How Dare You

I‘ve been writing this blog for more than five years. In that time, I have tried to stick to a few guiding principles in what I publish:

 

  1. To be factually accurate, and to correct the record as quickly as possible where I do (occasionally) make a mistake. Because there’s not much point in having an uninformed debate.
  2. To only divulge as much personal information as is relevant to the topic at hand, and to try to respect the privacy of my fiancé Steven (although sometimes, as with our appearance on The Drum this week, there is a compelling reason to share our story).
  3. To try not to write, or post, while angry.

 

Today, I’m breaking rule number three. To put it bluntly, I’m mad as hell, and not in an amusing, Shaun Micallef kind of way.

 

The source of my frustration? The fact that, in the same week the overwhelming majority of Australians voted for marriage equality, some Commonwealth Parliamentarians have decided to undermine that same equality by pushing for new special privileges to discriminate against us.

 

Those arguing for something less than full equality include Attorney-General George Brandis, who has already indicated he will move multiple amendments to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (aka the Smith Bill) which, as we have seen, is itself an unsatisfactory compromise.

 

Senator Brandis’ proposals include providing all civil celebrants with the ability to reject couples on the basis of their personal religious or ‘conscientious’ beliefs – despite the fact civil celebrants are performing a secular function delegated by the state.

 

He is also suggesting a provision to state that “nothing in the bill makes it unlawful for people to hold and to express the views of their own religion on marriage.” Which sounds fairly innocuous, but when we eventually see the detail could include an attempt to override state and territory anti-vilification laws.

 

James Paterson

Liberal Senator James Paterson.

 

Then of course there is Senator James Paterson who, on Monday, released his own draft legislation that sought to grant special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI people in a wide variety of circumstances, including allowing commercial businesses to deny goods and services to same-sex weddings.

 

Thankfully, his legislation won’t ultimately be introduced, but he and others are likely to move the majority of its measures as amendments to the Smith Bill.

 

Perhaps the most egregious of these is the concerted push to include, within the Marriage Act itself, a ‘right’ for parents to withdraw their children from any class with which they disagree on the basis of their religious beliefs. This move, reportedly supported by Senators David Fawcett and Zed Seselja, as well as MPs Scott Morrison and Andrew Hastie, is a naked attack on the Safe Schools program.

 

In the words of Peter Dutton: “I want to make sure that proper parental protections are in place… Because I do think this Safe Schools movement will use this debate as a launching pad for their next wave.”

 

It could even extend to parents withdrawing their children from any and all sex education lessons, or Health and Physical Education generally – basically, any class that might teach students the incontrovertible fact that LGBTI people exist, and that we are normal.

 

If you’re struggling to figure out how parents withdrawing children from Safe Schools lessons has anything to do with marriage equality, you’re not alone. Because they are completely unrelated issues, deliberately conflated by the ‘No’ campaign during the postal survey, and again now by conservative MPs.

 

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It is not difficult to legislate for marriage equality: to amend the definition to be the union of 2 people, and recognise the marriages of LGBTI couples that already exist. That is all that is required to implement the equal treatment of LGBTI relationships – nothing more and nothing less.

 

Instead, we are seeing some Liberal and National politicians using this debate to try to add to, rather than subtract from, anti-LGBTI discrimination, to fight an unrelated ‘culture war’ rather than do the one thing 7,817,247 people voted for: pass marriage equality.

 

My message to Senators Brandis, Fawcett, Seselja and Paterson, MPs Morrison, Dutton and Hastie, and anyone else who is contemplating amendments that have the practical impact of discriminating against LGBTI people and our relationships:

 

How dare you.

 

How dare you hold a 3 month, $100 million non-binding postal survey on the worth of our relationships, and of our lives, in the first place.

 

How dare you decide, when your unnecessary, wasteful and harmful process is finally over and the overwhelming majority of Australians have voted for marriage equality, to offer us something that falls far short of that standard.

 

How dare you attempt to change existing laws so that civil celebrants, who are performing a secular function delegated by the state, can simply say ‘no gays allowed’ on the basis of nothing more than their personal beliefs.

 

How dare you use this debate to attack Safe Schools, and inclusion programs for LGBTI students more generally, so that young people are denied the right to learn that who they are and who they love is okay.

 

How dare you amend legislation that would finally give lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians equal recognition under the law by taking away our rights in other areas, including anti-discrimination and anti-vilification protections.

 

How dare you place any terms or conditions on the right of LGBTI couples to get married in the (hopefully near) future that do not currently exist for cisgender heterosexual couples.

 

How dare you vote to ensure that your own weddings and marriages are treated any differently to, or better than, my wedding and marriage to my fiancé Steven.

 

Seriously, how dare you.

 

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I thought long and hard before writing this post, and then again before deciding to publish it. There is obviously a risk that, in doing so, I could simply be dismissed as an ‘angry gay’ (which is usually very far from the truth).

 

But then I realised I can live with that description. Particularly because there is a much greater risk: that, after coming so far since the Howard Government first banned marriage equality way back in August 2004, after fighting so hard, and overcoming every obstacle placed in our way – including the unnecessary, wasteful and harmful postal survey – we are denied true marriage equality at the final hurdle.

 

That is what is at stake in the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of the year, starting Monday 27 November: full equality, or something that falls short, potentially by a long distance.

 

I don’t want to think back on this moment and realise that we could have achieved something wonderful, but instead ended up with something flawed.

 

So, if you believe in genuine marriage equality like I do, if you think that LGBTI relationships should be treated in exactly the same way as cisgender heterosexual couples are today, then it’s time to get active.

 

Please write to MPs and Senators who support marriage equality and let them know that there should be No compromise on equality.

 

If you can, call the office of your local MP to reinforce that message. Tweet, share, and do everything you can to make sure your voice is heard at this critical point.

 

This is the best opportunity for our relationships to be treated equally under the law. Don’t let some conservative MPs and Senators take that right, your right, away.

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Submission to NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Youth Suicide

 

The NSW Parliamentary Committee on Children and Young People is currently holding an inquiry into the prevention of youth suicide. Full details can be found here. The following is my personal submission:

 

c/- childrenyoungpeople@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Sunday 27 August 2017

 

Dear Committee

 

Submission to Inquiry into Youth Suicide in NSW

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this important inquiry.

 

In this submission, I will be focusing on items (g) and (h) from the inquiry’s terms of reference: ‘Approaches taken by primary and secondary schools’ and ‘Any other related matters’ respectively.

 

Specifically, I will be discussing these terms of reference and how they relate to one of the groups that is disproportionately affected by mental health issues, depression and suicide: young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

 

The National LGBTI Health Alliance confirms that LGBTI people, and especially young LGBTI people, are at much higher risk of suicide than non-LGBTI people. From the Alliance’s July 2016 ‘Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTI People’:

 

“Compared to the general population, LGBTI people are more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime, specifically:

 

  • LGBTI young people aged 16 to 27 are five times more likely
  • Transgender people aged 18 and over are nearly eleven times more likely
  • People with an intersex variation aged 16 and over are nearly six times more likely
  • LGBT young people who experience abuse and harassment are even more likely to attempt suicide.

 

Statistics for LGBTI Population:

 

  • 16% of LGBTI young people aged 16 to 27 reported that they had attempted suicide
  • 35% of Transgender people aged 18 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime
  • 19% of people with an Intersex variation aged 16 and over had attempted suicide on the basis of issues related [to] their Intersex status
  • 8% of Same-Gender Attracted and Gender Diverse young people aged between 14 and 21 years had attempted suicide, 18% had experienced verbal abuse, and 37% of those who experienced physical abuse.

 

Statistics for General Population:

 

  • 2% of people (4.4% females; 2.1% males) aged 16 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime; 0.4% of general population (0.5% females; 0.3% males) in the last 12 months
  • 1% of people (1.7% females; 0.5% males) aged 16 to 24 have attempted suicide in the past 12 months.”

 

These statistics are obviously incredibly alarming, and reveal the scale of the challenge of mental health issues experienced by LGBTI people, and especially young LGBTI people.

 

What should not be forgotten is that there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with LGBTI people, and LGBTI young people – their disproportionate rates of suicide are in response to external factors, including a lack of acceptance (or feared lack of acceptance) from parents, other family members and friends, as well as society-wide homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

 

Another contributing factor to high rates of LGBTI youth suicide – and perhaps most relevantly to this inquiry – is the school environment. While some schools are welcoming to all young people, including those of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and sex characteristics, other schools are far less welcoming – and some are even outright hostile.

 

For the purposes of this submission, I would nominate two key factors that help determine whether a school is welcoming of LGBTI young people:

 

  • Whether it has an explicit program addressing anti-LGBTI bullying (such as Safe Schools), and
  • Whether it has an inclusive curriculum for LGBTI students, with content that is relevant to their needs.

 

The importance of these two factors is confirmed by the 2010 Writing Themselves In 3 Report (by La Trobe University), which found that:

 

  • “61% of young people reported verbal abuse because of homophobia.
  • 18% of young people reported physical abuse because of homophobia.
  • School was the most likely place of abuse – 80% of those who were abused” (p39).

 

This last statistic is perhaps the most disturbing. Instead of being a place of learning, for far too many LGBTI young people, school is a place of intimidation, intolerance, and fear.

 

Although even more worrying is the fact that the proportion of students nominating school as a site of abuse increased from 1998 to 2004, and then again from 2004 to 2010 (p45) – rather than being more welcoming today, the schoolyard and the classroom is becoming more abusive.

 

Similarly, the Writing Themselves In 3 Report demonstrated that, in far too many schools, LGBTI students are not being included in the curriculum, both generally and specifically in relation to Health & Physical Education (including sex education).

 

From page 79: “10% of young people reported that their school did not provide any form of Sexuality Education at all.”

 

Even where some sexuality education was provided, it was primarily targeted at cisgender and heterosexual students. While almost 60% of students reported that the school provided information about heterosexual relationships, less than 20% received education about gay or lesbian relationships (p81).

 

And, while approximately 70% reported education about safe heterosexual sex, less than a quarter were instructed about safe gay sex and less than 20% about safe lesbian sex (p82).

 

Finally, roughly 1 in 10 reported learning that ‘homophobia is wrong’ as part of their sexuality education (p83), meaning that almost 90% of students were not receiving this important message.

 

Unfortunately, on both of these issues (anti-bullying programs, and an inclusive curriculum) NSW is clearly failing in its obligations to LGBTI young people.

 

First, in terms of Safe Schools, it was incredibly disappointing that the NSW Government abandoned this vital LGBTI anti-bullying program in April 2017.

 

Yes, there were some significant problems with this program – although not the ones that religious fundamentalists lied about in their dishonest campaign to undermine and destroy it.

 

Chief among the actual shortcomings of Safe Schools was the fact that it was an entirely optional program, meaning only a small proportion of schools had even begun to implement it by the time it was axed. Further, the schools that chose to implement it were likely the same schools that were already LGBTI-inclusive, while those that were less inclusive were far less likely to adopt the program.

 

Instead of abolishing Safe Schools, the NSW Government should have been working to ensure that it was rolled-out more widely, and ultimately to reach every school in the state (following the lead of Victoria) – because LGBTI students and young people exist in every school in the state.

 

Perhaps even worse than axing this program is the fact it has been replaced with a ‘general’ anti-bullying program and one that, based on media reports, does not include appropriate materials and resources to address the specific needs of LGBTI students and young people.

 

As reported in the Star Observer (Experts Slam NSW Anti-Bullying Resource as ‘Missed Opportunity for LGBTI Youth’, 21 July 2017:

 

“Leading health organisation ACON has expressed concern over the lack of LGBTI-specific tools and information in the new [anti-bullying] resource, despite liaising with the government in the months leading up to its launch.

 

Chief Executive of ACON Nicolas Parkhill said the new resource failed to meaningfully address the bullying, abuse, and discrimination faced by young LGBTI people.

 

“Bullying is an acute problem for young LGBTI people and this resources does not respond to their unique needs,” he said.

 

“Of concern is the absence of tools and resources that specifically address LGBTI bullying in schools – especially when we know it affects a significant proportion of young people.

 

“The government’s own report released earlier this month stated that 16.8 per cent of secondary school students in Australia are attracted to people of the same sex. That’s one in six students…

 

“We believe this resource falls short in responding to LGBTI bullying and there needs to be more emphasis placed on the needs of young LGBTI people.”

 

Based on this critique, it appears that the NSW Government has axed a program that was specifically designed to address anti-LGBTI bullying – which, as we saw earlier, is a contributing factor to LGBTI youth suicide – and replaced it with a ‘generalist’ anti-bullying program that does little to reduce this behaviour.

 

That is clearly not good enough.

 

Recommendation 1: The NSW Government should roll-out the Safe Schools program, or a similar program that specifically and explicitly deals with anti-LGBTI bullying, in every school across the state.

 

The Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) Syllabus is also not good enough in terms of how it includes – or, in many cases, excludes – LGBTI students and information that is relevant to their needs.

 

Earlier this year, the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) released a new draft PDHPE K-10 Syllabus for public consultation. Unfortunately, it fell far short of what is necessary to educate LGBTI students across the state, or to contribute to a reduction in youth suicide among this group.

 

As I outlined in my submission to NESA about the draft Syllabus (see Every Student. Every School. Submission on Draft NSW Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) Syllabus K-10), its problems include that:

 

  • It does not define the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex
  • It does not guarantee that all students in all schools will learn about these sexual orientations, gender identities or sex characteristics
  • It does not include sufficient LGBTI anti-bullying content, and
  • It does not offer appropriate, or adequate, sexual health education for students who are not cisgender and heterosexual, including a lack of information about sexually transmissible infections and diverse sexual practices.

 

If the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is implemented without significant and substantive changes to the draft that was released, another generation of LGBTI young people will grow up without being told in the classroom that who they are is okay, and without learning vital information on how to keep themselves safe.

 

That would represent a failure of the NSW Government to exercise the duty of care that it owes to all students across the state.

 

Recommendation 2: The NSW Government should ensure that the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is inclusive of LGBTI students, and provides content that is relevant to their needs, including comprehensive sexual health education.

 

The previous two issues – anti-bullying programs, and an inclusive curriculum – relate to term of reference (g) (Approaches taken by primary and secondary schools).

 

However, there is one final, non-school related matter that I would like to raise in this submission (under term of reference (h) – ‘Any other related matters’).

 

That is the issue of ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’. As the name suggests, this practice aims to convince LGBT people that who they are is wrong, and that they should try to stop being who they are and instead attempt to be cisgender and heterosexual.

 

Let us be clear – ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’ is not therapy, and does not offer anything ‘therapeutic’ to the people who are subjected to it. It is not counselling, nor does it have any basis in medical or scientific fact.

 

It is fundamentally harmful, and preys upon vulnerable people, exploiting their fears, their isolation and their insecurities. It leaves the vast majority of people feeling far worse, and can cause, or exacerbate, depression and other mental health issues, including leading to suicide.

 

Ex-gay therapy is psychological abuse, and the people who continue to ‘offer’ this practice are psychological abusers.

 

The NSW Government should outlaw this practice both because it is wrong, and because it is inherently harmful. This should be implemented by a criminal penalty for anyone conducting ex-gay therapy, with a separate penalty for advertising such services.

 

The imposition of ex-gay therapy on young LGBT people is particularly heinous, given they are especially vulnerable. Therefore, the fact that a person being subjected to ex-gay therapy is under 18 should be an aggravating factor for these criminal offences, attracting an increased penalty.

 

The prohibition of ex-gay therapy, and the protection of vulnerable LGBT people – and especially young LGBT people – from this practice is urgently required to help remove another cause of mental health issues, including possible suicide, of LGBTI youth in NSW.

 

Recommendation 3: The NSW Government should ban the practice of ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’, making both conducting this practice, and advertising it, criminal offences. Offering these services to LGBT people under the age of 18 should be considered aggravating factors, attracting increased penalties.

 

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you require additional information, or to clarify any of the above.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

There's no place for discrimination in the classroom-7

NSW schools have an important role to play in preventing LGBTI youth suicide – one that they are currently failing to fulfil.

An LGBTI Agenda for NSW

Today marks exactly two years until the next NSW State election (scheduled for Saturday 23 March, 2019).

 

Despite the fact we are half-way through it, there has been a distinct lack of progress on policy and law reform issues that affect NSW’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities during the current term of Parliament.

 

This is in marked contrast to the previous term – which saw the abolition of the homosexual advance defence (or ‘gay panic’ defence), as well as the establishment of a framework to expunge historical convictions for gay sex offences.

 

The parliamentary term before that was even more productive, with a suite of measures for rainbow families (including the recognition of lesbian co-parents, equal access to assisted reproductive technology and altruistic surrogacy, and the introduction of same-sex adoption) as well as the establishment of the registered relationships scheme.

 

With a (relatively) new Premier in Gladys Berejiklian, now is the time for the Liberal-National Government specifically, and the NSW Parliament generally, to take action to remedy their disappointing recent lack of activity.

 

Here are 12 issues, in no particular order, which I believe need to be addressed as a matter of priority – and if Premier Berejiklian won’t fix them in the next 24 months, then they must be on the agenda of whoever forms government in March 2019.

 

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The first four issues relate to the state’s fundamentally broken anti-discrimination laws, with the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 now one of, if not, the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination regime in the country[i].

 

  1. Include bisexual people in anti-discrimination laws

 

NSW was actually the first jurisdiction in Australia to introduce anti-discrimination protections on the basis of homosexuality, in 1982.

 

However, 35 years later and these laws still do not cover bisexuality – meaning bisexual people do not have legal protection against discrimination under state law (although, since 2013, they have enjoyed some protections under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984).

 

NSW is the only state or territory where bisexuality is excluded. This is a gross omission, and one that the NSW Parliament must rectify urgently.

 

  1. Include intersex people in anti-discrimination laws

 

The historic 2013 reforms to the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1983 also meant that Australia was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to provide explicit anti-discrimination protection to people with intersex traits.

 

Since then, Tasmania, the ACT and more recently South Australia have all included intersex people in their respective anti-discrimination laws. It is time for other jurisdictions to catch up, and that includes NSW.

 

  1. Remove excessive and unjustified religious exceptions

 

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 also has the broadest ‘religious exceptions’ in the country. These legal loopholes allow religious organisations to discriminate against lesbian, gay and trans people in a wide variety of circumstances, and even where the organisation itself is in receipt of state or Commonwealth money.

 

The most egregious of these loopholes allow all ‘private educational authorities’, including non-religious schools and colleges, to discriminate against lesbian, gay and trans teachers and students.

 

There is absolutely no justification for a school – any school, religious and non-religious alike – to be able to fire a teacher, or expel a student, on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

All religious exceptions, including those exceptions applying to ‘private educational authorities’, should be abolished beyond those which allow a religious body to appoint ministers of religion or conduct religious ceremonies.

 

  1. Reform anti-vilification offences

 

NSW is one of only four Australian jurisdictions that provide anti-vilification protections to any part of the LGBTI community. But the relevant provisions of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 are flawed in two key ways:

 

  • As with anti-discrimination (described above), they do not cover bisexual or intersex people, and
  • The maximum fine for a first time offence of homosexual or transgender vilification is lower than the maximum fine for racial or HIV/AIDS vilification.

 

There is no legitimate reason why racial vilification should be considered more serious than anti-LGBTI vilification so, at the same time as adding bisexuality and intersex status to these provisions, the penalties that apply must also be harmonised.

 

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The following are four equally important law reform and policy issues for the state:

 

  1. Reform access to identity documentation for trans people

 

The current process for transgender people to access new identity documentation in NSW – which requires them to first undergo irreversible sex affirmation surgical procedures – is inappropriate for a number of reasons.

 

This includes the fact it is overly-onerous (including imposing financial and other barriers), and makes an issue that should be one of personal identification into a medical one. It also excludes trans people who do not wish to undergo surgical interventions, and does not provide a process to recognise the identities of non-binary gender diverse people.

 

As suggested in the Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich’s Discussion Paper on this subject[ii], the process should be a simple one, whereby individuals can change their birth certificates and other documentation via statutory declaration, without the need for medical interference.

 

At the same time, the requirement for married persons to divorce prior to obtaining new identity documentation (ie ‘forced trans divorce’) should also be abolished.

 

  1. Ban involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants

 

One of the major human rights abuses occurring in Australia today – not just within the LGBTI community, but across all communities – is the ongoing practice of involuntary, and unnecessary, surgical interventions on intersex children.

 

Usually performed for entirely ‘cosmetic’ reasons – to impose a binary sex on a non-binary body – this is nothing short of child abuse. People born with intersex characteristics should be able to make relevant medical decisions for themselves, rather than have procedures, and agendas, imposed upon them.

 

The NSW Government has a role to play in helping to end this practice within state borders, although ultimately the involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants must also be banned nation-wide.

 

  1. Ban gay conversion therapy

 

Another harmful practice that needs to be stamped out is ‘gay conversion therapy’ (sometimes described as ‘ex-gay therapy’).

 

While thankfully less common that it used to be, this practice – which preys on young and other vulnerable LGBT people who are struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity, and uses pseudo-science and coercion in an attempt to make them ‘straight’/cisgender – continues today.

 

There is absolutely no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence that it constitutes extreme psychological abuse, often causing or exacerbating mental health issues such as depression.

 

There are multiple policy options to address this problem; my own preference would be to make both the advertising, and provision, of ‘conversion therapy’ criminal offences. Where this targets people aged under 18, the offence would be aggravated, attracting a higher penalty (and possible imprisonment)[iii].

 

  1. Improve the Relationship Register

 

As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Government continue to dither on marriage equality (despite it being both the right thing to do, and overwhelmingly popular), in NSW the primary means to formalise a same-sex relationship remains the relationships register.

 

However, there are two main problems with the ‘register’ as it currently stands:

 

  • Nomenclature: The term ‘registered relationship’ is unappealing, and fails to reflect the fundamental nature of the relationship that it purports to describe. I believe it should be replaced with Queensland’s adopted term: civil partnership.
  • Lack of ceremony. The NSW relationship register also does not provide the option to create a registered relationship/civil partnership via a formally-recognised ceremony. This should also be rectified.

 

Fortunately, the five-year review of the NSW Relationships Register Act 2010 was conducted at the start of last year[iv], meaning this issue should already be on the Government’s radar. Unfortunately, more than 12 months later no progress appears to have been made.

 

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The following two issues relate to the need to ensure education is LGBTI-inclusive:

 

  1. Expand the Safe Schools program

 

Despite the controversy, stirred up by the homophobic troika of the Australian Christian Lobby, The Australian newspaper and right-wing extremists within the Commonwealth Government, Safe Schools remains at its core an essential anti-bullying program designed to protect vulnerable LGBTI students from harassment and abuse.

 

Whereas the Victorian Government has decided to fund the program itself, and aims to roll it out to all government secondary schools, in NSW the implementation of Safe Schools has been patchy at best, with limited take-up, and future funding in extreme doubt.

 

Whatever the program is called – Safe Schools, Proud Schools (which was a previous NSW initiative) or something else – there is an ongoing need for an anti-bullying program to specifically promote the inclusion of LGBTI students in all NSW schools, and not just those schools who put their hands up to participate.

 

  1. Ensure the PDHPE curriculum includes LGBTI content

 

Contrary to what Lyle Shelton et al might believe, the LGBTI agenda for schools goes far beyond just Safe Schools. There is also a need to ensure the curriculum includes content that is relevant for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

 

One of the key documents that should include this information is the Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) curriculum.

 

The NSW Education Standards Authority is currently preparing a new K-10 PDHPE curriculum. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be genuinely-inclusive of LGBTI students, with only one reference to LGBTI issues (conveniently, all in the same paragraph, on the same page), and inadequate definitions of sexuality/sexual orientation.

 

Fortunately, there is an opportunity to make a submission to the consultation process: full details here. But, irrespective of what the Education Standards Authority recommends, if the PDHPE curriculum does not appropriately include LGBTI students and content, then the Parliament has a responsibility to step in to ensure it is fixed.

 

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The final two issues do not involve policy or law reform, but do feature ‘borrowing’ ideas from our colleagues south of the Murray River:

 

  1. Appoint an LGBTI Commissioner

 

The appointment of Rowena Allen as Victorian Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality appears to have been a major success, bringing together LGBTI policy oversight in a central point whilst also ensuring that LGBTI inclusion is made a priority across all Government departments and agencies.

 

I believe NSW should adopt a similar model, appointing an LGBTI Commissioner (possibly within the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet), supported by an equality policy unit, and facilitating LGBTI community representative panels on (at a minimum) health, education and law/justice.

 

  1. Create a Pride Centre

 

Another promising Victorian initiative has been the decision to fund and establish a ‘Pride Centre’, as a focal point for the LGBTI community, and future home for several LGBTI community organisations (with the announcement, just last week, that it will be located in St Kilda).

 

If it acted quickly, the NSW Government could acquire the T2 Building in Taylor Square – just metres from where the 1st Sydney Gay Mardi Gras Parade started in June 1978 – before it is sold off by the City of Sydney. This is an opportunity to use this historic site for purposes that benefit the LGBTI community, and including the possible housing of an LGBTI Museum and/or exhibition space.

 

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This is obviously not an exhaustive list. I’m sure there are issues I have forgotten (sorry), and I’m equally sure that readers of this blog will be able to suggest plenty of additional items (please leave your ideas in the comments below).

 

But the most important point is that, if we are going to achieve LGBTI policy and law reform in the remaining two years of this parliamentary term, we need to be articulating what that agenda looks like.

 

And, just as importantly, if we want to achieve our remaining policy goals in the subsequent term – from 2019 to 2023 – then, with only two years left until the next election, we must be putting forward our demands now.

 

Gladys Berejiklian at Mardi Gras

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at the recent Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. It’s time to back up this symbolic display of support with progress on policies and law reform.

 

Footnotes:

[i] For more, see What’s Wrong With the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

[ii] See my submission to that consultation, here: Submission to Alex Greenwich Discussion Paper re Removing Surgical Requirement for Changes to Birth Certificate.

[iii] For more on both of the last two topics – intersex sterilization, and gay conversion therapy – see my Submission to NSW Parliament Inquiry into False or Misleading Health Practices re Ex-Gay Therapy and Intersex Sterilisation.

[iv] See my submission to that review, here: Submission to Review of NSW Relationships Register Act 2010.

2016: Annus Homophobicus

 

In November 1992, the Queen of England (and, unfortunately, still the Queen of Australia too) gave a speech in which she described the previous 12 months as her ‘annus horribilis’.

 

To be fair, it had been a rough year for Ms Windsor, with the separation of her eldest son from his wife, the divorce of her only daughter from her husband, frequent tabloid scandals (hello toe-sucking!) and even a fire in one of her (many) houses[i].

 

But, as bad as Elizabeth II’s year was back then, it’s frankly got nothing on how depressing, and frustrating, 2016 has been for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

 

So, as the year draws to a close, and we look back on the (too few) highs and (far too many) lows, it feels apt to declare the past 12 months to be our very own ‘annus homophobicus’.

 

It started in January with the launch of a ferocious, and well co-ordinated, attack on the Safe Schools program by the Australian Christian Lobby, The Australian newspaper and extremists in the right-wing of the Liberal-National Government.

 

And, even after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ‘gutted’ the program in early March, the campaign against what is a vital anti-bullying program designed to help LGBTI students has continued, as unyielding as it is lacking in compassion.

 

The year ended with the tragic death of 13-year-old Brisbane high school student, Tyrone Unsworth, in late November. Indigenous and gay, Tyrone had suffered relentless bullying because of his sexual orientation, until he ultimately took his own life.

 

A death that, understandably, shook many members of our community to the core, it was particularly hard for LGBTI Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[ii] It was a tragedy that demonstrated the very need for a program that homophobic bigots had spent the best part of a year trying to dismantle.

 

In between, 2016 was dominated by Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality – a policy that was completely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and, if held, would inevitably be harmful for countless young and vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, including the children of rainbow families.

 

It took the collective efforts of a variety of LGBTI groups, alongside the work of many individual activists, over several months, to finally defeat the planned plebiscite in early November. But that sustained campaign, against a proposal that had been put forward simply to delay or defeat rather than achieve equality, left a large number of people almost completely drained (myself included).

 

The past 12 months has also witnessed a rise in homophobic and transphobic hate-speech. It seems that anti-LGBTI rhetoric is both more common, and more ‘acceptable’, in Australia now than at any point over the past 10 to 15 years.

 

And it certainly does not help that the frequent abuse of LGBTI people coming from inside the Government, by the likes of Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, has gone without any obvious punishment from an allegedly-moderate Prime Minister too scared to stand up to his more-conservative colleagues.

 

Even worse than hate-speech, 2016 has seen plenty of horrific hate-based actions, both here and around the world.

 

This includes the almost unspeakable tragedy in Orlando on June 12th, with the mass murder of 49 people, and wounding of 53 others, at Pulse. With the popular gay nightclub holding a Latin night, most of the victims were young and Latinx. Six months later, it remains impossible not to cry when reading or watching tributes[iii] to the casualties of this terror attack.

 

pulse-tribute

Tributes to victims outside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

 

Acts of homophobic and transphobic violence were not limited to the United States, however. In Australia, too, there were countless assaults on LGBTI people.

 

The one that hit closest to home – both literally[iv] and figuratively – was the young Sydney man who was ‘gay-bashed’ twice in one night[v], the second time by a supposed ‘good Samaritan’ who had initially helped him after the first attack, only to assault the victim himself after learning he was gay.

 

This was a crime based on homophobia that could happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, including my fiancé Steven and me.

 

**********

 

The net effect of these events, alongside other shocking outcomes of the past year (including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump), has been sufficient to undermine the belief that progress is somehow inevitable, that the future will always be better than the past.

 

But, as LGBTI Australians, we don’t need the fear-fuelled success of a xenophobic campaign against immigrants in the UK, or of a sexist and racist tyrant-in-training in the US, to remind us that political change is not inherently positive.

 

As many of you would know, the past few years have seen a number of areas where progress on LGBTI policy and law reform hasn’t just stalled, but been actively wound back.

 

One of the first acts of the Campbell Newman-led Liberal-National Queensland Government in 2012 was to abolish ceremonies as part of the recently-passed civil partnership scheme in that state[vi].

 

In Victoria, the Baillieu Coalition Government repealed the ‘inherent requirement’ test from that state’s Equal Opportunity Act – which had required religious employers to demonstrate that discrimination against LGBT employees was an essential part of the role – before it had even commenced operation in 2011[vii].

 

The Tasmanian Liberal Government not only made discrimination by religious schools easier in 2015 (thereby undermining what has been the nation’s best anti-discrimination scheme), it is currently committed to reducing protections against vilification, including those enjoyed by LGBTI Tasmanians.

 

And we shouldn’t forget the decision by Prime Minister Turnbull to discontinue funding for the Safe Schools program (with Commonwealth money to cease from 2017), an initiative that his predecessor, Tony Abbott, had actually implemented less than three years earlier.

 

It is clear then, that progress on LGBTI issue is not inevitable. And it is almost enough to challenge the wisdom of one of Martin Luther King, Jr’s many note-worthy quotes, namely that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

 

Almost, but not quite.

 

As painful as the past 12 months have been for many, especially for members of Australia’s LGBTI communities, we nevertheless must see these events in their historical context, and recognise that – at least on a (much) longer time-scale – overall, things are still headed in a positive direction. And that remains the case even if there are twists and turns, even significant bumps, along the way.

 

But the most important lesson to remember is that, while the arc may ‘bend toward justice’, it only does so because good people come together to take action to make change happen.

 

Just as US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously observed: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 

One of the best examples of this maxim actually comes from one of the major LGBTI victories of 2016 – the long overdue equalisation of the age of consent for male homosexuality in Queensland.

 

While this was discriminatory legislation that affected many, its repeal was only a priority for a dedicated few[viii], including long-time LGBTI activist John Frame[ix] among others.

 

Through painstaking, and often thankless, campaigning over years and eventually decades, they chipped away at an unjust law until it was finally amended in September this year, almost 25 years since it was first introduced.

 

There were other wins this year too. The Palaszczuk Labor Government in Queensland also passed legislation to allow adoption by same-sex couples, while the Weatherill Labor Government in South Australia ended 2016 with a flurry of pro-LGBTI law reform, including relationship recognition, same-sex adoption and trans birth certificate changes[x].

 

And of course, there was the LGBTI community’s success in defeating the marriage equality plebiscite, a victory that was by no means guaranteed at this point last year[xi].

 

All of which is to show that, despite the increasingly toxic political environment that we appear to be operating in, and the significant losses cited above, positive change is still possible – if we keep our sights on the country, and world, that we want to create, and work towards it patiently, gradually, relentlessly.

 

**********

 

For my part, as I look ahead to 2017, I will be redoubling my efforts to improve Australia’s incomplete, inconsistent and in many cases inadequate system of LGBTI anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws.

 

I know others will concentrate their energies on (finally) achieving marriage equality, as well as a myriad of other reforms, from ending the involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants, to further trans birth certificate changes, ending the inhumane detention of LGBTI refugees and reinvigorating the Safe Schools program.

 

So, let’s end 2016 by reflecting, relaxing and hopefully recuperating, so that when the new year rolls around we are ready to dust ourselves off, fight once more and bend that arc towards a more just country for LGBTI Australians.

 

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I have one final favour to ask. Could you please take 5-15 minutes to complete this short survey about your experiences of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination, over the past 12 months, and previously?

 

The results of this research will be used to advocate for better protections against discrimination for LGBTI people across Australia, as well as to campaign for the introduction of LGBTI anti-vilification laws where they do not currently exist.

 

Please TAKE THE SURVEY NOW.

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If this post has raised any issues for you, you can contact:

 

  • QLife, Australia’s national telephone and web counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. Freecall: 1800 184 527, Webchat: qlife.org.au (3pm-midnight every day)
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au

 

Footnotes:

[i] See The Guardian “How the Royal Family Bounced Back from its Annus Horribilis” 24 May 2012.

[ii] If you have a chance, please read Dameyon Bonson’s excellent op-ed “I am Indigenous. I am Gay. Unlike Tyrone Unsworth, I Survived” in The Guardian Australia, 28 November 2016.

[iii] For example, see Anderson Cooper’s emotional tribute on CNN in the days after the tragedy here.

[iv] The victim lived in our apartment complex, with the second attack happening just 50 meters from our building.

[v] The Daily Telegraph “Gay man bashed twice in Waterloo: I’ve never been so scared in my life, and thought I would die” 23 February 2016.

[vi] Thankfully, these ceremonies were reintroduced by the subsequently (and surprisingly) elected Palaszczuk Government.

[vii] The current Victorian Liberal-National Opposition, led by Matthew Guy, defeated Andrews Labor Government legislation to reinsert this test in November 2016.

[viii] With many focusing on more ‘popular’ issues like marriage equality.

[ix] See samesame.com.au “It’s time to update Queensland’s sex laws” 23 August 2015.

[x] For more on LGBTI successes of the past 12 months, see Lane Sainty’s summary in Buzzfeed “13 Times Australia’s LGBTI Community Had a Win in 2016” 16 December 2016.

[xi] For more, see Pride, Pressure & Perseverance.

Lyle Shelton’s ‘Respectful’ Debate

 

Two months after the federal election, and one week after the first sittings of the new parliament, we are still no clearer on whether there will be a plebiscite on marriage equality this term – the Turnbull Government is committed to pursuing it, the Greens (albeit possibly sans Senator Hanson-Young), Nick Xenophon Team and even Derryn Hinch are committed to blocking it, while Labor is yet to officially declare a position, although appears to be leaning towards opposing.

 

Perhaps the only thing that is clear is that the majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians are firmly opposed to a plebiscite, and want to see it blocked, even if that may lead to marriage equality being delayed by three years (see Plebiscite Survey Results: Part 1).

 

This position, and the strength with which it is being advocated, seems to have caught many by surprise, especially mainstream media commentators. A large number – not just at News Corp, but at more reputable newspapers too – have expressed confidence that, not only will marriage equality be successful at any plebiscite (which I probably agree with), but also that the debate beforehand will be respectful (which I highly doubt).

 

They seem perplexed that LGBTI Australians could be fearful that an extended national conversation, notionally about whether our relationships should be treated equally under the law, but in reality about whether LGBTI Australians and our families are worthy of dignity and respect or not, will inexorably lead to homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

 

There are many ways in which we could explain why we hold this genuine fear. People who responded to my survey have already done so very eloquently (I encourage you to read their answers: see Plebiscite Survey Results: Part 2, In Your Own Words). Buzzfeed[i] has also taken a look back at the issue of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Tasmania in the 1990s as an example of how disrespectful the plebiscite debate may ultimately become.

 

Another way we can explain these concerns is simply to highlight what those who are opposed to marriage equality are already saying – and then spell out that a plebiscite will ensure their comments will be more frequent, broadcast more widely, and, as the vote approaches, likely become even more extreme.

 

The most obvious ‘spokesperson’ to consider is Lyle Shelton, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) – which is ostensibly a lobby group to represent issues affecting Christians, but in reality is obsessed with denying LGBTI equality[ii] (despite the fact the majority of Christians favour marriage equality). Which means that, for the remainder of this post, I will focus on quotes which Mr Shelton has already made, and explain how they are deeply offensive to many people, and not just to those who are LGBTI.

 

But first, a compliment – probably the only one I will make in this article – which is to acknowledge that Lyle Shelton is far more disciplined and deliberate in what he says than his predecessor, Jim Wallace. He seems to speak far less ‘off-the-cuff’ than Mr Wallace did, which means he has avoided some of the more stupid mistakes he made – like this infamous 2011 ANZAC Day tweet:

 

“Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!” @JimWallaceACL

 

Or this 2012 comment:

 

“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – [included] higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide… it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years… The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”[iii]

 

However, just because Mr Shelton is less impulsive than Mr Wallace was, doesn’t mean that what he says is any less offensive. Indeed, given he appears to carefully construct his public statements, you could argue that he is even more accountable for what he puts into the public domain.

 

The most obvious example of this – and, in my opinion, the most offensive thing said by anybody in the history of Australia’s marriage equality debate – is Shelton’s continual comparison between same-sex parenting and the Stolen Generations.

 

This includes a media release issued by the ACL in May 2013, criticising then backbench MP Kevin Rudd for expressing his support for marriage equality. The release, which was even called ‘Rudd’s change on marriage sets up a new stolen generation’, featured this statement “Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said Kevin Rudd’s overnight change of mind on redefining marriage ignored the consequence of robbing children of their biological identity through same-sex surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies”, as well as the following quote from Mr Shelton:

 

“The prime minister who rightly gave an apology to the stolen generation has sadly not thought through the fact that his new position on redefining marriage will create another.”[iv]

 

More than two years later, which is plenty of time to reconsider his views, he did not back down from this outrageous analogy. In an extended interview with Buzzfeed[v] in April 2015, Shelton said:

 

“I think the effect on children is the same, yes. You’re removing a child from its parents. The context of that comment was [former prime minister] Kevin Rudd’s backflip [to supporting same-sex marriage]. This was the man who quite rightly apologised to the Stolen Generation. But how can you say on the one hand that it’s wrong to remove children, then create public policy which does the same thing? Those are the dots I was trying to connect… I’m sure it’s very difficult [for same-sex parents to hear this]. I don’t doubt their love for their children at all. I do not bring that into question. But the fact is, every child in a same-sex family structure has been taken from its biological mother or father. Now we have to ask as a society, is that right to do that?”

 

Most (in)famously, Mr Shelton reiterated his Stolen Generations comparison in February of this year when he appeared on ABC’s QandA[vi]:

 

Tony Jones: So you can deny it if you like: “The fact is every child in a same sex family structure has been taken from its biological mother or father.” Is that correct? Is that what you said?

Lyle Shelton: Yeah, it is actually, Tony”

 

And later on the same program:

 

Tony Jones: … Are you talking about a kind of stolen generation.

Lyle Shelton: Well, we did take Indigenous children and babies from their mothers and give them to loving families but the error that we apologised for was taking them from their biological mother and father. Now, through assisted reproductive technology, we are taking the child from their biological father or their mother and giving them to someone else.”

 

160906 Lyle Shelton qanda (source new matilda)

Lyle Shelton on QandA, repeating his offensive comparison between LGBTI parenting and the Stolen Generations (source: New Matilda).

 

Mr Shelton has made the same offensive comparison on (at least) three separate occasions, over the span of three years, and in three different forms (media release, interview and TV appearance). It is clear that, when he says same-sex parenting is like the Stolen Generations, he means it. But what does he mean?

 

Essentially, he is comparing the mere existence of rainbow families, many of whom thoughtfully and deliberately cause children to be brought into the world to be part of a loving home, while others foster or adopt children who do not have a home of any kind, with a policy that instead saw children stolen from their own loving families, many literally taken direct from their mothers’ arms.

 

In short, Mr Shelton is saying that allowing LGBTI people to have children is the contemporary equivalent of the worst Australian Government policy of the 20th century[vii], one that was aimed at the genocide of a people. Making such a horrific claim, repeatedly, is the antithesis of ‘respectful’ debate.

 

Lyle Shelton is deliberately taking aim at rainbow families, and, despite his protestations, I do not believe he cares who is hurt in the process, whether that be the parents or, especially, the children (imagine being told that your parents, who have done nothing but love and care for you, have instead ‘stolen’ you).

 

But it is not just LGBTI Australians who are offended by this wanton disregard both for historical accuracy and for the welfare of others – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have also called out Mr Shelton for inappropriately co-opting the history of the Stolen Generations for his own base purposes.

 

In response to his first statement, in May 2013, the CEO of Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation (a Stolen Generations service for Indigenous men and their families), Pastor Ray Minniecon made the following comments[viii]:

 

“As a representative organisation for the Stolen Generations, we are deeply concerned by the comments made by Lyle Shelton on behalf of the Australian Christian Lobby comparing former Prime Minister Rudd’s support for marriage equality with creating another Stolen Generation… The assimilation policy of forced removal of children from their homes and the subsequent abuse of those children is no way comparable to the desire of a loving couple to have a child and have the relationship recognised.

 

“It is disrespectful to the current Stolen Generations, their history and their families… It is also dehumanising and demonising of gay couples and their desire for marriage and family. We call on Lyle Shelton to apologise to the Stolen Generations and to the gay community for this comparison.”

 

It is a very poor reflection on Mr Shelton that, far from apologising to Mr Minniecon, people affected by the Stolen Generations and the LGBTI community (as requested), he has instead chosen to repeat the same comparison on multiple occasions. It is worrisome to consider, if he is so willing to disrespect Aboriginal people in this way, the extent to which he is prepared to disrespect LGBTI people and their families should a plebiscite proceed.

 

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Of course, his Stolen Generations comments are not the only examples of Lyle Shelton demonstrating he does not consider himself bound by the ordinary limits of ‘respectful’ debate. We have seen similarly extreme comments made during discussion of the Safe Schools program, which has dominated much of 2016 (and indeed has been going much longer, albeit attracting less publicity).

 

In fact, Mr Shelton and his colleagues at the Australian Christian Lobby[ix] have made so many offensive comments about Safe Schools it is difficult to select just a few – but I will try nonetheless. For example, in 2015 he described what is an effective anti-bullying program thus:

 

“Dressed up as an anti-bullying program, it encourages children to cross-dress at school and demands the school accept this. Children are presented with information that downplays the danger of sexually transmitted diseases and introduced to concepts every thinking parent hopes they won’t Google.”[x]

 

More recently, he has written[xi] of his concerns about ‘an avalanche of homosexual and transgender material’ flooding schools as a result of marriage equality and Safe Schools:

 

“But one of the big consequences of any possible change in the definition of marriage – homosexual sex education in schools – is already proving a major distraction from the government’s election agenda. Hardly a week goes by without revelations of a new program designed to teach children that their gender is fluid or that they might be same-sex attracted.

 

“It seems that children are never too young to be inducted into the bright new world of rainbow sexual concepts. An avalanche of homosexual and transgender material is flooding into the curriculum from high school to pre-school – all without parent’s knowledge.”

 

The logical conclusion one can draw from these statements, and especially the reference to ‘homosexual sex education’, is that Mr Shelton would prefer school children – of any age – not learn anything about sexual and gender diversity.

 

This is despite the fact that decades of research (and the life experience of far too many LGBTI Australians, myself included) shows that imposing a ‘silence’ about sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status harms LGBTI young people, adversely affecting their mental health, and leaving them ill-equipped to take control of their sexual and physical health.

 

Presumably, Shelton would like to see non-cisgender, non-heterosexual youth go back to being ‘invisible’, like the good old days, before we started making such a nuisance of ourselves, demanding things like the right to appropriate, inclusive and comprehensive health education.

 

But what could be motivating this ill-informed and, frankly, dangerous, opinion? It is only when you consider Mr Shelton’s broader views on sexuality, and gender identity, that a clearer picture emerges. From the April 2015 Buzzfeed interview referred to previously:

 

“I’m not saying that gay feelings are not very, very powerful. They obviously are. But I don’t believe they’re innate. And the fact many people have periods of their life where they feel attracted one way sexually and then another way. And the fact that you have “LGBT…I…” the whole range [of letters in LGBTIQ], the whole gamut. I don’t think that it’s something that you could say is innate. And certainly there’s been no scientific evidence to that effect.

 

“We all have strong and powerful desires. All of us. I think if you accept that argument, [that sexuality is innate] then yes, the debate would essentially be over. But I don’t think that’s right at all. And the fact that it is so fluid for so many people, then that isn’t the basis on which to make public policy which affects children.”

 

Based on this view – that sexual orientation and gender identity is not innate – it seems Lyle Shelton would prefer that children and young people be ‘protected’ from receiving any information about diverse sexualities and genders, for fear that more of them might come to the (perfectly reasonable) conclusion that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is entirely natural.

 

It appears that, in Shelton’s warped worldview, if we don’t expose children to this type of information, maybe some of them can avoid becoming one of them[xii]. Which, to put it lightly, is complete and utter bollocks – all it achieves is to increase the isolation already felt by many young LGBTI people, leading to greater risks of depression, self-harm and tragically suicide, the exact things that the Safe Schools program is designed to address.

 

**********

 

An emerging target in Lyle Shelton’s sights, both in the context of Safe Schools and more generally, has been transgender people (like any bully, it seems he will try to intimidate what might be considered a politically weaker and therefore more vulnerable section of the LGBTI community, rather than take on the more established, and comparatively powerful, gay or lesbian communities).

 

As with the comments above, this includes a February 2016 opinion piece suggesting that trans and gender diverse children should be ‘protected’ from accessing information and services to support their gender identity:

 

“…[T]here is no scientific evidence that anyone is “born gay” or that little boys and girls have been born in the wrong body and that surgery, hormones, tucking or binding are the solution. Yet Safe Schools teaches gender theory as fact – even to primary school children.

 

“What Safe Schools doesn’t say is that most gender dysphoria subsides before puberty. It is likely the program could be doing more harm than good, particularly if kids later regret their sex change, as many transgender people do.”[xiii]

 

Again, it seems Mr Shelton would prefer that children and young people not receive appropriate, inclusive and comprehensive health education in the hope that some might be ‘spared’ from becoming trans (which, at least from his perspective, appears to be an outcome best avoided).

 

Added to this policy of ‘invisibilisation’, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby has also imported the tactics of his North American extreme-right/religious fundamentalist counterparts, deliberately and repeatedly misgendering trans people, as well as raising the spectre of ‘bathroom panic’. From the same opinion piece:

 

“Women and girls should feel safe in their toilets and change rooms from male-to-female transgender people who have not undergone a sex change…”

 

And in a longer, more recent article:

 

These resources tell schools to allow boys identifying as girls to use the girls’ toilets and provide schools with step by step guides on “Supporting a Student to Affirm or Transition Gender Identity at School”. Imagine an 18-year-old man identifying as a girl using the same toilets, showers and change rooms as your 13-year-old daughter. This scenario is now envisaged via a Turnbull Government-funded website. Special facilities for transgender students are okay, the Safe Schools hub says, but they should never stop a student from using the toilet facility of their ”gender identity” as this would be demeaning”.[xiv]

 

Both of Shelton’s assertions here – first, that trans people are not trans unless they have ‘undergone a sex change’ (here’s a simple rule Lyle: if someone identifies and lives as a woman, or a man, or neither, then it is not up to you, or me for that matter, to decide that they are not), and second, that male-to-female transgender people are potential predators from whom cisgender women need to be protected – are disrespectful and, particularly in relation to the latter, downright disgusting.

 

But, instead of shying away from making this type of outrageous statement, Mr Shelton has decided to double down. In a media release just last week, responding to the Victorian Government’s long overdue moves to reform access to birth certificates, the ACL said the following “Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said radical changes that would allow men identifying as women to enter women’s private spaces such as toilets and change rooms needed wider public discussion”.

 

It went on to note “Mr Shelton said Mr Andrews [sic] new laws would make many private spaces unsafe for women” and then included the following quote:

 

“Why should a man identifying as a woman be allowed into a woman’s gym or a domestic violence shelter?

 

“Why should biological males identifying as women be allowed into women’s public toilets and shower facilities?”

 

The obvious answer is that, if they are a trans woman then they are not a man – and Shelton’s refusal to acknowledge this, and deliberate choice to continually misgender them, is the opposite of ‘respectful’ debate. And his repeated inference that trans women are a threat to cisgender women is nothing less than the worst kind of scare-mongering.

 

There is another type of mis-representation that Mr Shelton has engaged in with respect to trans people, and that is potentially implying (or, at the very least, encouraging people to draw the conclusion that) gender affirmation procedures lead to an increase in suicides.

 

He has referred to this issue on multiple occasions – including on the ABC’s QandA program earlier this year:

 

“Studies that have been done of transgendered people who have had sex reassignment surgery, people who have been followed for 20 or so years have found that after 10 years from the surgery, that their suicide mortality rate was actually 20 times higher than the non-transgendered population. So I’m very concerned that here we are encouraging young people to do things to their bodies… like chest binding for young girls… [and] penis tucking… Now this is taking kids on a trajectory that may well cause them to want to take radical action, such as gender reassignment surgery.”[xv]

 

He also repeated it in May:

 

“Never mind that 10 years after a sex change operation, a person is 20 times more likely to commit suicide than the non-transgendered population.”[xvi]

 

Fortunately, The Conversation’s Fact Check examined these claims after Mr Shelton’s appearance on QandA. They found that, rather than multiple studies, he was referring to a single study, from Sweden. Further, while

 

“Shelton was correct to say that research shows that transgendered people who have had sex reassignment surgery had a suicide mortality rate later in life that was roughly 20 times higher than the non-transgendered population… it is also possible some viewers may have been left with the impression that the study showed sex reassignment surgery causes a higher risk of suicide later in life. That is not what the Swedish study showed. In fact, the researchers wrote that things might have been even worse without sex reassignment.”[xvii] [emphasis added]

 

One of the authors of the study, Mikael Landen, went further in refuting Shelton’s use of the study:

 

As Mr Shelton phrases it, it may sound as if sex reassignment increased suicide risk 20 times. That is not the case. The risk of suicide was increased 19 times compared to the general population, but that is because gender dysphoria is a distressing condition in itself. Our study does not inform us whether sex reassignment decreases (which is likely) or increases (which is unlikely) that risk… [emphasis added]

 

“We have known for a long time that [gender dysphoria] is associated with other psychiatric disorders (such as depression) and increased rate of suicide attempts. Sex reassignment is the preferred treatment and outcome studies suggest that gender dysphoria (the main symptom) decreases.”

 

All of which is to suggest that Lyle Shelton has publicly mis-used the outcomes of a study of trans people to suit his own intolerant agenda – implying (or allowing people to infer) that gender affirmation procedures increase the risk of suicide among trans people, when it is likely they instead decrease it. And, despite being publicly corrected by one of the authors of the study in early March, he made the same discredited inference again in May as part of an argument to ensure trans and gender diverse children are denied access to an inclusive and supportive school environment.

 

That’s not just disrespectful, it’s totally disingenuous too.

 

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At the start of this post, we saw that Lyle Shelton was unafraid to employ, time and time again, completely inappropriate comparisons with the worst domestic policy of the 20th Century (the Stolen Generations) as a rhetorical weapon against rainbow families, marriage equality and LGBTI rights in general.

 

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising to observe he has also felt no shame in linking marriage equality, and the Safe Schools program, with some of (if not) the worst international atrocities of the 20th Century, by comparing the increasing recognition of fundamental LGBTI equality with the rise of Nazism:

 

“That Labor leader Bill Shorten can promise during an election to fund the so-called ‘Safe Schools’ program which teaches children as young as four that ‘only you can know if you are a boy or a girl – no one can tell you’ and there be so little push back is a failure of those of us who know better.

 

“Changing the definition of marriage to entrench motherless and fatherlessness in public policy and teaching our kids their gender is fluid should be opposed. The cowardice and weakness of Australia’s ‘gatekeepers’ is causing unthinkable things to happen, just as unthinkable things happened in Germany in the 1930s.[xviii] [emphasis added]

 

Yes, he actually went there, he ‘Godwinned’. In Shelton’s view marriage equality and Safe Schools are ‘unthinkable things’, in the same way that ‘unthinkable things’ were done by the Nazis.

 

This is obviously completely disrespectful, and offensive, to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians. And, just as his Stolen Generations claims were offensive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, his Nazi analogy is also hurtful to the people affected by the Holocaust, and their relatives and descendants, including (but not limited to) Jewish people, Polish people, Romani people and disabled people.

 

Oh, and in case Lyle Shelton genuinely has no understanding of what happened in Germany during the 1930s and first half of the 1940s (and, based on the above comments, that seems a distinct possibility), that included thousands of homosexual men and women who were prosecuted, persecuted and executed in the Holocaust.

 

Anyone who is able to, without shame, draw comparisons with laws and policies designed to increase LGBTI equality and acceptance today, with a regime that murdered thousands of LGBTI people 70 years ago, is, in my view, unable to participate in ‘respectful’ debate about these issues[xix].

 

**********

 

I mentioned earlier that, for the most part, Lyle Shelton has been careful in his public statements, largely avoiding ‘off-the-cuff’ mistakes (which were far more common under his predecessor Jim Wallace). There is, however, one instance I can think of where the current Managing Director of the ACL let his guard down and revealed exactly what he thinks about marriage equality (and, in doing so, about LGBTI people more generally).

 

That occasion was his Sky News appearance debating Jason Tuazon McCheyne of the Australian Equality Party earlier this year. When challenged by Tuazon McCheyne to explain how recognition of his relationship could possibly affect that of Mr Shelton, Shelton responded with this:

 

“Well if the definition of marriage is changed it’s not assumed that millions of people like myself who are married, it’s assumed that I’m married to a woman. That affects me straight away, if people no longer assume that I’m married to a woman then I’ll have to explain myself.”

 

When “[h]ost Patricia Karvelas asked Mr Shelton if he was worried that people might think he was gay, Mr Shelton said they may or may not, but the terms of his marriage would have changed, alongside those of every other married Australian.”[xx]

 

More than six months later, and this remains an extraordinary, and extraordinarily stupid, answer. His only response about how marriage equality would affect his own marriage is that he might have to declare that his spouse is a woman? That he could be forced to say ‘she’ or ‘her’ at some point during a conversation in order to differentiate his marriage from marriages between two people of the same-sex? That’s it?

 

How utterly, utterly petty (some might say pathetic). To argue for the denial of equal rights under secular law because he can’t be bothered to use a pronoun. In doing so, he severely undermined any argument he might make against marriage equality in the future.

 

Of course, the real question here is why it should even matter – unless there is something wrong with a partner being of the same-sex, there is no inherent requirement for him to clarify gender-neutral comments someone might make about his spouse [as an aside, if Shelton had empathy this would have been an opportunity to understand that the mis-gendering of partners is something many LGBTI people already experience, frequently – with people making heteronormative assumptions about our relationships – but clearly it doesn’t appear to have occurred to him].

 

The implication we are therefore left with is that he would be forced to declare his spouse was a woman primarily to differentiate himself from us, as if being LGBT or I, or simply being perceived as LGBTI, were something to be avoided.

 

All-in-all, to use this as an argument – “if people no longer assume that I’m married to a woman then I’ll have to explain myself” – to reject our claims for equal treatment under the law is at best, dismissive, and yes, I would argue, disrespectful.

 

**********

 

From everything we have seen, it is apparent Mr Shelton shows no hesitation in making remarks that are disrespectful to Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, especially in the context of marriage equality and Safe Schools.

 

At the same time, exceedingly hypocritically, he has repeatedly called for the debate around these issues to be ‘respectful’. Sometimes this call for respect is made in the very next breath after making an offensive comment about us or our rights. Take the ACL media release, already mentioned above, responding to Victoria’s proposed new birth certificate laws, which said:

 

“Mr Shelton said Mr Andrews [sic] new laws would make many private spaces unsafe for women.

 

“Why should a man identifying as a woman be allowed into a woman’s gym or a domestic violence shelter?

 

“Why should biological males identifying as women be allowed into women’s public toilets and shower facilities?

 

“It is time to re-think the rainbow political agenda and the marriage plebiscite is the ideal time to have a respectful debate about the consequences of redefining marriage.”

 

That is exactly how the release was written, word-for-word. In the first three sentences, Shelton deliberately misgenders transgender people, suggests trans women are a threat to cisgender women, and imports the abhorrent fear-mongering ‘bathroom panic’ campaign from his North American extremist counterparts. And then, seemingly without any self-awareness whatsoever, he calls for ‘respectful’ debate in the fourth sentence.

 

Well, I call bullshit.

 

It is not ‘respectful’ debate to compare the mere existence of rainbow families with the attempted genocide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

 

It is not ‘respectful’ debate to continue to use this offensive analogy even after being called upon to cease and desist, and apologise (to Aboriginal people, and to the gay community), by a Stolen Generations service for Indigenous men and their families.

 

It is not ‘respectful’ debate to try to ‘invisibilise’ LGBTI children and young people, by denying them their right to appropriate, inclusive and comprehensive health education.

 

It is not ‘respectful’ debate to deliberately misgender trans people, to imply that trans women are a threat to cisgender women, to incite ‘bathroom panic’ and to misuse a study to imply gender affirmation procedures increase the risk of suicide when it showed no such thing (and to continue to do so even after being directly contradicted by the author of the study).

 

And it is not ‘respectful’ debate to argue for LGBTI people to be denied equal treatment under secular law because he might have to say ‘she’ or ‘her’ when referring to his spouse.

 

Of course, given all of this it is highly unlikely Mr Shelton is ever going to ‘change his ways’, and stop denigrating LGBTI people and our families. And this post is not aimed at achieving the impossible.

 

But it is designed to show to those media commentators who are seemingly unaware why so many LGBTI Australians are sincerely and genuinely concerned about the prospects of a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Because, if a plebiscite goes ahead, Shelton (and Francis, and van Gend, and the Marriage Alliance, and countless other homophobes and transphobes) will be given a megaphone to make similar outrageous, offensive and disrespectful comments, every day, for three-to-six months, with the media feeling compelled to report on each and every one, and with these comments likely becoming more and more extreme as the vote approaches.

 

Lyle Shelton et al have already shown, quite comprehensively, that a ‘respectful’ debate is beyond them. In that context, maybe those commentators will finally understand exactly why the majority of LGBTI Australians have thought long and hard about a plebiscite on marriage equality and come to the conclusion ‘thanks, but no thanks Malcolm’.

 

**********

 

Footnotes

[i] Buzzfeed Australia, This is What a Non-Respectful LGBT Rights Debate Looks Like, 1 September 2016.  https://www.buzzfeed.com/lanesainty/heres-what-happened-in-australias-ugliest-lgbt-debate?utm_term=.cp0oo5z8KQ#.uhV33QojNg

[ii] Brisbane Times, Christian Lobby analysis reveals strong gay focus, 9 June 2012. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/christian-lobby-analysis-reveals-strong-gay-focus-20120608-2017g.html

[iii] Huffington Post, Jim Wallace, Australian Christian Lobby Head, Claims Smoking is Healthier than Gay Marriage, 5 September 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/05/jim-wallace-australian-christian-lobby-smoking-gay-marriage_n_1858227.html

[iv] Sydney Morning Herald, Senator Wong condemns Christian Lobby’s stolen generations comment, 21 May 2013. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/senator-wong-condemns-christian-lobbys-stolen-generations-comment-20130521-2jyn3.html

[v] Buzzfeed Australia, Meet the man determined to prevent marriage equality in Australia, 24 April 2015. https://www.buzzfeed.com/robstott/meet-australias-biggest-marriage-equality-roadblock?utm_term=.qba11XBknA#.nfmpp9yNYO

[vi] ABC QandA, Transcript, 29 February 2016. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s4402548.htm

[vii] The 21st century equivalent would likely be the indefinite imprisonment of people seeking asylum on Nauru and Manus Island, by successive Governments.

[viii] Gay News Network, ‘Dehumanising’: Christian Lobby must apologise for Stolen Generation comments, 21 May 2013. http://gaynewsnetwork.com.au/news/dehumanising-christian-lobby-must-apologise-for-stolen-generation-comments-11050.html

[ix] To some extent, Shelton could even be considered the ‘moderate’ ACL voice with respect to the Safe Schools program, while Wendy Francis has taken more of the ‘attack dog’ approach.

For example, more than 12 months ago, Ms Francis was quoted on news.com.au saying the following:

“Our society is already over-sexualised without extreme sexual material and gender theory being promoted in schools… Children have the right to their innocence. The political ideology carried by this program denies children this right… Girls’ toilets should always be a safe place for them and should be off limits to a boy who might be transitioning into a girl. No-one should be bullied at school, including children grappling with same-sex attraction or gender confusion. But promoting radical sexual and gender theories to children without parental consent is not the role of the federal or state governments.” News.com.au, Christian Lobby groups claim radical sexual experimentation is being promoted in schools, 25 July 2015. http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/school-life/christian-lobby-groups-claim-radical-sexual-experimentation-is-being-promoted-in-schools/news-story/39c64a960b2d112875848c4f337de433

And early in 2016, The Australian reported on the issue in this way:

“Australian Christian Lobby spokeswoman Wendy Francis said the Safe Schools material pressured kids into accepting LGBTI concepts and ‘confuses them about their own identity.’

“She said forcing students to imagine themselves in a same-sex relationship was a ‘form of cultural bullying’. [emphasis added]

“Ms Francis said the material was not age-appropriate, as 11-year-old children were too young to be taught about sexual orientation and transgender issues. ‘A lot of children are still pretty innocent about this stuff – these are adult concepts’.

The Australian, Activists push taxpayer-funded gay manual in schools, 10 February 2016. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/education/activists-push-taxpayerfunded-gay-manual-in-schools/news-story/4de614a88e38ab7b16601f07417c6219

All of the usual ACL tropes are present and accounted for, including that trans women and girls are a threat to cisgender women, and that children and young people are ‘innocent’ and need to be protected from radical concepts like that being LGBT or I is perfectly normal.

Probably the only unique argument Francis presents is that an LGBTI anti-bullying program that encourages all students to imagine themselves in a same-sex relationship is a ‘form of cultural bullying’ – perhaps not realising that she is making an excellent argument for Safe Schools (to overcome the heteronormative pressure that young same-sex attracted people feel from literally everywhere – families, friends, schools, pop culture, the media – to imagine what it is like to be in a mixed-sex relationship).

[x] Mamamia, Teaching tolerance in schools is deeply dangerous, apparently, 5 November 2015. http://www.mamamia.com.au/safe-schools-program/

[xi] Online Opinion, Children are never too young to learn about rainbow sex, 9 May 2016 http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=18217

[xii] Shelton is not alone in making this type of argument. Mr David van Gend, from the Australian Marriage Forum, recently provided a submission to the Queensland Parliamentary Committee inquiry into the Health and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, legislation that will, if passed, finally equalize the age of consent for anal intercourse in that state. He was the only person to argue against equalization, claiming that:

“Schoolboys are vulnerable and often sexually confused. Multiple lines of research confirm that around two thirds of schoolboys aged 16 who identify as homosexual will no longer identify as homosexual within a few years. Their sexual identity is immature; the situation is fluid.

“Permitting older, established homosexual men access to schoolboys who are in a stage of uncertainty and sexual fluidity is likely to have the effect of establishing those schoolboys in a homosexual identity and subculture which they might otherwise have avoided.” Submission 10: https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/LACSC/2016/21-HealthOLAB16/submissions/010.pdf

Of course, Mr van Gend here is going one step further, by invoking the completely unfounded ‘male homosexual as paedophile’ stereotype, but it still fits within the overall philosophy, which I believe is shared by Lyle Shelton, that young same-sex attracted and gender diverse people must be shielded from information that tells them they are okay, presumably in the hope that they might ultimately ‘grow out of it’.

[xiii] Herald Sun, Safe Schools transgender awareness program could do more harm than good, 8 February 2016. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/opinion/safe-schools-transgender-awareness-program-could-do-more-harm-to-kids-than-good/news-story/93f16a43ddb61881fd613c47fbf542db

[xiv] Online Opinion, Children are never too young to learn about rainbow sex, 9 May 2016 http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=18217

[xv] ABC QandA, Transcript, 29 February 2016. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s4402548.htm

[xvi] Online Opinion, Children are never too young to learn about rainbow sex, 9 May 2016 http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=18217

[xvii] The Conversation, FactCheck Q&A: Was Lyle Shelton right about transgender people and a higher suicide risk after surgery?, 4 March 2016. https://theconversation.com/factcheck-qanda-was-lyle-shelton-right-about-transgender-people-and-a-higher-suicide-risk-after-surgery-55573

[xviii] Pedestrian TV, Australian Christian Lobby compares Safe Schools to rise of Nazi Germany, 31 May 2016. https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/arts-and-culture/australian-christian-lobby-compares-safe-schools-t/2114fa3a-c2e8-4f04-be10-582088364131.htm

[xix] In Lyle’s ‘defence’, he is not the only anti-marriage equality campaigner to draw an analogy between LGBTI people campaigning for equal treatment under secular law and totalitarian regimes – as this infamous tweet by the Marriage Alliance makes clear (which also overlooks the fact it is young LGBTI people who are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, but that is an argument for another day):

160906 Marriage Alliance Noose Image

[xx] OutinPerth, Lyle Shelton admits he’s worried people will think he’s gay, 15 February 2016. http://www.outinperth.com/acls-lyle-shelton-admits-hes-worried-people-will-think-hes-gay/

Malcolm Turnbull’s Mid-Term Report Card

 

It is now one week since polls closed, and it is gradually becoming clear that at worst Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition will form a minority Government, with the support of Bob Katter, but it is much more likely they will achieve the slimmest of parliamentary majorities.

 

However, what is even clearer is that Turnbull himself emerges from this election in a greatly weakened position, with rabid elements within the Liberal Party (hello Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi) undermining his leadership and calling for the Coalition Government to move even further to the right (if that were possible).

 

In fact, members of the conservative commentariat have already called for his resignation (the most predictably unhinged, but nevertheless hilarious, of the lot being Andrew Bolt).

 

In the midst of this in-fighting and bitter internal recriminations, and without being able to point to a clear election victory in his defence, it is now highly unlikely Malcolm Turnbull will still be Prime Minister this time next year. Indeed, many people doubt he will survive until the end of 2016.

 

All of which means, given he only became leader ten months ago, we are now probably more than half-way through the ‘grand experiment’ that is Turnbull’s stint in the Lodge. What better time to ask what he has to show for it? And so, here is Malcolm Turnbull’s Mid-Term Report Card as Prime Minister of Australia.

 

First, let’s assess the positives – what have been Turnbull’s accomplishments?

 

Malcolm Turnbull's Successes as Prime Minister_

 

 

Nothing. Despite being Prime Minister since September 2015, there is literally nothing I can think of to list as a lasting achievement of his time so far in office.

 

Sure, he managed to become Prime Minister in the first place – which is a great personal accomplishment – but filling out his own CV doesn’t automatically help anyone whose surname isn’t Turnbull (or who lives outside Point Piper).

 

If you had asked people late last year they might have nominated ‘getting rid of Tony Abbott’ as an achievement – and at the time I probably would have agreed. But, given Turnbull has spent every day since meticulously transforming himself into Abbott 2.0, right down to the vacuous three-word slogans (‘Jobs & growth’), it is increasingly difficult to see any difference between them.

 

The shrinking band of Turnbull supporters within the Coalition might also highlight his ‘victory’ on July 2, however close, as an accomplishment. And granted, winning an election is hard, but it also matters what you are able to do with it.

 

Given his entire election platform seemed to consist of a 10-year, $50 billion corporate tax cut – that appears doomed in the new Senate, given the size of the ALP, Greens and Xenophon contingents, and the ‘messy’ state of the cross-bench – Malcolm doesn’t have a mandate to do anything much in the remaining weeks or, at best, months of his Prime Ministership.

 

Now, let’s turn to the negatives – what have been the failures of PM Turnbull?

 

Malcolm Turnbull's Failures as Prime Minister_

 

On this last point, marriage equality, the list of Malcolm Turnbull’s failures might yet grow longer. Because, in the dying days of his leadership, one of his final acts as PM might be to try to push through the enabling legislation to hold the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite, first proposed by Tony Abbott but then adopted by Turnbull in his largely unsuccessful attempts to ingratiate himself with the ‘DelCons’.

 

Even if marriage equality is ultimately passed after a plebiscite, it still won’t be Turnbull’s achievement – because it will be the LGBTI community and our families, friends and allies who will need to put in the hard yards to ensure a ‘Yes’ vote wins (and, irrespective of victory or defeat, it will also be the LGBTI community that pays the price of the hatred and intolerance whipped up during the campaign that precedes it).

 

All in all, then, that’s no achievements (or ‘A’s) to list on Malcolm’s Mid-Term Report Card, and a helluva lot of failures (or ‘F’s).

 

For someone who is accustomed to succeeding at most things he turns his mind to (outside the failed 1999 ‘Republic’ campaign anyway), it must be particularly galling to be such a complete non-entity when finally given the nation’s top job. In the many years ahead after he leaves office Turnbull will have to reconcile himself with being remembered as the ‘Nothingman’ Prime Minister.

 

Of course, he was supposed to be better than this. The Liberal who believed in climate change – once famously saying “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am” – but who now presides over the farcical Direct Action policy.

 

The inner-city moderate, small ‘l’ liberal, who in March 2016 became the first sitting Primer Minister to attend the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade – but who refused to stand up to the bigots on his backbench and their nasty attacks on Safe Schools, and their ongoing attempts to delay and/or defeat equal relationship recognition.

 

Malcolm Turnbull once famously described John Howard as “the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart”. Well, given his own inconsistencies and hypocrisies, it could be argued that Turnbull himself is far worse. Because a heart can mend, whereas during his time as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has diminished our hopes – and that is something that is far harder to replenish.

 

What does Malcolm Turnbull want his legacy to be?

It’s time for Malcolm Turnbull to seriously consider what he wants his legacy to be.

 

That might sound premature to some, especially given that tomorrow (Monday 14 March 2016) it will be only six months since he replaced Tony Abbott as Leader of the Liberal Party. Tuesday, the clichéd ‘Ides of March’, is the six-month anniversary of his official swearing in.

 

However, in the life of an Australian Prime Minister, six months is not an insignificant period of time. Indeed, for many, six months is a considerable slice of their term.

 

In the just over 70 years since World War II, Malcolm Turnbull is the 15th person to ascend to our top job. The average term in office – even including the 16-year rule of Robert Menzies[i] – is less than five years. In fact, only four Prime Ministers[ii] in those seven decades have even made it to the five-year mark, while six ended up serving less than three years.

 

The pace of turnover of Prime Ministers also appears to be accelerating – in the 11 years since Turnbull entered Parliament, he is now the fifth Prime Minister (with one of those, Kevin Rudd, even having two non-consecutive turns).

 

Based on the above, six months is likely to represent at least 10% of Turnbull’s entire term in office, and probably more.

 

In fact, there are reasons to believe Turnbull’s stay in the Lodge might be shorter than the average. For example, he is third oldest person to ever be first sworn in as Prime Minister (and the two who were older[iii] served for a combined period of less than two years).

 

It is also reasonable to describe Turnbull’s support inside the Parliamentary Liberal Party as somewhat tenuous. His first stint as Leader, while in Opposition, lasted less than 15 months. And, even after two years of the worst Prime Minister in living memory, he only defeated Tony Abbott by 54 votes to 44 last September (and which was only moderately better than the 39 votes cast for an ‘empty chair’[iv] in the February 2015 spill motion against Abbott).

 

With a switch of just six votes needed to reverse that result (whether to Abbott, who clearly remains interested in returning, or another candidate from the conservative wing of the Liberals) it should be noted that a sizeable majority of Liberal MPs in marginal seats voted for Turnbull[v], meaning that any loss of seats at the upcoming 2016 election would leave him more vulnerable to a challenge from inside the Government.

 

Of course, if the current level of in-fighting and disorganisation within the Coalition continues, there is also the small but real chance of the Government being voted out, cutting Turnbull’s term short at 12 months or less.

 

This thought – that, after just six months, it is time to start seriously considering his legacy – might be confronting for Turnbull, but he should console himself with the knowledge that, for most of his contemporaries, substantial elements of their legacies were built during their first year in office.

 

Kevin Rudd gave the apology to the Stolen Generations after less than three months in the role. He is also most commonly remembered for his response to the Global Financial Crisis, which reached its peak in September and October 2008 – again, less than 12 months from his election win on November 24 2007.

 

In Julia Gillard’s case, the announcement of the ‘carbon pricing mechanism’ (forever dubbed the carbon tax) was made on February 24 2011, exactly eight months after she ousted Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

 

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is also seen as a key part of her legacy – and, while the legislation that gave it effect was not introduced until late 2012, the Productivity Commission report which preceded it was already two months into its work before Gillard even became PM[vi].

 

Tony Abbott continues to assert that his first Budget – the ‘horror’ 2014-15 Budget, more widely known for its unfairness– is a key part of his legacy[vii], and that was handed down just eight months into his term. His more trivial – but just as infamous – ‘captain’s call’ to reintroduce knights and dames happened two months earlier.

 

Even in the case of John Howard, who, given he served as Prime Minister for more than 11 years and therefore has a long and highly-contested ‘legacy’, there is probably only one key positive achievement about which almost all parts of the political spectrum agree[viii] – his gun law reforms following the Port Arthur Massacre[ix], which itself occurred less than two months after he swept to power.

 

Six months into his own term as Prime Minister, it is hard to pin down exactly what Malcolm Turnbull’s key achievement or achievements have been (other than the initial, widespread feeling of ‘relief’ which many Australians experienced after he deposed Abbott). Different language has been used, including much talk of ‘agility’ and ‘innovation’ and ‘excitement’, but new ideas or policies? Not so much.

 

That situation will change, to some extent, over the coming months, as Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison put together their first Budget – to be delivered in early May (either May 10th, or 3rd if, as is now widely expected, they head to a double dissolution poll on July 2). There is obviously intense pressure on them both to set out their platform for the campaign ahead in that document.

 

But there is an even earlier opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to establish his legacy as Prime Minister. Two closely-linked opportunities, in fact: the decision on what to do with the Safe Schools program, and the choice whether or not to proceed with a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Both of these issues will come to a head in the coming week. The independent review of the Safe Schools program, instigated following the internal revolt by the likes of Cory Bernardi in the Coalition Party room meeting on 23 February, was expected to be handed to the Commonwealth Department of Education on Friday 11 March[x].

 

While it may be another week or two before the Government announces its response to that review, you can guarantee they will be discussing it internally during the week ahead (it’s also highly likely to be debated again in the Coalition Party room meeting on Tuesday, the second-last such meeting before a potential ‘double D’-election).

 

Lenore Taylor has also reported that the proposal for a plebiscite on marriage equality will be considered in detail by the Turnbull Cabinet this week[xi].

 

While the plebiscite was first adopted as Coalition policy under then Prime Minister Abbott on 11 August last year, this will be the main, Cabinet-level discussion of the process required to hold one – the question to be asked, expected timing (which, depending on who you listen to, may or may not be before the end of 2016), the estimated cost (likely upwards of $160 million[xii]), public funding of the yes and no cases, compulsory or voluntary voting and the supporting legislation.

 

Again, it is possible that the marriage equality plebiscite proposal will also be discussed at the Coalition Party room meeting on Tuesday morning (it will be interesting to see whether this one also takes six hours, especially given how much Liberal and National Party MPs appear to enjoy discussing LGBTI issues).

 

Obviously, the approaches that Turnbull, and his Liberal-National Government, adopts on these two issues this week will be a key part of his personal legacy for LGBTI Australians. Both decisions will have direct, and long-lasting, impacts on literally hundreds of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, their children, and their families and friends.

 

On Safe Schools, Turnbull will choose between defending a program developed to combat homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic bullying of LGBTI students, thereby reducing the all-too-frequent tragedy of LGBTI youth suicide – or giving in to bullies, like the Australian Christian Lobby, and The Australian newspaper, who it seems would much prefer enforced silence about LGBTI issues in the classroom, and the schoolyard, to the detriment of children with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex characteristics.

 

The consequences of this choice – whether a school is genuinely inclusive, or a vacuum allowing intolerance and discrimination to fester – can and will have lifelong impacts on the students who receive, or miss out on, programs like Safe Schools as a result.

 

On marriage equality, too, the impacts of Turnbull’s imminent decision will be profoundly felt, not only by LGBTI Australians, but also by the children of rainbow families.

 

As has been made clear by Australian Marriage Equality[xiii], if Malcolm Turnbull implemented the policy position that he held before becoming Prime Minister – of supporting a ‘free’ or conscience vote – then we could have marriage equality legislation passed by the end of this week.

 

But, if he persists with what was originally Tony Abbott’s plebiscite – but which is now most definitely his – not only will he be wasting at least $160 million on something which is completely unnecessary and inappropriate, he will also be causing real harm to LGBTI Australians, and our kids, by ensuring that there will be a protracted, bitter, and downright nasty campaign leading up to the vote.

 

The Australian Christian Lobby, both with its past actions (including repeated suggestions that gay and lesbian parenting creates another Stolen Generation[xiv]), and its recent call for state and territory anti-discrimination laws to be suspended for the duration of the campaign[xv], have effectively guaranteed it.

 

And, even if the marriage equality plebiscite is successful, it will still be at least another 12 – and possibly up to 18 or even 24 – months before Australian couples will finally be able to wed in their own country, with some elderly couples sadly, but inevitably, passing away before they can tie the knot.

 

However, while the impact of these decisions will be most keenly felt by LGBTI people, young and old, and their children, I would argue they will define Malcolm Turnbull’s legacy much more broadly. This is because his approach to Safe Schools, and the plebiscite, will tell us a lot about who he is as a Prime Minister, what type of Government he leads, and ultimately about his vision for Australia.

 

In terms of who Malcolm Turnbull is as Prime Minister, he would like most people, and especially the ‘persuadables’ in the electorate, to believe he is still the leather jacket-clad QandA panellist, with views that are more moderate than most of the members of his party – believing in climate change, supporting a republic, and wanting to be the leader who finally introduces marriage equality.

 

Deep down, I’m sure Turnbull would love to be the ‘cool’ Prime Minister who attends the 2017 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, claiming credit for removing discrimination from the Marriage Act 1961, receiving the passionate support, even adulation, from sections of the crowd in return.

 

But, if he caves in to the deeply homophobic and transphobic campaign against Safe Schools, led by the vitriolic and hateful scare-mongering of the Australian Christian Lobby and others, and if he continues to support an unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive marriage equality plebiscite, then not only will Malcolm Turnbull fail to be the Leader that he thinks he is (or at least wants to be) – he will become exactly the same type of Leader as the one he replaced.

 

By endorsing the attack on Safe Schools, and persisting with the plebiscite, Turnbull would show that there is no core belief that he will not jettison, no principle he is not prepared to compromise, in his quest to remain Prime Minister of Australia for as long as possible. The Opposition critique of him – that he is just Tony Abbott in a more expensive suit – will be more than justified.

 

And, by ensuring that it will be the public’s vote that finally achieves equality in relationship recognition in Commonwealth law, and not his own vote in Parliament, he will simply become another politician whom we had to win marriage equality in spite of, and not because of[xvi].

 

How Turnbull handles the decisions on Safe Schools, and the plebiscite, will also reveal a great deal about the type of Government he leads.

 

Is it a Government that represents, and serves the interests of, all Australians? Does it believe that the real and urgent needs of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are worthy of attention, and above all action? Does it think that people should not be legally discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity of intersex status?

 

Or is it a Government that represents, and serves the interests of, cisgender heterosexual Australians only? Does it believe that the pressing needs of young LGBTI people can simply be ignored? Does it think that the relationships of LGBTI Australians are genuinely lesser than those of other people, and therefore should be treated as such?

 

Turnbull has so far studiously avoided having to address this deep divide inside the Liberal-National Coalition. On Safe Schools, rather than reject the campaign against the program outright, he simply passed the buck to an independent review – thereby encouraging the attack to continue.

 

And, instead of directly reprimanding MPs like George Christensen and Andrew Hastie, who have compared Safe Schools to ‘grooming’[xvii] and George Orwell’s Big Brother[xviii] respectively, Turnbull offered a meek, generic statement saying “I encourage everybody who is discussing these issues to do so in very measured language… and to consider very carefully the impact of the words they use on young people and on their families.”[xix]

 

On marriage equality, he has again chosen not to upset the applecart, instead leaving in place Tony Abbott’s preferred option – a plebiscite – despite the insistence of multiple members of his own Government that they will not be bound by any ‘yes’ vote[xx], thus rendering the entire exercise pointless.

 

Well, on both of these issues, he can no longer kick those proverbial cans any further down the road. This week, in Cabinet and most likely in the Party room too, Malcolm Turnbull will need to decide what type of Government he wants to lead – and then he will need to argue for it, in the face of likely fierce criticism from Liberal and National MPs who do not now, and likely will not ever, support LGBTI equality, possibly at the cost of their ongoing support for his leadership.

 

Ultimately, how Malcolm Turnbull approaches the Safe Schools debate, and the marriage equality plebiscite, in the next few weeks will tell us whether he has what Keating would describe as ‘the vision thing’.

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull have a vision of a better Australia, where young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people can grow up happy and healthy, attending schools where they are free to be who they are, respected and accepted?

 

Does he see a future where all relationships are treated equally irrespective of the sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex statuses of the people involved, and is he prepared to actually do something to make that future a reality?

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull show, in who he is and how he governs, that he has the interests of all of us, including LGBTI Australians, at heart?

 

Or does his vision only extend as far as what is required to keep him in the Prime Ministership, the role that he has clearly coveted for so long?

 

That might sound harsh, and to some even potentially unfair, but that is what I believe is at stake in the next few weeks as Turnbull decides what to do on the Safe Schools program, and on the marriage equality plebiscite.

 

One final comment – some might argue that, given it is not Malcolm Turnbull who is leading the attacks on Safe Schools, and it was not his proposal to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, assessing his ‘legacy’ on how he approaches these issues is unjustified.

 

To which I would respond with two observations. First, he is the Prime Minister, and the campaign against Safe Schools is happening on his watch, including by members of his own Government, which makes his response to this issue extremely relevant to how we assess his performance.

 

And, while the marriage equality plebiscite might not have originally been his idea, if he chooses to proceed with it, at enormous cost, both financially, and psychologically in the harm it will cause to LGBTI Australians and their children, it will very much be his responsibility.

 

Second, John Howard did not ‘choose’ gun control to be his legacy, nor did Kevin Rudd ‘choose’ for the GFC to dominate his first term agenda, and Julia Gillard certainly did not ‘choose’ for her stint as Prime Minister to include such a large focus on climate change.

 

They were responding to events that were not of their own making – Port Arthur, global markets, and even the hung parliament. But how they responded to these things is what made them Leaders – and that is why we remember these achievements as part of their legacies.

 

Malcolm Turnbull did not choose for the attack on Safe Schools, nor did he choose Tony Abbott’s plebiscite. But, how the Government approaches these issues is now within his control as Prime Minister – and it is up to him how he chooses to exercise that power.

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull choose to support Safe Schools or does he side with those who have campaigned against it? Does he proceed with a plebiscite on marriage equality, even when he knows it is unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive? In short, what does Malcolm Turnbull want his legacy to be?

 

151222 Turnbull

For Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it’s time to turn his mind to how he will want to be remembered.

 

[i] Although this also includes the three-week term of John McEwen.

[ii] Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard.

[iii] John McEwen and William McMahon.

[iv] The Australian, Last Post, February 10 2015.

[v] The New Daily, “Why Turnbull could win the election – and still lose”, March 8 2016.

[vi] The Productivity Commission started its work in April 2010, and released the Disability Care & Support Final Report in August 2011.

[vii] The Australian, “Tony Abbott: My legacy the key to victory at next election”, September 26, 2015. Quote from Mr Abbott: “You can always dispute the marketing… but the 2014 Budget was a very serious structural attempt to tackle our long-term spending problems.”

[viii] Outside of ‘gun nuts’, and the accidental Liberal Democrat Senator, David Leyonhjelm.

[ix] Howard’s gun law reforms, and gun ‘buyback’, even has international admirers, as demonstrated by the 2013 segment by John Oliver on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (as reported here: Sydney Morning Herald, “US Show Uses Howard to Embarrass Gun Lobby”, April 22, 2013).

[x] Gay News Network, “Government Comment on Safe Schools Report Not Expected for 1-2 Weeks”, 11 March 2016.

[xi] Guardian Australia, “Coalition to finalise marriage equality plebiscite details as July election looms”, March 8 2016.

[xii] See “7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million”.

[xiii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Majority of MPs would back marriage equality”, January 30, 2016.

[xiv] Guardian Australia, “Q&A Recap: Lyle Shelton locks horns with panel on marriage equality”, 1 March 2016.

[xv] ABC News, “Same-sex marriage plebiscite: Christian lobby group wants ‘override’ of anti-discrimination laws during campaign”, 16 February 2016.

[xvi] For more, see: “Letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the Marriage Equality Plebiscite”.

[xvii] Buzzfeed Australia, This MP Just Compared the Safe Schools Coalition to ‘Grooming’”, 25 February 2016.

[xviii] From Mr Hastie, the Member for Canning’s, Facebook page: “George Orwell foresaw where the abandonment of reason can lead society: to a world devoid of compassion and empathy for those who disagree with us. All that is left is raw power. As Orwell wrote, without reason and charity in our public debate there will be nothing left but “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

[xix] ABC News, “Safe schools: Turnbull warns MPs over language used in debate”, February 26 2016.

[xx] Guardian Australia, “Eric Abetz: Coalition MPs will not be bound by plebiscite on marriage equality”, January 27 2016.