifestyle’ and link it with promiscuity, as well as a State MP indicate his belief that same-sex parenting would hurt that couple’s children.

That is just a small sample of the ‘slings and arrows’ of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI Australians are exposed to all too frequently. For many of us, while such comments are offensive, and sometimes hurt, they do not necessarily lead us to self-harm, or cause significant emotional and mental anguish.

Nevertheless, for those who are already vulnerable, including some adults, but especially for young people who may still be coming to terms with being LGBTI, hearing such messages can directly cause harm, and contribute to or worsen existing mental health concerns. This harm is exacerbated if these negative statements are all that the young person hears with respect to being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, and are not balanced or countered with equivalent positive messages.

Which is why I believe there would be utility in the Commonwealth Government directly funding a large national media, including social media, campaign against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice. But rather than simply tackling the ‘negative’, I think such a campaign should also express a positive message about diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities and intersex status – sending the message that being LGBTI is natural, and that heterosexual, cisgender and LGBTI young people all deserve equality, and equal dignity in all aspects of life.

While there have been some great initiatives at state government level in this regard, as well as some excellent work by relevant not-for-profits/NGOs and even individuals (with campaigns like Victoria’s No to Homophobia, and the Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ work of Daniel Witthaus), the involvement of the Commonwealth could bring benefit, both in terms of scale of resources, and by reaching LGBTI children and young people across Australia.

Of course, any such campaign would need to be co-ordinated with LGBTI organisations, as well as organisations that work in the mental health sector. But most important would be the involvement of young LGBTI people themselves.

The media and social media campaign would need to be designed so as to be relevant to young people, not just those that are LGBTI, but also to their non-LGBTI peers, in order to increase their own understanding and lessen any bullying or harassment of their friends and classmates. Young LGBTI people (and certainly people much younger than myself) would be best placed to advise on how to make such a campaign work.

I would also point out that I have made this particular recommendation in response to term of reference number eight in the Call for Submissions (namely “[t]he feasibility and effectiveness of conducting public education campaigns aimed at reducing the number of children who engage in intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour”).

I acknowledge there are particular sensitivities in designing campaigns which specifically target those already at risk of self-harm and suicide, with the possibility that the campaign itself triggers particular negative responses. I am not an expert in this area and so am not in position to suggest whether, and if so how, an appropriate campaign could be designed that focused directly on LGBTI children and young people and that explicitly discussed self-harm or suicide – I am sure other individuals and organisations who are experts in this area will be doing so much more effectively in their own submissions.

But I do believe that an overarching campaign, which addresses the root cause of much of those problems – the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which young LGBTI people experience everyday – would provide its own additional benefits in terms of long-term mental health improvement.

Those are the five key recommendations that I would like the Australian Human Rights Commission, and you as the National Children’s Commissioner, to focus on in terms of examining how to reduce the disproportionate effects of self-harm and suicide on LGBTI children and young people.

Obviously, that is not an exhaustive list. There are other areas which are worthy of examination, including considering whether LGBTI people should be protected against vilification in the same way that Commonwealth law currently protects against racial vilification (through section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975).

I believe there would also be benefit in considering how best to fund, on a secure and ongoing basis, LGBTI community organisations to deliver services to young LGBTI people at risk, as well as how to ensure that mainstream mental health and general health services are inclusive of, and respond to the needs of, LGBTI children and young people. But once again, I would expect that other individuals and organisations will be much better placed to make submissions with respect to those topics.

In conclusion, I would like to express my thanks to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and to you as National Children’s Commissioner, for choosing to initiate an inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children and young people.

The rate of youth self-harm and suicide amongst all of Australia’s youth, including but not limited to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex youth, is truly a national tragedy.

I appreciate the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry, and look forward to seeing the Final Report in the Commissioner’s 2014 Statutory Report to Commonwealth Parliament.

Alastair Lawrie

Sunday 1 June 2014

NB Given the issues raised in this submission, I include below the same contact details for help included on the Commission’s call for submissions:

National Help and Counselling Services
Lifeline – 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention

Kids Helpline – counselling service for children and young people aged 5 to 25 years

Headspace – counselling and referral service for young people aged 12 to 25 years

ReachOut.com – online youth mental health service

Letter to Prime Minister Abbott re Intercountry Adoption by Same-Sex Couples Part 2

In early March I wrote to Prime Minister Abbott about the review, then being undertaken by his department, of Australia’s inter-country adoption arrangements. Specifically, I asked that same-sex couples be included in any potential reforms to be considered at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting scheduled for Friday 2 May (see original letter here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/08/letter-to-prime-minister-abbott-re-inter-country-adoption-by-same-sex-couples/ )

I did not receive a response to my letter until after the COAG meeting (on Monday 5 May), although it was dated 1 May. The reply stated:

 

Dear Mr Lawrie

 

Thank you for your letter of 8 March 2014 to the Prime Minister regarding overseas adoption. I have been asked to reply on the Prime Minister’s behalf. I apologise for the delay in replying.

 

This is an issue that could benefit from attention at the highest levels of government. That’s what it will be getting between now and the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

 

As you note, at present there is no consistency across Australia on whether same-sex couples can adopt a child. The requirements of foreign countries are also relevant, with most of Australia’s current partner countries not allowing adoption by same-sex couples.

 

The Commonwealth Government is committed to working with our state and territory colleagues and stakeholders in this area, including the non-government sector, to deliver reform.

 

Thank you for letting the Government know your views on this issue.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Name Withheld

Assistant Secretary

Which, it has said to be said, was a pretty underwhelming response, especially given the paucity of firm details or commitments. I also cracked a wry smile at the statement that the issue would be getting attention between now (ie the time of writing) and the next COAG meeting – which was held the following day.

In any event, the issue of inter-country adoption was discussed at COAG on Friday 2 May. The Prime Minister, and State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers, agreed to the following in the official Communique:

Intercountry adoption of children

 

Adopting a child from overseas is an emotional and complex undertaking. Different requirements across Australia can create even more difficulty for families wanting to adopt a child from overseas.

 

COAG supports adoption conducted in the best interests of the child and consistent with the safeguards of the Hague Conventions.

 

COAG agreed in principle to the Commonwealth’s proposal to provide a new national intercountry adoption service for all Australians wanting to adopt a child from overseas.

 

Under the new service, the Commonwealth will fund either a new accredited non-government organisation or organisations, or a Commonwealth agency, to provide services for intercountry adoption by early 2015.

 

The Commonwealth and the States and Territories will work closely together to make sure there is a smooth transition to the new system.

So, some more detail (albeit only a little bit), but also some unanswered questions (including whether same-sex couples are to be included), as well as some new questions (if a non-government organisation contracted to provide inter-country adoption services was religious, could they refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples – but more on that particular issue later).

On the following Monday, 5 May, Prime Minister Abbott issued a Media Release, which revealed a little bit more:

REFORM AND ACTION ON INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION

 

The Commonwealth Government is committed to adoption reform to enable more people to find families.

 

A new report has identified significant barriers facing Australian families wanting to adopt from overseas.  Inconsistent rules, costs and the lengthy wait to adopt currently deter many people from even starting the adoption process.

 

Last Friday, COAG agreed to a national system for intercountry adoption. The Commonwealth will work vigorously with the States and Territories to have a new system operating by early 2015.

 

The report into intercountry adoption also recommended establishing new country programmes to help more Australian families to adopt.  A new intercountry adoption programme between Australia and South Africa is now in place.

 

South Africa has a strong commitment to finding families within its borders to care for children in need. Where, for whatever reason, a South African family cannot be found, Australian families will be able to help provide permanent loving homes to South African children.  Many of these children will have health needs, and would benefit from the caring environment that Australian families can provide.

 

The Government will introduce amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act so that obtaining Australian citizenship can happen in a child’s country of origin. As well, we will fix the problems associated with the visa system. It is too complicated at the moment and processing times are too long.

 

For too long children who legitimately need a safe and loving home and Australians who dream of providing this home have been hindered by red tape and confusion. The Government is pleased to be able to undertake real action to bring families together.

The accompanying Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption provided some additional information (see link to report here: <http://www.dpmc.gov.au/publications/docs/idc_report_intercountry_adoption.pdf ), although undoubtedly would have provided more had pages 41 onwards, which contained Options for Reform and Recommendations to Government, not been deliberately withheld from the public.

The table on page 30 of the section of the Report that was released at least acknowledged that in four Australian jurisdictions – NSW, Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT – adoption by same-sex couples is already legal.

On page 32, Table 11: Country of Origin Requirements then spelled out all the different countries where agreements exist, but which deem same-sex couples to be ineligible. Sadly, none of the countries listed currently permit inter-country adoption that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The discussion on page 31 helpfully (or should I say rather unhelpfully), noted that “[r]estrictions on same-sex couples adopting was raised by several submissions as a problem… [But] It seems that changes to these criteria would probably have limited impact on intercountry adoption given the country of origins’ criteria.”

Which is absolutely correct. But still does not answer the question of what would happen if Australia were to sign an inter-country agreement which did allow same-sex adoption (or even, as I suggested in my original letter, if Australia were to actively seek to include non-discrimination as a key clause in all of our inter-country agreements)?

And the media release, and accompanying IDC report, didn’t even address the most obvious question of all – given South Africa already allows same-sex couple adoption, and Prime Minister Abbott announced a new inter-country adoption program with South Africa, would Australian same-sex couples be able to adopt under that program?

The mainstream media didn’t appear to follow up on this question – although fortunately, Benjamin Riley of the Star Observer newspaper stepped into the breach to report the following:

SAME-SEX COUPLES INCLUDED IN OVERSEAS ADOPTION AGREEMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME

 

BEJAMIN RILEY – May 5, 2014

 

SAME-sex couples are included in Australia’s new agreement with South Africa on overseas adoption announced today by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after being excluded from every previous intercountry adoption agreement between Australia and another country.

A spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told the Star Observer the agreement with South Africa is the first such arrangement with a country that allows same-sex couples to adopt children.

 

Although there is currently inconsistency across Australian states and territories around same-sex adoption, same-sex couples can legally adopt in NSW, ACT, Tasmania and Western Australia. However, until now this has been irrelevant due to the explicit exclusion of same-sex couples from Australia’s intercountry adoption agreements.

 

The Prime Minister announced the agreement with South Africa today along with a range of reforms to streamline the overseas adoption process, allowing children to obtain Australian citizenship in their country of origin, and simplify visa processes. These reforms have come out of a new report by the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption.

 

The Prime Minister’s office confirmed the eligibility of same-sex couples to adopt under the new agreement with South Africa, and told the Star Observer these reforms will consider inconsistencies between the states and territories on same-sex couples adopting.

 

“Current eligibility requirements vary across Australia via states and territory requirements. We will most be certainly considering this issue — together with other eligibility criteria — as we finalise the new national approach to intercountry adoption,” press secretary Sally Branson said.

 

“This just isn’t an issue for the home country of the adoptive parents — the requirements of overseas countries are also relevant. The South Africa agreement will allow for same sex couples to adopt.”

 

A Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on Friday also flagged the development of a new national service for intercountry adoption by early-2105. The service would be either a funded non-government organisation or a Commonwealth agency.

 

The announcement prompted calls by the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights lobby to ensure a new national framework would operate with equality for LGBTI people looking to adopt, and said the same should be true for any organisations assisting in the adoption process.

 

The Prime Minister’s office told the Star Observer there is no detail yet around how the national service would operate, but said the Federal Government would “ensure non-discriminatory service is provided to all stakeholders, and work with all stakeholders in a the same manner”.

 

Rodney Chiang-Cruise from Gay Dads Australia said the streamlined citizenship and visa processes wouldn’t change a great deal for Australian same-sex couples looking to adopt from overseas, but was glad the issue was being discussed.

 

“The Federal Government has not done anything on overseas adoption for decades… It sounds like a positive move, and hopefully it’s an indication of further moves in regards to what is a complex and difficult area,” Chiang-Cruise told the Star Observer [emphasis added, abridged]. Link to original article here: <http://www.starobserver.com.au/news/local-news/same-sex-couples-included-in-overseas-adoption-agreement-for-the-first-time/122370

As the article reports, this is a potentially significant breakthrough in terms of LGBTI equality – provided this agreement is implemented in line with state and territory requirements, for the first time ever, same-sex couples in NSW, WA, Tasmania and ACT will be treated equally in terms of overseas adoption.

However, the notes of caution expressed by Mr Chiang-Cruise also seem to be appropriate. After all, that still leaves LGBTI-inclusive couples in four Australian jurisdictions (Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory) out in the cold.

And, as described earlier, there is genuine concern that, should a religious organisation be awarded the contract to deliver inter-country adoption services, they might discriminate against same-sex couples and then use the (incredibly broad) religious exemptions offered under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to essentially ‘get away with’ such discrimination.

Which means, while some questions have been resolved – and the South African agreement is indeed a big step forward for same-sex couple adoption in Australia – there are still plenty of issues to be worked through in coming months. It also means there was certainly plenty of material to write a follow-up letter to Prime Minister Abbott on this subject. As always, I will post any reply that I receive.

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Thursday 29 May 2014

Dear Prime Minister

INTER-COUNTRY ADOPTION BY SAME-SEX COUPLES

Thank you for the reply, from your Department, to my letter of 8 March, concerning the issue of inter-country adoption by same-sex couples.

Unfortunately, some of the issues raised in my letter were not answered. Additional issues have also arisen from the Communique of the COAG meeting on Friday 2 May, and from your media release on Monday 5 May, which was accompanied by the release of some sections of the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption.

First of all, however, I wish to congratulate you on your commitment, as expressed by your office to the Star Observer newspaper on Monday 5 May, that same-sex couples will be eligible to adopt under the newly-finalised agreement with South Africa. This is a major step forward for the equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex-inclusive families.

Nevertheless, as highlighted in my original letter, and confirmed in the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee, it is highly unlikely that, due to differing legislation, same-sex couples in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory will be able to take advantage of this new agreement.

This is obviously an unsatisfactory outcome – that arrangements entered into by the Commonwealth will only provide benefit to couples in Sydney, not Melbourne, Perth not Brisbane, and Hobart but not Adelaide.

I therefore reiterate my call that you should use the process of establishing new inter-country arrangements over the coming year to urge those states and territories that have not yet made adoption non-discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status to finally do so.

Second, I wish to ask you about the proposal being considered that a non-government organisation may be funded to provide inter-country adoption services on behalf of the Commonwealth and states and territories. Specifically, if this organisation is itself, or is run by, a religious body, will you guarantee that they will not be able to deny these services to same-sex couples?

Again, it would be a deeply unsatisfactory outcome if, despite the successful inclusion of same-sex couples in formal arrangements between Australia and South Africa, these were undermined in practice because of the exemptions offered to religious organisations under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

Please ensure that whichever non-government organisation is funded to provide inter-country adoptions services on behalf of the Australian Government, and therefore the Australian people, they are legally bound not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Third, and finally, I return to a point made in my initial correspondence and that is that I believe the Australian Government should be actively seeking to include non-discrimination clauses in all future inter-country adoption agreements. This stance should apply irrespective of whether the country is like South Africa, and itself already recognises same-sex adoption, or another country that does not.

I acknowledge that it may not be possible to secure the inclusion of such a clause in every single signed agreement – because it is dependent on the response of the other country – but I can see no reason why Australia should not be directly and firmly putting forward the principle that all couples are able to be loving and nurturing parents, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Congratulations again on the inclusion of same-sex couples in the inter-country adoption agreement with South Africa.

I look forward to your response to the other matters raised in this correspondence.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

The last major battle for gay & lesbian legal equality in Australia won’t be about marriage

[Updated March 4th 2015]

This Saturday, the 37th annual Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade will work its way up Oxford St with its now traditional mix of politics, colour and movement, and above all, pride. Pride in who we are, pride in our community, and pride in what we have managed to achieve.

Because life is unarguably better for the vast majority of Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) population in 2015 than it has ever been before. And that indeed is something to be proud about.

Following the first Mardi Gras on 24 June 1978, many of the barriers to legal equality have been removed. NSW passed anti-discrimination laws in 1982, followed by the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1984. Same-sex couples have since achieved de facto relationship recognition, and there is now equal access to assisted reproductive technology and adoption in most Australian jurisdictions.

It is likely that one area where legal rights have yet to be achieved will, once again, be the dominant theme of many of the more politically-oriented floats in this year’s parade – the Australian Parliament’s ongoing refusal to recognise marriage equality between all couples.

As someone who is engaged to be married, and who has been for more than four years but is currently prohibited from doing so, I understand why marriage equality is an issue which arouses such intense passion, and an admirable level of commitment from many activists around Australia.

But marriage equality is also something which most of us know is probably, some might say almost inevitably, going to be achieved at some point in the next five, at most 10, years.

When that day comes, when the first couples legally married under federal law have shared their vows and celebrated their commitments to each other in front of their families and friends, there will still be a major outstanding issue of legal inequality confronting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians.

It appears just as inevitable that, long after those couples dance their waltzes and cut their wedding cakes, the anti-discrimination protections which are offered to LGBT Australians under most state and federal laws will continue to be seriously undermined by the wide-ranging exceptions which are offered to religious organisations (NB Intersex is not included here because religious exemptions under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply on those grounds).

These exceptions allow religious schools to actively discriminate against LGBT teachers and students. Religious hospitals and community welfare organisations can utilise these loopholes to discriminate against LGBT employees, as well as patients and clients. And, while the historic federal reforms passed via the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 do not allow religious-operated aged care facilities to discriminate against LGBT people accessing their services, LGBT people can still be denied employment in those facilities simply because of who they are.

All of these services – education and health, community welfare and aged care – are located firmly and squarely in the public sphere, and address some of the most fundamental human needs in life. It is these same characteristics, that they are public services meeting public needs, that are used to justify the substantial amounts of public funding which subsidise the religious organisations running them, money which comes from all taxpayers, religious and non-religious, LGBTI and non-LGBTI alike.

Yet, despite operating in the public sphere, almost always using public money, these organisations are granted exceptions from the same legal obligations that are imposed on any other group, namely the responsibility not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The justification for these ‘special rights’? Basically, that the ability to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is so fundamental to the exercise of religious freedom that it cannot be limited.

Note that we are not here talking about who is appointed as office-holders, including ministers, within a religion itself, what a particular religion may or may not believe in terms of morality, how religious ceremonies are undertaken, or even who can attend a religious ceremony. These are things that are central to religious freedom, and most people would not advocate the imposition of limits on the ability of religious organisations to discriminate in these areas.

Instead, some religious organisations (and we must say some, because not all groups hold these views) believe that they should have the right to fire a gay teacher, to expel a bisexual school student, to refuse to employ a lesbian aged care worker, or to deny services to someone who is transgender, even when all of the above is clearly done in the public sphere.

This is a much more substantive denial of rights than simply being denied access to marriage rites. Religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws can affect LGBT people in multiple areas of their lives, including times and places when they are at their most vulnerable. In practical terms, I believe it is religious exceptions and not marriage inequality that is the biggest battle left to be won for full gay and lesbian legal equality.

It is also a battle that looks set to be fought more ferociously than that over marriage equality. Some of the largest religious organisations in the country don’t just support these exceptions, they are prepared to wage cultural war to defend them.

The Wesley Mission recently spent eight years, and went all the way to the NSW Court of Appeal, defending their right to deny allowing a male same-sex couple to become foster carers to children in need. Wesley did so on the basis that: “[t]he biblical teaching on human sexuality makes it clear that monogamous heterosexual partnership within marriage is both the norm and ideal” (OW & OV v Members of the Board of the Wesley Mission Council [2010] NSWADT 293 (10 December 2010).

Further, they submitted that: “Wesley Mission’s tradition views a monogamous heterosexual partnership in marriage as the ideal family role model for the vulnerable and sometimes damaged children we foster. Other understandings fall short of that norm.” And finally that “[t]he proposition that we should provide a framework for children to be cared for and nurtured within the context of a homosexual lifestyle is fundamentally unacceptable to our evangelical teaching and practice.”

The irony, some might say hypocrisy, of these statements is that, in the same case, Wesley Mission admitted that single people could themselves become foster carers through their service. Apparently they believed that two dads or two mums had less to offer foster children than one.

The net effect of the Wesley Mission case was to provide judicial confirmation of the breadth of the religious exceptions offered under section 56(d) of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. That section reads: “[n]othing in this Act affects: any other act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

In short, if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, then you have no legal right or expectation to be treated fairly and without discrimination by a religious employer, or religious-operated service, in NSW.

It is no surprise then that, when the Federal Parliament was considering the Exposure Draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination (HRAD) Bill 2012, the precursor of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, key NSW religious organisations would argue for religious exceptions to be established in Commonwealth law, too.

What is perhaps surprising is that some churches made submissions to the Senate inquiry considering the HRAD Bill that these exceptions do not go far enough.

The Standing Committee of the Synod of the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, and the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney (including the Diocese of Parramatta and the Catholic Education Commission of NSW), both argued that the concept of exceptions was problematic, and that the right to discriminate against LGBT people should instead be re-contextualised as a positive right.

From the Anglican submission: “[w]hile exceptions are necessary, casting the protection of these rights in a wholly negative manner, in the form of ‘exceptions’, does not do justice to their importance. It suggests they are merely to be tolerated rather than positively recognised and upheld as legitimate and important in themselves.”

Meanwhile, in a ‘Diedre Chambers’ style coincidence, the Catholic submission also wrote: “the terminology of “exceptions” is problematic and fails to acknowledge that the right of freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, which the Commonwealth government is obliged to protect under international law. In our view, the terminology of “exceptions” should be replaced with the terminology of “protections”. Using the terminology of “protections” would recognise that conduct which is deemed not to be unlawful because it is covered by an exception related to religion is in fact lawful because it accords with the fundamental human right of freedom of religion” [emphasis in original].

Both submissions also go further than concerns surrounding terminology to argue that the exceptions which are offered to religious organisations should also be available to individuals – that is, that their personal beliefs should allow them to discriminate, even in their professional lives and when not working for a religious organisation.

For example, the Anglican submission recommended that “[a]n employee should not be required by their employer to undertake particular tasks or provide services in a particular context that are contrary to the employee’s genuinely held religious convictions where this is reasonable.”

Thankfully, that style of exception, which is located somewhere on the bottom half of the slippery slope down to the abhorrent type of laws currently attracting controversy in several US states, was not included in the final Commonwealth legislation. But in making that submission, the Anglican Church of Sydney has made clear the direction it wants anti-discrimination, or more accurately, pro-discrimination, laws to head [As an aside, if it had been passed then, when marriage equality does eventually become a reality, such provisions would have allowed individual employees to refuse to sell wedding cakes, or serve as wedding photographers, merely because of the sexual orientation and/or gender identities of the couples involved].

And they will fight equally hard to ensure that the current framework of exceptions applies in as many contexts as possible. The eventual removal of these exceptions in terms of people accessing aged care services was strongly resisted from some religious bodies, even if their arguments for doing so were quite weak (the Anglican submission on the HRAD Bill suggested that “[i]t may be unsettling to these communities to have residents who do not share their beliefs, values and ethos facility on matters of sexual practice”).

They have been more successful in fighting against recent proposed changes to NSW law that were simply attempting to remove the right of religious and other private schools to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender students (NB Bisexuality is shamefully still not a protected attribute in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977). Alex Greenwich’s amendments are currently on hold, at least in part because of the influence of the two major churches in the Parliament.

As we have seen, some religious organisations have demonstrated over the past 10 years that they are prepared to fight, by whatever means necessary (through the courts, in parliamentary inquiries, by lobbying parliamentarians directly and in public debate) to maintain and even extend the reach of these exceptions.

While this may seem to some like a theoretical (or even theological) debate, they are not doing so because they want the law to recognise abstract rights – they are engaged in this battle because they want the retain the ability to actively discriminate against LGBT people in real life.

Sadly, there are too many stories of this happening, of religious exceptions causing real-world harm to LGBT people. In the lead-up to Mr Greenwich’s Bill being introduced, several lesbian and gay students came forward with stories of being sent to the counsellor’s office for being “sick” (that is, for being gay), of being called disgusting and a disgrace – by a teacher no less – and threatened with exclusion from senior school, and of being told not to talk about their sexuality in addition to being excluded from school events (source: “Discrimination has no place in schools” Alex Greenwich, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September, 2013).

Not forgetting the recent incident where the Sacred Heart Primary School at Broken Hill, which falls within the Wilcannia-Forbes Catholic Diocese, rejected a young girl’s kindergarten application simply because her parents were two women (source: “Same-sex enrolment row prompts call for law change”, ABC News Online, 15 December 2011).

Of course, these are just some of the stories that we are aware about. Most people who are discriminated against by religious organisations, either directly or indirectly, do not speak up, because they are aware that the discriminatory actions of those bodies are entirely lawful, or because they fear retribution from those organisations if they do so.

Which brings me back to the Mardi Gras Parade. While for many of us the decision to participate on Saturday is an easy one, choosing to celebrate pride in who we are and as part of our community, for others the decision whether to be visible or not in this manner can be significantly more complicated.

For people already engaged with religious organisations in different ways, or whose profession may involve applying for jobs with them (for example, more than a third of schools in Australia are religious, an even higher proportion amongst secondary schools), choosing to be ‘out’ through Mardi Gras can have serious repercussions.

Some people can and do have a legitimate fear that being identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender could result in them being fired, or being refused employment in the first place, in being expelled from school (or seriously mistreated while there), or being denied necessary services. Neither state nor federal anti-discrimination law would currently protect them in these circumstances.

In this respect, despite all of the progress in law reform since the first Mardi Gras parade was held back in 1978, there is still an incredibly long way to go. That is one of the reasons why we must ensure that Mardi Gras, as well as being a celebration of pride, also continues to serve its role as a political protest.

It is also why me must continue to campaign for equality, and to fight for our rights, including the right not to be discriminated against. Given the scale of the challenge involved in removing these unjust religious exceptions, and how hard (some) religious organisations will struggle to retain them (and therefore to maintain their position of privilege in society), we should be aware that it is not a fight that we will win in months. It will take several years, at least – if not decades.

But it is a battle we must wage nonetheless. Because, if LGBT Australians are ever to be truly equal under the law, then the special exceptions granted to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory laws must end.

Explanatory notes: I have attempted to be clear in this post about when I am speaking about gay and lesbian, or LGBT, or LGBTI, because sometimes the law affects these groups in different ways (and please accept my apologies if I have made some errors in this respect). For example, removing religious exceptions cannot be the last major battle for bisexual legal equality – especially if they are not included in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act in the first place.

Equally, I am not in a position to argue that religious exceptions are the biggest legal issue confronting transgender Australians when uniform positive recognition of gender identity is not yet a reality. And, while intersex people are not subject to religious exceptions under the Sex Discrimination Act, I also wouldn’t describe this issue as more important than banning involuntary medical sterilisation, something I have written about previously (see link: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/25/no-3-senate-report-on-involuntary-or-coerced-sterilisation-of-intersex-people-in-australia/).

Finally, while I wrote in the second paragraph that, for the vast majority of LGBTI Australians, life is unarguably better than it has ever been before, I do not wish to underestimate the ongoing problems of mental illness, depression and suicide which affect many young LGBTI people, or indeed the plight of LGBTI asylum-seekers, who Australia continues to send to Nauru and Manus Island, PNG, for ‘processing and resettlement’.

One (more) final thing: if you liked this post, please consider sharing. Thanks, Alastair