New Internationalist

Australia’s government is gutting progressive legislation

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A legacy to be proud of: Abbott is leading Australia backwards. pleasebrain.com under a Creative Commons Licence

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and his stridently right-wing government are pursuing increasingly extremist policies, which range from repealing racial discrimination laws to prejudicial treatment of LGBTI people.

Long before becoming prime minister towards the end of last year, Tony Abbott had established a reputation as a conservative firebrand. Like so many of that ilk, he made the regular denunciations of ‘political correctness’, global warming, women’s rights, gay rights and anything else considered remotely progressive. 

The Racial Discrimination Act and specifically 18C of that Act, which makes it an offence to ‘insult, offend, humiliate or intimidate someone on the basis of their race’, was one of the first pieces of legislation targeted.  

Lawmakers inserted the amendment 18C in 1995 to strengthen laws against racism following a spate of high profile attacks against people in ethnic minority communities. 

The left and centre of the political spectrum have met the proposed changes with a chorus of condemnation.

The symbolism of this rearguard action has not been lost on Australia’s minority communities, who were already wary of Abbott’s record on these issues before he assumed power. But the government still seems committed to repealing the ‘offending’ provision in the interests of upholding free speech following a review by the Attorney General. 

Abbott also risks damaging Australia’s global reputation when it comes to gay rights. Again, he has form in this area, as a longstanding critic of equal treatment for LGBTI Australians. 

Abbott has insisted that there will be no softening of his party’s opposition to legal equality for same-sex couples. This is despite opinion polls showing that a clear majority of Australians favour marriage equality and the fact that his own sister is gay and has expressed a desire to marry her partner. He has even ruled out a conscience vote, which would allow more enlightened members of his party caucus to support equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation.

Australia now faces being left behind as many other countries move towards greater acceptance of LGBTI equality and specifically marriage equality, which is becoming more common across the western world. This includes neighbouring New Zealand, which passed an Equal Marriage Act in 2013, and whose supporters included conservative Prime-Minister John Key.

Much like other key social reforms such as female suffrage and black civil rights in the US, the right of same-sex couples to marry will eventually be recognized in all civilized societies – including Australia – and history will not be kind to political leaders such as Tony Abbott (and indeed his predecessor Julia Gillard) who frustrated moves towards such a landmark equality outcome. 

Treatment of asylum seekers is another black mark on Abbot’s record. Australia has long faced international criticism for its treatment of asylum seekers, which includes sending refugee applicants to two detention centres outside the country itself, in Papua New Guinea.

A report published recently by Amnesty International highlighted cruel and harsh conditions at the detention centre on Manus Island and pointed specifically to a hostile environment for LGBTI asylum seekers. 

Papua New Guinea punishes same-sex relations with up to 14 years imprisonment and Amnesty has condemned the Australian government for sending people fleeing homophobic persecution to a country whose laws dictate similar abusive and degrading treatment. 

Even more disturbingly, the Amnesty report has documented that Australian immigration officers on the island have told LGBTI asylum seekers that they will be reported to local police if they engage in same-sex sexual activity. Condoms were also said to be prohibited at the facility.

Not only is such behaviour by officials deeply offensive, it also flies in the face of Australian government policy, which opposes criminalization of homosexuality.

Tony Abbott and his government have been in office for less than a year. In that time, their actions have tarnished Australia’s image in the eyes of the international community. Progressives face big challenges ahead in countering their country’s increasingly extremist course.

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