Labor’s Gambit and its True Collateral
There are any number of opinions on Labor’s handling of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 in Parliament this week, ranging from glowing reviews of the four dimensional chess-master Albanese, to scathing assessments of a party bereft of principle. What we saw from the Opposition was cunning, but careless; calculated, but cruel. Their strategy may have delivered a victory yesterday, but the cost of this victory — and the cost of a loss — were never truly counted.
To fully recognise this, it’s necessary to pull back from the immediacy of this week’s flurry of news. For months, human rights groups had criticised the contents of the Religious Discrimination Bill on a number of fronts; the lack of meaningful protections for minority religions, and the state-law-overriding statement of belief clauses as two examples. On Monday however, a new aspect of this bill emerged; protections for gay kids, to the exclusion of trans kids.
This was introduced as a concession by the government; they’d spare the gay kids as long as trans kids were still fair game. An act so brazen might’ve been surprising in another government, but years of unfilled promises to religious lobby groups like The Australian Christian Lobby and a looming election made this decision of matter of pragmatism. Modern politics is a seemingly endless stream of frustration and disappointment, but there was a particular venom in the way this strategy shaped the conversation.
Without warning, the country was plunged into yet another debate on exactly how far it is reasonable to extend human rights protections before they become too cumbersome on religious sensibilities. The buzz word of the day became “wedged”; a term that seemingly described a situation where you didn’t get to have a bob each way, and might actually have to take a position on an issue. All eyes fell to Labor’s response, which remained conspicuously absent; as it had for the entire duration of the debate thus far.
With the heat turned up, Labor started to shape a strategy around this new focus on trans kids. MP Stephen Jones gave an immensely moving speech on the way the bill before the house might impact his son, and the impact of previous years’ rhetoric on his late nephew. The speech, championed by many other Labor MPs, highlighted how deeply Labor understood the issue before them. It highlighted how real the harms were, how human the costs. For a moment, it seemed the party had coalesced its mixed messages into a cohesive statement in support of those who are most vulnerable.
Then came the parliamentary strategy.
Labor promised it would move amendments to “fix” the bill — inclusive of one to extend protections to trans young people — but not block it in the house. It also indicated that, if unsuccessful, it would move those same amendments in the senate. Lastly, if it could not secure these amendments in the house, it would pass it in the senate regardless and repeal it if they were elected. Such a strategy acknowledges the deep understanding of the issue as demonstrated in Jones’ speech, and then callously discards it in favour of the maximal electoral outcome for the party.
What Labor’s impassioned speeches about protecting trans kids failed to acknowledge, however, was the astonishingly obvious notion that trans kids will grow up to become trans adults. The hyper focus on the Sex Discrimination Act amendments created a discussion that completely glossed over the other, significantly detrimental aspects of the bill; aspects that Labor had not secured support in amending. The bill that Labor had reluctantly agreed to pass (and repeal) should their amendments be rejected contained plenty that would impact the health and wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ people in schools, in health care, and in the workplace. The bill was just as damaging to this cohort as it was on Sunday before the Sex Discrimination Act amendments were even introduced, but the spotlight had shifted and the remaining harm would live in the shadow of Labor’s emphatic announcements of the salvation of trans kids.
The lives of LGBTQIA+ Australians were placed on the table like poker chips. Labor could successfully navigate the complex parliamentary game, stalling out the bill until the end of the sitting calendar without ever having to take a position, or it could accidentally enable a significant winding back of the rights of marginalised groups in Australia. These are high stakes, but what’s often not acknowledged is it’s not just about winning or losing, it’s also about the cost to play in the first place.
In this case, the cost was the wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ people as they watched both major parties dither on whether or not their rights should be upheld. The stress and the anxiety on both children and adults alike was not a necessary component of this debate. The feelings of betrayal, of abandonment were not a necessary outcome of this debate; they could’ve easily been avoided through a clear party position. The ongoing reiteration that their rights are only as secure as they are politically expedient is a cruel notion that undercuts trust in politics, leadership, and society. Years of searching for Labor support against this bill had culminated in days of anxiety and abandonment as the party showed its hand, though fortunately for all of us, it was enough.
In a stroke of twisted luck — akin to missing your trip on the titanic because you were struck by lightning on the way there — the broader LGBTQIA+ community was spared harm by virtue of the sheer, unmitigated hatred the government feels towards transgender children. In a fortuitous swing, Labor had turned this wedge into a lever, upending the government’s legislation. Liberal MP’s crossed the floor to successfully support an amendment to protect trans kids in private schools, unravelling the government’s bill before their eyes.
As it turns out, much of the bill had simply been window dressing. Returning to the catalyst from which the bill originated, it became clear that the most important part for the government’s stakeholders was revenge. Same sex marriage was an affront to institutions who felt no obligation to relinquish power, and there was the expectation that the perceived loss on marriage would be supplemented by a gain somewhere else. When trans kids received those basic protections, The Australian Christian Lobby immediately withdrew its support for the bill, killing the government’s primary impetus to pass the legislation in the first place. Despite the myriad of other gains remaining in the legislation on top of the standard anti-discrimination framework that had been so loudly called for, the bill was no longer fit for its original purpose.
The bill entered the senate, but was not debated as a result of a Greens motion. With that, the bill died a quiet death; withdrawn by the government, neutralised as a campaign strategy, and unfulfilled as a campaign promise.
Ultimately though, the thing that struck me most throughout this saga is how easily we could’ve ended up with this terrible legislation passing. Had the government and those to whom it is beholden ceded ground on the issue of trans young people, the bill likely would’ve found clear passage. Labor would celebrate the protections they negotiated while doing everything within their power to not acknowledge the harmful aspects that remained, while the Liberals would walk away with an electoral gift on the eve of a federal election. All that stood between us and this outcome was the unmentionable disdain held for trans young people by powerful religious lobbies.
Labor collected their chips, crowing their victory in spaces previously filled with conspicuous silence. Meanwhile, the marginalised Australians who have watched their worth be debated for the last week — if not the last 4 years — are left to quietly pick ourselves up. We’ll keep holding our breath until the next time we need a miracle, or for Labor to take a stand.
Maybe those two things are one and the same.