Did WA Labor commit to banning conversion practices?

Mainstream media outlets are reporting today that WA Labor have committed to banning conversion practices, but has the party really given that strong a commitment?

As OUTinPerth first reported earlier this week, after months of being asked, WA Labor finally gave a response on this issue of conversion legislation. Responding to an election policy survey from rights group just.equal, the party said there was no place in Western Australia for conversion practices.

“The McGowan Labor Government is opposed to ‘conversion therapy’ as a cruel and misinformed practice and has made it clear that it has no place in Western Australia,” a party spokesperson said in the response.

The statement highlighted that Health Minister Roger Cook has publicly warned public and private psychologists that they may in breach of their professional code of ethics and code of conduct for undertaking any practices  that attempt to change sexual orientation, and he has strongly encouraged people to report breaches to the relevant authorities.

There’s nothing new in that statement, Cook said this in 2018 and first made a commitment to look at the legislation all the way back in 2017 when he spoke to Triple J’s Hack program. Cook told the program there were no plans to introduce specific legislation.

“I intend to look closely at what Victoria has done to see if there is a need to follow suit in WA, however there are no current plans to introduce legislation specifically focused on this issue,” Cook said in 2017.

Since making that statement legislation has been introduced in Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria. Cook’s statement this week is not about conversion therapy legislation, it’s about psychologists adhering to a code of conduct – and this, according to researchers and survivors, is not where the practice is occurring. It’s occurring in non-psychologist counseling practice and religious settings.

The McGowan Government has indicated it will tackle the issue of an unregulated counseling sector. Psychologists are registered, undertake years of study and supervised practice, but there’s a whole other level of people offering counseling services. Practitioners with lower qualifications, or no qualifications at all. This was highlighted last year via the case of serial con-man Tyson Vacher opening a counseling practice.

WA Labor is committing to clamping down on an unregulated counseling sector, but has not made any mention of specific legislation to ban conversion practices, nor have they suggested that they will tackle the issue within religious based institutions.

It’s also concerning that the response talks about conversion for sexuality, but makes no mention of support or protection on the basis of gender identity. At face value the proposition appears to have left transgender, gender-diverse and non-binary people out in the cold.

just.equal have described the Premier proposed approach to dealing with conversion practices as a “crab walk” away from previous commitments.

“The Government previously stated it might look to ban LGBT conversion practices along the lines of the Victorian Model, but is now crab-walking away from that with a theoretical proposal to look at national reform of unregulated health care workers.” said Brian Greig, the rights group’s WA spokesperson.

“That non-existent federal framework has been dismissed by conversion practice survivors as ineffective at addressing the problem, and rejected by the governments of Queensland, the ACT, and Victoria all of which recently banned conversion practices with state-based legislation.

“The McGowan proposal also excludes conversion practices in religious settings where 90 per cent of conversion practices take place and where most harm is done. This includes increasing anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation in vulnerable people including children,” Greig said.

Despite the Premier delivering a soft ball approach to tackling the issue the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) and other Christian groups have come out fighting in their opposition to the proposal, arguing that people should be free to engage services that they feel might be helpful to them.

Peter Abetz, the former Liberal MP who now heads the ACL in Western Australia said legislation like the Victoria model went too far and took away parental rights. Speaking to WA Today James Parker from True Identity said people should be able to choose their sexuality.

True Identity are an organisation that describes itself as support for people addicted to pornography, survivors of sexual abuse, and people who want to reject their LGBTQ identity, and those who want to affirm their biological sex.

“Why would we legislate for a blanket ban on therapeutic care that for decades has proved to help individuals?” Parker said. “Every person’s journey of sexuality is unique and therefore they need to have the freedom to be approached in a unique way.”

In recent months Parker and Abetz have delivered a series of presentations to local religious groups arguing that it is possible for people to stop being homosexual and embrace a heterosexual or chaste lifestyle.

Greens MLC ALison Xamon, who has been a longtime campaigner against conversion practices, said the McGowan government had failed to act on the issue.

“In the meantime, my issue is we’ve got LGBTQI people who are going through these practices who are being irreparably damaged and also taking their lives,” Xamon said.

Graeme Watson

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