Newly-installed Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu isn’t wasting any time making good on those campaign promises. Or at least, making good on some – those that have a potentially devastating effect on the way we live. It’s all about religion, you see. Specifically, it’s all about how insisting on compassion, decency and above all fairness unfairly discriminates against a few vocal conservative groups.
The former Brumby government laid down a series of changes to Equal Opportunity legislation that would have taken effect in August. Religious organisations would have had to prove that they had good reasons for refusing employment or services to people beyond the basic excuse of, ‘We don’t agree with how they live their personal lives’. Under these changes, such organisations would have had to show that employing someone who was gay, or a single parent, would ‘undermine’ the organisation’s beliefs or that the job in question required someone who conformed to the faith in question.
Christian lobby groups – most particularly the Australian Christian Lobby – complained bitterly at what they characterised as an attack on freedom of religion, particular religious schools. Well, now they’ve got a government who speaks their language, and that is prepared to allow these organisations to go on discriminating against anyone they don’t like.
This is what the Attorney-General, Robert Clark, had to say in this article in The Age:
‘The 2010 legislation is a far-reaching attack on the freedom of faith-based organisations and freedom of religion and belief. The amendments will restore tolerance and a sense of the fair go. Faith-based organisations and political organisations should be free to engage staff that uphold their values.’
He went on to talk about the ‘direct attack’ on religious schools, implying that somehow, the Liberal government were protecting parents’ rights to choose a good education for their children. This was further rationalised by the claim that the issue had been ‘well-canvassed’.
Well-canvassed among the vocal – and rabid – minority of the Australian Christian Lobby, perhaps. A minority that, for reasons passing understanding, seems to have the ear of government at every level.
This is an appalling decision by the Victorian government. This policy decision doesn’t only prevent reform that would allow real fairness. It sends a clear message that these organisations can go even further. By scrapping the proposed reforms, Baillieu is effectively saying to these organisations – you can do what you like, and we’ll back you up. We consider your interests to be more important than those of single parents, queer people, and those who don’t believe as you do.
This is the party that frequently rails against the idea of giving in to ‘special pleading’ from ‘minority groups’. Apparently, it’s only some minority groups, however.
Baillieu’s government thinks this is a great piece of reform, and they’ve trotted out the clichés to back themselves up. It’s a ‘fair go’. It’s about ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’.
It’s nothing of the kind.
It’s a warning: conform or be punished. And it’s targeted at people who already suffer massive discrimination simply for being who they are.
Oh, it all seems very reasonable. After all, if you’re not a member of this kind of religion, why would you want to work for them, or seek their help? But it’s not that simple. Understand, we’re not talking about church membership here, where belief – or even, the will to believe, could be considered a reasonable requirement. This unlimited power to discriminate extends to any business that describes itself as a religious organisation. That’s a broad spectrum, encompassing everything from schools to charities to community-based organisations to health care.
Single mum looking for a part-time job now that the kids are at school? Young gay school-leaver seeking to work in a gap year before going to uni? Devout Muslim woman wanting to help the local community by working for a welfare agency?
Need not apply.
In rural areas, sometimes these religious organisations are the only ones available. Baillieu’s so-called ‘reforms’, then, have
potential knock-on effects that could disrupt people’s lives. The only job going for teachers in any given town might be in the local Catholic school (the only one in the area) – but if the most qualified applicant is an atheist or in a de facto same-sex relationship, that school can legally refuse to employ them on those grounds alone. So that teacher faces two equally unpalatable choices; seek a job much further away, perhaps requiring hours of travel or even moving to another town, or forget about the idea of becoming a teacher in their home town.
What if a single woman employed by a religious charity became pregnant, and elected to keep the baby? She could be dismissed. Ditto the man who, after wrestling with his own sense of self for many years, finally accepts that he is a woman, and needs to transition.
And it goes further. A religious school would be able to pick and choose its teachers. Evolution? Sex education (beyond abstinence)? Forget it. And the kid who’s discovering her sexual identity is something other than what she’s been told is ‘normal’? Well, she’d better be prepared to keep it quiet, because her principal might just decide she needs to go elsewhere.
Oh, and just as a point of contrast … a convicted criminal would have more protection under Equal Opportunity in Victoria than a bisexual man or a pagan if Baillieu has his way.
Baillieu and Clark are happily condoning the kind of prejudice that leads to mental illness, violence and suicide. Worse, they’re actually championing it. Their ‘wide canvass’ doesn’t seem to have included people like these teens, who wrote of their experiences with homophobia at school:
I tried to kill myself because I was so badly teased at school for being a lesbian.. it never ended and I got severe depression and I saw no other way to be happy, I was in hospital for 2 months trying to control my depression and because doctors thought I would hurt myself again if they let me out and it also forced me to drop out of school.
(Claudia, 16 years)
i thought about it so much, i came close just as many times. but for some reason i never bought myself to try. i did have a complete plan though, i took a week to plan the whole thing out. (Craig, 16 years)
(Source: Writing Themselves In Again: 6 years on, 2nd national report on the sexual health & well-being of same-sex attracted young people in Australia, via La Trobe University)
These are the kind of kids who exist in a school system where there are programs to address issues of homophobia and violence, and where teachers are encouraged to support same-sex attracted students. Imagine these kids under Baillieu’s ‘reforms’. Because their parents want them to get a good education, or because there’s no decent public school available, they attend an independent school (most of which, as the ACL has noted on many occasions, are at least nominally religious). No teachers for them to turn to when they are victimised, no positive role model with whom they can identify. An unmistakable message that there is something ‘wrong’ with them for being queer – or even suspecting that they might be so.
This isn’t about ‘freedom’. Baillieu and Clark, with this plan, would sacrifice the well-being – and perhaps the lives – of Victorians just so they can pander to groups that believe they have the (literally) God-given right to demonise others. The very same people who tend to howl about how badly they are discriminated against if another religious group wants to exclude them, or if Mardi Gras tells them their lying rhetoric alleging all gay men are pedophiles isn’t permitted in their celebrations.
And they have the nerve – the absolute, outrageous nerve – to tell us it’s reform. It’s fair.
This is not reform, Mr Baillieu – it’s repression, pure and simple. You can dress it up with buzzwords designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, because after all, none of us like to feel we’re being denied a fair deal. But there is nothing fair about this.
The Shadow Minister, Martin Pakula, weaselled when asked whether Labor would support Baillieu on this plan. He said Labor would have to look at the amendments. That’s not good enough, Mr Pakula. Your government wanted to bring in these changes in the first place. Your government was the one that really undertook a wide canvass. You know just how important it is that these groups not be allowed to reduce people to outcasts. No amount of appeals to sacred texts can disguise the fact that what they want is the ability to arbitrarily declare some people less worthy than others. Despite their often-repeated claim that Australia is a ‘Judeo-Christian’ nation, we are a country of diverse beliefs, none of which should be subject to favourable treatment or prejudice. We are not a country subject to the doctrine of one interpretation of one religion.
And we should not be a country that turns a blind eye to the deliberate attempts of a lobby group to strip away the rights of those they simply do not like.