Ray Goodlass

Rays peace activism

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My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for today

An incensed Morrison wants to ban protests

In a recent outburst Scott Morrison branded environmental protesters “anarchists” and threatened a radical crackdown on the right to protest in a speech claiming progressives are seeking to “deny the liberties of Australians”. Presumably he hopes that his hyperbolic ranting will fool people into not noticing that what he is really doing is denying us all the liberty to protest, which is surely our democratic right.

In a speech to the Queensland Resources Council, the prime minister said a threat to the future of mining was coming from a “new breed of radical activism” and signalled the government would seek to apply penalties to those targeting businesses who provide services to the resources industry.

Civil society groups, including the Human Rights Law Centre and Australian Conservation Foundation, and the Greens immediately attacked the proposal as undemocratic and a bid to stifle a social movement fighting for Australia to take action on climate change.

Indeed, as Greens MP Adam Bandt said “Scott Morrison is becoming more dangerous by the day. So incensed is the Prime Minister by anyone who disagrees with him, that he’s now pushing to outlaw protests against his big polluting mates. This comes a few weeks after Peter Dutton threatened to fine, jail and strip support payments from people peacefully participating in the Extinction Rebellion protests.  These are the words and threats made by dictators.” Well said Mr Bandt.

So what caused all this concern about a speech by the PM? Mr Morrison told Australian corporations to listen to the “quiet shareholders” and not environmental protesters, who he suggested could shift targets from coal companies to all carbon-intensive industries including power generation, gas projects, abattoirs and airlines.

In his speech, proposing limits on free speech advocating boycotts against polluting companies, Morrison said progressives wanted to tell Australians “what you can say, what you can think and tax you more for the privilege of all of those instructions”.

He claimed that “progressivism”, which he labelled a “new-speak type term”, invoking George Orwell’s 1984, intends “to get in under the radar, but at its heart would deny the liberties of Australians”.

He pointed to what he described as the “worrying development” of environmental groups targeting businesses or firms involved in the mining sector with “secondary boycotts”, such as businesses refusing to provide banking, insurance or consultancy services.

“Together with the attorney general, we are working to identify mechanisms that can successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices that threaten the livelihoods of fellow Australians.”

The executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Hugh de Kretser, said the plan to crack down on boycotts was “deeply concerning”.

“Protest is an essential part of our democracy,” he said. “To protect our democracy and help ensure a better future for all Australians, governments should be strengthening our rights to come together and protest, not weakening them.”

The Competition and Consumer Act already contains civil penalties for secondary boycotts, which target one business in order to prevent provision of goods or services to another, including if they cause “substantial loss or damage” or substantially lessen competition.

However, secondary boycotts for the “dominant purpose” of environmental protection or consumer protection are permitted.

The chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Kelly O’Shanassy, said community campaigning was a “legitimate response” voicing the concerns about global heating shared by millions of Australians.

“People protesting in the streets are not the only ones expressing alarm about climate change. The head of the Defence Force, the deputy governor of the Reserve Bank and the Australian Prudential Regulation have all recently raised serious concerns,” she said.

“To paint this broad community concern as being about fringe-dwelling extremists is an insult to all Australians who want a better future for themselves and their children”, O’Shanassy concluded.

So instead of getting tough on the climate crisis, Scott Morrison is dismantling democracy. In his ‘brave new world’, to borrow the title of another dystopian novel, everyday Australian citizens are not allowed to protest, boycott, spend money where we want, blow the whistle or report what the government is up to.

In a strange move from the party that champions individual liberty and free enterprise Mr Morrison will not allow us  to express our freedom in the commercial market place. Surely, politicians have a responsibility to defend our democracy, not degrade it.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column or Tuesday 5 November 2019

The extinction crisis is all too real

Last week’s Q&A (ABC TV) was aptly timed to coincide with an open letter by 240 leading scientists calling on Scott Morrison to stem the extinction crisis, published as a full page, at great cost, in all mainstream newspapers.

Coincidentally I received a petition to the NSW parliament from Greens MP Cate Faehrmann pointing out that we are facing an extinction crisis and calling on the government to end logging in our public native forests, restore protections for native vegetation on private land, and transition to a net zero emissions economy by 2040.

The use of the word ‘extinction’ should be a wake-up call for all of us – and a timely reminder that the use of the name ‘Extinction Rebellion’ by the protest group isn’t just catchy labelling, for as this open letter made clear, it is all too real.

The letter also emphasised that the extinction crisis is due to anthropogenic (i.e. caused by human activity) global warming and climate change.

Let’s look at the background and detail of the scientists’ letter, to prove my point.

The more than 240 conservation scientists called on Scott Morrison to drop his opposition to stronger environment laws and seize a “once-in-a-decade opportunity” to fix a system that is failing to stem a worsening extinction crisis.

With the federal government due to this week announce a 10 -yearly legislated review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, the scientists open letter to the prime minister urged him to increase spending and back laws to help protect the natural world from further destruction.

The letter says three native species have become extinct in the past decade and another 17 will following the next 20 years. More than 1,800 Australian plants and animals are formally listed as threatened with extinction, but the scientists have said his is an underestimate.

“Since they were established in 1999, 7.7m hectares of threatened species habitat have been destroyed. That’s an area larger than Tasmania. Meanwhile, the number of extinctions continue to climb, while new threats emerge and spread unchecked.”

Environmental law was an issue during this year’s election, with Morrison pledging to cut ‘green tape’ that he falsely claimed cost jobs, while Labor promised a new environment act and a federal environment protection authority. ‘Green tape’ and ‘Red Tape’ are of course code use by the right wing to cover their plans to eliminate regulations that protect workers and consumers, or in this case the environment and threatened species. He is simply responding to the business groups who regularly call for the environmental approval process to be simplified to stop delays to major projects. Don’t be fooled by his glib and oily words.

Lesley Hughes, a distinguished professor of biology at Macquarie University, member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a signatory to the letter, said environmental protections had been consistently wound back over the past decade, most often by conservative governments.

Morrison’s pledge not to increase environmental laws came as a United Nations global assessment found biodiversity was declining at an unprecedented rate, with one million species across the globe at risk of extinction and human populations in jeopardy if the trajectory was not reversed.

The scientists’ letter was organised by the Australian Conservation Foundation and is backed by the Places You Love Alliance, a collection of 57 organisations including BirdLife Australia, Humane Society International and WWF Australia. The letter calls for laws that “safeguard our intact ecosystems and protect the critical areas people and wildlife need to survive”.

Suzanne Milthorpe, nature campaign manager with the Wilderness Society, urged the government to use the review to upgrade the EPBC Act from a piece of legislation that catalogued the loss of nature into one that helps prevent it.

Lest readers think the extinction of a few threatened species is nothing to worry about I must point out that we rely on some of them. The decline in bee numbers, which are needed for pollination not just of pretty flowers but also for the food we eat, is a very telling example. Everything is connected, and if ‘lesser’ species go the entire human race will surely follow them to extinction.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for tis week

Time for a Media Freedom Act

“When the government keeps the truth from you, what are they covering up?” asked the front page of last Monday’s Daily Advertiser. It went on to say that “Is this really Australia? Where the government imposes news restrictions, secrecy, jail time for journalists and whistle blowers”.

The short answer is of course that it really is Australia. In my column today I’ll explore why Australia is frighteningly aping George Orwell’s 1984 dystopian nightmare, and what we need to do to rectify sorry state of affairs.

But first, a quick comment that points out the enormity of the problem we face. It takes a real emergency to unite the right-wing Murdoch press; the mainstream centrist media such as the ABC, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Advertiser; the slightly progressive such as the Guardian Australia; and the leftists, such as Crikey.com. But united they are, and justifiably so.

So last Monday they joined forces to rally for press freedom, taking the campaign to their front pages and the airwaves.

Their Right to Know coalition, of which the ABC is a member, is behind the campaign, calling for the decriminalisation of public interest journalism, and greater protection for the media and whistleblowers.

It follows the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raiding the Canberra home of News Corp political journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC’s Sydney headquarters earlier this year.

The police investigations were sparked by separate stories published by Smethurst and the ABC’s Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, based on leaked classified information.

The Right to Know coalition’s campaign argues that without a free press, issues such as the serious allegations of misconduct and abuse that led to royal commissions into the banking and aged care sectors would never have been brought to light.

Adding to the media concern were recent comments from Attorney-General Christian Porter, who issued a ministerial directive that any prosecutions of journalists would have to be signed off by him first.

More recently he told the ABC’s Insiders program he could not guarantee Smethurst, Oakes and Clark would not be pursued in the courts. More on this later in the column.

To which Senator Hanson-Young, who is chairing one of two parliamentary investigations looking in to press freedom said “A free press and protection for whistleblowers who speak truth to power is essential for a robust and healthy democracy. Journalism is not a crime and legislation should protect them, not criminalise them.”

Truth is, “Concrete action rather than nice words are needed on press freedom”, as the Guardian Australia noted.

Paradoxically one day Australians might come to thank the AFP for their raids on the ABC and the News Corp journalist, the public integrity professor AJ Brown suggested during the Senate inquiry last week. For even though the raids were condemned as outrageous and heavy-handed Brown was observing that they have also finally focused national attention on the rising tide of laws inhibiting press freedom and public interest whistleblowing.

For now, though, his optimism is premature, for the journalists do not know whether they will be prosecuted, and their employers are still challenging the warrants in the high court.

Australia’s major media organisations are therefore joining forces to demand a minimum set of changes. Their Right to Know campaign has six core demands: the right to challenge the government’s application for warrants against journalists and media organisations, before they are issued; exemptions for journalists from laws that would put them in jail for doing their jobs, including the security laws enacted over the last seven years; adequate legislated protections for public sector whistleblowers; a new regime to limit which documents can be stamped secret; reform of the freedom of information regime, and reform to laws that make Australia the defamation capital of the world.

The former Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, who heads the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, thankfully goes further by advocating a Media Freedom Act to enshrine press freedom in legislation and more clearly define its democratic role.

That seems a straightforward proposal that even the most dunder-headed politician could get their head around. Given that many of our politicians, from the PM down, seem to be aping President Trump’s contempt for serious journalism it’s a campaign we should all be endorsing.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 22 October 2019

NSW using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut

During a period of epidemic of illegal land clearing, criminal animal cruelty and concern about mining operations, the NSW Government has stepped in with a proposed “Right to Farm” law to protect corporate agribusiness from protest and scrutiny.

The TV series Yes Minister’ would probably say that criticising the new NSW Right to Farm bill in a regional newspaper is a ‘courageous’ thing to do, but as this bill is both a major crackdown on the right to protest and also the “erosion of a fundamental human right” (Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge), this criticism is necessary.

The criticism is doubly necessary as the proposed NSW bill comes at a time of increasing calls from elsewhere to clamp down on our right to protest, as shown by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s appalling call to punish social welfare recipients who take part in protests, the Queensland Labor government’ introduction of new police powers in answer to Extinction Rebellion protests, and the WA government’s plan to increase penalties for trespass, aimed at animal welfare protesters.

The proposed laws will quadruple the penalty for aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands from $5,500 to $22,000. They will impose a prison term of up to three years on people who “hinder” a business while trespassing, and will create a new offence of ‘direct, incite, counsel, procure or induce aggravated unlawful entry’ which means individuals who encourage someone to peacefully protest could face an $11,000 fine or 12 months imprisonment.

Inclosed lands are defined by the act as “any land, either public or private, inclosed or surrounded by any fence, wall or other erection, or by some natural feature …including the whole or part of any building”.

The New South Wales farm trespass bill has been criticised by civil liberties organisations, environment groups and unions for turning into “a crackdown on people’s rights to protest”. It would outlaw civil protest on any enclosed space, including schools, hospitals, mine sites or banks.

Chris Gambian, the chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, said the threat to protest was “hidden within this bill”.

“It includes farmers and knitting nanas protesting coal seam gas, unions on worksites, people staging a sit-in in corporate headquarters of a company, and more.

Pauline Wright, the president of the NSW Civil Liberties Council, said “I can’t see the purpose of these new laws. The existing laws already criminalise the behaviour that is targeted by this. It seems to just be grandstanding on the part of the politicians.”

The bill has been referred by the Animal Justice Party to an inquiry, and the Greens have amendments in the pipeline.

Unions NSW said it was examining the bill closely but was concerned it could inhibit the ability for unions to do their work.

Thomas Costa, the assistant secretary of Unions NSW, said it was an attempt to legislate against people’s rights to protest.

“The Liberals have a track record of trying to criminalise dissent. They think they can legislate against it and frustrate our very legitimate right to protest,” he said.

Ironically those affected by these laws will likely include many farmers who have been at the forefront of campaigns, including those against coal seam gas and to protect farmland and water supplies.

Greens MP and Justice Spokesperson David Shoebridge said “These laws are directly aimed at criminalising protest and those exposing serious environmental breaches and animal cruelty.

“Trespass is already illegal in NSW and in 2016 the Government imposed a large number of additional penalties to target protesters. These laws don’t just apply to farms – they cover supermarkets and even banks.

“The Greens will be moving amendments to protect the right to freedom of speech and political expression by adding a defence if the person was engaged in identifying, investigating or preventing serious criminal breaches of environmental or animal cruelty laws.

“We will never abandon the brave forest activists, land and water protectors, and animal lovers who are taking action for the environment and creatures who have no vote.

And as Mr Shoebridge said, the bill needs to be renamed to accurately reflect its intention as the ‘Right to Farm (Limiting Protest and Transparency) Bill’. Or better still, abandon it.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 15 October 2019

This government trying to stifle dissent

The current and very necessary protests about our lack of action to combat climate change by Extinction Rebellion (‘Dozens arrested as protests kick off’, DA 8 October) brought about a change in my planned topic for this week’s column.

I had thought to focus on discussing PM Morrison’s very worrying tendency to increasingly channel Donald Trump, but after Peter Dutton’s appalling call to punish social welfare recipients who take part in protests, I thought best to focus on that more topical issue, as I imagine the Morrison/Trump love-in will be, unfortunately, ongoing.

Dutton was “sounding ‘like a dictator’ after urging welfare cuts for protesters” reported the Guardian Australia.

Protesters who disrupt traffic should have their welfare payments cut and be subject to mandatory jail sentences, he has declared, as conservative MPs continue to lash out against climate change protests.

Dutton also accused the Queensland government for not going far enough in deterring the protests.

“Community expectation is these people be heavily fined or jailed and they should be jailed until their behaviour changes because they are putting lives at risk,” he told Sydney radio 2GB, one of his favoured media outlets on which to spout his divisive and dangerous diatribes.

“They’re diverting police and emergency service resources from tasks that they should be undertaking otherwise and they keep turning up week after week because they know a slap on the wrist is just not working.

“The premier needs to come out and explain why this is acceptable. If there needs to be mandatory or minimum sentences imposed, that can happen overnight in a Queensland parliament.”

Dutton’s condemnation of the Queensland Labor government is remarkable, for its introduction of new police powers last month in answer to Extinction Rebellion protests, after peak hour traffic was disrupted by participants gluing themselves to roads itself outraged many of us who saw it for what it was: a calculated attempt to silence dissent.

Dutton also called for protesters to be publicly shamed.

“People should take these names and the photos of these people and distribute them as far and wide as they can so that we shame these people.

“Let their families know what you think of their behaviour.”

The Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, said legislation was already in place to deal with protesters who broke the law, but the government was going too far in suggesting peaceful protesters have their income stripped.

“Peter Dutton doesn’t know what living in a democracy means,” he told the ABC.

“One of the most fundamental rights in any democracy is the right to speak up and to protest against those in power … It’s starting to sound more like a dictator than he is an elected politician. Because somebody says something that he doesn’t like, that he doesn’t support, he’s saying we’re going to strip away income support.”

Dutton’s comments were the latest in a string of statements from Coalition MPs and ministers urging punitive welfare measures.

Not surprisingly, Michaelia Cash backed the withdrawal of Centrelink benefits from what she described as full-time protesters for failing to meet mutual obligation responsibilities.

“You’re not giving up a lot if you are attending a protest when you don’t have a job” she told, no surprise here, 2GB.

The Labor MP Stephen Jones said these comments were an attempt to distract from the debate about raising the rate of Newstart and the unchanging jobless rate.

To add insult to injury, I have just learnt that an access agreement being negotiated with the US could grant Australian law enforcement agencies access to messages sent using US-owned platforms such as Google and Facebook.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and US Attorney-General William Barr are negotiating a bilateral agreement under which Australian police would have the same powers as US police under the CLOUD Act, which compels US tech companies to hand over data on their servers when presented with a warrant.

Stifling dissent isn’t limited to our shores, as we can see it happening in Hong Kong, Europe, the UK and the USA.

But here these are yet more examples of how the current Liberal/Nationals coalition government are seriously frightened of criticism, to the extent they are serious about preventing us, the people, from speaking out against their machinations. It is a calculated attempt to silence the voice of the people.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 8 October 2019

Australia denying climate change

At the recent UN climate summit the Australian government was seen as a climate ‘denialist’, observers said. Australia is perceived as using accounting tricks to meet targets and is not serious about finding a global climate solution. It uses “greenwash” to meet its emissions commitments according to analysts and former diplomats

Morrison’s failure to attend the UN climate action summit despite being in the US at the time further has eroded goodwill for Australia.

Having deliberately avoided the UN climate summit our PM did front up to the Leaders’ session, and in a voice sounding frighteningly similar to President Trump’s ‘fake news’ defence of any criticism likely to actually be true, our overly defensive PM said Australia’s record on climate change has been misrepresented by media.

More recently came news of the US President asking our PM to help discredit the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, to which Mr Morrison agreed. However, as there is not room in today’s column to analyse the ‘titanium’ man’s chumminess with the Donald it could perhaps be a topic for another week.

So back to the main topic. Mr Morrison suggested that negative media coverage fuelled criticism that was “completely false and completely misleading”. People expressed “prejudiced” views about Australia’s climate policy, he said. “Now where do they get their information from? Who knows, maybe they read it,” he said, worryingly echoing Mr Trump.

Our PM’s overly defensive and very antagonistic approach contrasted sharply with the address to the UN climate summit by young Greta Thunberg, so let’s have a closer look at what she said.

Thunberg’s achievement was to present the climate change issue as a battle for power. In doing so she spoke with the authority of the millions who marched only a few days before. For this Donald Trump trolled her. He saw her power and tried to destroy it through mockery.

In her speech Thunberg sets up an opposition between the plural ‘we’, those who want action on climate change, and an interesting use of the word ‘you’, that is, those who don’t.

So though she was speaking to an audience largely composed of those with power, her audience was not only the assembled global leaders but everyone, and her ‘we’, while directly referring to the young and Friday’s three million marchers on 20 September, was a we open to all, infinitely expandable.

For the ‘you’ is not just Trump, Scott Morrison or fossil fuel company executives. Her ‘you’ is for all of us who fail to recognise the necessity to act now, or will ‘you’ say nothing, do nothing, condemning yourself to the ranks of those who the future will, as Greta “never forgive?”

Now back to Mr Morrison, our coal fancier-in-chief, for he criticised Thunberg for similar reasons to Trump, patronisingly saying, “I think we’ve got to caution against raising the anxieties of children in our country.”

Since 1996 the Liberal party has been working assiduously to advance the cause of fossil fuel companies at the expense of our future. Morrison’s paternalistic waffle is yet another example of the Liberal record of lying, scheming and wrecking at every step for over two decades.

The Lib/Nats coalition has now clearly defined itself as the government for coal, and a craven Labor party, after its defeat in the most recent election, is now following its lead.

If the world continues on its trajectory, much of mainland Australia is predicted to be uninhabitable within 80 years

Our leaders have been keen to criminalise those who actively campaign for our future. Queensland, the epicentre for major new coalmines, has significantly strengthened its laws against environmental protesters, while lawyers for the Adani mine have publicly stated that they will seek to bankrupt any opponents of their new coalmine. They have already busted the W &J peoples financially and over land.

Meanwhile here we are once more busily trying to ‘drought-proof’ Australia yet again with simplistic solutions that will destroy Australia if we don’t address the real problem exacerbating the underlying cause of our ever-worsening droughts: climate change brought about by human activity.

Australia is already living the grim consequences of climate change. If the world continues on its present trajectory, much of mainland Australia is predicted to be uninhabitable within a lifetime. The climate collapse is here.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for this week

Budget surplus comes at too high a price

Last Tuesday’s editorial in the Daily Advertiser, which was headlined ‘Ease the burden on strugglers’, took my mind back to an overly boastful Josh Frydenberg crowing that the 2019-19 budget was virtually in balance.

I’ll tease out why Mr Frydenberg’s boast was way off the mark later, but first, let’s look at the editorial. “There are two views on a budget surplus: one is that it is bad and the other is that it is good. The government believes that balancing the books is virtuous. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has the view that a government is like a household and a prudent family does not spend more than it gets in.

But there is another view, one held by many mainstream economists, and that is governments should spend when times are bad to pump up the economy and tax when the economy heats up to cool it down”.

Now to the budget. It was a little over a week ago that treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced the final budget outcome for the 2018-19 year, revealing a deficit of approximately 700m. This was $13.8bn better than forecast in the budget only a few short months ago. Because it is less than .01% of GDP, it can be called “balanced”.

Apart from raising the question about the credibility of the government’s forecasting in particular and the more generic difficulty of accuracy in any such forecasts, this near as dammit surplus raises two questions worth of examination.

The first question that needs an answer relates to how this near surplus was achieved, and the second one is whether budget surpluses are valuable, or even necessary, as the DA’s editorial asked.

It came about because of two things. Firstly, there was $10.5bn more in income tax revenue (individual and company) than was predicted in last year’s budget. The company tax revenue was 5% more than expected, thanks to iron ore exports, and coal prices going up, while the individual income tax revenue was 3% above what was budgeted.

And on the other side of the ledger, there was $4.6bn less in spending on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) than was budgeted.

The government would have you believe that this occurred because there is less demand for the NDIS than they expected. The key word used ad infinitum was that the NDIS was ‘demand driven’ and demand had been less than anticipated.

The truth is that the NDIS is massively behind schedule, so clients are not getting the money they need and deserve. Many are getting no help at all. It is yet another example of an initiative by the progressive side of politics being stuffed up by the Liberal/Nationals coalition, just as the National Broadband scheme was.

But over and above the questions of paying off net debt, the real question is why are we so concerned about getting back to surplus, especially as the economy is not performing well?

As the DA editorial noted, when times are tough governments need to prime the pump to get the economy moving and people into real full-time jobs.

At this point we need a dose of figures. A good measure of economic performance is “adjusted nominal GDP growth”, which combines real GDP growth and the annual growth of inflation. Given we aim for between 2.75% and 3.25% annual GDP growth and inflation growth of within 2% and 3%, this suggests a nominal GDP growth of between 4.75% and 6.25% is the level to aim for.

And right now, we are well below it. We have been for most of the past five years. This also raises the issue of the danger of striving for endless growth in a finite world.

During the mining boom the economy was growing well. In such times running a budget surplus is sensible, as it helps take some of the heat out of the economy. But we are not in such times now. The economy is crying out for stimulus, which comes from government spending and if needs be, deficits.

Now is not a time for engaging in chest beating about predicted surpluses and net debt levels in years to come, but rather for worrying about what is to be done to improve the economy now, and therefore the well-being of our society.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 24 September 2019

Despite the success of Wagga’s first Mardi Gras the situation for trans people in Australia is worrying

2019 saw Wagga’s first LGBTIQ Mardi Gras and its very existence, let alone its success, was due entirely to the efforts of Holly Conroy, a brave and inspiring trans woman. Holly featured in SBS’s recent ‘Untold Story’ episode and the Daily Advertiser’s extensive coverage of what was truly a milestone of acceptance in what has traditionally been seen as a hetero-binary society.

Yet at the same time we have seen a barrage of negative stories about trans people, ranging from safe schools arguments to debates about gender free toilets and what sex should be listed on birth certificates. To say that these narratives are both damaging and dangerous is more than an understatement. There is a staggering amount of disinformation about trans people loudly parroted around by those who should know better.

This dichotomy got me thinking, and my musings were greatly helped by last week’s release of the 2018 Australian Trans and Gender Diverse Sexual Health Survey. It was an online survey hosted by the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales and conducted in collaboration with community advocates, clinicians and researchers from around Australia (courtesy of the Guardian Australia).

The survey asked 1,613 trans and gender-diverse people what they thought.

As the private lives of trans people are dragged into public debate, it’s time for facts, and so it feels good to have more data than previously available while fighting damaging untruths at work, in courtrooms and parliaments around Australia

A key statistic arising from this survey is that even though most participants reported realising in their mid-teens that their gender was different from what had been presumed for them at birth, it took an average of eight years for them to tell anyone else about that experience. That means that most trans and gender-diverse people may be negotiating the confusion that often comes with a lack of disclosure for upwards of a decade. Trans and gender-diverse people deserve to feel seen, supported and able to exist on their own terms and in a form that affirms them, without fear of violence or judgment. Hopefully the findings of this research will contribute to that work and help to break down barriers.

The survey also included a brief and optional section asking about sexual violence. It was found that 53% of participants had experienced sexual violence or coercion, compared with 13% of the general Australian population, with over 60% of them having experienced it more than once. These findings are corroborated by similar findings from North America and Europe, and corroborates the largely unaddressed issue of sexual violence being perpetrated against transgender people around the world.

The research also found that a majority of participants who’d accessed medical gender affirmation processes were satisfied or very satisfied with the results, with a minority reporting being unsatisfied or very unsatisfied, and with a number of participants reporting they had been able to alter their hormonal regimens as they required, often to positive effect.

This research has illuminated the issues that need to be addressed in order to improve the sexual health and wellbeing of trans and gender-diverse people across Australia. It is to be hoped that the survey findings will increase clinical, academic and public literacy about trans and gender-diverse lives, but also increase awareness within the community.

There couldn’t be a more important time for this research to be published. The political and media storm of transphobia and misinformation has swept the world in recent years. The private lives of trans and gender-diverse people have been interrogated, dragged into public debate and positioned as shameful and perverse.

Of course, these ideas could not be further from the truth, so it is good to have more data than ever in place while fighting these narratives at home and at work, in doctors’ offices and courtrooms, and in parliaments around the country.

The report is a call for policymakers, health promoters and service providers to take note of these findings, and to take action. An education campaign to correct all the misinformation about trans people would be a good place to start.

My Daily Advertiser column for 10 September 2019

Religious discrimination bill a ‘Trojan Horse for hate’.

Attorney General Christian Porter is now undertaking consultations on his new religious discrimination bill, after releasing a draft that outlined the provisions he says are designed “to protect people of faith” from “unfair” treatment.

Superficially perhaps fair enough, but there would have been a lot less concern if he had undertaken consultation before drafting the bill, for it has unleashed a storm of quite legitimate concern.

Religious groups though have been broadly if not unanimously supportive of the legislation.

Michael Kellahan of Christian legal thinktank Freedom for Faith said “It shouldn’t be contentious that we agree that there is such a thing as a need for protection of religious freedom.”

He also pointed out the possibility of discrimination being experienced by people of the Jewish and Muslim communities. Given the increasing outbreaks of Islamophobia and antisemitism that’s an important point.

The draft includes explicit protections for people to express their religious beliefs in a private capacity unless an employer can prove it is a “reasonable” limitation, in a move aimed at addressing the circumstances that saw high-profile rugby player Israel Folau sacked earlier this year.

The draft bill includes clauses relating to indirect discrimination, which is where “an apparently neutral condition has the effect of disadvantaging people of a particular religious belief or who engage in a particular religious activity”.

Porter said this would provide an “extra protection” for an employee faced with the same circumstances as Folau’s.

Protected religious activity is not defined in the bill but the explanatory note states that “expression of a religious belief” may be included.

Porter claimed the bill was “not intended to displace state law”, responding to concerns from LGBTIQ advocates warning It could undermine state protections against vilification.

Despite these assurances the bill explicitly overrides Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits statements which “offend, insult or humiliate” based on protected grounds including gender, race, age, sexual orientation, disability and relationship status.

Provided a person is expressing a genuinely held religious belief in good faith, that Tasmanian provision will not apply, thus breaching Porter’s commitment, apparently  in a bid to pacify Coalition conservatives who demanded the law prevent a repeat of a case in which the Catholic archbishop of Hobart was sued over anti same-sex marriage leaflets.

Not surprisingly then LBTQI advocates, for example, have justifiably condemned the government’s proposed bill, saying the “radical” new laws would give people of religion superior rights that would allow them to discriminate.

The Greens have also criticised the government’s proposed bill, warning that it could be a “Trojan horse for hate”.

“The far-right of Morrison’s party are still trying to get their way, chipping away at the rights of LGBTIQ+ people and other minorities,” Greens senator Janet Rice said. “Any bill that comes to the parliament must ensure all Australians are treated equally”.

Equality Tasmania spokesman Rodney Croome said that Canberra was “directly interfering to weaken a Tasmanian human rights law that protects vulnerable people”.

“We call on Mr Porter to stick to the promise he made not to interfere with state law, and remove this section.”

However, religious beliefs will not be protected if their expression is malicious, would harass, vilify or incite hatred against a group or advocate for the commission of a serious criminal offence.

Crikey.com’s headline, aptly worded as “Flaw and order: the religious freedom bill is a godawful mess” pointed to an even broader concern about the bill, which is that it “draws the state further into the surveillance and shaping of everyday life, which ordinarily would terrify small-government conservatives. Not so this time, apparently”, as Guy Rundle noted.

We are definitely living in strange times when a party formed on a liberal world view becomes the agent of an overbearing state that is hell bent on interfering with individual conduct.

Of course, what we need much more than this unholy mess is something we are desperately in need of: an honest to goodness bill of rights, with a genuine free speech clause, something most Australians might not be aware we lack.

Of course, at this stage Mr Porter’s is only a draft bill, so we will wait to see if Liberal MPs can live up to the name of their party and vote against it.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for this week

The fate of Medevac hangs in the balance

The Coalition government’s border cruelty has been exposed during a Senate inquiry  currently taking place (Medevac laws examined, DA, 28 August), and this time around its fate rests in the hands of one lone crossbencher.

The Medevac system, introduced by crossbenchers, the Greens and Labor last year, showed Australians that our offshore detention regime did not have to be quite as terrible to its fellow human beings as we had been led to believe. That of course was when Mr Morrison’s government was a minority one.

The new system overhauled the transfer processes for dangerously ill people on Nauru and Manus Island, giving clinicians much more of a say as to whether they should be brought to Australia for treatment.

Now that Morrison governs in majority, the prime minister wants to repeal the bill that passed the parliament against the government’s wishes. The government also wants to use the process of repealing Medevac as an opportunity to extend its powers to return people offshore once their medical issues have been resolved. The proposal to enhance the return powers has so far largely gone un-noticed during the debate.

Having said that, let me state before examining the situation further, that I do not in any way support our offshore detention regime. Seeking asylum is legal, whether arriving by boat or plane, asylum seekers should have their claims assessed onshore while living in the community, and as soon as they are found to be genuine refugees, they should be granted permanent residency status whilst applying for citizenship.

Now, to the current Senate inquiry. Shaun Hanns, a former public servant who worked until recently in the refugee assessment program at Home Affairs, has written a submission to the inquiry. Prior to this he wrote a 10-page paper to all federal MPs, urging them to interrogate the claim holding up Australia’s border protection regime, i.e. that it was a powerful deterrence.

More recently, he’s written a submission to the Senate inquiry into the Medevac repeal.

Hanns has told the Senate inquiry that parliamentarians should keep the crossbench-initiated medevac procedures as “the first step in an attempt to reform the system so that it is not only effective, but as humane as possible, whilst maintaining that effectiveness” (courtesy of the Guardian Australia).

Hanns said the lived experience of the medevac regime gives policymakers in Canberra important information they should not ignore.

Retaining Medevac should not be interpreted as normalising the offshore detention system but as Hanns argued, medevac is working effectively to demonstrate that Australia’s overall deterrence regime “need not rely on a logic of cruelty in order to be effective”. The experience of the past six months showed “there is significantly more leeway to change the system without undermining border protection than previously assumed”.

Not surprisingly, the Department of Home Affairs isn’t showing much inclination to listen to the suggestion from one of its former operatives. It remains resolutely of the view that when it comes to determining policy, it is their way, or the highway.

This is despite the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ conclusion that “prolonged or indefinite detention itself is known to contribute to adverse mental health outcomes”.

Which is a reminder that our government, and previous ones too, use (and have used) cruelty deliberately, as a matter of policy, to assert our sovereignty, and dissuade asylum seekers from coming to Australia by boat.

No doubt our governments get away with it because we don’t tend to think about our offshore detention regime very much. Firstly, because it all happens out of our sight, and secondly because of a self-protective mechanism: if we remember that institutional cruelty is deployed on our behalf, it triggers moral discomfort, though unfortunately not as far as the ballot-box.

So by the time the Medevac inquiry is over and it makes its way to a Senate vote, keep in mind that this time around the fate of the medevac regime rests with one parliamentarian, the Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie. Ms Lambie has told the government she wants the Senate inquiry to play out before she makes a decision. Nobody really knows which way Lambie will jump, but she’s the make-or-break player.