Pathetic, and antipathetic, in equal measure

Pathetic: adjective, ‘unsuccessful or showing no ability, effort, or bravery, so that people feel no respect’

Last week, the Senate witnessed one of the most pathetic votes by any Government in recent memory: on Wednesday 1 September, Liberal and National Party Senators voted against amendment sheet 1427 to the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021.

As that description suggests, those amendments, moved by the Australian Greens, were largely technical in nature. All they did (or at least would have done, had they passed), was ensure the terms gender identity and intersex status were included in exactly the same sections of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) which cover other protected attributes, such as race, sex, disability and sexual orientation.

That includes provisions which protect workers against adverse action (section 351(1)) and unlawful termination (section 772(1)(f)) on the basis of who they are, meaning the amendments would have guaranteed trans, gender diverse and intersex employees the exact same ability to access the Fair Work Commission as women, people with disability and even lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. [For more background on this issue, see ‘Unfairness in the Fair Work Act’]

As well as being largely technical, they also should have been entirely uncontroversial. Gender identity and intersex status are already protected attributes in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). The amendments were simply intended to bring these two pieces of legislation into closer alignment.

Indeed, the Greens changes in sheet 1427 directly tied the proposed definitions in the Fair Work Act back to the Sex Discrimination Act:

‘gender identity has the same meaning as in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

intersex status has the same meaning as in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.’[i]

And yet, these largely technical and entirely uncontroversial changes were still rejected by the Coalition Government. Together with One Nation, their votes were enough for the amendments to be voted down, leaving the rights of trans, gender diverse and intersex workers in doubt.

It seems like anything that advances the rights of LGBTI Australians, even if just an inch, will inevitably be rejected by the Morrison Liberal/National Government. Which is, frankly, pathetic.

*****

Antipatheic: adjective, ‘showing or feeling a strong dislike, opposition, or anger’

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this situation is that the 2021 Coalition were voting against the protection of groups which the Coalition had actually supported eight years earlier.

In 2013, the Liberal/National Opposition, under the leadership of Tony ‘no friend of the gays’ Abbott, voted in favour of the then-Labor Government’s historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

That legislation inserted gender identity and intersex status into the Sex Discrimination Act in the first place. But, eight years later, the Coalition refused to back the inclusion of the exact same terms, with the exact same definitions, in the Fair Work Act.

Think about that for a second. The current Government is more opposed to the rights of trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians than the Abbott Opposition was back then.

The ‘strong dislike, opposition or anger’ towards trans rights from notoriously transphobic Senators like Claire Chandler has overwhelmed any semblance of support from other, more sympathetic sections of the Morrison Government.[ii]

The Coalition’s antipathy to trans rights also seems to have overwhelmed their ability to make political judgements that benefit them.

This amendment was a potential win for them. Almost 28 months into a maximum 36-month parliamentary term, it is increasingly likely the Government will not pass a single pro-LGBTI Bill before the next election (including a failure to introduce legislation to implement Scott Morrison’s since-broken promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination).

If they had chosen to vote for these changes – the most straight-forward of amendments, merely introducing consistency in the groups protected under the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work Acts – moderate Liberal Senators, and Liberal candidates for socially-progressive electorates, could have pointed to this outcome as evidence they care about LGBTI rights.

Instead, by voting against these amendments, everybody can see that they don’t care, about anybody whose gender identities or sex characteristics are different to societal expectations.

*****

The Government’s reasons for not supporting these amendments also demonstrate the simultaneously pathetic and antipathetic nature of their opposition. Attorney-General, Senator Michaelia Cash, made the following comments in relation to the Greens’ amendments:

‘The government will also be opposing the amendment moved by the Australian Greens. The government believes that people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society and receive the protection of the law, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. The Sex Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on these grounds in a range of areas of public life. The primary purpose of this bill is to implement the government’s commitments in its response to the Respect@Work report and to implement, as a matter of urgency, measures to strengthen national laws to better prevent and respond to sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Discrimination on the basis of gender identity and intersex status is already prohibited in the Sex Discrimination Act…’

Cash raises a number of different arguments there. Unfortunately, none of them are compelling upon closer inspection.

For example, her attempt to declare that the primary purpose of the legislation is ‘to implement the government’s commitments in its response to the Respect@Work report’, might be an explanation of why they did not include these changes in the original Bill. It is not a justification for voting against these changes when they are moved by others.

Even worse, Cash’s argument is directly undermined by the words of her own Department, exactly one year-to-the-day beforehand. In response to my letter to then-Attorney-General Christian Porter calling for him to address this very issue, I received a reply dated 1 September 2020 from an Assistant Secretary in the Attorney-General’s Department, which included the following paragraph:

‘I note the discrepancies you raise between the language in the Fair Work Act 2009 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. At this point in time, the Australian Government has not indicated an intention to amend the Fair Work Act 2009 to explicitly include gender identity or intersex status as grounds for lodging an adverse action or unlawful termination application. In saying this, however, you may be interested to know that the Australian Government is currently considering its response to a number of recommendations made in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report. This process provides scope for the issues you have raised here to be considered further in the implementation of any proposed recommendations.’ [emphasis added]

Not only did the Department acknowledge this legislative gap, but they highlighted the Respect@Work response as an opportunity for this issue to be resolved. It was the Government itself, and possibly even Michaelia Cash herself or her predecessor Christian Porter, who actively decided to ignore, rather than address, this discrepancy.

Cash’s other arguments are just as flawed. She mentions not once, but twice, that discrimination on the basis of gender identity and intersex status is already prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act. Which, well, yes, of course it is. As is discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation.

The point is, while sex and sexual orientation are also explicitly included in the Fair Work Act, gender identity and intersex status are not. Meaning women, lesbians, gay men and bisexuals have clear rights to access the Fair Work Commission, while trans, gender diverse and intersex workers do not. That inequality of access is exactly the issue the Greens’ amendments were intended to address, amendments the Government chose to reject.

Which reveals the lie at the heart of Cash’s introductory comment, that ‘[t]he government believes that people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society and receive the protection of the law, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.’

No. No, you don’t. If you did, you would have voted for these amendments.

*****

Of course, for most people paying attention to Australian politics these days, the fact the Coalition Government doesn’t really give a shit about LGBTI Australians is no surprise.

Last Wednesday’s vote by Liberal and National Party Senators against amendments to explicitly include trans, gender diverse and intersex workers in the Fair Work Act wouldn’t even make a list of the top five worst things the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government has done in relation to LGBTI rights over the past eight years.

[A list that, from my perspective, would include (in no particular order):

  • Holding an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive public vote on our fundamental human rights
  • Defunding an evidence-based program against anti-LGBTI bullying in schools
  • Detaining LGBTI people seeking asylum in countries that criminalise homosexuality
  • Failing to implement the recommendations of the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People (allowing these human rights violations to continue to this day), and
  • Breaking its promise to protect vulnerable LGBT kids against abuse and mistreatment by publicly-funded religious schools.]

It probably won’t even be the worst thing the Coalition Government does to LGBTI Australians this year, with Cash also committing to introduce the recently-revived Religious Discrimination Bill before the end of 2021.

This is legislation that, based on the Second Exposure Draft, would encourage anti-LGBT comments in all areas of public life, as well as making access to essential healthcare much more difficult, among other serious threats. [For more background on this issue, see ‘The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked’

Nevertheless, just because this isn’t the worst thing they’ve ever done, doesn’t mean their vote on Wednesday was any less abhorrent.

And just because I earlier described these amendments as largely technical in nature, doesn’t mean they were any less important.

As well as guaranteeing access to the Fair Work Commission, these amendments were an opportunity for the Government, and Parliament more broadly, to reaffirm that trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians should enjoy the same rights as everyone else.

In rejecting the Greens’ amendments to add gender identity and intersex status to the Fair Work Act, the Government repudiated this fundamental principle.

The Senate vote last Wednesday perfectly encapsulates the Morrison Government’s pettiness, and the meanness of its approach, when it comes to LGBTI rights.

How pathetic in their lack of principle, and basic decency.

How antipathetic to the human rights and dignity of their fellow Australians.

In roughly equal measure.

Morrison, Turnbull and Abbott, divided by political ambition but united in their pathetic, and antipathetic, approach to LGBTI rights.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:


[i] Earlier amendments (sheet 1373) that would have introduced the protected attribute of sex characteristics, rather than intersex status, in the Fair Work Act to reflect both best practice and the views of intersex advocates such as Intersex Human Rights Australia, failed with both the Government and Labor expressing their opposition. Sheet 1427, which included intersex status based on the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act was then moved by the Greens because it was seen as being entirely uncontroversial and therefore more chance of succeeding.

[ii] NSW Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg did refer to the issue of trans, gender diverse and intersex inclusion in the Fair Work Act in his second reading debate speech, expressing support for it being addressed at some point, but did not find the courage to cross the floor on the amendment itself.

It’s time Scott Morrison stopped running away from his promise to LGBT kids

Today marks an unhappy milestone for LGBT Australians: 1,000 days since Scott Morrison first committed to ending discrimination against LGBT students by religious schools, saying ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against.’

It was a promise made amidst the significant backlash following the leaking of the Religious Freedom Review recommendations, from a public who were surprised to learn taxpayer-funded faith schools could mistreat, and even expel, kids just because of who they are. And it was made in the middle of the Wentworth by-election campaign.

In committing to remove these special privileges before the end of 2018, Morrison said what he needed to say to get himself out of a tricky political situation. But he never did what was needed to be done to ensure LGBT students were finally protected under the Sex Discrimination Act.

Instead, Morrison has been running away from his promise ever since. If only he ran the national vaccine rollout as quickly, maybe I wouldn’t be writing this from lockdown.

Morrison never even introduced amendments to Parliament to give effect to his commitment, let alone tried to pass them. And refused to support Labor legislation which would have achieved the same goal.

By April 2019 – on the day before the writs were issued for the federal election – Morrison’s then-Attorney-General Christian Porter referred the broader issue of ‘religious exceptions’ to anti-discrimination law to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for review.

After his re-election, Morrison preferred to prioritise granting even more special privileges to religious organisations through the ‘Religious Freedom Bills’, and put the fate of LGBT students on hold. Literally. In March 2020, Porter amended the ALRC reporting deadline to be ’12 months from the date the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed by Parliament.’

With the Religious Discrimination Bill delayed by the pandemic, the earliest it could be passed is the end of 2021, meaning the ALRC won’t report until at least late 2022.

And, of course, given the serious problems of the first two exposure draft Religious Discrimination Bills – including undermining inclusive workplaces and access to healthcare – there are many who will be trying to stop it from passing (myself included).

Either way, based on current ALRC timelines, and assuming both that Morrison wins re-election and still feels bound by a promise first made in October 2018, he will not even start drafting legislation until 2023. LGBT students in religious schools would not be protected against discrimination until 2024. At the earliest.

Put another way, LGBT students in year 7 when Scott Morrison first promised to protect them will have finished school before he finally gets around to doing it. If he ever does.

Today might mark 1,000 days since Morrison’s broken promise, but I am more concerned about a larger number: the thousands, and perhaps even tens of thousands, of LGBT students who have been, and are still being, harmed because of his inaction.

For many, that harm will be long-lasting, scarring them far beyond the school gates. I know, because that’s what happened to me.

Not only was my religious boarding school in 1990s Queensland deeply homophobic, from rules targeting same-sex students to a pastor implying gay kids should kill themselves, it helped create a toxic environment which encouraged verbal, and physical, abuse by students against any kid who exhibited any kind of difference. I suffered both.

Like Scott Morrison, I attempted to run away; I spent more than a decade trying to outrun the depression caused by those experiences. But it eventually caught up to me, and age 29 I almost succeeded in what that pastor had hinted I should do.

I was extremely lucky to survive, and even luckier that, with self-care, plenty of support and the love of a good man, I finally managed to thrive.

But whether LGBT kids are able to survive their childhoods should not be a matter of chance. Every LGBT student, in every school, deserves the right to thrive.

As dark as my story is, there is also hope. Because in 2002, the Queensland Government amended their Anti-Discrimination Act to remove the ability of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students. And I am reliably informed, by multiple sources, that my boarding school is now vastly more accepting of diversity of sexual orientation.

All it takes is a commitment to actions, not just words. Indeed, the ACT Government also responded to the 2018 Religious Freedom Review with a promise to protect LGBT students, and teachers, in religious schools – something they passed before the end of that year.

In contrast, Prime Minister Morrison is still running. Running away from his October 2018 promise. And running away from his obligation to ensure all students have the right to learn in a safe environment. It’s time Morrison stopped running, and allowed LGBT kids to thrive.

*****

Take Action

It is clear from the history of this issue that Prime Minister Morrison is not going to take action just because it is the right thing to do. He will only make this change if we put enough pressure on him. On that basis, it’s up to all of us to tell Morrison that:

  • It’s time to honour your October 2018 promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are
  • It’s time to help LGBT kids thrive no matter which school they attend, and
  • It’s time to stop delaying this much-needed reform and just get it done already.

There are a variety of ways you can let him know your thoughts:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ScottMorrisonMP

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/scottmorrison4cook

Email webform: https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm

Mail: The Hon Scott Morrison MP Prime Minister Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone (Parliament House Office): (02) 6277 7700

Don’t forget to add a personal comment explaining why this issue is important to you.

Oh, and just in case Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese feels like he can avoid this issue, we also need the ALP to be much clearer on where it stands. In particular, we should be asking ‘Albo’:

  • Do you publicly commit to protecting LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are? and
  • Will you pass legislation giving effect to this commitment in the first six months of your term if you win the next federal election?

Anthony Albanese’s contact details include:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlboMP

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AlboMP

Email: A.Albanese.MP@aph.gov.au

Mail: The Hon Anthony Albanese MP PO Box 6022 House of Representatives Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone (Parliament House Office): (02) 6277 4022

So, readers, it’s time to get writing/calling. Thanks in advance for standing up for LGBT kids.

*****

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

[Scott Morrison with Member for Wentworth, Dave Sharma]. Morrison first committed to protecting LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination during the October 2018 Wentworth by-election – a promise he has been running away from ever since.

Finally, if you have appreciated reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Scott Morrison’s Broken Promise to Protect LGBT Students is Now Two Years Old

Two years ago today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in religious schools against discrimination. He stated, unequivocally: ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against.’ 

This promise was made following the leaking of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review’s recommendations, which sought to clarify but not repeal the existing ability of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids just because of who they are, and the significant public backlash it received from people who did not realise these schools already enjoyed this extraordinary special privilege under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

Morrison further committed to introducing amendments to prevent religious schools mistreating LGBT students in this way before the end of 2018, saying: ‘I believe this view is shared across the Parliament and we should use the next fortnight to ensure this matter is addressed.’ 

Scott Morrison has reneged on his promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination. Brazenly. Deliberately. And without any apparent consideration of the serious harms his broken promise will cause to a generation of LGBT kids.

Morrison’s Government never even bothered to introduce a Bill into Parliament to attempt to implement his commitment, let alone tried to have it passed.

When the Greens, with the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018, and then Labor, with the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018, both sought to do so themselves, the Liberal/National Government referred these Bills to Senate inquiries rather than debating them.

Even after those inquiries, which took place in late 2018 and over the summer of 2018/19 respectively, handed down their reports, the Morrison Government failed to support those proposals and still did not propose a Bill of their own. Instead, they stalled and effectively counted down the clock until the 2019 Federal election. 

On the very last day before the writs were issued for that election, Attorney-General Christian Porter referred the issue of ‘religious exceptions’ generally to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for a detailed, 12-month review. 

After the Morrison Government was re-elected on 18 May 2019, they returned to power with even less sense of urgency to give effect to his promise from October 2018. Instead, they gave priority to preparing two Exposure Drafts of the Religious Discrimination Bill, in late 2019 and early 2020, legislation that would

  • Make it easier to make comments that ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’ minorities, including LGBTI people
  • Make it easier for health practitioners to refuse to provide services that benefit minorities, including LGBTI people
  • Make it easier for religious organisations to discriminate against others, and
  • Make it more difficult for big business to promote diversity and inclusion, including for LGBTI people.

On the other hand, they first delayed the ALRC’s reporting timeline until December 2020. And then, on 2 March 2020, the Attorney-General amended the ALRC’s reporting deadline to be ‘12 months from the date the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed by Parliament.’ 

That change alone is enough to guarantee Morrison’s promise – which, let’s remember, was to protect LGBT students before the end of 2018 – will not happen this term.

First, the Religious Discrimination Bill may not pass (and, in its current form, it most definitely should not). Second, even if it passes, it will not happen until the first half of 2021 at the earliest. At a minimum, that makes the ALRC’s new reporting deadline the first half of 2022, which is when the next federal election is due (by May 2022, although there is increasing speculation it will instead be held in late 2021).

Even after the ALRC ultimately delivers its report, it usually takes a Government at least six months to prepare a formal response, and six months again to introduce legislation based on its response. 

Which means, even if the Government still feels bound by Morrison’s original promise from October 2018, even if the Liberal/National Government is re-elected, even if Morrison remains Prime Minister, even if the ALRC recommends how to implement his commitment, even if the Government accepts the ALRC recommendation, even if the Government prepares and introduces legislation to make this change and even if Parliament passes it, that legislation will not happen until 2023, and will likely not take effect until 2024.

A student in Year 7 when Scott Morrison first promised to urgently protect LGBT kids in religious schools against discrimination will finish Year 12 before his Government gives effect to it – if they ever do.

This isn’t just any ordinary broken promise either. In raising hopes that some of the most vulnerable members of our community might finally be legally protected, and then comprehensively dashing them, Morrison has broken hearts, while leaving a trail of broken lives in his wake.

That’s because anti-discrimination exceptions allowing religious schools to mistreat LGBT students just because of who they are inflict serious, real-life harm on those kids.

Religious schools can harm LGBT kids through the hateful things they say to them. And they can harm LGBT kids by not saying anything positive at all, leaving children who are struggling to figure out who they are to suffer, alone, in the all-enveloping silence of the closet.

Religious schools can harm LGBT kids by expelling them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But, generally, they don’t need to – the threat alone is enough. Where a student does bravely decide to come out despite that school’s prejudiced views, the school can ‘encourage parents to find a more suitable environment for their child’ (and what parent would force a school to expel their child in such circumstances?).

Religious schools can harm LGBT kids in myriad ways that fall short of expulsion too, from special rules targeting same-sex attraction, and erasing gender diversity.

Above all, religious schools can harm LGBT kids by creating a toxic environment, where those students know they will not receive safety and protection if they need it – something other kids figure out all too quickly, and take advantage of with impunity. 

I know the above from bitter personal experience – barely surviving five years at a religious boarding school in Brisbane in the early 1990s.

When they weren’t saying hateful things about my sexual orientation (like the pastor who suggested that, for kids struggling with ‘confusion’, killing themselves was not the worst possible outcome), they said nothing at all, leaving a dangerous void in which homophobia can, and did, flourish.

Their explicit rules against same-sex attraction didn’t need to be enforced either – all students knew being ‘out and proud’ simply wasn’t an option. Worst of all, the school’s anti-LGBT stance meant other boarders were free to ‘police’ any students who displayed even the subtlest signs of difference: I was subjected to both verbal, and at times physical, abuse.

The most depressing part of all is the realisation that, in many parts of Australia, little has changed in the past 25 years. While, thankfully, Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory have all legislated to remove the special privileges allowing religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids, other jurisdictions have not. 

In 2020, it is appalling and infuriating that religious schools in NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia can still legally mistreat LGBT students simply because of who they are. 

And they still do, too. As Oliver Griffith wrote, in 2018, about his own, more-recent experiences at a religious school (in an article called Growing up gay in a Christian school had lasting effects on my life’):

‘Growing up gay in an environment like this is a challenge because you are faced with your realisation of your own identity and at the same time are taught by people you trust that you are a deviant, a danger to society, and otherwise should be shunned from the community… the open criticism of homosexuality meant that I was always aware that revealing who I was to the people around me could result in being ostracised from my friends and the teachers I had learnt to respect. Despite becoming aware of my sexuality at the age of 14, I never revealed this publicly until I was in my 20s.’

My, and Oliver’s, stories of survival are by no means unique. And, of course, there are the countless stories we will never get to hear, because those students took their own lives as a direct consequence of the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia of religious schools, all legally supported by our Commonwealth Government.

The serious harms caused by the special exceptions provided to religious schools is backed up by the evidence. As expert in this area, Dr Tiffany Jones, wrote in the conclusion of their submission to the 2018 Senate inquiry titled ‘The Wrong of ‘Discrimination Rights’:

The data outlined in this submission adds to the author’s past submissions on [Sex Discrimination Act] Drafts citing evidence showing that the majority of LGBT students who attended religious schools rated them as homophobic spaces and that many LGBT students in religious schools suffered attempts to be ‘converted to heterosexuality’ or were forced out of their schools (eg in 2012). This submission shows new evidence that this trend continues in Australian religious schools, especially for people on the trans-spectrum. This is despite the fact that conversion attempts are widely and strongly denounced by peak psychology bodies.

Past submissions from the author showed there are significantly fewer policy-based protections for LGBT students in religious schools, which is highly problematic as policy protections are associated with decreased risks of experiencing homophobic and transphobic violence and decreased risks of self-harm and suicide rates for the group. However, the 2018 data shows that anti-LGBT conversion approaches contribute to harm the wellbeing of not only LGBT students, but most people attending those schools – who are significantly more likely to consider self-harm and suicide, and attempt self-harm and suicide.

The 2018 data show ‘gay’ is still the top insult in Australian schools. Trans-spectrum people suffer from more staff targeting just attending school as legally enforced. If our nation requires youth to attend school, and insists on funding religious schools, then those schools must be safe. The small portion of extremist conservative religious schools of Australia (not all religious schools, but those taking advantage of the SDA’s exemptions which effectively endorse anti-LGBT approaches) provide an educational environment lacking in basic social competencies for entering a modern diverse Australia and following its laws outside of the unrealistic ‘bubble’ of these schools. We need to ensure safety and better citizenship education at these schools. Not only for LGBTs, but for all students experiencing the wellbeing and educational deficits of discrimination on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. [emphasis in original]

Dr Jones is correct – if we compel students to attend school, then we must ensure that all school environments are safe for all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids.

Currently, they are not. Religious schools are legally allowed to harm LGBT students, by what they say, and what they don’t say. By what they do (in enforcing anti-LGBT policies and rules), and what they don’t need to (because of the threat hanging over the heads of LGBT kids). And most of all, religious schools are legally permitted to harm LGBT students by creating toxic cultures in which homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and violence can thrive.

Two years ago today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination. He has done nothing in the two years since to give effect to this commitment.

While Scott Morrison might be able to walk away from his words, he cannot walk away from his responsibility for the serious harm being inflicted, needlessly, on another generation of LGBT kids because of his inaction. Harm that will still be felt by too many long after his time as Prime Minister comes to an end.

**********

Update: 7 July 2021

It is now 1,000 days (and counting) since Scott Morrison first committed to protecting LGBT students against discrimination.

It is clear from the history of this issue that the PM is not going to take action just because it is the right thing to do. He will only make this change if we put enough pressure on him. On that basis, it’s up to all of us to tell Morrison that:

  • It’s time to honour your October 2018 promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are
  • It’s time to help LGBT kids thrive no matter which school they attend, and
  • It’s time to stop delaying this much-needed reform and just get it done already.

There are a variety of ways you can let him know your thoughts:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ScottMorrisonMP

Email webform: https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm

Mail: The Hon Scott Morrison MP Prime Minister Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone (Parliament House Office): (02) 6277 7700

Most importantly, don’t forget to add a personal explanation of why this issue is important to you. Thanks!

**********

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/ or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

Scott Morrison’s broken promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination turns two years old today (11 October 2020).

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Welcome to Sydney: Australia’s Capital of Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia

Over the past week, the Australian media has been busy re-living the Sydney 2000 Olympics during its 20thanniversary. While this trip down nostalgia lane has been a welcome distraction from the living nightmare that is 2020, it has also been a reminder of the lost opportunity to build on that brief moment of unity.

To borrow from a certain fracking drag queen reality TV host, in the two decades since the Olympics Sydney[i] has been ‘resting on pretty’.

In terms of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, the situation could just as easily be described as ‘resting on party’.

Known around the world for the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, Party and Festival, Sydney’s reputation as an LGBT-inclusive city is not reflected in the reality of its laws, politics and media.

Indeed, in terms of legal rights, Sydney and the state of NSW now have the worst LGBTI laws of any jurisdiction in Australia. If that sounds like a hyperbolic claim, consider this:

For lesbians and gay men, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (ADA) offers the weakest protections against discrimination of any state and territory anti-discrimination law.

That is because the exceptions in section 56(d) – allowing religious organisations to lawfully discriminate against us – are the equal-broadest in the country (and a long way behind the best practice laws in Tasmania), while NSW is the only place to allow all private schools, religious and non-religious alike, to discriminate against students, teachers and other staff on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

For bisexuals, the situation is even worse. The ADA is the only anti-discrimination law in Australia that does not actually protect bisexual people against discrimination. At all. 

For trans and gender diverse people, NSW’s laws – covering multiple areas of life – are also the worst in the country.

The ADA only protects transgender people with binary gender identities (‘male-to-female’ or ‘female-to-male’), while excluding people who identify as non-binary (although, sadly, it is not the only jurisdiction to do so: Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory also offer limited protection). 

As with lesbians and gay men, however, the ADA allows all private schools, even those that are non-religious, to discriminate against transgender students, teachers and other staff.

NSW also has the equal-worst framework for trans and gender diverse people to access birth certificates reflecting their gender identity: alongside Queensland, it still requires surgery in order to obtain new identity documents. Unlike Queensland, however, there has been zero indication the NSW Government is interested in removing this unjust and unnecessary hurdle.[ii]

Intersex people might be the only LGBTI group in respect of which NSW does not have the outright worst laws in Australia. Sadly, that’s more due of the lack of progress in the majority of states and territories, than it is because of any particular progress on intersex law reform here.

The ADA does not provide anti-discrimination protection on the basis of ‘intersex status’[iii] or ‘sex characteristics’[iv] – although neither does Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia or the Northern Territory.[v]

Meanwhile, no Australian jurisdiction has prohibited the ongoing human rights abuses that are unnecessary surgeries and other involuntary medical treatments on children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics.

In encouraging news, the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute recommended criminalisation of non-consensual, deferrable medical interventions on children in June 2020, while the Australian Human Rights Commission is currently also engaged in a project on this issue. However, as far as I am aware, there is no equivalent work being undertaken by the NSW Government.

Finally, Queensland recently introduced prohibitions on sexual orientation and gender identity conversion practices (albeit only within healthcare settings), while the ACT passed more comprehensive reforms which targeted conversion practices more broadly, including in religious environments.

Bans on gay and trans conversion practices are also seriously being considered in South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. However, once again, there have been no signs whatsoever that the NSW Government, or Parliament, are interested in ending this psychological torture.

Overall, then, it is clear that on contemporary LGBTI law reform issues – from expanding anti-discrimination protections, enacting birth certificate reform, ending non-consensual medical interventions on intersex children, to eradicating gay and trans conversion practices – NSW is a laggard.

Sydney might be a beautiful city, but on LGBTI rights NSW is undeniably backward.

Some people might argue that the people of Sydney are more accepting of the LGBTI community than their politicians. And that may be partly true, especially in pockets of the city. However, the outcome of the 2017 same-sex marriage law postal survey contradicts that view.

NSW was the only state or territory in Australia where the Yes vote for marriage equality was lower than 60%: just 57.8% of people in NSW supported removing anti-LGBTI discrimination from the Marriage Act 1961(Cth). The next lowest state was Queensland, but its result was nearly 3 points higher (60.7%).

More damningly, only 17 electorates around Australia did not record a majority Yes vote. 12 of those were found in metropolitan Sydney,[vi] including the seven electorates with the highest No vote (reaching up to 73.9% No in Blaxland).

Based on this (admittedly context-specific) example, Sydney has the highest rates of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the entire country.

The history of marriage equality in Australia is just as illustrative of the corrosive impact politicians from Sydney have had on the rights of all LGBTI Australians.

The Liberal Prime Ministers who first banned marriage equality (John Howard), first proposed to hold an unnecessary, wasteful, divisive and harmful public vote on our rights (Tony Abbott),[vii] actually held that vote (Malcolm Turnbull) and paid for it (Scott Morrison, as Treasurer), were all from Sydney.

Morrison in particular is on track to be the worst Prime Minister on LGBTI issues in Australia’s history, from his ‘gender whisperer’ comments, to his broken promise to protect LGBT students against discrimination, and the proposed Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Bill which overrides, and undermines, existing LGBTI anti-discrimination protections. 

It is likely no coincidence Sydney is the home of News Corp Australia, where it publishes Bernard Lane’s campaign against trans-affirming healthcare (in The Australian) and Miranda Devine’s columns targeting LGBTI-inclusive education (in the Daily Telegraph).

Perhaps the most depressing realisation of all is that, in September 2020, there is more chance things will get worse rather than better.

As we have already seen, there are no public signs the NSW Government is interested in reforming trans and gender diverse access to birth certificates, ending non-consensual medical interventions on intersex children, or banning gay and trans conversion practices.

Nor is there any current indication they will act to modernise the nation’s worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law, to include bisexuals, non-binary people and intersex people, and repeal the exceptions which allow religious organisations, and private schools, to lawfully discriminate against our community.

Even at a procedural level, the NSW Government does not have a formal LGBTI consultative mechanism, unlike the Victorian LGBTIQ Taskforce, Queensland LGBTI Roundtable, ACT LGBTIQ+ Ministerial Advisory Council, and a range of long-standing Tasmanian LGBTIQ+ Government working groups.

On the other hand, while there are no legislative proposals to improve the rights of LGBTI people currently before NSW Parliament, there are several Bills which, if passed, would set our legal rights back even further.

That includes the Mark Latham/One Nation Anti-Discrimination (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020, that would undermine our existing, limited protections against discrimination, which the Government and Opposition nevertheless saw fit to refer to a Joint Select Committee for consideration.

And then there’s the truly awful Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 – also from Latham/One Nation – which not only seeks to erase trans and gender diverse students and teachers entirely from all NSW schools, but also attempts to introduce a UK ‘section 28’-style provision making life difficult for all LGBTI kids, while introducing an erroneous and stigmatising legislative definition of intersex, too.

That Bill has also been referred to a Parliamentary Committee for inquiry – with the Committee chaired by Mark Latham himself.

We are now 18 months into the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government’s term. It is time for them to step up – not just to defend LGBTI people in NSW against Mark Latham’s, and One Nation’s, attacks on our community, by rejecting outright his deeply flawed ‘religious freedom’ and anti-trans kids legislative proposals.

But also to make long-overdue progress on other important issues, including birth certificate changes, protecting intersex kids, ending conversion practices and engaging in broader anti-discrimination reforms.

As of this week, they have 30 months left until the next State election. How they use their time between now and 25 March, 2023, will determine whether NSW will continue to have the worst LGBTI laws in Australia, or at least something closer to the national average.

There is another significant event in Sydney from mid-February to early March in 2023 which is highly relevant to this conversation: World Pride will be hosted by the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Assuming it is not cancelled because of coronavirus, large numbers of LGBTI eyes from around the globe will be focused squarely on us. The world already knows Sydney puts on a good party, Olympics, Mardi Gras or otherwise. But during World Pride they will also be looking at the State of our rights.

If the NSW Government doesn’t undertake essential, and long overdue, reforms in the next two-and-a-half years, we will be greeting our international guests by saying ‘Welcome to Sydney: Australia’s capital of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia’.

**********

Take Action

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are at least three things you can do to avoid that potential embarrassment (a good outcome) and make the lives of LGBTI people in NSW better on a day-to-day basis (a great one):

  1. Get involved

For too long, the burden of fighting for our rights has been borne by too few. There are a range of different organisations you can join or support to help make a difference, including:

And there are plenty of others too (including Union Pride, as well as LGBTI advocacy groups within political parties). 

2. Defend our community against attacks

As the above article (hopefully) makes clear, LGBTI rights in NSW are currently under attack by Mark Latham.

You can help the campaign against One Nation’s Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill, aka the anti-trans kids Bill, in the following ways:

  • Sign the Gender Centre, just.equal and AllOut petition 
  • Sign Sam Guerra’s individual Change.Org petition (which is already over 80,000 signatures), and
  • Use Equality Australia’s platform to write to the Premier, Deputy Premier, Education Minister, Opposition Leader and Education Minister here.

You can also find out about, and take action against, the One Nation Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 on the Equality Australia website here.

3. Support campaigns for positive change

A lot of our time, at both NSW and Commonwealth level, is currently being spent fighting against proposals that would take our rights backward. That is necessary and important work – but we won’t achieve progress without campaigns which seek to make our existing laws better.

Whether it is anti-discrimination law reform, improving birth certificate access, ending non-consensual medical interventions on intersex children, or banning gay and trans conversion practices – or a wide range of other important LGBTI issues – find a campaign and help drive it forward.

Positive change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens when we use our voice.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:

[i] I should clarify here that this post is about the small ‘c’ city of Sydney (meaning the large metropolitan area of 5 million people), and not the capital ‘C’ City of Sydney Council, which is largely progressive.

[ii] Disappointingly, the Queensland Government has failed to make progress on birth certificate reform since its 2018 Discussion Paper, and, as far as I am aware, have not promised to take action on this issue even if they are re-elected on 31 October.

[iii] Which is a protected attribute in both the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA).

[iv] Which is the preferred protected attribute for intersex advocates, as per the March 2017 Darlington Statement, and was recently included in the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT), while the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 covers ‘intersex variations of sex characteristics’.

[v] ‘Intersex status’ was included in the 2018 amendments to the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which prohibited ‘public threats of violence on grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex or HIV/AIDS status’, although to date this legislation has still not been used.

[vi] Of the other five, three were in regional Queensland, and two were in suburban Melbourne. Zero electorates in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory voted No.

[vii] Tony Abbott’s decision, as Opposition Leader, to deny Coalition MPs and Senators a conscience vote also cruelled any chance of Stephen Jones’ 2012 marriage equality legislation being passed.

Don’t Rain on Our Parade

It’s reached that point in late February where, every day at 4:20pm, I visit the Bureau of Meteorology website to check the forecast for Saturday night’s Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

 

But, irrespective of whether the BoM says it will rain, hail, (smoke) or shine, there’s a much larger cloud hanging over Australia’s LGBTI community: the Morrison Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

This legislation has the potential to adversely affect nearly every aspect of our existence.

 

From health-care, where it will allow doctors and pharmacists to deny hormone therapy, including puberty blockers, to trans and gender diverse people. And to refuse to provide access to PEP, and PrEP, exposing gay and bisexual men to greater risk of HIV transmission.

 

To the workplace, where employers and colleagues will be able to make comments that offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule us, as long as those statements are based on religious belief.

 

A manager could tell a staff member that gay sex is sinful, and same-sex relationships are intrinsically disordered.

 

An interviewer may inform a trans applicant that gender is binary, and therefore their gender identity is not real.

 

A colleague could respond to a lesbian co-worker showing pictures of her family in the lunch-room that she has deliberately denied her children of a father, and will be condemned by god for her ‘lifestyle’ choices.

 

These are all entirely plausible scenarios. And all would be legally permitted under the Religious Discrimination Bill, because statements of belief are effectively exempt from all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

 

Indeed, statements of belief would be protected across all areas of public life, not just employment.

 

If this legislation passes, international tourists visiting Sydney this time next year could be subjected to degrading and demeaning comments anywhere and everywhere, at the airport, in the taxi or uber, on buses, trains and ferries, at the hotel or B&B, at tourist attractions, in cafes and restaurants, at shops and on the streets.

 

That sounds more like hate-song than ‘matesong’.

 

Except, once the party is over tourists will be able to leave these homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic comments behind, while LGBTI Australians will be stuck with them, like unshakeable glitter, invading every nook and cranny for years to come.

 

As a certain bank tried to remind us last week – and was then itself reminded by the community – ‘words do hurt’. It is unacceptable that our own Government is so focussed on ensuring we are all exposed to more hurtful words in our lives.

 

The Bill also further entrenches the special privileges granted to religious schools and other faith-based organisations to discriminate against teachers, other employees, students and, in some cases, people accessing their services, on the grounds of religious belief or lack of belief. Even where these services are being delivered using public funding.

 

It doesn’t explicitly grant new powers to religious schools to discriminate against LGBT teachers and students. But then it doesn’t need to, either – because those powers already exist under the Sex Discrimination Act and, despite promising to protect LGBT students before the end of 2018, the Morrison Government has so far failed to shield some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

 

The theme for this year’s Mardi Gras is ‘What Matters’. In pushing ahead with the Religious Discrimination Bill, despite criticism from LGBTI organisations and a wide range of other civil society bodies, while failing to protect students in religious schools, it is clear the right to be a bigot matters much more to them than the safety of LGBT kids.

 

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the current debate is that, from an LGBTI advocate’s perspective, it is a purely reactive one – defending existing rights under what are already-flawed anti-discrimination laws, rather than trying to make those laws better (for example, including bisexual, non-binary and intersex people in NSW’s out-dated Anti-Discrimination Act).

 

It takes attention away from other urgent law and policy reform, too.

 

We shouldn’t forget that this Saturday’s march takes place in a state where trans people still need to have surgery – which is both expensive, and for some people, unwanted – before being able to update their identity documentation.

 

And in a country where children born with variations in sex characteristics continue to suffer massive human rights violations, including coercive, intrusive and irreversible surgery and other medical treatments.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will take LGBTI rights in Australia backwards, when there is still so much progress left to be made, on these and many other issues.

 

It’s time the Morrison Government abandoned this legislative attack on our community, and instead worked with us to achieve positive change – maybe then we can finally celebrate under clear skies.

 

Mardi Gras flag

 

For more on this subject, see The Religious Discrimination Bill: What you should know.

 

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked

Update 10 December 2020:

The Morrison Government’s Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill was released one year ago today (on Human Rights Day, which was particularly ironic given its contents trample on the rights of women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, and people with disability, among many others).

Following public consultation during January and February, it was expected the final version of the Bill would be introduced in Commonwealth Parliament by Attorney-General Christian Porter in March 2020.

Of course, COVID-19 had other plans – who knew all it took to stop this awful law was the worst global pandemic in a century? Although, in reality, their proposed legislation was only ever placed on pause – and there is increasing evidence PM Morrison and AG Porter plan to introduce their Religious Discrimination Bill in early 2021.

On Sunday 6 December, the Guardian Australia reported that:

The attorney general, Christian Porter, said in a statement: “The government will revisit its legislative program as the situation develops, and bring the religious discrimination bill forward at an appropriate time.”

This was followed by a story in Monday 7 December’s Australian, stating that:

Australia’s faith leaders are urging Scott Morrison to put the implementation of a Religious Discrimination Act at the top of his political agenda next year, warning their congregations would hold the Prime Minister to his election pledge once COVID-19 passes…

Catholic, Anglican and Muslim leaders told The Australian work on a Religious Discrimination Act must begin as early as February when federal parliament returned from its summer break.

It is clear that religious fundamentalists both within and without the Government want to push ahead with this deeply-flawed legislation come hell or high water, the rights of other Australians be damned.

There is a very real risk the final Bill will be introduced in the first half of 2021, perhaps as soon as when Commonwealth Parliament resumes on February 2nd. Scott Morrison is fond of (over-)using the word ‘comeback’ at the moment – but reviving the Religious Discrimination Bill is one comeback that most definitely should not happen.

The Religious Discrimination Bill must be resisted, in the strongest possible way, for all of the reasons outlined below in my original post about the Second Exposure Draft. To allow it to pass would mean undermining the rights of many, many Australians to live our lives free from discrimination.

Original Post:

It is ironic that a Bill that uses the phrase ‘in good faith’ multiple times (four times in the First Exposure Draft, and nine times in the Second) was itself developed through a process that was the polar opposite.

The Religious Discrimination Bill is the end product of the Religious Freedom Review, which was a gift to religious fundamentalists during parliamentary debate about marriage equality in 2017, and was payback against LGBTI Australians for having the temerity to demand equal rights under secular law.

When that review was finally released in December 2018, Attorney-General Christian Porter promised that the Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill would be similar to other anti-discrimination laws, and ‘follow a very standard architecture’.[i] Instead he has delivered incredibly complex legislation with several unique, special rights for religious individuals and organisations to discriminate against others (more on that below).

Mr Porter also stated in December 2018 that ‘we are well-advanced on the drafting of [the Bill] and which we would have out early next year [2019], so that people can see it.’ Yet the Liberal-National Government did not reveal any details of the Bill until after the May 2019 federal election, leaving voters in the dark about a central plank of their platform (perhaps some voters may have voted differently had they known their human rights would later come under sustained attack).

In August, the Guardian Australia reported that:

Christian Porter has sought to allay concerns that a federal religious discrimination bill could water down protections for LGBT people in state legislation. The attorney general told Guardian Australia the bill “is not intended to displace state law…”’[ii]

But when the First Exposure Draft Bill was released on 29 August it did exactly that, with clause 41 directly over-riding Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination legislation, and specifically over-riding Tasmania’s best practice protections against ‘conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults of ridicules’[iii] others, including women, LGBTI people and others.

At no point between December 2018 and August 2019 did the Morrison Government consult with anyone other than the religious organisations who would benefit from the Bill. There was no engagement with any of the people who stood to lose the most, from women, to LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, and people with disability.

Even when the Attorney-General released the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill for public comment – and received a deluge of criticism from representatives of those groups, as well as the vast majority of civil society organisations, and even the Australian Human Rights Commission, the independent body who would be responsible for overseeing any legislation once passed – Porter, and the Government, have chosen to ignore that feedback.

In fact, the only major substantive change to the Bill was something demanded by religious organisations – to expand its religious exceptions even further, allowing religious hospitals and aged care services to discriminate on the basis of religious belief in employment. Even when receiving taxpayers money to deliver public services.

It is completely unsurprising that, having undertaken a bad faith process to develop its legislation, the Government has produced what is essentially a ‘bad faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill. A Bill that prioritises and privileges the rights of religious individuals and organisations over and above everyone else.

This can be seen in how the Second Exposure Draft[iv] differs from the First in relation to its four major problems[v] – or, rather, in how there is nothing to separate the two Bills, meaning the Government has not addressed these flaws.

The Religious Discrimination Bill will still make it easier to make comments that ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’ minorities

Clause 42 (which was previously clause 41) continues to exempt ‘statements of belief’ from discrimination complaints under all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination legislation, including the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and Tasmania’s best practice Anti-Discrimination Act 1998.

Indeed, multiple changes to the Bill will actually ensure more discriminatory statements of belief are protected from legal consequences. This includes expanding the definition of statements of belief (so that they do not need to align with the mainstream views of any religion, but can be from the extreme fringes of faith), as well as providing that comments will be protected even where they are ‘moderately’ intimidating towards the victim.[vi]

Nor has the Government addressed the constitutional flaws of this provision. Because the Bill would introduce a Commonwealth defence to state laws, state tribunals would legally be unable to determine whether the defence was valid. So where a person makes a complaint of discrimination, and a respondent claims it was a ‘statement of belief’, it would need to be referred from the tribunal to a court to hear that particular issue, and then referred back to the tribunal to determine the remainder of the complaint – massively increasing the costs and time involved, with the likely outcome that many discrimination complaints will be withdrawn no matter how valid they are.

Overall, clause 42 will still encourage degrading and demeaning comments about women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disability, and even people from minority faiths,[vii] in all areas of public life, from workplaces to schools and universities, health care, aged care and other community services, to cafes, restaurants and even shops.

The Religious Discrimination Bill will still make it easier for health practitioners to refuse to serve minorities

There have been some minor improvements to the ‘conscientious objection’ provisions in the Second Exposure Draft (previously clauses 8(5) and (6), now clauses 8(6) and (7) of the Bill). This includes narrowing the list of health practitioners who will be able to take advantage of these sections, as well as including a note that they are not intended to allow practitioners to refuse to provide a service to a category of people.

But, in practice, these changes are superficial rather than substantive. The list of practitioners who remain covered:

  • Doctors
  • Midwives
  • Nurses
  • Pharmacists, and
  • Psychologists

means the vast majority of interactions between patients and the health system are nevertheless potentially jeopardised via ‘conscientious objection’.

Meanwhile, the distinction between refusing to provide a service to a category of people (which would not be permitted) and refusing to provide a category of service to people (which would be) is so blurry as to be meaningless.

As Attorney-General Porter himself confirmed when releasing the Second Exposure Draft, it is designed to protect ‘a GP who did not want to “engage in hormone therapies” for a trans person. “That’s fine, but you have to exercise that in a consistent way, so you don’t engage in the procedure at all.”’[viii]

The net effect is that GPs and pharmacists will be empowered to:

  • Refuse to provide reproductive health services, even where this disproportionately affects women
  • Refuse to provide PEP and/or PrEP, even there this disproportionately affects gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, and
  • Refuse to provide hormone therapy (including puberty blockers), even where this disproportionately affects trans and gender diverse people.

Overall, clauses 8(6) and (7) will still encourage practitioners to refuse to provide vital health care services to some of the most vulnerable members of the Australian community.

The Religious Discrimination Bill will still make it easier for religious bodies to discriminate against others

In fact, as hinted at earlier, the religious exceptions contained in the Second Exposure Draft will make it even easier for even more religious organisations to discriminate in even more circumstances.

Clause 11 (which was previously clause 10), provides an exception to all religious schools and universities, as well as ‘registered public benevolent institutions’ (even where providing commercial services to members of the public), as well as ‘any other body that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion (other than a body that engages solely or primarily in commercial activities)’.

This exception allows these bodies to discriminate on the ground of religion in both employment, and who they provide services to (or withhold services from).

The test for determining whether the organisation can (ab)use these special privileges is also much easier to satisfy in the Second Exposure Draft. In fact, there are now two alternative tests, and the organisation need only satisfy one:

  • Clause 11(3) is already a lower standard than the existing religious exception in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), because the organisation can simply act, ‘in good faith, in conduct to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of the same religion’ – unlike section 37(1)(d) of the SDA, these acts do not need to be ‘necessary’.
  • Clause 11(1) sets an even lower standard again. It provides that a ‘religious body does not discriminate against a person under this Act by engaging, in good faith, in conduct that a person of the same religion as the religious body could reasonably consider to be in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of that religion.’

This second test is entirely subjective. A religious body is only required to demonstrate that one other person considers their discrimination is in accordance with their faith. They don’t even have to agree with the discrimination itself! This hurdle is so easy to clear that it is almost impossible to imagine any scenario where a court or tribunal will disallow religious discrimination by these organisations.

Which is particularly devastating because the Second Exposure Draft also expands the types of organisations that can take advantage of these privileges.

Clauses 32(8) and (10) allow religious hospitals, aged care services and accommodation providers to discriminate in employment on the ground of religion. And clauses 33(2) and (4) permit religious camps and conference sites to discriminate in who they provide services to (even where these are facilities run on a commercial basis and otherwise open to the public).

As I have written previously, these religious exceptions will mean that:

  • A professor can be denied a job because they are Jewish.
  • A doctor can be refused employment at a hospital because they are Muslim.
  • A school student can be expelled because they are atheist.
  • A homeless person can miss out on a bed in a shelter because they are Hindu.
  • A charity worker can be rejected for promotion because they are Buddhist.
  • An aged care employee can lose shifts because they are agnostic.

Overall, clause 11 (and related clauses) will fundamentally divide Australia, by empowering religious organisations to discriminate both in employment, and in who they provide services to, on the grounds of religion. And they will be able to do so while using taxpayers’ money. Your money. My money, Our money.

The Religious Discrimination Bill will still make it more difficult for big business to promote diversity and inclusion

Clauses 8(3) and (5) (which were previously 8(3) and (4)) are the provisions which were created in response to the circumstances of a certain ex-footballer – by making it incredibly difficult for organisations with revenue of at least $50 million per annum to impose codes of conduct that prevent an employee from making discriminatory comments outside their ordinary hours of employment.

These clauses have been slightly improved in the Second Exposure Draft. By clarifying they only protect employees in conduct ‘other than in the course of the employee’s employment’, it actually applies to a reduced set of circumstances.

But Attorney-General Porter has also included a new clause 8(4), which makes things much worse again – by preventing qualifying bodies (like legal admission or medical registration bodies) from taking into account degrading or demeaning public comments which applicants may have made ‘unless compliance with the rule by the person is an essential requirement of the profession, trade or occupation’.

Previously, these bodies may have denied admission or registration on the basis that the applicant was not a ‘fit and proper person’ – instead, homophobes, biphobes and transphobes will be encouraged to discriminate with little or no professional consequences.

**********

Any of these problems should be sufficient in and of itself for anyone interested in human rights for all Australians, and not just for some, to oppose the Bill. All of them together should be enough for Labor, the Greens and Senate Cross-Bench to vote against it – although only the Greens’ opposition is secure at this stage.

And that’s not even including some of the other ‘lesser’ problems in the package of ‘religious freedom’ laws the Government is seeking to pass, which are each significant in their own right:[ix]

  • Creating a ‘Religious Freedom Commissioner’ within the Australian Human Rights Commission, to advance the ‘religious freedom’ agenda, even though such a position was not recommended by the Government’s own Ruddock Review, and while LGBTI Australians continue to be denied a Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Sex Characteristics Commissioner.
  • Amending the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) to reinforce the ability of religious educational institutions to reject same-sex weddings, even where they provide those services to the public on a commercial basis – and despite the fact such a ban was not previously required to reject divorced people remarrying (meaning this is essentially an anti-marriage equality provision),[x] and
  • Amending the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) to ‘protect’ charities advocating against an inclusive definition of marriage, even though the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) explicitly stated such a clause was not needed, and despite the fact no other type of advocacy (from Indigenous, to environmental or LGBTI) is protected in this way.

Unfortunately, there are even more problems in the Religious Discrimination Bill, and its two related Bills (the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill, and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill), although it would take too long to describe them all in detail here.

In short, these are deeply flawed Bills, developed through a bad faith process, that will have a terrible impact on women, LGBTI people, people with disability and others. If passed, they would lead to increased division between different communities, changing our country for the worse. They must be blocked.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of this debate is that a genuine Religious Discrimination Bill, one that protected people of faith and no faith against discrimination on the basis of who they are, would have been a welcome development.

If the Government had prepared the Religious Discrimination Bill in good faith, it would have been met with substantial community goodwill. Instead, they listened to religious fundamentalists, and have now released two slightly different versions of legislation containing the same fundamental flaw – it increases discrimination rather than reducing it.

Significantly, the victims of the Government’s Bill will not only be women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, and people with disability. People from minority faiths, atheists and agnostics all stand to lose under Attorney-General Porter’s, and Prime Minister Morrison’s, disingenuous and disastrous Second Exposure Draft ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills.

Anti-discrimination legislation should reduce discrimination, not increase it. It should unite us, rather than divide us. The Religious Discrimination Bill fails on those most fundamental criteria. It is a bad faith Bill, and the only possible good outcome from here would be for it to be rejected in its entirety.

Take Action

One of my main objectives for the blog this year is to include practical information on as many posts as possible about actions readers can take. In this instance, there are at least three things you can do:

  1. Write a submission on the Second Exposure Draft Bills

The Second Exposure Draft ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills are open for public consultation until Friday 31 January 2020. Details of the Bills are here, and you can send written submissions via email to FoRConsultation@ag.gov.au

You don’t have to be a lawyer to make a submission, nor do you need to comment on all of the Bills’ many problems. Instead, you can simply describe your general concerns about the proposed legislation, as well as any specific fears about its impact on you and your community. Some suggested points include:

  • All Australians deserve to be protected against discrimination.
  • This includes people of faith, and no faith. But it must also include women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disability and others.
  • Unfortunately, the Second Exposure Draft Religious Freedom Bill will increase discrimination against many groups, including people from minority faiths, rather than reduce it.
  • It will encourage people to make ‘statements of belief’ that degrade and demean others just because of who they are, in workplaces, schools and universities, health care, aged care and community services, cafes, restaurants, shops and other public places.
  • It will encourage doctors, pharmacists and other health practitioners to refuse to provide vital health services to vulnerable Australians.
  • It will encourage religious organisations to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith, in schools and universities, hospitals, aged care and other community services, even where they are delivering essential public services using public funding.
  • The Government should scrap the current version of the Religious Discrimination Bill, and prepare a new Bill that reduces discrimination rather than increasing it.
  • If the Government fails to do so, the Parliament must reject the Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill, and associated ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills.
  1. Write to MPs and Senators expressing your concerns

While submissions about the Exposure Draft Bills are valuable, it is essential you also convey your concerns directly to your elected representatives.

It is especially important to write to the following:

  • ALP MPs and Senators
  • Greens MP and Senators
  • Centre Alliance Senators (if you’re in South Australia)
  • Senator Jacqui Lambie (if you’re in Tasmania), and
  • Liberate moderate/gay and lesbian MPs (including Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans, Tim Wilson, Angie Bell, Warren Entsch, Senator Dean Smith).

PFLAG Australia has made this process easy, using the website Equality, Not Discrimination.

You can also access a range of materials from Equality Australia here, including a submission-writing toolkit.

  1. Attend a public rally against the Bills

For those who prefer their activism to be on the streets, there will also be a number of public rallies around the country in coming weeks, including:

Sydney: Saturday 8 February at 1pm, Sydney Town Hall

Melbourne: Sunday 9 February at 1pm, State Library of Victoria

Brisbane: Saturday 1 February at 5pm, King George Square, and

Perth: Saturday 8 February at 1pm, Forrest Chase

The bad faith Religious Discrimination Bill, and the two other proposed ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills, can be blocked, but only if we all take action together.

Christian Porter

Attorney-General Christian Porter, author of the ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill.

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Footnotes:

[i] Attorney-General Media Conference, 13 December 2018.

[ii]Christian Porter says religious freedom bill won’t erode state LGBT protections’ 12 July 2019.

[iii] Section 17(1) Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas).

[iv] The complete Religious Freedom Bills – Second Exposure Drafts (which includes the updated Religious Discrimination Bill) can be found here.

[v] See The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[vi] Clause 42(2) provides that statements of belief will not be protected if it is:

  • malicious
  • that would, or is likely to, harass, threaten, seriously intimidate or vilify another person or group of persons; or
  • would be considered ‘counselling, promoting, encouraging or urging conduct that would constitute a serious offence.’

[vii] See The Internal Contradiction of the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill.

[viii] ‘Rules for doctors, pharmacists tightened in new religious discrimination bill’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December 2019.

[ix] For more detail, see The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[x] Unfortunately, it would not be the only provision in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) which discriminated against same-sex couples, despite the postal survey result. For more see: No, We Don’t Have Marriage Equality Yet.

The Internal Contradiction of the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill

On Saturday 30 November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed that his Government would not meet its commitment to introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill into Parliament before the end of the year.

 

Instead, he announced they would be releasing ‘a revised and further exposure draft of the RDA Bill to reflect the Government’s response to the consultation to date and provide further opportunity for engagement.’ [i]

 

On an optimistic reading, this means there is more opportunity for the Government to listen to all of the criticisms of this legislation, from women, LGBTI people, legal organisations and the Australian Human Rights Commission, that the Religious Discrimination Bill requires substantial amendment because it authorises discrimination against large sections of the Australian community.

 

Unfortunately, based on all evidence to date, we have more reason to be pessimistic, and instead fear that the Government will only listen to religious fundamentalists demanding even more special privileges to discriminate.

 

The only change to the Bill which Attorney-General Christian Porter highlighted at the National Press Club on 20 November[ii] was an amendment to ensure that ‘religious hospitals and aged-care providers will be given protections equivalent to those given to other religious bodies, in relation to employment of staff’ (in other words, allowing them to discriminate).

 

There have been no indications of positive changes to the Bill, to reduce its adverse impact on women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships, people with disability and others. Nor was there any reason to be hopeful in the Prime Minister’s media release confirming the delay.

 

However, what I really want to highlight here is the inconsistency of two of Morrison’s statements in that release.

 

Specifically, he criticises Labor for ‘a lack of genuine commitment … to the principle that Australians who hold sincere religious beliefs in this country deserve the same legal protections that are rightly provided in other areas such as gender and race.’

 

But then later the Prime Minister also says ‘Our Government will continue to proceed on the basis of good faith with a view to having a balanced and common sense Bill that protects the important religious freedoms that Australians can sadly no longer take for granted.’

 

Except these two concepts – a Religious Discrimination Bill, and religious freedom laws – are very, very different things.

 

Had Morrison actually delivered the former, legislation that simply protects people of faith, and no faith, against discrimination on the same basis as gender, race and other attributes, then not only would Labor have likely welcomed it, but so too would the majority of Australians, including LGBTI people. After all, we know what discrimination is like, and don’t want other people to experience it.

 

Instead, his Government has produced a ‘Religious Discrimination Bill’ in name, but a religious freedom law in substance. The most problematic elements of the Exposure Draft – re statements of belief, large employer codes of conduct, conscientious objections by health practitioners and the general ‘religious exception’ in clause 10[iii] – all purport to protect ‘religious freedom’ rather than the right to non-discrimination.

 

Obviously, a lot has been written about the serious flaws of these provisions (including by the author), and particularly about the discrimination they permit against other groups.

 

Perhaps one consequence that hasn’t received as much attention is that they actually make this legislation not just inconsistent in its objectives, but internally contradictory as well.

 

That’s because these same provisions also allow discrimination against people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or lack of belief – making it a Religious Discrimination Bill that perversely encourages religious discrimination.

 

For example, the protections for ‘statements of belief’ in clause 41 – which effectively render them exempt from all Commonwealth, state and territory discrimination laws – don’t just apply to comments that discriminate against women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships and people with disability.

 

Clause 41 also protects statements of belief that discriminate on the basis of religion. This includes, for example, saying the followers of other religions are ‘unclean heathens destined for eternal damnation’. Just like sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist statements, these derogatory comments will be protected irrespective of where they occur, including in the workplace, in education, in health, and in the provision of goods and services.

 

In the same way, clauses 8(3) and (4) won’t just protect a certain footballer telling gay and trans people they are going to hell – it will protect any religious employee who, outside ordinary work hours, tells people from other religions they’re going to hell, too.

 

The conscientious objection provisions, in clauses 8(5) and (6), are an even bigger threat. As well as allowing health practitioners, from GPs and pharmacists through to optometrists, physiotherapists and even podiatrists, to refuse to serve women, or LGBTI people, they could potentially be (ab)used by a health practitioner to refuse to serve Jewish people, or Muslims, or people from other minority faiths.

 

But the biggest threat of all – especially to minority religions – is found in clause 10. It allows religious schools and universities, charities and ‘any other body that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion (other than a body that engages solely or primarily in commercial activities)’,[iv] to discriminate on the basis of religious belief.

 

This clause therefore permits discrimination against teachers and students, as well as the employees of – and even people accessing – charities and community services. And, as we have already seen, Attorney-General Porter plans to expand this clause even further to allow religious hospitals and aged care services to discriminate in relation to employment (at the very least).

 

Technically, clause 10 protects all religious organisations equally – they will each be able to discriminate in terms of who they employ (or refuse to employ), and provide services to (and who they exclude).

 

Practically, this clause will primarily benefit the largest religious organisations – including the Catholic and Sydney Anglican[v] churches and related education, health and community services organisations – at the expense of everyone else.

 

With the massive outsourcing of public services to these bodies over the past two to three decades, they now receive billions and billions of dollars each and every year, and will be explicitly permitted to use that public funding to discriminate.

 

Not just in relation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (which is sadly already allowed under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), and which the Morrison Government steadfastly refuses to change), but also in relation to religious belief, or lack of belief.

 

That means a professor being denied a job because they are Jewish.

 

A doctor refused employment at a hospital because they are Muslim.

 

A school student expelled because they are atheist.

 

A homeless person missing out a bed in a shelter because they are Hindu.

 

A charity worker rejected for promotion because they are Buddhist.

 

An aged care employee losing shifts because they are agnostic.

 

All these scenarios could be legal under the Religious Discrimination Bill, as long as it was a religious organisation doing the discriminating. And they would be using taxpayers’ money – your money, my money, our money – to do so.

 

This outcome – entrenching the power and privilege of the major churches, namely the Catholics and Sydney Anglicans, over and above the rest of us – is the inevitable consequence of the internal contradiction of this legislation.

 

The Morrison Government has chosen to undermine what could and should have been a standard Religious Discrimination Bill – one that would have prohibited most, if not all, of the scenarios described above – with provisions that instead promote ‘religious freedom’.

 

With their decision to release a second Exposure Draft for public consultation, the Government now has the opportunity to make a better, and more informed, choice, and to prepare legislation that reduces religious discrimination rather than increasing it.

 

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to suspend my disbelief that they will choose the right option. Based on everything leading to this point, I have no faith the Government’s ‘revised and further exposure draft’ Bill will be any less of a threat to women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships and people with disability.

 

But we must not forget it is also a threat to minority religions, to Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostic people alike. They too will be subjected to discriminatory statements of belief, and potentially denied access to health care, just because of who they are. And they will be refused employment, and discriminated against in education, health, aged care and community services, all by ‘mainstream’ religious organisations using public monies to do so.

 

Hopefully, they – as well as the many decent Catholic and Anglican people of good faith who oppose new special rights to discriminate – will join us in demanding genuine religious anti-discrimination laws, to replace Morrison’s badly botched Bill.

 

 

r0_220_5199_3374_w1200_h678_fmax

By choosing to include expansive ‘religious freedom’ provisions, Scott Morrison has undermined the ability of the Religious Discrimination Bill to actually prohibit religious discrimination.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Media Release, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Government will Protect Religious Freedoms by Getting Law Right, 30 November 2019.

[ii] Transcript, Attorney-General Christian Porter, Address to National Press Club, 20 November 2019.

[iii] The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[iv] Clause 10(2)(c).

[v] Noting Anglicare Victoria have joined other religious bodies, including Vincent Care Victoria and Uniting Vic.Tas, in criticising the special rights to discriminate contained in the Bill. ‘Religious discrimination bill: Faith-based groups and equality advocates welcome delay’, Guardian Australia, 1 December 2019.

The Religious Discrimination Debate is a Test for the States and Territories

The Religious Discrimination Bill, released in late August by Attorney-General Christian Porter, would be the biggest reform to anti-discrimination law in Australia in at least 15 years, since the passage of the Age Discrimination Act 2004.

 

In fact, it is potentially the most radical change to our federal anti-discrimination system since, well, the beginnings of anti-discrimination law in this country.

 

That’s because it fundamentally undermines one of the key concepts of this framework: concurrent Commonwealth, and State/Territory, jurisdictions.

 

Since the passage of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975, NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, and similar laws elsewhere, these laws have operated effectively alongside each other, without directly interfering with each other.

 

Where conduct was prohibited under laws at both levels, the victims of such discrimination were able to choose where to lodge their complaint. Successive Commonwealth Governments haven’t sought to cover the field, or explicitly override the provisions of State and Territory anti-discrimination laws.

 

But this is no longer the case. The Religious Discrimination Bill dramatically, and unprecedentedly, upsets Australia’s anti-discrimination applecart.

 

Section 41 provides that ‘statements of belief’ do not constitute discrimination for the purposes of any anti-discrimination law – including each of the Racial, Sex, Disability and Age Discrimination Acts at Commonwealth level, and all equivalent state and territory laws.

 

The Apple Isle has even more to lose than the others – with section 17(1) of their Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 singled out by name as being specifically overruled.

 

This is undoubtedly because it offers the most effective form of protection against conduct that ‘offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules’ a wide range of groups, including LGBTI people, women, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people and people with disability, among others.

 

But all State and Territory Governments should be alert and alarmed at this unwanted and unwarranted intrusion, not least because of the proposal that the Commonwealth Attorney-General be allowed to override even more laws by future regulation, without needing the approval of federal Parliament (and with Senate numbers making it extremely difficult for these regulations to be disallowed).

 

It is not just the principle of federalism that is offended by this hostile takeover. It is the fact the Religious Discrimination Bill makes it easier to offend the rights of vulnerable groups in each and every Australian jurisdiction that makes its contents so disturbing.

 

This makes the current religious discrimination debate a major test for State and Territory Governments around the country. Will they stand up to the Commonwealth Government’s decision to undermine their anti-discrimination laws?

 

More importantly, will they stand up for the communities in their respective states and territories – LGBTI people, women, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people and people with disability – who stand to lose the most as a consequence of the Religious Discrimination Bill?

 

There is another, related challenge for State and Territory Governments from these developments. At the same time as the Attorney-General was releasing his exposure draft Bill, the reporting date for the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of ‘religious exceptions’ was pushed back to December 2020.

 

This is the inquiry that was established earlier this year to examine whether provisions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, and teachers, should be amended, or repealed entirely.

 

The delay means any legislation arising from this inquiry will likely not be passed until the second half of 2021 – and therefore won’t be in place until the 2022 school year at the earliest.

 

This is incredibly disappointing given Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s broken promise, in October 2018, that he would ensure LGBT students were protected before the end of last year. Effectively, this will now be delayed by more than three years.

 

The contrast with the Religious Discrimination Bill is also revealing. On one hand, the Morrison Government wants to pass a stand-alone Religious Discrimination Bill before the end of this year – a substantial, and radical, change to our federal anti-discrimination regime, with just one month of public consultation.

 

On the other, it refuses to make what are modest, straight-forward changes to protect LGBT students and teachers in religious schools for several years. It has decided to vacate that field, and consequently to vacate their responsibilities to vulnerable kids.

 

In the meantime, LGBT students and teachers will continue to be subject to abuse and mistreatment, simply on the basis of who they are, in schoolyards, classrooms and staff-rooms around the country.

 

And so it is now up to State and Territory Governments to show the leadership that the Commonwealth Government won’t. For NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia to pass urgent changes to protect LGBT students. And for all jurisdictions other than Tasmania and the ACT to cover LGBT teachers.

 

Because all kids deserve to grow and learn in a safe environment. And they don’t deserve to wait until 2022 to know what that feels like.

 

Berejiklian Andrews RD Bill

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at Midsumma. Will they stand up against the Religious Discrimination Bill which will make it easier to discriminate against LGBTI people in their respective states?

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

As Anna Brown from Equality Australia stated:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Christian Porter

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

 

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Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ix] Religious Freedom Review: Final Report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xvi] From Parliament House website.

[xvii] From Senator Paterson’s website.

The Right to Learn

The right to education is one of the most fundamental of all human rights.

 

This is both because education has incredible intrinsic value, and because of the significant consequences it can have on an individual’s life outcomes, from employment to health, housing and justice, as well as the ability to fully participate in society.

 

The community also has a collective interest in ensuring that all of its members are able to access the right to learn. Why then does Australia allow ongoing inequality in the enjoyment of this important right?

 

I could be talking here about the gross disparity in educational outcomes for Indigenous Australians compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts (with the latest Closing the Gap report showing that Governments are not on track to meet commitments for school attendance, and literacy and numeracy).

 

I could also be talking about the completely disproportionate levels of funding provided by the Commonwealth to private schools over public schools, with ACARA estimating that the Commonwealth Government allocated $8,053 for every private school student compared to just $2,645 per public school student in 2016-17. (Apparently some students are worth more than others.)

 

Instead, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on the fact that cisgender heterosexual students are better able to exercise their right to learn than lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.

 

This is because cisgender heterosexual students in Australia are free to enjoy the right to education without fear of discrimination simply on the basis of these attributes. Unfortunately, the same is not true for far too many LGBT students around the country.

 

That is because the anti-discrimination laws of several Australian jurisdictions allow religious schools to lawfully discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This includes:

 

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984

 

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (which in fact allows all private schools and colleges to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality, and transgender, even where the school is not religious)

 

The Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010

 

The Western Australian Equality Opportunity Act 1984, and

 

The South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (although for South Australia the legal situation is not entirely certain).

 

On the other hand, LGBT students are legally protected against discrimination at religious schools in Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory [for a complete summary of the situation nationally see: Back to School, Back to Discrimination for LGBT Students and Teachers].

 

However, we should not allow this conversation to be dominated by dry legal analysis, when it is the discrimination these laws permit that we should highlight.

 

For example, these were just some of the responses to my 2017 survey looking at The State of Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Australia:

 

“I was given detention and threatened with suspension for revealing I was attracted to girls at a Christian high school. I was forced to endure hands-on prayer to rid me of the homosexual demons.”

 

“I was at a Christian private school in north Sydney, we had lessons in religion that focused on why being gay is wrong and how you can change.”

 

“My friend goes to a Catholic school and is bisexual. Her music teacher gives her shit about being bisexual and says that she is sinning and she will be going to hell.”

 

I also know from bitter personal experience just how toxic these environments can be, having (barely) survived five years at a religious boarding school in Queensland in the early 1990s.

 

As these accounts demonstrate, the discrimination LGBT students endure at the hands of religious schools concerns far more than simply admission, or expulsion – instead, it is more insidious, and effects every moment of every school day.

 

The fact this prejudice is legally allowed in several Australian jurisdictions is almost unbelievable – and totally unacceptable.

 

Students should be focused on studying for their exams, not studying how to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

Students should be worrying about whether the person they ask to take to the formal says yes, not worrying that they will be suspended because their date is the same gender they are.

 

Students should be doing what most teenagers do – complaining about their school uniform – not fearing punishment for wearing the uniform that matches their gender identity.

 

Students should be learning what they need to stay safe in their health and physical education, and sex-ed, classes, not being made to feel invisible and forced to pick up bits and pieces from far less reliable sources.

 

Students who experience homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying should be able to have confidence that their school will be on their side, not wondering whether they will be the ones disciplined instead simply because they are LGBT.

 

Students should be thinking about what they would like to do after they finish their education, not contemplating whether they will even survive it.

 

Above all, students should be given the gift of curiosity about the world around them, not taught that the world hates them because of who they are.

 

These are just some of the ways in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are currently denied the same right to learn that their cisgender heterosexual equivalents enjoy.

 

It is a situation that has been created by the actions of politicians – and has been allowed to persist because of their inaction.

 

That includes Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s broken promise, made in October last year, to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination by amending the Sex Discrimination Act before the end of 2018.

 

Instead, we now have an Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into religious exceptions that won’t report until April 2020, and a re-elected Liberal-National Government that likely won’t do anything until the second half of next year (at the earliest).

 

This is simply not good enough. We must remind them of that fact every single day until they act – because LGBT students will be discriminated against every single day until they do.

 

We must also pressure the state governments of NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia to fix their own broken laws. There is no possible excuse any of them could proffer that would justify allowing this mistreatment to continue.

 

Because reading is fundamental, as is writing, arithmetic, and all of the other essential skills that are imparted by teachers today. And all students deserve access to them, irrespective of who they are.

 

Education is a human right that must be provided to everyone equally, without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That currently isn’t the case in Australia. It’s something we must change for the sake of LGBT students now, and for the generations yet to come.

 

The right to learn

All students have an equal right to education, including LGBT students.