Being the broad-church of competing and regressive conceptions of ‘freedom’ and ‘prejudice’ that it is, the Liberal-National Party has come together in its party room for the umpteenth time to say things at each other, get confused, achieve nothing, and go home. Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week told reporters in Canberra that he would legislate his party’s beleaguered Religious Discrimination Bill ‘in the near future’. Bless his little cotton socks. Somebody needs to tell him the 46th Parliament of Australia will be dissolving at some point within the next six weeks for the purpose of calling a Federal election. But never underestimate the danger of a bumbling conservative. Morrison is a Trump-wannabe and like Trump (and the similarly self-styled dag that is Boris Johnson), Morrison and his party are more than capable of energising the prejudices of their base to manufacture consent for the original Bill while achieving their electoral outcomes.
Morrison’s federal government desperately wants to legislate its Bill to appease somebody, anybody, under the guise of religious protections. The premise of the bill is simple: the illegalisation of discrimination against individuals and groups based on religion. The thing is, religious groups—particularly institutionalised Christian ones that are tethered to the public purse through the ownership of major social service infrastructure such as private education, health care, aged care, child protection, employment services and disability support services (even the private ones receive continuous funding from the taxpayer) —are really what the government means when it says it wants to protect ‘religious freedom’. This easy path to discrimination would be facilitated by the ‘statement of belief’ feature of the Bill.
In a press release, the Hindu Council of Australia asserted its strong opposition to the bill. Dubbing it the ‘No jobs for Hindus Bill’, the Hindu Council has rightfully pointed out that if the Bill were to become law, any business could claim to ‘have a religion’ and in doing so would be legally (and ironically) allowed to sack employees on the basis of their religion.
The Liberal-National Coalition as a whole has shown itself to be thoroughly unsure if eroding human rights—notably those of children—is an acceptable thing to do with the powers of the state. When word of the Bill first dribbled out of Morrison’s mouth in 2018, it had a whiff of revenge: a reactionary attempt to wind back some dignities won following the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2017. There have been three versions of the Bill since then, all of them working to legalise hate against trans people, including children. The moderates of the Liberal Party (who have the gall to call themselves ‘socially progressive and economically conservative’ while being staunchly anti-trans) twisted Morrison’s arm, and the Bill’s most recent iteration included a provision to protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in schools. However, having come to realise that LGBTQI+ refers to trans children, too, the Liberal Party redrafted the bill to protect cisgender children in denominational private schools regardless of their ‘sexual identity’ while legalising discrimination against children who are not cisgender.
This change alone would mean children who are trans, non-binary, gender-questioning or another non-cis gender could be expelled or otherwise discriminated against by any private school, business, organisation or institution that declares itself to be religious. The problem with localising the legalisation of discrimination against trans children in settings such as private schools is the way such provisions greenlight hate and inspire violence in the wider community. The legal protection of discrimination only normalises prejudice.
The grotesque and deeply cruel spectacle surrounding the Bill has produced a torrent of torment and grief for trans and non-binary people. So where has the federal opposition landed on this? Adrift on a sea of unfocused focus groups, Labor sailed straight past solidarity and lay anchor in Cynical Bay. After multiple displays of grandstanding by Labor MPs on the importance of (checks notes) allowing trans people to have human rights, the Party never once attempted to kill the bill. At one point, it announced via Twitter what appeared to be a plan to throw trans and non-binary children to the wolves in February (that is to say, now) while promising to (maybe) call off the wolves when the 47th parliament sits in August, so long as they win the federal election in May. Nevertheless, it was an amendment protecting trans students raised by independent MP Rebecca Sharkie and supported by Labor and five dissenting Liberal MPs that got the hodgepodge Bill through to the Senate.
Ultimately, the government shelved the Bill indefinitely pending an inquiry. Labor audaciously called it a win when, really, by failing to summon the decency to flat out reject the Bill, it ensured trans lives would remain indefinitely a subject of public debate.
It is important to note that Labor’s amendment did not offer any protection to trans adults who work in schools and would still allow schools to practice prejudice against trans staff and teachers. Through its Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally, the Party has publicly stated it won’t commit to rejecting a Religious Discrimination Bill that offers the ability for schools to practice transphobia and homophobia. It has instead chosen to refer the basic human rights of trans people to the Australian Law Reform Commission for review. ‘I think [trans and non-binary] teachers and other staff are in a slightly different category than children. And so it’s straightforward with children, we [Labor] think there are some slight complexities with adults,’ Keneally told the ABC.
If Labor truly cares about trans lives, they will resolve them being reduced to election fodder. They can do this by actioning a genuine position of solidarity when it comes to justice for trans and non-binary people. Since the Bill has been shelved, the Liberal Party—with the exception of a handful of dissenters—and the Australian Christian Lobby have publicly stated they won’t support anything less than the original draft, which allows the practice of discrimination against any child or adult based on their gender and sexuality.
There are three education systems in Australia: public education (‘free’ secular schools operated by state and territory governments), the Catholic school system (low fee-paying denominational schools) and Independent schools (high fee-paying denominational and non-denominational schools; some of which are Catholic but not part of the Catholic system). As a non-binary public-school teacher and as someone who attended public schools as a kid, I am stirred to think about how the rise of this insidious piece of potential legislation can become a useable argument for the abolition of private schools. No trans child should be discriminated against, period. Doesn’t matter what school they attend. It is abhorrent and morally indefensible for any government to suggest transphobia is an acceptable practice if you’re rich enough to subject your kids to an educational environment that actively incites prejudice against trans and non-binary people. Transphobia should not be rendered permissible just because a transphobe can afford to send their kids to a high fee-paying denominational school. There is already enough anti-trans prejudice in the general community, including in public-school communities, without giving rich people a pass to exercise hate.
To contemplate an alternative, it can be useful to consider Finland, where famously there are no private schools. Parents send their kids to the nearest public school where they don’t pay a single solitary cent for their education. Unlike in Australia where public schools are only ‘free’ in the sense that there is no fee to attend one, public schools in Finland are free in every aspect: lunch is free and provided, transport to and from school is free, equipment is free, excursions are free, uniforms are free, and so on. Finland’s public education system is also fully funded, unlike Australia’s, in which 99 per cent of public schools are languishing below the national resource standard while 99 per cent of private schools either meet or exceed the standard.
Finland’s education system is a truly public one and in terms of educational outcomes is often rated the best in the world. It is also a system in which a government like the Morrison government would struggle to privatise schools into havens of state-and-faith-approved discrimination. Obviously, the Finnish model isn’t without its issues, but it is leagues ahead of Australia’s senseless practice of using taxpayer money to overfund private schools. As I pointed out in 2019, Independent schools on average receive at least 42 per cent of their funding from the taxpayer via federal and state government channels. If the Religious Discrimination Bill passes, it is taxpayers who will be unwittingly bankrolling discrimination against trans children and adults at private schools. For The Guardian, Melissa Benn writes Finland ‘recognised that a profoundly unequal education system did not simply reproduce inequality down the generations, but weakened the fabric of the nation itself.’ Benn explains how following the abolition of private schools, educational gaps along class divides closed. Seeing as Australia’s classist three-tiered education system already reproduces educational inequalities, there is no good reason to give private schools more power to perpetuate and entrench hate against trans people.
In Against Capitalist Education, Nadim Bakhshov makes an argument for teaching children to imagine their own utopias ‘and then compare them to what they actually have.’ What they actually have, in our case, is the Coalition ‘maintaining the historic role of the Australian government as the majority funder of non-government schools.’ The tired idea that public schools would somehow be catastrophically overwhelmed if private schools were abolished is a furphy. Abolition means taxpayers would own the educational infrastructure for which they have already paid and so all the private schools the taxpayer has overfunded for decades would be legislated into public ownership.
This could be achieved in one step: legislating the prohibition of school fees. In Finland, denominational schools still exist, but their attendance is free of charge, like every other school’s. It is an imperfect model that wouldn’t altogether prevent something like the Religious Discrimination Bill getting legs, but abolition in Finland has demonstrated that when all schools are free, equally funded, and connected by a shared ethos of basic human rights for all students, the public education system ends up producing the best educational outcomes in the world, year-on-year.
Another outcome is Finland’s marked lack of appetite for sending its education system backwards by enshrining hate against trans people in law. Prohibiting school fees is one possibility. Education systems should be built to enhance life and foster justice. An education system that is built on discrimination is a system that carves out new injustices while exacerbating old ones. Australia’s three-tiered education system already does that without the Religious Discrimination Bill making it worse. Abolition is evidence-based practice. If we’re serious about creating an education system focused on enhancing school life and fostering justice, private schools should be abolished altogether with their resources and assets seized and folded into a reimagined public system.
With the Bill now back to square one, the Liberal Party is seeking to create special zones or ‘islands’ that are exempt from current anti-discrimination laws at state, national and international levels, predicated on a flimsy and narrow idea of ‘religious freedom’. Independent schools like Citipointe Christian College in Brisbane have already attempted to enact discriminatory anti-LGBTQI+ policies on its student body that would be made legal under the Religious Discrimination Bill. Although the school serves a Pentecostal community, its anti-LGBTQI+ policies were met with severe backlash from its own students, parents and community. So why is the prime minister bothering with a bill that is unpopular amongst the constituents it claims to reflect? A simple answer would be that Morrison has been ensnared yet again by one of his big-brain pet projects to give the appearance of taking proactive action on something, anything, without actually doing much.
As a Federal election looms, it is possible we have gained some reassurance from the clownish spectacle of the Morrison government constantly tripping over its own ideological feet and falling down an Escheresque staircase going nowhere and everywhere at the same time. However, the debacle surrounding the Religious Discrimination Bill would be reassuring if it weren’t for the Morrison government’s track record of failing upwards. Although the Bill has been shelved indefinitely, the lack of resolution and lack of commitment from Labor to kill it has heightened what is already a dangerous atmosphere for trans and non-binary people. Instead, we should roundly reject it for what it is: an attack on some of the most vulnerable children in our communities. Education systems should be built to abolish prejudice and produce justice. Trans kids deserve the same life as anybody else and this is what must be fiercely protected: a childhood free from being legislated into exclusion and a childhood in which trans kids are free to be kids.
Image: Matt Hrkac