As the weeks wear on since the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill was unveiled, Labor’s silence becomes more conspicuous and troubling with every day.

The Labor Party says it is consulting, which is the right things to do. But it also says it is waiting to see the final legislation before it gives its in-principle position, which definitely isn’t the right thing to do.

The Government has put its cards on the table. Why not Labor? 

Pause for a moment to reflect on how bad the Government’s bill is. It is the first anti-discrimination bill in Australian history to actually roll back existing discrimination protections.

It punches a hole in all existing federal discrimination laws. It even goes so far as to override state legislation, explicitly in the case of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act, but potentially in every state, which is something the Morrison Government promised not to do.

The bill robs LGBTIQ people, people with disability, women, racial minorities, and many others, of fundamental rights.

Almost all of the laws the Government’s bill undermines, and almost all the rights it erases, are Labor legacies. The Government’s bill is one of the most concerted attacks ever on the anti-discrimination laws and the values that help define Labor’s purpose. 

On top of that, almost everyone hates the bill.

Human rights lawyers and minority communities have mercilessly exposed the devastating impact the Bill would have if passed.

Religious freedom warriors and conservative Christian leaders say it does not do what they want, and may actually make things worse for them.

Yet, Labor remains silent, with the exception of Tania Plibersek saying it would be hard for Labor to support the proposed state override.

Holes punched? Silence

The vulnerable made more so? Silence

Labor’s legacy rolled back? Silence.

If Labor came out against the bill now, it would be sunk. The Greens, the Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie all seem to dislike it.

If Labor declared its opposition to the bill now, the Morrison Government would have to go back to the drawing board to develop a bill that is about stopping discrimination rather than promoting it.

If Labor said “no” now, there would be more time and opportunity to educate the general public about why this bill is not what it seems. This would be of immense benefit to the LGBTIQ community in Australia.

A recent large-scale national survey by just.equal found LGBTIQ Australians feel worse now, due to the religious discrimination and freedom debate, than during the postal survey.

We know for a fact that the pressure created by the postal survey was life threatening. Labor’s public opposition to the Religious Discrimination Bill would literally save lives.

So, what is holding Labor back from condemning the bill?

I’m not just asking about federal Labor. Even state Labor governments are silent despite the Religious Discrimination Bill taking away their power to make stronger discrimination laws.

Labor’s federal election loss has been used by the party’s social conservatives, and especially western Sydney Labor MPs afraid of losing their seats, to roll back the party’s commitments to equality and human rights, including LGBTIQ rights.

You might have heard some of them talk in the media about Labor “reconnecting with religious voters.” That’s nonsense. Prior to the last election, the ABC Vote Compass showed only 1% of voters thought religious freedom was a top priority.

Labor lost the election because of scare campaigns about death taxes, franking credits and negative gearing, coupled with Clive Palmer’s $60 million “Shifty Shorten” ad blitz and concern over mining jobs in Queensland.

It seems particularly unjust that vulnerable LGBTIQ people are now paying the price for a billionaire’s folly and Labor’s poor campaign messaging.

It is also historically ironic that Tasmania’s progressive discrimination laws are at risk because Labor is worried about seats in Sydney.

Labor apologists have said to me “if LGBTIQ people want Labor to support progressive laws they have to vote us in at the next election”.

My response, “there’s no point LGBTIQ people voting Labor if it’s not willing to stand up for us when we need it, which is now!”

Major-party strategists made marriage equality a small target during the postal survey in 2017. Transgender people, LGBTIQ school students, and LGBTIQ people in western Sydney and regional Queensland, paid the price for that.

We must loudly and angrily reject the same small-target approach Labor has now adopted. Too much is at stake.

 If Labor supports the Government’s current legislation, like it supported the same-sex marriage ban in 2004, the LGBTIQ community will be have to fight a decade-long battle to stave off further incursions under the banner of “religious freedom”, let alone win back what we lost. 

If Labor has a conscience vote on the Religious Discrimination Bill, like it did on marriage equality in 2011, the effect will be exactly the same.

We must demand of Labor nothing less than a whole-of-party vote against this pernicious legislation, and we must demand it ever more forcefully.

I know the Morrison Government and its awful bill are the problem. But given the make-up of the Parliament, Labor and its foundational values are the solution.

Yes, we should continue to protest the Government giving religions special rights. 

But we must also put Labor on notice that its current silence, and any repeat of its past compromises, are no longer acceptable.  

Rodney Croome is a long-time LGBTIQ equality advocate and a spokesperson for Equality Tasmania and just.equal

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