It’s not always easy to treat other people fairly, but most Australians rise to the challenge.
Our grandparents were taught the white race was superior but still they voted for Aboriginal equality in the 1967 referendum.
Our parents were taught to pity the ‘handicapped’ but still they supported ramps to the front door of public buildings, not the back.
Most Australians were brought up to think being gay was sinful or shameful, but still we voted for marriage equality in 2017.
We did this because we hold a single principle to be dearer than all our petty prejudices: everyone deserves the same opportunities in life.
That principle underlies the anti-discrimination laws adopted by successive Labor and Liberal governments.
These laws ensure all Australians have equal access to employment, accommodation and services, and are protected from the harm caused by hateful and demeaning language.
Together with those laws, the principle of equal opportunity has forged the more inclusive, open and tolerant Australia we live in today.
But that great achievement is now under grave threat from a new movement that seeks to legitimise prejudice and water down discrimination protections under cover of “freedom of speech” and “religion freedom”.
To be clear, I am a strong supporter of these freedoms, but not when they are taken to extremes and used to justify harm, as they are today.
The new freedom-at-all-costs movement arose in the United States in the wake of marriage equality with the explicit aim of allowing opponents of that reform ‘freedom’ to refuse commercial and government services to married same-sex partners.
If marriage equality emancipated LGBTIQ people, ‘freedom’ to discriminate was the way to impose a new form of sexual segregation.
In the US, the new ‘freedom’ movement gave rise to Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that allow refusal of service to same-sex couples, unmarried mothers and whoever else falls foul of traditional religious precepts. More recently it inspired demands from pastors for the ‘freedom’ to keep their churches open during the pandemic despite the risk to their parishioners.
In Australia, this new ‘freedom’ movement took root in the final years of the marriage equality debate, and while it failed to stop that reform, it did manage to extract concessions in the final legislation that left us with the most discriminatory marriage equality laws in the world.
Encouraged by that victory, and spurred on by the Folau case, this new movement metastasised into the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill, which, if enacted, would see the biggest roll back of discrimination protections in Australian history.
It has also branched out into an attack on transgender discrimination protections that resembles the ferocious anti-gay campaigns of the 1980s and 90s.
The hysteria sparked by a discrimination case against Senator Claire Chandler is a perfect example of the dangers of this new movement.
Senator Chandler publicly stated that trans women should be excluded from women’s sport and services, had a case lodged against her about intimidating and humiliating conduct under section 17 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act, and was asked to attend a conciliation.
In response, prominent politicians and commentators have portrayed her as an innocent victim of an anti-free speech ‘witch-hunt’ conducted under a ‘tyrannical’ law by ‘zealots’ and ‘unaccountable’, ‘star-chamber’, discrimination commissions in the name of the ‘subjective’ ‘ideology’ of trans identity.
Chandler refused to attend the conciliation and the complaint was withdrawn. But that hasn’t stopped the complaint being used to mock, stoke fears over, lie about and generally de-legitimise anti-discrimination law, those who use it, and those responsible for implementing it.
The people running this narrative don’t care about the deep harm to trans people and their families caused by discrimination and exclusion, the vilification they suffer because of the fear campaigns against them, or that the religious sensitivities they so loudly want to protect are far more ‘subjective’.
They don’t care about the many cases resolved successfully by anti-discrimination commissions through mediation, or Tribunal hearings, the importance of these processes for protecting the weak and vulnerable from those with power and privilege, and the multitude of review processes that ensure discrimination complaints aren’t vexatious.
They don’t care that the majority of the cases involving humiliating and intimidating conduct under section 17 are from people with disability, that the Tasmanian Parliament has twice upheld section 17 because of its value in promoting inclusion, or that the state Supreme Court has declared this law does not breach basic freedoms.
They are particularly unfazed by the double standards on display in their brand of ‘freedom’: complaints about censorship from the front page of some newspapers, the conspicuous absence of trans voices from those same newspapers despite the alleged tyrannical power of trans activists, and of the outright suppression of dissident voices by supposed champions of freedom of speech and religion.
These things have no place in the current ‘freedom’ narrative because that narrative isn’t about freedom, it’s about exploiting a misunderstood minority to erode the system of discrimination protections generations of Australians have worked so hard to establish.
We must protect these laws and the principle of equal opportunity they are built on.
We can do this by calling out the bad faith ‘freedom’ movement.
That includes calling out the tendency of mainstream human rights advocates, Labor and moderate Liberals to go soft because they don’t want to appear to oppose freedom of speech or religion.
Just as important in protecting existing discrimination laws is to leap-frog the “freedom” narrative altogether by building even better laws.
For example, it’s time to remove exemptions that allow tax-payer-funded religious schools and hospitals to discriminate against LGBTIQ and other people.
Tasmania hasn’t had these exemptions for two decades and the sky hasn’t fallen in. I don’t understand why other states still tolerate them.
Taking an even wider view, discrimination law should be reformed so that it remedies not just the disadvantage caused by individual acts of discrimination, but also the psychological harm of discrimination and the legacy of historical discrimination.
Systemic bias requires systemic solutions that existing discrimination law is too narrowly-framed to remedy.
By debating these necessary next steps in the evolution of discrimination law we will leave the current push against discrimination protections way behind us.
Instead, we will find new and valuable ways to fulfil the principle of equal opportunity that has made Australia the fairer and more inclusive nation it is today.