Rodney Croome: We can defeat the religious privilege bill – here’s how

OPINION: Rodney Croome is a long-time LGBTQIA+ advocate.

History is repeating.

Ahead of the 2004 election the Howard Government sought to wedge Labor and pick up seats in Western Sydney by introducing a bill banning the recognition of same-sex marriages.

It was a backlash to growing legal recognition of same-sex partners. It came straight out of the US Republicans’ culture war against marriage equality. Moderate Liberals like Warren Entsch grumbled, but Labor caved and voted the Bill through. It took thirteen years and an unnecessary, unwanted postal survey to reverse the damage.

Between now and the end of 2021, the Morrison Government will introduce a Bill to weaken existing discrimination protections in the name of so-called “religious freedom”.

It is a backlash to marriage equality. It comes straight out of the US Republicans’ “religious freedom” playbook. It is designed to wedge Labor and pick up seats in Western Sydney. Warren Entsch opposes it, but Labor still hasn’t declared a position because the Bill has the support of the Catholic right. If Labor has a conscience vote its caucus will splinter and the Bill will pass.

This repeating cycle of political fearmongering and cowardice is deeply demoralising for LGBTIQA+ Australians.

We banish discrimination from one part of our lives and it returns in another. We see the historical pattern but too often we don’t know how to end it.

But history never repeats exactly.

To stop the cycles of prejudice we need to see the differences between 2004 and 2021.

My advice for how to do this is based on my unique experience of both struggles.

I was intimately involved in trying to stop the 2004 marriage ban. I predicted it when others said it would never happen. I was ridiculed in the mainstream press for that prediction and mocked as “Doom and Gloom Croome” by complacent LGBTIQ+ leaders.

When it did happen, I lobbied and advocated against it, and founded Australian Marriage Equality to fight the long campaign I knew was ahead.

I am also familiar with today’s backlash. I have successfully advocated against legislative carve outs for “religious freedom” in Tasmanian discrimination law. I called out the dangerous precedent set by “religious freedom” provisions in the final marriage equality bill. I have worked ceaselessly to highlight problems with the first two drafts of Morrison’s upcoming religious freedom bill.

Building a broad coalition

The first difference between 2004 and 2021 is that the same-sex marriage ban only directly affected same-sex couples and their families.

The 2021 attack on discrimination protections affects a much broader range of people including people with disability, women, single parents, divorcees, people in minority faiths and anyone who falls foul of traditional religious dogma.

To give an example, the most recent draft religious freedom bill includes an override that section of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act preventing humiliating and intimidating conduct.

It has been framed by the Government as a matter of protecting religious values from litigious LGBTIQA+ people. But the majority of complaints under that section are from people with disability, followed closely by people of colour and women. Only a tiny proportion are from LGBTIQA+ folk. The same disproportionate impact on people with disability, people of colour and women runs through all of the Bill’s provisions undermining inclusive workplaces and access to health care.

To derail the Tasmanian Government’s attempt to weaken this provision in 2016 we formed a coalition of affected groups. To derail Morrison’s law we must do the same. We must amplify the voices of people the Government doesn’t want the public to hear. We must shift the focus from God v gays to Morrison v everyone whose lives are better because of discrimination law. We must remind everyday Australians how much more tolerant and inclusive our country is thanks to forty years of legislators passing anti-discrimination laws.

A Labor legacy under threat

Most Australian anti-discrimination laws were enacted under Labor governments. To encourage Labor to vote against religious freedom legislation as a bloc, we must highlight the fact Labor’s legacy is at stake in a way it wasn’t in 2004. We must highlight the beloved Labor leaders, from Whitlam and Hawke to Keating, Dunstan to Bacon, whose work will be undermined.

It’s shameful enough Labor hasn’t yet stood up for its threatened legacy by opposing the bill. If it allows the religious freedom bill to pass, Albanese will have stained Labor’s record even more deeply than the stain Latham left when he sided with John Howard in 2004 to slam the door on marriage equality.

Yes, it’s true, as Labor’s defenders say, that the problem is the Government’s Bill. But Labor, together with the Senate cross-bench, is the solution to that problem. In response to Labor’s obvious strategy of making itself a tiny target on this issue, advocates must shine a spotlight on the ALP and urge it to do better.

Enemies of privilege

If there’s one thing Australians dislike its laws that give preferential treatment for one group over another. Unlike the same-sex marriage ban which was about equal treatment for LGBTIQA- people, the proposed religious freedom bill is about special rights for people of faith.

It gives people expressing religious views an exemption from discrimination law – a get-out-of-gaol-free card – that is not available to anyone else. We can’t even say this carve out applies to all religious views given that the entire debate is framed in terms of the right to express and act on prejudices against LGBTIQA+ people and others.

It’s time for us to let go of the idea that this is about freedom for faith and to highlight what it’s really about, privilege for prejudice.

Seen this way, not only does the Bill run up against the ethos of Australian egalitarianism, it violates every principle of classic liberalism. Even if we grant George Brandis’ view that people have a right to be bigots, they shouldn’t be gifted special legal privileges by virtue of their bigotry. This is a message we must be sending to all Liberals.

Crying wolf once too often

Another major difference between 2004 and 2021 is about the effectiveness of anti-LGBTIQA+ fearmongering. In 2004 only LGBTIQA+ Australians and our families had previously been exposed to the Chicken Little narrative about “children at risk” and “the end of society as we know it”. During the 2017 postal survey every Australian was bombarded with this old-style fearmongering and, by voting Yes, most people consciously rejected it.

Anti-LGBTIQA+ fearmongers have cried wolf once too often. Australians have seen the phantoms they once jumped at vanish in the daylight of equality. Australia’s collective rejection of fearmongering is something we must remind our fellow citizens of every time a bishop predicts “the gaoling of Christians” is just around the corner.

Taking power into our own hands

So far, I’ve outlined what makes 2021 different to 2004. But there’s a feature of the marriage equality campaign, especially its early years, we must recapture if we are to prevail now.

In 2004, very few people in power were on our side. LGBTIQA+ people and our families relied on ourselves to make change, which we did slowly but surely over the following decade, through rallies, advocacy, the enlistment of allies, legislative activism and, most of all, personal story telling.

The dominant narrative is that marriage equality was won by the 2017 Yes vote and the spin doctors, professional lobbyists and mega donors who were directing it. But in reality, majority support for marriage equality had been won years before by the hard work of tens of thousands of everyday Australians.

Today, we need to rekindle the spirit of grassroots activism that won marriage equality if we are to defeat the “religious freedom” push. We can’t rely on politicians, professional lobbyists or corporate communications to do it for us. Indeed, in 2017 they delivered a Marriage Act amendment so compromised by “religious freedom” exemptions it counts amongst the worst marriage “equality” legislation in the world.

We can’t allow such compromises again. We shouldn’t fall for the myth that the rich and the powerful deliver us our rights. We must take inspiration from the community-based marriage equality campaign and take power over our legal rights and our place in society back into our own hands.

It will be an uphill battle to stop the Morrison Government introducing its religious privilege bill, and, if that fails, persuading Labor and the Senate cross-bench to vote it down. It will seem like the battle so many of us fought almost twenty years ago over marriage.

But much has changed since then. If we consider how we can use those changes to our advantage, as well as what we did right in and after 2004, we have a fighting chance to defeat this pernicious legislation and defend Australian discrimination law from the worst attack against it in our history.

PFLAG and just.equal Australia are conducting an email campaign highlighting how the Religious Discrimination Bill would hamper efforts to combat Covid. To send an email to federal politicians about that issue, go to

Rodney Croome

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