Politics Opinion

LGBTQ+ discrimination bills keeping bigotry alive

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

New religious discrimination legislation passed through NSW Parliament will likely do more harm than good for the LGBTQ+ community, writes John Card.

IN THE LEAD-UP to the last Federal Election, the Coalition Government made its last big legislative push attempting to pass a suite of “religious discrimination” bills, which would carve out legal avenues for schools, employers and healthcare providers to freely deny service as they saw fit.

Eventually, public outrage over the proposed legislation drove the crossbench and a small contingent of the L-NP's own members of parliament to force then-PM Scott Morrison to shelve his proposal rather than let a “watered-down” version make it through the House.           

It might have seemed like the threat this sort of bill posed had now been thoroughly exorcised away for good by the fact that Morrison and the devoutly evangelical lobbyists in his ear are no longer running the country. But more than a year later, the exact same problem has risen back up from the dead.

First and foremost, we must remember that even after Scott Morrison and the hard-Right-wing of his party abandoned their now “undermined” Religious Discrimination Bill, the Labor Party still went into the last Federal Election maintaining that they would see some version of the legislation passed, claiming that they could ostensibly rework the Bill a little to safeguard LGBTQ+ school students and other vulnerable groups.

But it must be stressed that the ALP's unwillingness to scrap the whole thing outright has needlessly left the door open to all the same reactionary culture war bigotry to seep back into the lives and livelihoods of LGBTQ+ people throughout Australia.

The Labor Party's pledge to see some version of the Liberals' Religious Discrimination Bill go into effect is now quietly hanging over federal politics – and who knows when it will actually drop – but we're already seeing these legislative timebombs go off at the state level. At the beginning of August, the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, currently under the leadership of Labor's Ron Hoenig, quietly passed the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Vilification) Bill 2023 tabled by Attorney-General Michael Daley.

NSW Labor was keen to characterise the bill as a common-sense update to pre-existing discrimination protections, but frankly, the enthusiastic support the out-of-power Liberal-Nationals Coalition has for this new legislation should be everyone's first hint that it's not exactly harmless. What this new legislation is doing, in reality, is providing brood legal protections to any business or service wanting to argue that its denial of service to any particular person it doesn't like the lifestyle of is a valid expression of faith.  

Remember Citipointe College? The elite Sydney private school faced public backlash and a slew of discrimination complaints last year after it skirted the law by threatening to expel any student and dismiss any educator at the institution should they be unwilling to agree to sign a blatantly homophobic “contract” the school's evangelical Christian administrators drafted.

Last year, when the story broke, public demonstrations across the country rightfully forced the school's hand to tear up the unlawful contracts and made a wedge issue out of institutional bigotry going into the last Federal Election. Now, the laws starting to be passed under the auspices of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's ALP look to be setting the likes of Citipointe up to be able to try and do the exact same thing again — this time, legally.

As soon as the most recent Religious Discrimination Bill made it out of the NSW Legislative Assembly, the state's Council for Civil Liberties unambiguously called out the Bill's vaguely-worded and sweeping carve-outs for private institutions to pick and choose who to serve as a massive sop to the religious Right-wing minority. That's completely correct — in practice, this new bill doesn't “update” our discrimination laws, it's significantly rolling back the clock on civil rights for a lot of people in this country.

Not only will this make it all the easier for institutions to deny service to, or fire, just about anyone they want, New South Wales has set a precedent that any other state or territory could just as easily follow.

LGBTQ+ groups around the country have been calling on Labor to fix their trajectory on the issue, but Labor hasn't shown any indication of budging. Frankly, this is happening because, in an ALP backroom somewhere, a poll-watcher told party leadership that whatever backlash they'd inevitably cop from going down this path would be a decent trade-off because they could expect to pick up a few more once-Liberal voters at the next election. That is the reality of what is keeping bigotry alive in legislatures across Australia.

Since the ALP just wants to quietly play retail politics with the Liberals by trying to peel off some of its religious suburban base while hoping actual progressive voters in this country aren't looking, the best way to get them to stop is to bring the issue to public light and make them feel accountable to the rest of us who aren't fond of empowering bigotry. If more people knew what their state legislatures were actually doing day-to-day, they wouldn't be so comfortable making this sort of thing their agenda.

As it stands currently, if you feel that schools and healthcare providers shouldn't be further enabled to deny service to groups like women and the LGBTQ+, the quickest thing you can do about it right now might be to contact your MP and your senator and let them know you decidedly oppose legislation like that currently sailing through the NSW Parliament or any like it the other states and territories might move to implement next.

Additionally, Sydney already saw at least one major pro-LGBTQ+ rally loudly protesting the Religious Discrimination Bill's passing through the legislature — and there will likely be more if our politicians at both the state and federal levels keep pushing these sorts of laws. If there's one where you live, it could be worth going along to show your support. We need to let our elected officials know one way or another that this is an issue people really do care about. We're not all that happy about them attacking vulnerable peoples' rights just to shore up the suburbanite bigot vote. 

John David Card is a writer, historian and anarchist activist.

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