Flat White

Vic Libs in a right muddle over Daniel Andrews’s conversion bill

3 February 2021

1:30 PM

3 February 2021

1:30 PM

It seems the Victorian Liberal-National Opposition is taking strategic advice from the same people who are advising embattled Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire.

On Thursday, the controversial Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 is due to be debated in the Legislative Council, where Daniel Andrews’s Labor government doesn’t have a majority. But with the strong support of the Greens and two independents, including influential Fiona Patten, the Bill will pass.

This is despite serious and publicly-expressed concerns by Christian churches, Muslim leaders, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and the Australian Medical Association that the Bill is well-intentioned but far too broad and vague.  The fear is that not only will health professionals, people of faith or even parents cannot question a person’s decisions about their sexuality or gender, but cannot discuss with, inform, counsel or otherwise advise them on their choices and risks without the fear of prosecution.

They’re right.  The reach of the Bill is too broad.  What constitutes a change or suppression practice is too vague.  The government insists there’s nothing to fear but the Bill itself gives no such assurances or statutory protections or defences to protect people giving professional or pastoral advice in good faith. Proposed mechanisms for dealing with complaints and prosecutions are too biased in favour of complainants, and can be read to assume a complainant is never in the wrong.  The policy issues of balancing competing freedoms – a person’s freedom to be who they want to be on the one hand, and other people’s freedom of speech and freedom of thought and religion generally on the other, also have not been resolved satisfactorily.

Formal public consultation the Bill has been minimal. As far as the Andrews government is concerned, it’s honouring an election promise to the gay community and outlawing repugnant practices – and nobody sensible is seriously disputing the good intention behind that commitment, or opposing that intent.  But to question whether the legislation is fully fit for purpose is not to be a homophobe or bigot.

The Victorian Opposition shares most if not all of these reservations while not opposing the legislation’s intent, and plans to move amendments to the Bill to rectify its serious flaws.  It also wants a parliamentary inquiry to ensure there is widespread consultation.  But they clearly fear the Daniel Andrews approach to principled opposition: being smeared as being anti-LGBTI because they don’t agree with everything Andrews says or does.

So the Opposition has decided not to oppose the Bill if its amendments fail.  The easy path of least political resistance.

What it should be doing is making a stand against bad legislation.  Instead of passively passing the Bill if they don’t get what they want, they should make it absolutely clear that this Bill is flawed, and the future consequences of those flaws must be owned by Andrews and his government.

Therefore, the Opposition should move their amendments and make sure they’re debated.  If it still remains unamended, it should finally vote against the Bill as a whole.

Those who support the principle of prohibiting dangerous and immoral suppression and conversion practices being targeted by the legislation then will be able to say that they held their line to the end, but accept the upper house numbers were overwhelming.  For the great majority of Coalition MPs who support the intent of the legislation, their consciences would then be satisfied.  They tried to improve the legislation but ultimately failed.  For the handful who don’t, they would not have the self-glorifying excuse to showboat themselves by crossing the floor to give Andrews a political victory and the media a ready served-up story of an open Liberal split.

That the Andrews government is playing wedge politics on such a moral and ethical issue is disgraceful.  But the Victorian Coalition’s response shouldn’t be to simply cave in to the Premier.  If an Opposition’s job is to hold a government to account while maintaining its dignity, it must be willing to do that on the floor of the parliament itself.  But that takes both political courage and tactical nous.

On this flawed Bill, there’s still time for Victorian Opposition MPs to prove they have both.

Terry Barnes edits the Spectator Australia’s Morning Double Shot daily email. You can sign up here.

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