OPINION: How the Ruddock Review Has Harmed The LGBTI Community

Philip Ruddock

Many LGBTI people breathed a sigh of relief that the Ruddock Review didn’t recommend a roll back of LGBTI human rights.

Many were pleased Philip Ruddock said there’s not a lot of evidence of discrimination against people of faith, particularly given how stridently the religious right claimed during the postal survey there was such evidence.

But there’s still a lot to be worried by in the Ruddock Review, not least its dangerous distinction between race and disability discrimination (which it eschews), and sexuality and gender identity discrimination (which it excuses).

From the start, the rationale, remit and composition of the Ruddock Review were shot through with prejudice.

It was a response to the mis-perception that allowing same-sex couples to marry poses such a unique threat to marriage, faith and freedom that a national inquiry was necessary to determine if legislative protections are required.

In particular, it was tasked with considering how better to protect “religious freedom” which has become code for denying LGBTI people equal access to services, equal dignity in schools, and equal protection from hate speech.

In effect, the very existence of the Ruddock Review legitimised the question, “what rights should we take away from the gays in return for allowing them to marry?”

As if to rub salt into those wounds, the Government ignored all calls for there to be a panelist representing the LGBTI community, despite LGBTI equality being a key issue for the Review.

Ruddock Review panelists might repudiate my grim view of their assignment by pointing to their recommendation about LGBTI students.

They might say they tried to reduce discrimination against LGBTI students in faith-based schools by recommending these schools advertise their discriminatory policies.

But this doesn’t change the fact they also recommended discrimination against LGBTI students and teachers be allowed to continue.

Recommending and thereby re-legitimising discrimination against LGBTI people sends a much more powerful message than tinkering at the edges by making that discrimination more explicit.

Just as seriously, the Ruddock Review heard but failed to seriously act on a mountain of evidence about the problems facing LGBTI students and teachers in faith-based schools because the law fails to protect them.

This sends the message that the lived experience of LGBTI people doesn’t matter compared to the desolate doctrines that demand we be demeaned.

The Review also largely ignored the fact that Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act has prevented discrimination against LGBTI students and teachers in faith-based schools for the last twenty years without any of the negative outcomes predicted by prelates in other states.

Instead of looking at the critical Tasmanian precedent in detail, the Review devoted one sentence to it on page 61.

In short, the Ruddock Review deliberately downplayed critical evidence for the removal of discrimination against LGBTI people.

The Ruddock panelists might again try to defend themselves by pointing to how their recommendation about LGBTI students highlighted the fact these students can still be legally discriminated against, prompting, albeit inadvertently, the current debate about eliminating that discrimination.

That is true, but in the absence of a stronger recommendation about ending legal discrimination, the parliamentary debate reached an impasse and the issue has been kicked into yet another inquiry, this time by the Australian Law Reform Commission.

If the Ruddock Review had recommended uncaveated reform rather than found a tortured compromise on students, the nation might have resolved the issue by now. Instead, we’re in for a Summer of nasty advocacy by anti-LGBTI groups.

What are some of the other objectionable features of the Ruddock Review?

I am anxious about the Review’s support for “national consistency” on anti-vilification laws.

When someone says “national consistency” what I hear is an attempt to water down the strong protections for LGBTI people under state and territory anti-vilification laws including those in Tasmania that prohibit vilification in the name of religion.

In 2017 the Tasmanian Liberal Government tried unsuccessfully to allow religious vilification but was blocked in the state’s Upper House.

Now the Federal Liberal Government has picked up on “national consistency” and says it will pressure the states to fall in line.

As someone who has seen first-hand in the benefits of strong anti-vilification laws to LGBTI people I will do all I can to resist federal interference.

I am also worried about the Ruddock Review’s recommendation that legislation is required to allow faith-based schools to discriminate against marrying same-sex couples.

There is already an exemption allowing faith-based organisations to discriminate in these circumstances.

Making yet another anti-LGBTI law sets a bad precedent and reinforces the myth I mentioned earlier about marriage equality posing a threat to religion.

But for me one of the worst features of the Ruddock Review was the distinction it drew between discrimination against different groups.

Repeatedly, it recommended the removal of laws that allow discrimination on the basis of “race, disability, pregnancy or intersex status”.

And just as often, it legitimised laws that allow discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status”.

The only reason I can see for this bizarre distinction is that some conservative Christians see race, disability, pregnancy and being intersex as things that just happen to people (or in the case of pregnancy is an unfortunate mistake), whereas being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, in a same-sex marriage, or not in a heterosexual one, are deliberate, wilfull, sinful and “ideological” choices.

Whatever the Ruddock Review panel’s rationale, the effect is disastrous.

They have legitimised prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people, and have given the government an excuse not protect us.

Unbelievably, these recommendations were signed off by the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Rosiland Croucher, and President of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, Annabelle Bennett.

That adds an extra layer of legitimacy to anti-LGBTI discrimination by sending the message that it’s okay with our top human rights watchdogs.

I have been deeply frustrated with the Australian Human Rights Commission for not calling out the fact that the contemporary “religious freedom” movement is not about protecting people of faith, but is actually about taking basic rights away from LGBTI people.

The AHRC takes “religious freedom” narrative at face value, pretending there is a legitimate problem to be addressed, thereby reinforcing the narrative that LGBTI equality poses a legitimate threat to faith communities.

But now the president of the AHRC has exacerbated the problem by signing her name to recommendations that put anti-LGBT discrimination into the “not-as-important” basket.

My hope is Rosiland Croucher and Annabell Bennett can find ways to make amends for undermining LGBTI equality.

An apology would be a good start.

After that, they could convene a summit of LGBTI leaders, as well as a conference on LGBTI human rights, to set a new positive agenda for change, post marriage equality and post Ruddock.

Rodney Croome is a longtime LGBTI rights campaigner and spokesperson of LGBTI advocacy group just.equal.

Rodney Croome

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