Many in the community will like the sound of a bill of rights for Australia. But a bad bill could potentially be worse for us than none at all.
GLBT lobby groups around the country have greeted the idea optimistically, and they are right to urge us all to get involved in the submission process.
But be cautious before assuming this process will result in a bill that will deliver any acceleration on the path to real and final equality for non-heterosexual people in this country.
Kevin Rudd’s choice of Frank Brennan as the head of the committee that will shape the bill is the chief reason for my caution here.
Some readers may remember Brennan as the Catholic priest and lawyer who spoke out against the NSW Government granting police special powers to act against protestors during World Youth Day.
Amongst Catholic Australians, Father Frank Brennan is undoubtedly a liberal, but he is still an ordained clergyman and the head of the Australian Catholic University’s Institute of Legal Studies -” making him doubly an employee of the Catholic Church.
And while describing himself as a fence-sitter on the need for a bill of rights, he is also on the record opposing many of the rights such a charter would ideally contain.
He opposes euthanasia, and abortion in almost all circumstances. He believes recognition of same-sex couples should fall short of that given to relationships which are open to the bearing -¦ of children. And he believes strongly that religious groups and the businesses they own should be allowed to exclude employees on the basis of their sexuality. The same legal loopholes allow for the expulsion of GLBT students from religious schools.
Should religious privileges to discriminate be reaffirmed through this process (and have no doubt that members of the Christian Right will be pushing for exactly this), such a bill of rights could actually become a barrier to same-sex equality, not a boon.
Moreover, as this right to discriminate isn’t an individual one, but a corporate right held by church hierarchies alone, it could enshrine a power by which religious leaders can punish dissenting views within their flocks -” holding back debate on our issues within faith communities.
Sounds from the Government seem to indicate a preference for a charter model that merely tidies up established rights and leaves little room for court challenges on contentious issues such as our own.
Should a bill of rights be implemented before the introduction of federal anti-discrimination laws covering sexuality, it could muddy the waters there too.
Most likely this will be a grand symbolic gesture with little new at its core, but the mere chance of existing wrongs being cemented by this process demands our vigilance.