The push for new exceptions in the Marriage Act is homophobic. Here’s why.

Voting in the same-sex marriage postal survey has now closed. Based on the widely-held assumption that the majority of Australians have voted Yes, discussion has now turned to what amendments will be made to the Marriage Act to implement this outcome.

 

Conservatives who have opposed marriage equality throughout this process, including the Australian Christian Lobby and many Liberal and National Party MPs and Senators, are now arguing that any change to the law must include new exceptions providing a broad range of special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

As WA Liberal MP Ian Goodenough has publicly acknowledged: “[t]he focus will be in the area of preserving parental rights, freedom of speech, and institutional considerations such as curriculum in schools, access to reproductive technology, correctional facilities, etc…”

 

This is on top of those new exceptions already included in Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedom) Bill 2017, which, as I have written elsewhere, would:

 

  • Permit existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’ so they can avoid marrying LGBTI couples,
  • Duplicate exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act itself, allowing religious bodies that offer wedding-related facilities, goods and services to the public to turn away LGBTI couples, and
  • Reinforce the ability of military chaplains, who are public servants, paid for with taxpayers’ money, to refuse to perform the marriage ceremonies of LGBTI personnel serving within the ADF.[i]

 

The supposed justification for these new exceptions? That they are essential to protect the ‘religious freedom’ of people who object to marriage equality on the basis of their personal faith.

 

Which is, to put it bluntly, bollocks.

 

The coordinated campaign for new exceptions in the Marriage Act has very little to do with ‘religious freedom’. This push is primarily, almost exclusively, about legitimising homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

 

This motivation can be seen through one simple comparison – how the Marriage Act has treated divorced couples remarrying over the past four decades versus how conservatives are proposing LGBTI couples should be treated now.

 

After all, there are a variety of religious beliefs about divorce and remarriage, just as there is a range of religious perspectives about marriage equality. The single largest religious organisation in Australia – the Catholic Church – remains staunchly opposed to both. Other faith groups support both.

 

So, if there are individuals and groups with strong views about, specifically against, divorce and remarriage, surely the Marriage Act will already contain special privileges allowing discrimination against people having second, or subsequent, weddings?

 

Well, no actually.

 

Even following the introduction of ‘no fault’ divorce as part of the Family Law Act reforms in 1975, the Marriage Act was not amended to provide civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate against people remarrying. Nor were military chaplains given ‘strengthened’ powers to refuse to perform the marriage ceremonies of ADF personnel tying the knot for the second time.

 

The inconsistent treatment of divorced people remarrying and LGBTI couples is demonstrated even more powerfully by considering the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

 

As well as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, from its very beginning this legislation has protected people against discrimination on the basis of their ‘marital status’, an attribute that was originally defined as:

 

“the status or condition of being-

(a) single;

(b) married;

(c) married but living separately and apart from one’s spouse;

(d) divorced;

(e) widowed; or

(f) the de facto spouse of another person…” [emphasis added].

 

Discrimination on the basis of ‘marital or relationship status’ remains prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act today.

 

Which means that, for 33 years, the Marriage Act has happily coexisted with legislation that prohibits discrimination against divorced people remarrying – including discrimination by civil celebrants.

 

For 33 years, there has apparently not been a need to duplicate exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act allowing religious bodies that offer wedding-related facilities, goods and services to the public to turn away couples wishing to remarry.

 

For 33 years, there has been no massive campaign to ‘preserve parental rights, freedom of speech, and institutional considerations such as curriculum in schools’ about divorce and remarriage.

 

At no point during this time, not when marriage equality was originally banned by the Howard Government in August 2004, or even when the same Government had a majority in both houses of parliament between 2005 and 2007, has there been a concerted push to amend the Marriage Act to protect the ‘religious freedom’ of people who object to divorce and remarriage on the basis of their personal faith.

 

So, why now? If it was not necessary to protect ‘religious freedom’ following the introduction of no fault divorce more than four decades ago, nor at any point since the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of marital status more than three decades ago, why is it suddenly necessary to defend ‘religious freedom’ today?

 

The logical conclusion – in my view, the only possible conclusion – is that the changes being put forward, in Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill, and by others like his Coalition colleague Ian Goodenough, are not actually about religious freedom at all.

 

If these amendments are only being put forward now that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians might finally have the opportunity to legally marry, then their intended purpose is entirely transparent: to legitimise discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

These provisions are inherently homophobic. And biphobic. And transphobic, too.

 

People arguing for ever-widening exceptions in the Marriage Act can dress their proposals up in all the fine language they want. But they cannot hide the naked truth: such amendments are just homophobia in a fancy frock.

 

It is simply not good enough for the long desired, long fought for, and long overdue introduction of marriage equality to be undermined by the inclusion of religious exceptions that will, in practice, perpetuate discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

Equal should mean equal – and that means LGBTI couples marrying in the future should be treated exactly the same as divorced people remarrying are now.

 

Goodenough

Liberal MP Ian Goodenough, whose proposed amendments to the Marriage Act are definitely not good enough for LGBTI Australians.

 

Footnotes:

[i] It should be noted that Smith’s Bill also permits increased, or strengthened, discrimination against other groups, including divorced people remarrying. This is to avoid criticisms of Senator Brandis’ 2016 Exposure Draft Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, which explicitly discriminated against same-sex couples. It is unlikely that many divorced Australians understand they could theoretically be discriminated against as a result of the Smith Bill. Then again, they probably shouldn’t worry too much – the timing of the introduction of these amendments, and the public debate surrounding them, confirm that LGBTI Australians are the real target.

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Letter to Bill Shorten re LGBTI Under-Representation in Parliament

The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Leader of the Opposition

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Monday 13 October 2014

Dear Mr Shorten

LGBTI UNDER-REPRESENTATION IN PARLIAMENT

On this day exactly one year ago, you were elected Leader of the Australian Labor Party, after the historic first ballot in which ordinary party members were allowed to cast a vote.

During the public campaign which preceded this ballot, one of the issues which you raised was the lack of representation of some groups within society inside the ALP caucus, and the Commonwealth Parliament more broadly.

Specifically, during your campaign you announced: “[w]e should consider quotas for sections of our community that are under-represented in our parliaments, including Indigenous Australians and the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) community.”

It is encouraging that a then candidate, and now leader, of a major Australian political party so openly acknowledges the failure of our nation’s Parliament to even come close to approximating the demography of its population.

It is shameful there have only ever been four recognised Indigenous members of the Commonwealth Parliament – and that the first Indigenous ALP MP, and first-ever female Indigenous MP, Senator Nova Peris, entered Parliament only last year, after more than 112 years of ALP caucuses.

It is almost as shameful that there have only ever been six openly identified members of the LGBTI community elected to Commonwealth Parliament, and none in the House of Representatives[1]. Of those six, only two have been from the Australian Labor Party – Senator the Hon Penny Wong and Senator Louise Pratt – and the latter was essentially ‘replaced’ in Parliament earlier this year, at the WA half-Senate election, by Senator Joe Bullock, a person who strongly opposes LGBTI equality.

It is clear from this historic under-representation that there have been countless talented and capable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and LGBTI, individuals who have not had the opportunity to serve in the nation’s Parliament – and that our Parliament has unarguably been poorer for their absence. It is also clear that this under-representation continues today.

One of the options for resolving this ongoing under-representation is, as you identified last year, the introduction of ‘quotas’ for Indigenous and LGBTI candidates (by which I assume you mean the implementation of new rules within the ALP setting minimum targets for Indigenous and LGBTI candidates in ‘winnable seats’).

The benefit of such an approach has been amply demonstrated by the success of targets for female candidates within the ALP over the past 20 years. When the 35% target (now 40%) was first adopted in 1994, the proportion of female MPs within the major parties was roughly the same: 14.5% within the ALP, 13.9% within the Liberal Party.

Two decades later, and the difference between the two major parties is stark: 42.4% of current ALP Commonwealth MPs are women, while only 21.6% of Liberal MPs are women (and, of course, there is only one woman inside the Abbott Liberal-National Cabinet, significantly lower than during the previous two terms of Labor Government).

While there have been other contributing factors, including the work of EMILY’s List, it is undeniable that the affirmative action rules first adopted in 1994 have played a major part in helping to ensure the ALP caucus is now more representative of the Australian population, and that talented and capable female candidates have a fairer chance at being elected to the nation’s parliament.

It is also no coincidence that, of the three ‘social groups’ mentioned in this letter – women, Indigenous people and LGBTI people – the only one where the ALP has adopted minimum targets is also the only one where the ALP has a significantly better track record than the Liberal Party.

All of which suggests that, despite some of the criticism which your original proposal received, ‘quotas’ – or some form of affirmative action rules – are at least worthy of further consideration as one possible policy tool to overcome Indigenous and LGBTI under-representation.

Other approaches to improve LGBTI representation specifically, include actively stamping out any institutionalised homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia that may exist within the Australian Labor Party, including in affiliated organisations that participate in and strongly influence the direction of the Party.

And, if you are serious, and indeed if the ALP is serious, about ensuring that the issue of ongoing LGBTI under-representation in Commonwealth Parliament is finally addressed, then I believe the ALP should also ‘reach out’ to the LGBTI community by ensuring that LGBTI equality is a core, and non-negotiable, plank in the national ALP policy platform.

That means recognising that LGBTI Australians are full and equal citizens in every single way, including in the recognition of our relationships, and not allowing ‘conscience votes’ where individual MPs are allowed to vote against this equality simply on the basis of personal prejudice(s).

Each of these three approaches – affirmative action rules, stamping out any internal homophobia, and adopting a platform supporting full equality, with no exceptions – would increase the engagement and involvement of LGBTI people inside the ALP and ultimately ensure more LGBTI members of parliament. Ideally, from my perspective, all three would be adopted.

My questions to you, Mr Shorten, are these:

12 months since you were elected Leader of the Australian Labor Party, and more than a year since you identified the under-representation of LGBTI people in parliament as an issue to be addressed, what approach(es) do you support?

With the pre-selection of some ALP candidates for the 2016 federal election already underway, what steps have you taken to ensure that these processes encourage more LGBTI people to nominate as potential candidates?

And, finally, what (if any) possible rules changes are you developing with respect to this issue, to be put forward for consideration at the next ALP National Conference in Melbourne in July 2015?

I look forward to receiving your answers to these questions, and your response to this important issue more broadly, in the near future.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[1] For more on this, see https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/11/16/lgbti-voices-absent-from-the-chamber/

12 months after being elected, what is Bill Shorten doing on LGBTI under-representation in Parliament?

12 months after being elected, what is Bill Shorten doing on LGBTI under-representation in Parliament?