(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

PM Morrison has bowed to public pressure, announcing he will address homophobic legislation — but the extent to which he delivers remains uncertain, writes John Passant.

THE PUBLIC REJECTION of homophobia is so overwhelming, Prime Minister Scott Morrison – a Pentecostal Christian – has announced his Government will introduce legislation in the next few weeks to stop religious schools from expelling students for being gay.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten had previously said Labor would support such a move.

The Prime Minister was responding to leaked details of the Ruddock Review into religious freedom — something the Government has been sitting on, hoping to release only after the Wentworth by-election on 20 October.

Many states and territories give exemptions to religious institutions from anti-discrimination legislation. In effect, this means they can sack gay staff and, in some states, expel gay students. As Paul Karp pointed out in The Guardian, Tasmania allows neither, NSW and the ACT allow both, in Queensland the religious organisations can "only" discriminate against (that is, sack) teachers but not expel students, and in the other states the exemptions apply in different terms.

Despite protestations to the contrary from religious organisations, they have used these exemptions against staff and in some cases belittled gay parents or staff supporting the "yes" vote in the same-sex marriage survey.

In Perth last year, a gay teacher was sacked. In 2015, a Christian group told the father of a child at their school that it would not have enrolled the girl if it had known her father was gay. They also told him his daughter was not to talk about her father’s relationship with another man. In Canberra, in 2017, a fundamentalist Christian school sacked their principal and the suspicion was that it was because he thought Christians could vote "Yes" in the same-sex marriage postal vote.

I cannot find any public examples of LGBTQ+ students being expelled, although the environment for such students in many fundamentalist and even some mainstream, religious schools might well be unbearable and drive them elsewhere. This dehumanising of gay and lesbian young people helps explain why they have an attempted suicide rate five times higher than heterosexual youth. And, as they struggle to find their sexual identity in a society geared to heterosexuality, in the religious school's context, a community that often shuns them.

The seventh recommendation of the Ruddock Review says the Commonwealth should amend the Sex Discrimination Act to provide that religious schools may discriminate in relation to students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status, provided that:

  • the discrimination is founded in the precepts of the religion;
  • the school has a publicly available policy outlining its position in relation to the matter;
  • the school provides a copy of the policy in writing to prospective students and their parents at the time of enrolment, and to existing students and their parents at any time the policy is updated; or
  • the school has regard to the best interests of the child as the primary consideration in its conduct.

This was an attempt to put a few more bureaucratic roadblocks in the way of discrimination on the basis of sexuality. Ruddock was playing both sides of the Liberal Party factional street, but in essence, pandering to the religious right in keeping their ability to discriminate if they went through a few not too rigorous hoops.

It was only with the leak that most of us discovered that religious institutions could expel gay students and sack gay staff.

At first, Morrison told us, nine times in one press conference, that the existing law already allows discrimination by religious schools and nothing was going to change. So why the turn-around from then to his position now, which appears to be to remove any possibility of discrimination against students (although not staff) based on their sexuality?

The Greens were going to move a private member’s bill to remove the ability of religious schools to discriminate against gay and lesbian students and staff. This, coupled with the public outrage against the exemptions, presented a problem for both the Government and the Labor Party. Both until recently had supported the exemptions. The reactionary right in the Coalition and the shoppies’ union faction in Labor still do.

For example, two years ago in Victoria, the Andrews Labor Government and Coalition joined together to defeat a Greens’ attempt to protect gay and lesbian students from discrimination. In January this year, Labor’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek said Labor was "not proposing to change any of the current exemptions for Catholic Schools".

Clearly, Labor and the Coalition have moved a long way since the Ruddock Review was leaked to the Fairfax media last week — at least in relation to discrimination against students. Shorten wrote to Morrison on Friday (12 October) offering bipartisan support for removing exemptions that as they currently stand could see LGBTQ+ students expelled. That was when Morrison seemingly came on board.

The vote in Wentworth in the same-sex marriage survey was 81% in favour — almost 20% higher than the Australia wide average. Morrison, who was a no advocate during the survey vote and who abstained in the vote on the same-sex marriage legislation, might be a fundamentalist Christian but he is also a politician who wants to be re-elected to government.  

The image of LGBTQ+ students being expelled would not be a vote winner and so Morrison is moving quickly to remove the previously seemingly bipartisan exemptions. He is only doing so because society has changed and because a large majority of Australians clearly support LGBTQ+ people. The whole conservative strategy of having a postal vote on same-sex marriage and refining current discrimination exemptions has blown up in their faces.

Instead of retaining some right to discrimination, as Ruddock tried to engineer, it looks as if those state and territory exemptions may be swept away in a few weeks. This assumes the Commonwealth legislation will specifically override the current exemption in the states and territories. It is unclear if it will do so. If the legislation only removes Federal exemptions, and does not override the states’ and territories’ current arrangements, then the discrimination continues.

The fact Morrison is proposing to deal with this in the next few weeks – that is, after the Wentworth by-election – is a little suspicious. Who knows how far or how narrow the Morrison Government’s changes will be? Given Morrison is part of the Christian right in the party, who knows what pressure he will be under from that very strong faction? After all, they have silenced the Government on climate change and destroyed any chance of effective action to address the issue.

Even if the Coalition does introduce laws to override the states’ and territories’ current exemptions, it is a battle only half won. Morrison has specified the removal of the exemptions in relation to students but not to staff. Labor, too, has so far limited any changes to protecting students, but not staff. In other words, they are keeping the discriminatory employment aspects.  

It means gay and straight students would lose gay teacher role models. LGBTQ+ students will learn that they won’t be expelled, just looked down upon, but on reaching adulthood the school can and will discriminate against them in any employment contract. LGBTQ+ people will remain second-class citizens if this employment discrimination continues.

The Government and Opposition are responding to overwhelming public support for LGBTQ+ people. We need to increase the pressure on both of them to fully remove any legislative discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. This means ensuring Morrison delivers in full on his promise to remove the right of religious schools to discriminate against gay students and to extend those protections to LGBTQ+ staff.

You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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