Why I will hand back my Order of Australia if the Religious Discrimination Bill passes

OPINION: Rodney Croome AM is a long-time LGBTIQ+ advocate

Tasmania has more to lose than any other state if the Federal Religious Discrimination Bill passes.

That’s why I will hand back my Order of Australia if the major parties agree to pass the Bill in its current form.

The Federal Bill targets Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act in several places.

It will roll back protections from harmful and discriminatory speech if it is in the name of religion.

This is despite this protection being the legal framework for many Tasmanian anti-bullying policies and despite the highest proportion of complaints being from people with disability.

It will roll back protections for LGBTIQ+ and other teachers in faith-based schools, despite these protections fostering more inclusive schools and being in place for a quarter century without any problems.

It will allow faith-based services to discriminate against staff, despite some of these services winning LGBTIQ+ inclusion awards for their voluntary efforts to meet and exceed the standards set by the Anti-Discrimination Act.

The New Tasmania

Our Anti-Discrimination Act has been the best in the nation for two and a half decades.

It has helped foster a fairer and more inclusive Tasmania.

There has been a demonstrable decrease in discriminatory speech, polls show stronger support for equality than in most other states and research from the University of Tasmania shows Tasmanian workers enjoy safer and more inclusive workplaces than their counterparts in other states.

Just as importantly, the Anti-Discrimination Act is a symbol of the New Tasmania.

It was enacted in 1998, just a year after Tasmania became the last state to decriminalise homosexuality following a divisive, hate-filled, decade-long debate.

In response to that debate, our legislators very deliberately opted for the best anti-discrimination model to put the hatreds and prejudice of the past behind us and to show Tasmania had turned the corner.

On the back of this achievement, Tasmania went on to pass the nation’s best relationship and gender-recognition laws, and adopt some of Australia’s most progressive LGBTIQ+ policies in policing and education.

In the words of one American journalist, Tasmania rapidly went from being Alabama to being Vermont.

As well as symbolising Tasmania’s transformation, the Anti-Discrimination Act was meant to be a shining beacon to the nation.

And it’s a beacon Australians want to follow.

Recent national polling by YouGov Galaxy found two thirds of Australians want LGBTIQ+ students and teachers protected from discrimination in faith-based schools.

Nearly 80% oppose special exemptions allowing harmful speech in the name of religion.

Other states aspire to what we have with Victoria and the ACT following our lead by protecting LGBTIQ+ staff, students and clients in faith-based organisations. At the beginning of February a Queensland Government inquiry recommending our strong laws against harmful and discriminatory speech.

In stark contrast, the Federal Government is punishing Tasmania by attempting to knock us down to the level set by states with the worst anti-discrimination laws.

I can only assume this is because the Government wants to eliminate the positive precedent Tasmania sets for the nation and to show the other states what happens when one state gets uppity.

Meanwhile, Federal Labor refuses to oppose the Religious Discrimination Bill’s override of Tasmania’s gold-standard Anti-Discrimination Act.

This is despite that Act being one of Tasmanian Labor’s proudest legacies, and despite one of the Tasmanian provisions under threat being a direct parallel to section 18C of the Race Discrimination Act which Labor supports.

The (very slim) public rationale the Government offers for taking aim at Tassie and Labor has for not defending us, is this: A single Archbishop was annoyed because there was a complaint against him of discriminatory speech that was later withdrawn. The same Archbishop has also suddenly decided he wants to pick and choose teachers based on piety rather than professionalism.

It seems the wounded pride of single powerful prelate matters more than the rights and dignity of thousands of Tasmanians who have made successful complaints against discriminatory speech and the hundreds of teachers and other employees whose job security has been thrown in the air.

I know how Scottish people must feel when they look at the backwards, bigot-heavy, elite-coddling, fair-ground parliament in London and wonder, why do they still have a say over us?

The Sydney Disease

In 2003 I was made a Member of the Order of Australia because of my role in the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality and pass the Anti-Discrimination Act.

It was a moment of great pride for me and other advocates because it showed the nation valued our contribution.

If the Religious Discrimination Bill passes in its current form, which would require the support of both major parties given dissent in Liberal ranks, it will effectively revoke the nation’s approval and instead declare our achievement to be a threat to faith and freedom.

I will hand back my medal, not so much as a protest (what’s the point when Canberra clearly isn’t listening), but simply because it will have become a worthless gilded trinket, a relic from a better time Capitol Hill now wants to officially repudiate.

It has been a tough decision, one that has forced me to consider the real, unspoken reasons for the situation I’m in.

If the Government proceeds with the Bill and the Labor Opposition supports it, they will have done so simply to keep or win those electorates that returned strong No votes in the 2017 marriage equality postal survey.

Tasmania will be the sacrificial lamb on the altar of winning votes in Western Sydney.

This is deeply disillusioning for me because LGBTIQ+ blood has stained that altar for at least two decades.

Time and again the powers-that-be in eastern Sydney pander to anti-LGBTIQ+ prejudices of the city’s west in order to boost their votes, profits or influence.

Meanwhile, Sydney-based institutions that should be our friends and allies look on in fearful silence.

The big loser is always the national LGBTIQ+ community.

In the circles I move in we call that cycle of prejudice, fear and cynicism the Sydney Disease.

It gave us John Howard’s same-sex marriage ban, dragged the marriage equality debate out for years longer than necessary, gave us a damaging postal survey and saw the Yes campaign adopt a small-target strategy that threw trans Australians under the hate bus.

It has given us the Religious Discrimination Bill, which not only rolls back our accomplishments in Tasmania but which threatens existing anti-discrimination and conversion practice laws in Victoria, the ACT and Queensland, and limits any future protections the other states may consider enacting.

It has left NSW with the worst LGBTIQ+ laws in Australia and has led NSW MP, Mark Latham, to table some of the worst in the world.

I had hoped Western Sydney’s exceptionally high No vote in 2017 might wake the rest of the Sydney up to the fact it is Australia’s most homophobic city and prompt it to reach out to communities in the western suburbs.

There are already dedicated groups working effectively to change attitudes in the western suburbs. They just need more support and resources.

Instead, Mardi Gras and rainbow paths continue to project the untruth that everything is okay, and Sydney continues to drag the rest of us down.

To be absolutely clear, the Sydney Disease is not about religion or ethnicity in the west, nor cashed-up complacency in the rest. It’s about the powers-that-be turning the city against itself in a culture war that entrenches existing positions and allows little room for positive change.

That’s the problem Sydney faces. Now, here’s ours:

How can I, or any Australian LGBTIQ+ advocate, continue to work for equality when the Sydney Disease can and will undo our achievements?

Obviously, none of us do it for awards and honours. We do it to improve the lives of our LGBTIQ+ siblings who face stigma and discrimination every day, and to foster a more accepting, inclusive and equal nation.

But the knowledge that things won’t always get better and that our gains can be unravelled so easily will inevitably chill the ardour of many prospective queer community leaders.

For me the answer is to take a broader view, to put aside the naïve idealism into which the contemporary LGBTIQ+ movement was born in the early 1970s and to see our struggle as one that, like the struggle of women and people of colour, will go on for many generations.

I still hold out hope there will be an end to prejudice. I’ve seen how it can be effectively challenged in my island home, so why not elsewhere?

But the day after the Religious Discrimination Bill passes, if it passes, I will take up my pen knowing we are building the mountain of equality one grain of sand at a time.

Rodney Croome

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