Rodney Croome: No more Labor excuses over religious discrimination


Labor has given numerous excuses for not yet opposing the Religious Discrimination Bill. Here’s why they are all nonsense.

We’ve seen it all before…Labor is divided over an LGBTIQ issue so it concocts talking points to deflect attention.

It happened when marriage equality first became an issue. To defend its support for Howard’s same-sex marriage ban, Labor and its surrogates tried to convince LGBTIQ Australians marriage equality wasn’t an important issue and that what we actually wanted instead was de facto rights, or an end to suicide and violence, or anything but marriage.

It happened during the postal survey when some Labor-aligned strategists wanted no response to the attack on trans folk (that Labor was weak on) and acceptance of compromise in the final legislation (that Labor supported), both under the false premise that to do otherwise would be to jeopardise marriage reform.

It happened at Labor’s 2018 National Conference when Party policy on conversion practices was watered down to exclude the possibility of criminal penalties because that might drive such practices “underground”. That was despite no evidence criminal penalties would have that effect, and despite survivor groups wanting such penalties to remain on the table. The real reason was, again, the desire to dodge attacks from the religious right.

Now we are being taken as fools again. The last sitting of parliament saw LGBTIQ lobbyists bombarded with carefully confected lines justifying Labor’s silence on the Religious Discrimination Bill.

To diffuse this mis-information campaign, and focus attention back on why Labor is behaving so timidly, here are the excuses and why they’re wrong.

Excuse #1: All we have seen is an exposure draft. The Bill has not been tabled yet so why start a premature debate?

Response: The earlier Labor starts speaking out the stronger public sentiment will be against the Bill once it is tabled, and the less controversial it will be to vote down. The LGBTIQ community feels more besieged now than during the postal survey and we need Labor to show its support for equality. If now isn’t the right time to speak out against discrimination in the name of “religious freedom”, when is the right time?

Excuse #2: There needs to be thorough consultation before Labor can arrive at a position.

Response: Consultation is important, and I salute those who are conducting it with such rigour, particularly Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus. But how long does it need to go on for? There have been numerous religious freedom inquiries which make it clear where the boundary between religious freedom and freedom from discrimination should be drawn.

Moreover, does Labor really need a consultation to know discrimination is wrong? Australia’s discrimination laws are one of the Labor Party’s greatest legacies. Surely, Labor doesn’t need a consultation before it declares in-principle support for its own achievement.

It should be possible for Labor to consult on the details of the Bill, while at the same time condemning outright any diminution of Australia’s discrimination protections.

Excuse #3: It is unlikely the final Bill will include the offensive provisions from the exposure draft.

Response: There may or may not be some small tweaks to improve the Bill in some areas, such as in regard to faith-based aged care facilities. But the bulk of the Bill’s objectionable elements, including its override of federal and state discrimination law, are likely to remain.

Excuse #4: The Government is in disarray. It doesn’t know how to resolve conflicts between moderates and religious extremists, so it’s best to allow those divisions to play out.

Response: Yes, there are some divisions in the government about how far to go, but no more than on most issues. Not long ago Scott Morrison won the “miracle election”. His authority, not to mention his conservative religious credentials, are unassailable. The Liberals will accept the Bill he wants.

Excuse #5: The Bill can’t be blocked in the Senate so Labor has to try to negotiate improvements.

Response: The Greens, Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie have all expressed strong reservations about the need for the Bill. If they vote against the Bill, and if Labor votes as a bloc the same way, the Bill can be defeated in the Senate. In fact, it will be more difficult to amend the Bill than block it because the numbers required are higher.

Excuse #6: The Bill will definitely be blocked in the Senate so why waste political capital on it?

Response: There is no certainty the Bill will be blocked. The numbers will be tight either way. If Labor remains silent and the Bill suddenly looks like passing it will be too late to mount a rear-guard campaign to oppose it. The last thing LGBTIQ people need to hear is the excuse “we tried, but we were caught by surprise”.

Excuse #7: If Labor opposes the Bill, the Government may come up with something worse that it will seek to pass with the help of One Nation, Centre Alliance or Jacqui Lambie (if it drops the Tassie override).

Response: This could be an excuse for inaction on any issue! On this issue it makes no sense at all, given there is already in-principle majority opposition to the Bill in the Senate. If the current Bill is defeated, there is no chance for a worse one (as for Jacqui Lambie, her public statements are about scepticism to the whole Bill, not just the Tassie override).

Opposing the current Bill will give Labor an excellent opportunity to spell out a better alternative ahead of the 2022 election, and win support for that alternative. This could include a prohibition on religious discrimination that doesn’t allow discrimination on other grounds, and a national Human Rights Act that protects all rights and freedoms equally.

Excuse #7: Big companies shouldn’t penalise employees for what they say or do outside work hours.

Response: No, they shouldn’t. But neither should they stand by while their other employees and customers suffer a barrage of abuse in the name of religion. As the Labour movement has argued for over a century, companies have a responsibility to ensure everyone is safe at work. That means striking the right balance. It does not mean allowing a handful of employees to bully everyone else.

Excuse #8: Labor can’t win the next election and deliver for the LGBTIQ community unless it wins back the religious vote.

Response: There is no evidence Labor lost the 2019 election because it alienated religious voters. Before the election, the ABC Vote Compass showed religious freedom was only important for 1% of voters. Labor lost the election because of fears about taxes, jobs, foreign interference and well-funded ad campaigns exploiting those fears. If Labor wins the next election believing the God of the Christian Lobby and the Catholic Bishops Conference delivered it the Treasury Benches, meaningful LGBTIQ reform will be off the agenda.

Excuse #9: The Bill is a problem of the Government’s making. Take it up with them.

Response: This is the excuse Anthony Albanese’s office gave when concerned constituents called his office following a recent leaflet drop by PFLAG in his Sydney electorate. It’s true the Government’s Bill is the problem. But the solution lies with Labor because it holds the key to blocking the Bill, as well as magnifying the campaign against the Bill. If the Bill is so bad that Anthony Albanese is advising his voters to “take it up with the Government”, why isn’t he doing the same?

If you have heard any other Labor talking points that you think might be nonsense, let me know in the comments.

Three other strategies Labor typically adopts at times like these (i.e. when it is trying to manage and control the LGBTIQ community) are…

a) Play up its record, which usually involves citing a list of reforms from decades past and mentioning leaders who attended Mardi Gras.

b) Co-opt existing LGBTIQ groups, or astro-turf new ones, to magnify its talking points and marginalise dissent.

c) Discredit its LGBTIQ critics as “Greens”, “Trots”, “closet Tories”, proponents of “identify politics”, “naive”, “unrealistic”, “angry”, “wreckers” or just “unrepresentative”.

If none of this works to deflect criticism, Labor may do what it was forced by community pressure to do with marriage equality – allow a conscience vote.

If Labor goes down this path it will say a conscience vote is the most “democratic” outcome, even though its internal rules say a conscience vote is only for abortion and euthanasia.

In fact, a conscience vote would be a disaster for the LGBTIQ community, and for everyone adversely affected by the Religious Discrimination Bill, because the Bill can only be stopped if every Labor member votes against it in the Senate.

If there is just one Labor dissenter the Bill will pass.

If Labor’s excuses and dodges are depressingly familiar, so are the reasons for them.

The Catholic right of the Party is still determined to do Rome’s bidding. It still has significant influence within the Party out of all proportion to its numbers.

Labor feels it needs to win Western Sydney seats where the No campaign’s fear campaigns were allowed to take root during the postal survey, building on already high levels of opposition to LGBTIQ equality.

What makes this particularly depressing is that successive polls show Australians don’t believe in discrimination in the name of religion.

If Labor appealed to that sentiment now it would win support for itself, as well as against the Government’s Bill.

It could break the disproportionate and negative influence the Catholic right and outer urban Sydney have had over equality for LGBTIQ Australians for a generation.

Until it does, it remains a willing accomplice of the bullies.

As all its nonsensical excuses illustrate, Labor clearly feels it is easier to manage the LGBTIQ community than stand up for it.

Let’s tell Labor we are smarter than that.

By exposing how fraudulent its excuses are, let’s move Labor one step closer to actually being the party of equality and anti-discrimination it keeps saying it is.

Rodney Croome is a spokesperson for Equality Tasmania and national advocacy group, just.equal. He who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2003 for his LGBTI advocacy.


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