Planting a policy garden: how Labor and the Greens can improve LGBTI policies

OPINION

Labor, the Greens and the Coalition have released their LGBTI policies for the 2019 election.

It’s great that each party has improved on some of the commitments they made at the last election. But there’s also a problem.

The first federal election after marriage equality should chart a bold way forward for the LGBTI community.

Instead, Labor and the Greens have released LGBTI policies that are too often timid, lacking in vision and backward looking.

Obviously, their policies are better than the Coalition’s, with moderate Liberals still declaring they gave us marriage equality (which they didn’t) and the reactionaries still running the No campaign (by demonising school inclusion and transgender equality).

But just because the Coalition isn’t much chop doesn’t mean LGBTI Australians should settle for second best from Labor and the Greens.

This article looks at the deficiencies in the LGBTI policies of Labor and the Greens so they can be improved.

It says to Labor and the Greens, if you truly want to represent the future of LGBTI Australians here’s some things you really should consider.

It says to both parties, if you win government, or can influence it, please redeem the promissory note of true equality and full inclusion that was signed by the nation during the postal survey.

What this article doesn’t do is recommend how LGBTI Australians should vote. There’s more than enough information around for LGBTI people to make those decisions ourselves (links to all the major parties’ LGBTI policies are at the end).

Neither is this article a political attack Labor or the Greens. There is rightly a mountain of criticism of the Coalition’s LGBTI record available for LGBTI voters to read. My criticism of Labor and the Greens is a molehill in comparison.

This article is also not about undermining the LGBTI community’s allies in the Labor and Green parties. I am well enough acquainted with leaders like Louise Pratt and Janet Rice to know they always work hard to improve their policies on LGBTI issues.

My sources are the Labor and Green parties’ election policies and their responses to Equality Australia’s LGBTI election survey.

So, let’s start with what’s wrong with individual policies before looking at why Labor and the Greens haven’t delivered and how to fix the problem.

Conversion therapy

Last year’s LGBTI community survey by just.equal found ending conversion therapy is the community’s highest priority. So, good on Labor and the Greens for also making it a top priority.

But neither party commits to criminalising the practice. Labor removed criminalisation from its national platform last year and its election policy is silent on the issue. The Greens have said they’ll criminalise sending people overseas for conversion therapy but they otherwise euphemistically refer to “regulatory and legislative enforcement”.

What makes this particularly disappointing is that criminalisation is precisely what the Australian Christian Lobby doesn’t want because it will infringe “religious freedom”, while survivor groups say it should be on the table.

The excuses that criminalisation will drive conversion therapy underground, or punish people who may themselves have been victims, are furphies. The same arguments were once made about tough action against clergy sex abuse.

If conversion therapy is “immoral” and “insidious”, as Labor and Green MPs say, they should want to make it criminal as well.

Discrimination law, faith-based services and “religion freedom”

Labor will protect students in faith-based schools, but it remains equivocal regarding teachers. Its policy talks about “consulting with stakeholders” to ensure schools “operate according their beliefs”. This equivocation is why just.equal has written to Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, seeking clarity.

Just.equal also asked about whether Labor intends to remove exemptions that allow anti-LGBTI discrimination in other faith-based services like hospitals and social services (a standard that has existed in Tassie for over two decades). Apart from a vague reference to “continuing to work to remove discriminatory measures” from the law, there is no specific commitment by Labor to prohibiting discrimination by faith-based services. So far there has been no response to just.equal’s letter.

Good on the Greens for being unequivocal and explicit in opposing discrimination by all faith-based services, not just schools. But nowhere do the Greens commit to challenging one of the greatest contemporary threats to LGBTI people, the attempt to segregate us under cover of “religious freedom”. This includes no mention of removing discriminatory “religious freedom” caveats that made Australia’s 2017 marriage equality legislation the worst in the world, despite the Greens trying to block those caveats at the time.

As with conversion therapy, it’s hard not to wonder if a desire to avoid triggering the ire of religious conservatives played a role in writing at least some of these policies.

Hate speech

Given their failure to address these issues of “religious freedom”, it’s probably not surprising both Labor and the Greens fail to even mention the long-overdue enactment of federal LGBTI vilification and offensive language laws.

Such laws have existed in some form or another in the states for many years. They have reached their fullest form in Tasmania where there are no religious exemptions. The Tasmanian standard should be applied across the nation so every LGBTI Australian is equally protected from hate speech, including hate speech in the name of religion, no matter where we live.

There is a clear and persuasive argument to be made that laws against hate speech are not an undue burden on free speech. I want to hear Labor and the Greens making this argument instead of repeating the Yes campaign’s mistake of ignoring the issue.

Transgender equality

Neither Labor nor the Greens say anything about the pressing need to remove barriers to transgender and gender diverse people having their birth certificates reflect their true gender, or not include gender at all.

This is mostly a state issue, but the Federal Government has a role to play in prompting the states to act and setting a standard. Federal leadership is exactly what Labor has proposed for conversion therapy, which is mostly a state issue, so why not trans law reform, especially now that Tasmania has shown it is possible?

To their credit both parties propose action on trans health and how gender is recorded on government forms, and the Greens on gendered bathrooms. But this just makes their silence on Australia’s birth certificate backwardness harder to swallow.

Party tacticians might point to the recent Daily Telegraph beat up about trans rights and say the issue is too controversial. I would respond by saying the beat up shows there’s no point continuing the aforementioned postal survey strategy of being a small target. It’s time to show leadership on transgender rights, just like Tasmania has.

Challenging prejudice and promoting inclusion

Both parties put money into community initiatives, developing health strategies, ending HIV and appointing LGBTI human rights commissioner. That’s great, but the foundational problem for LGBTI Australians is prejudice, social exclusion, and the discrimination both lead to.

I do not understand why direct Government expenditure to tackle all anti-LGBTI prejudice and discrimination is missing from both policies. Labor mentions LGBTI inclusion, but only through the narrow lens of health (see the section on global LGBTI equality below for why this is inadequate). The Greens propose awareness campaigns but only about bisexuality and HIV. When it comes to prejudice against, and inclusion for, all LGBTI people, both parties say they will only consider action after they have talked to the LGBTI community.

Consultation is important, but the task before us is so obvious and urgent, Labor and the Greens should already know what to do. Where is the money to ensure all Australian teachers and health care providers are trained in LGBTI issues? Where is the money for public education campaigns about the lives lived, and challenges faced, by LGBTI folk? Where are the funds to highlight positive examples of prejudice overcome and inclusion fostered? Where are the funds to challenge prejudice in those communities where the postal survey showed it is strongest such as western Sydney and regional Queensland?

Both parties might respond that their proposed community grants programs will deal with ant-LGBTI stigma and exclusion. For sure, those funds will help, but the task of tackling prejudice should not be left up to those who suffer it. The Government must act directly, with the greater resources and authority at its disposal. Both Labor and the Greens believe government can make a positive difference. So why they have balked at direct Government involvement to reduce prejudice and foster inclusion for the entire LGBTI community? Is it too obvious? Is it too hard? It’s a worrying lacuna in both parties’ LGBTI policies.

Schools

The Labor and Green responses to promoting LGBTI inclusion in schools are, in a word, pathetic. Neither party puts forward a detailed strategy.

Labor talks about “supporting national programs” to address LGBTI prejudice (which sounds like Safe Schools but carefully omits that phrase). The Greens talk about defunding chaplains and putting the money into Safe Schools (which, despite its martyr status, is not educational best practice).

In parallel with their (lack of) policies on hate speech and transgender equality, it feels like Labor and the Greens are still responding to the No case’s talking points about Safe Schools (Labor dodging them and the Greens challenging them). Instead, they should be moving beyond the postal survey and Safe Schools to a long-term vision for the future.

In a nutshell, such a vision should, at the very least, include funding and national standards for a) a national LGBTI inclusion curriculum, b) professional development for all teachers in LGBTI issues, c) leadership training for all principals in LGBTI issues, d) LGBTI peer support programs for all schools, and e) a national program reaching out to the parents of school-aged children about the issues facing LGBTI young people.

This shouldn’t be hard. Some of these initiatives already exist in some states. In the UK, the House of Lords just overwhelmingly passed a new LGBTI sex and relationships curriculum proposed by the Conservative Government. There are no excuses for Labor and the Greens to be trapped in yesterday’s culture war.

Global LGBTI equality

Equally pathetic are Labor and the Greens’ policies on advocating for LGBTI human rights internationally.

Labor says it wants to work with civil society organisations beginning in the Pacific region. The Greens say they will work with LGBTI organisations as part of a broader global HIV prevention initiative.

Neither party says anything about working in multi-lateral fora like the UN and the Commonwealth. Neither says they will include LGBTI issues in their treaty making or bilateral relations. Brunei’s enactment of gay-death laws highlights just how deficient Labor and Greens policies are. They should be talking about suspending offending countries from the Commonwealth or proposing sanctions before the Security Council. Instead, their policies put the onus for change on the people who are the victims of oppression rather than the perpetrators.

I am particularly disappointed by the Green’s policy of addressing LGBTI human rights abuses as part of an HIV prevention strategy. While it’s true that LGBTI law reform contributes to HIV prevention, using HIV prevention as the vehicle to carry LGBTI law reform forward is deeply flawed. Here’s why:

Basically, the HIV approach tries to sideline anti-LGBTI prejudice by effectively saying “leave your moral judgement at the door because this is a public health emergency”. But what it actually does is portray LGBTI people as important only insofar as we are potential virus sites, open LGBTI advocates to accusations of reform by stealth, and leave anti-LGBTI prejudice unchallenged.

As if that’s not bad enough, the Greens’ approach never works. I should know, Tasmanian Labor spectacularly failed to decriminalise homosexuality as an HIV prevention measure in 1990. I have studied decriminalisation across the developing countries of the Commonwealth and not once has the HIV prevention approach carried the day, including in countries with soaring HIV infection rates. In Tasmania in the 1990s, and in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean today, a strong human rights-based campaign is the most effective way to achieve LGBTI law reform.

To say HIV prevention is way to achieve LGBTI law reform in the Global South, is to say that the Global South is too backward and prejudiced to address LGBTI reform in its own right. That is the opposite of the truth. Many developing countries are already ahead of the West when it comes to LGBTI law reform.

Like schools, the issue of international LGBTI human rights advocacy overseas shouldn’t be hard. In the early 1990s, Australia was a global leader on LGBTI advocacy at the UN and in the Commonwealth. It’s time for us to rediscover that legacy and build on it.

Now for my two biggest gripes…

Inner city focus

Labor’s policy is about the inner-city, precisely Melbourne’s inner city. For example, Labor proposes competitive $100,000-per-year grants for all LGBTI community groups across Australia (which is not substantially more than the maximum amount in the Tasmanian Government’s LGBTI grants program, a program that serves a population of just half a million). Labor policy says nothing about restoring core funding to the national LGBTI Health Alliance, or permanent funding for key networks like PFLAG and Rainbow Families. Yet, Labor guarantees $600,000 for Melbourne’s Joy FM. Joy FM provides an important service, but what about everyone else?

Much worse, Labor has committed $10 million to the Pride Centre in central Melbourne because that Centre is “a blueprint for the future”.

What tosh! In the 1970s and 80s, in North America and Western Europe, inner-urban pride centres were all the rage because lots of LGBTI people were moving to the inner-city to escape intolerance elsewhere. The opposite is happening now. Inner-urban LGBTI populations are draining as more LGBTI people move to or stay in increasingly accepting suburban, regional and rural communities. Government funding for inner-city pride centres is effectively palliative care for dying LGBTI ghettos.

Given this, how is a pride centre in St Kilda “a blueprint for the future” of a young LGBTI person in Mildura or Sale, let alone Devonport, Lismore, Bunbury or Townville? $10 million could make a real difference to these young people’s lives. It could help them live where they want to live. Instead, it’s being spent on the already-privileged communities in a single city.

Gay blood ban

I didn’t think anything could annoy me more than Labor’s inner-city bias, but then I read the Greens’ policy of keeping the blanket ban on gay blood donation.

Yep, you read that right. Rather than abolish the ban on gay blood donor and replace it with the more rational policy of screening all donors according to the safety of their sexual activity, the Greens say they will reduce the period gay and bisexual men must remain celibate before we can give blood from twelve months to six months.

The Greens’ policy will continue to a) stigmatise gay men as a threat to public health, b) shift attention away from the real risk to the blood supply, unsafe sex, c) allow blood donation from many heterosexuals who at greater risk of passing on HIV than many gay men and d) limit the supply of safe blood for people in need.

And the Greens’ basis for its nonsense policy? A recommendation from the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, the same organisation that defended its anti-gay policy before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal with the stereotype that “gay monogamy is a myth”.

The evidence the Greens should be looking at is from those countries like Italy and Spain that long ago replaced their gay blood ban with a more rational policy of screening all potential donors for the safety of their sexual safety. In those countries the rate of HIV infection through blood transfusion has gone down.

The Greens may say their policy is better than Labor and the Coalition’s. My response is this: Reducing the deferral period from twelve to six months brings Australia closer to a safe and fair blood donor system in the same way standing on a chair brings you closer to the Moon. Until the Greens’ change their policy, they are endorsing discrimination, not ameliorating it.

Challenging the spirit of compromise

Why are some of the Labor and Green LGBTI election policies so bad? A cynic might say they were written with specific electorates in mind. Labor wants to win the seat of Melbourne from the Greens and protect other inner-city Melbourne electorates like Melbourne Ports, hence its Melburnian bias. If this is true then what we are seeing is a blatant example of pink barreling. The same cynic might say the Greens want to talk about LGBTI issues from the centre, rather than cutting edge, because they want to increase their vote in socially-progressive, traditionally-Liberal, inner-city seats like Higgins and Wentworth. If this is true it is, well, what Labor usually does.

But electioneering aside, there are broader factors at play, like the low standard of LGBTI policy making in Australia. Take the Safe Schools Program. As I mentioned above, it was way below best practice when it was funded nationally. It relied too much on NGO service providers and didn’t do enough to build long-term capacity within the school system, it was treated tokenistically by too many schools, and it had not been independently evaluated before it went national. Yet money was thrown at it, as was political mud to the detriment of all LGBTI people. If the policy behind Safe Schools had been stronger it would have been harder to tear down politically. It seems some LGBTI policy-makers haven’t learnt the Safe Schools lesson at all, and are still throwing money at sub-par projects on the run.

The low standard of policy-making is also reflected in the odd convergence of Labor and Green policies. They both advocate the same solutions on many issues. An example is how the LGBTI community makes its views known to the Federal Government, with both parties saying they will set up a ministerial advisory committee, appoint an LGBTI human rights commissioner and have an Equality Minister. These are fine ideas as far as they go. But they also present risks: Having a single LGBTI minister and a single committee risks LGBTI issues being relegated to a single policy corner, while the rest of government goes its merry way. Another risk of having a single portfolio-holder and single committee advising them is that it won’t last beyond the Government that sets it up. One way we have addressed these problem in Tasmania is to have several LGBTI task groups across different government departments that advise department staff rather than ministers, and an overarching whole-of-government framework within which these task groups operate. This helps embed LGBTI issues at a number of different points in the government at once, and it has lasted across several governments, Liberal and Labor. I can’t help but wonder why Labor and the Greens have settled on only one solution and the same solution rather than considering the different options on offer across Australia. Is it laziness, a lack of imagination, or just talking to too few people?

Gold-standard policy-making on LGBTI issues is when LGBTI issues are embedded in existing government programs, the priorities of government departments, and the overall objectives of successive governments. It is when government builds its own capacity to deal with LGBTI issues, spends money on improving the services it provides to the LGBTI community, and does both on an on-going basis. It is not when governments relegate LGBTI issues to a single portfolio or consultative group. It is not when governments throw funds at LGBTI community groups, effectively saying “here’s some money for you to go off and do your gay stuff, at least until the money runs out”. In both the Labor and Green parties’ policies there’s too little embedding, and too much throwing of money.

Another possible reason why Labor and Green LGBTI policies aren’t as good as they could be is that the spirit of compromise is alive and well in LGBTI Australia. Sadly, the marriage postal survey, the small-target Yes campaign during that survey, and caveats in the final legislation, have legitimised the idea that LGBTI Australians have to concede what the powers-that-be demand, and appease the populist press, if we want any progress at all. Too many advocates across the political spectrum now tip-toe around prejudice instead of confronting it.

Recent transgender law reform in Tasmania shows this approach is completely unnecessary. Some of the best laws in the world were passed, despite strident opposition from the Government and noisy opposition from parts of the community. We didn’t bow to the State Government’s demands for a time-wasting, hate-platforming inquiry. We didn’t embrace the minimal reform the Government offered or appease the prejudices it inflamed. If we didn’t settle for second best, why should you?

A vision for the future

But the biggest problem of all is that Labor and the Greens seem to have no clear goal for all their policy making; no vision for where the LGBTI community should be in ten, twenty or fifty years.

Greens LGBTI spokesperson, Janet Rice, articulated the idea of an end point when she spoke at a school discrimination rally in Melbourne in February: “We’ve been told, in terms of ending discrimination, we’ve been on a journey, and it’s a continuing journey. I think it’s time that journey came to an end. That we reach our destination.” Both parties also preface their LGBTI policies with statements about ending discrimination and achieving equality (the Greens) and fairness (Labor). These are all excellent declarations of intention. But they still beg the questions, how do we define an end to discrimination and the dawning of true equality, and what steps, in what order, are necessary to get there?

Without an expansive and long-term vision at which to aim their policy-making and test it against, the Labor and Green policies are a grab bag of nice-sounding ideas, stakeholder demands, empty platitudes and prejudice-appeasing compromises, with all the gaps papered over by promises of money, lots of money.

Without a more explicit, inspiring vision for where we need to be, Labor and Greens are unable to show how their policies will bridge the gap between the present and the future. They have no overarching strategy for building a better tomorrow out of all their proposed health programs and law reforms.

Labor and the Greens have delivered LGBTI Australians bouquets of cut flowers when they should be planting us a policy garden that will bloom for decades to come.

The simplest vision for our future is one in which there is no prejudice or discrimination against LGBTI people, and instead we are accepted. Here and there Labor and the Greens begin to point to such a future, but let’s flesh it out a bit.

In this vision every LGBTI person is included, without reservation, in whichever community and social institution gives their lives meaning and purpose. In this vision every LGBTI person reaches their fullest potential, and is embraced because of who we are, not despite it. In this vision we are judged according to the content of our characters, not who we love.

During the marriage equality debate, author, Robert Dessaix, wrote disparagingly about how low it was for same-sex couples to want to be able to hold hands in Target. I think that’s a great and worthy goal. It would be an excellent starting point for Labor and the Greens. From now on every serious policy maker should ask, will this contribute to a society in which LGBTI couples can hold hands wherever we want without service withheld, a punch delivered, a bad word said or a lingering scowl, indeed without anything but the same smile other couples would get?

You may have a different vision for the future. You may believe Government shouldn’t be involved in changing hearts and minds at all. You may believe Government should be much more radical than just allowing LGBTI people to do what everyone else does. In the context of the 2019 election, I don’t care what vision you have as long as you have one.

That’s because Labor and the Greens election policies don’t have an expansive and over-arching vision for a post-marriage equality Australia. They don’t tell us what our place in Australian should be now, or what it should be by mid-century. They don’t link their many policy dots into a bigger picture. As a result, they promise LGBTI Australians much less than we deserve.

 

Rodney Croome

Rodney Croome is a long-time LGBTI equality advocate and a member of the Tasmanian Government’s education, health, police and whole-of-government LGBTI task groups. He has never been a member of any political party.

You can take a look here for more information on Liberal, Labor and The Greens‘ LGBTIQ+ policies.


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