An openly gay teacher was sacked recently by Morling College in Sydney after the school received a letter urging it to “distance itself from her demonic actions”. Karen Pack, who had worked at Morling since 2018, told ABC’s 7:30: “I was open with people and staff. I didn’t hide my sexuality”. While the school claims that Pack left voluntarily, she has made it clear that she was forced out by the administration.
Morling College is a private Christian school, but the discrimination against Pack could become intrenched across the NSW public education system under proposed legislation making its way to the state parliament. This push to legalise discrimination is being headed by One Nation politician Mark Latham and has two aspects.
The first is Latham’s attempt to amend the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act, the second is his own Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill. Both the amendment and the bill, if passed, would allow anti-LGBTI discrimination in NSW. The bill would “prohibit schools, teachers, and training courses from teaching gender fluidity”, which the bill defines as “a belief there is a difference between biological sex and human gender and that human gender is socially constructed”. The amendment to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act grants schools, charities and even some private businesses strong protections from anti-discrimination laws.
When Latham announced the bill and the amendment, they were dismissed by most as crank proposals that were doomed to fail. However, the push to amend the Anti-Discrimination Act has been endorsed by the majority of a fourteen- person parliamentary committee, including by members of both the Liberals and the ALP. The chair of the committee, Liberal state MP Gabrielle Upton, urged that the amendments be adopted and the law changed by the end of this year.
Latham’s “parental rights” bill has less political support, but the parliamentary committee investigating it will begin its hearings on 20 April and will be chaired by Latham himself. And the push to legalise anti-LGBTI discrimination is backed by powerful forces in our society. Church groups, religious schools and conservative pundits have jumped on Latham’s bandwagon. Premier Gladys Berejiklian is keeping quiet about her views on the bill, but she is under pressure from the conservative right within the Liberal Party, as well as the Nationals, who have a disproportionate influence on the government.
These forces want to roll back the gains that LGBTI people have made since the marriage equality victory in 2017. They were open about this at the February Church and State Summit in Brisbane. In a conference room full of conservative politicians and Christian zealots, Martyn Iles, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby, argued that conservative activists should focus their attacks on “the transgender thing” as a wedge to defeat the LGBTI movement because it is “where the lie is most fragile”.
For those ALP members supporting Latham’s agenda, the cynical rationale is that it is the only way to stop religious voters from swinging to conservative parties after the ALP’s failure in the 2019 federal election. Often this is cloaked in concern over migrant working-class families—such as when ALP “left” federal MP Stephen Jones said that, while he didn’t agree with bigots like rugby player Israel Folau, he was “deeply uncomfortable” with the backlash against him, explaining that Folau’s anti-gay comments “is what multiculturalism looks like”.
But the reality is that there is little popular support for anti-LGBTI measures in the population. A 2019 Essential poll found that only 38 percent of Australians agree that stronger laws are needed to protect those who express their religious beliefs in public, while 64 percent agree that people should not be allowed to use the excuse of “religious freedom” to abuse others.
Unfortunately, majority opinion isn’t enough to stop conservative attacks. Marriage equality had majority support for more than a decade before it was finally won. If opposition is limited to passive public opinion, conservative bigots can get away with introducing anti-LGBTI bills because of the disproportionate power they have within the political system.
LGBTI activists haven’t been resting on their laurels in the face of this serious attack. Community Action for Rainbow Rights has organised several demonstrations against Latham’s bill, with one rally last year mobilising hundreds of people—in defiance of a court ban, police harassment and several arrests—during the COVID restrictions. Another rally is planned for Saturday 17 April, before the public hearings on Latham’s bill begin. Activists will need to keep hitting the streets to defeat these attacks.