CANBERRA ACT 2600
3 August 2022
Dear Attorney General,
AHRC and an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner
We write to express disappointment at the government voting against establishing an LGBTIQA+ Human Rights Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The amendment to achieve this was moved by Stephen Bates MP on the afternoon of August 2nd, 2022 and supported by a number of crossbench independents. Labor opposed the amendment on technical grounds.
We were also disappointed that you, as Attorney General, gave no commitment on behalf of the government to pursue this policy in a future bill.
This is in stark contrast to Labor’s commitment from May 2016. That policy document, under your name, committed to the following:
LABOR TO APPOINT A NEW CHAMPION FOR LGBTI AUSTRALIANS
A Shorten Labor Government will appoint a full-time LGBTI Discrimination Commissioner to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Labor's LGBTI Discrimination Commissioner will be a new champion for the rights of LGBTI Australians, and help build a more inclusive Australia.
Great progress has been made in the fight for a fairer Australia but there is still more to be done.
Sadly, LGBTI Australians continue to face discrimination in many areas of life and many feel they need to hide their sexuality for fear of violence and discrimination.
In its Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Rights report last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission noted:
· Research suggests the rate of suicide for LGBT people is 3.5 to 14 times higher than the general population.
· LGBT people are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety.
As part of Labor's commitment to a more equal Australia a Shorten Labor Government will appoint a permanent, dedicated, full-time LGBTI Discrimination Commissioner.
Labor wants lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex Australians to feel safer, more secure and more included in Australian society.
Labor is committed to eliminating all discrimination against LGBTI Australians in all forms.
That policy was correct then and is correct now.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has stand-alone Commissioners for:
· Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
· Human Rights
There is no commissioner for LGBTIQA+ people.
The LGBTIQA+ portfolio has been variously moved between the Human Rights Commissioner, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and AHRC President without a permanent home, and without appropriate representation or expertise.
It was removed from the hands of the current Human Rights Commissioner, Ms Lorraine Finlay, because she supports watering down LGBTIQA+ anti-discrimination protections in the name of religious freedom.
During the debate on Mr Bates' amendment, Zali Steggall MP argued for a stand-alone LGBTIQA+ Human Rights Commissioner because the AHRC has failed to show leadership on our human rights.
Ms Steggle said of her election campaign against Katharine Deves in the electorate of Warringah:
"There was a huge amount of misinformation when it came to transgender women’s participation in sport. There was a lack of leadership coming from the Human Rights Commission to establish clearly the true facts and where the law actually sits."
We note that Labor has committed to a Religious Discrimination Commissioner as part of a (yet to be unveiled) Religious Discrimination Bill. This is despite the Ruddock inquiry finding in 2018 there is no need for such a Bill or Commissioner.
Conversely, the overwhelming evidence of the need for an LGBTIQA+ commissioner continues to be ignored.
Reasons for a stand-alone LGBTIQA+ commissioner include:
- The absence of an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner diminishes the reality of LGBTIQA+ discrimination, presenting the message that it is a low priority, overshaded by the other forms of discrimination which have a dedicated Commissioner.
- The absence of an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner means that no-one at AHRC is adept or experienced with advocating and articulating the concerns of this community as a means of public education and advocacy.
- The absence of an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner means that LGBTIQA+ people who experience discrimination can be confused about, or deterred from, lodging a complaint, as it appears they are not catered for. This perception is often reinforced in older LGBTIQA+ people through historical experience.
- It is not ideal for LGBTIQA+ issues to be dealt with by a Sex Discrimination Commissioner. Many LGBTIQA+ issues are not sex or gender-based. For example, a gay man denied a promotion because of his sexuality; a person who is intersex being harassed on public transport or a lesbian activist receiving hate mail from neighbours. These are not cases of sex discrimination per se and require the expertise and sensitivity of a stand-alone LGBTIQA+ Commissioner.
- It is also not ideal for LGBTIQA+ issues to be dealt with by the Human Rights Commissioner because they also deal with religious freedom. While these two areas of human rights should not be incompatible, the current "religious freedom" culture war has unfortunately weaponised one against the other.
- The backlash from religious conservatives to marriage equality 2017 shows no signs of abating, with evidence from the US and UK of escalating ‘culture wars’ against LGBTIQA+ people. Recent debates around Safe Schools, transwomen in sport, Pride jumpers in NRL, LGBTIQA+ books in schools, banning ‘gay conversions’, sacking LGBTIQA+ teachers in faith schools and more – all illustrate the need for distinct voice at AHRC and a clear path for it to consider and conciliate complaints and to help guide government on policy.
- Some states have weak, inadequate and outdated provisions for addressing LGBTIQA+ discrimination. In these cases, complainants often look to the Commonwealth for redress.
If the Albanese Government believes that the Australian Human Rights Commission Act Amendment Bill is not “the right vehicle” to legislate for the appointment of an LGBTIQA+ Human Rights Commissioner, then what is the right vehicle, and when will the Government introduce this bill?
Is it still the policy position of Labor to appoint an LGBTIQA+ Commissioner to the AHRC? And if not, why has this changed?
Why was this policy championed in 2016 and rebuffed 2022? Or is it the case that the government will revisit this matter during this term of parliament?
We look forward to you clarifying these matters for us.