19 August 2020

Why 'symbolic' legislation is necessary for our Territory's integrity

| Zoya Patel
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Legislation banning gay conversion therapy confirms the social progressiveness that informs our government. Photo: File.

Today or next Thursday (27 August), the ACT Legislative Assembly will finalise legislation to formally ban gay conversion therapy in our Territory. The legislation has sparked a round of public debate about what classifies as conversion therapy, and how the rights of LGBTQI+ people conflict with or intersect with religious freedom.

Interestingly, in my circles, it has also triggered a question around what the purpose is of the legislation in a small jurisdiction like the ACT where most people presume the hardcore gay conversion therapy programs we’ve seen in larger cities and overseas simply don’t exist.

Putting aside the specifics of this legislation itself (and whether or not there is, in fact, a secret gay conversion camp hiding out in the bushland in Canberra), it raises an interesting philosophical question: what is the point of enshrining in legislation a principle that won’t have any practical impact as the issue at its core may not be present in Canberra?

A similar example is when the ACT banned battery farming in the egg industry – a noble and important position to hold (in my opinion) but a relatively easy Bill to pass given there was only one active battery cage farm in Canberra, a scenario wildly different to our NSW and Victorian counterparts where the industry is much larger.

READ MORE Laws to ban gay conversion therapy introduced in Assembly

To some people I’ve spoken with, there is a level of frustration when our legislature spends time on these seemingly irrelevant topics of concern, when there are ‘real’ issues facing Canberrans today that need immediate and practical attention – like the continued failure of public transport to meet the needs of Canberrans at the far reaches of our city, or the concerns over development and access to Lake Burley Griffin, to name the two examples used by my friends in this debate.

But I would argue that legislation should actively seek to improve the future of our Territory, before the issues in question negatively impact citizens, rather than only putting out fires once they’ve burned through the city.

In the case of gay conversion therapy, clearly outlining the rights of the queer community, and actively protecting queer young people from being abused at the hands of homophobic programs that seek to force them back into the closet is an important and timely piece of legislation that ensures that there are legal grounds for shutting down this abuse as it rears its ugly head.

And as an aside, if religious schools are worried that this legislation will prevent them from counselling young people against homosexuality, that’s kind of the entire point – it is harmful to enforce a negative suppression of anyone’s sexuality, which we know from the rates of suicide in queer teens.

Similarly with battery cages in the egg industry, having a clear political statement on animal welfare is one way that the ACT can then push for better national standards for hen welfare, which it has done consistently since this legislation came into force.

As a citizen of Canberra, having these seemingly ‘symbolic’ pieces of legislation brought to the table fills me with a sense of pride in the Territory I belong to and confirms the integrity with which values of social progressiveness inform our government.

Of course, legislation that intersects with morals, religion and values will always be controversial, but progress is only made by drawing a clear line in the sand, even if the beach in question isn’t anywhere near our borders.

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In a free country you should always be able to state your beliefs regardless if others dont agree- its called freedom of speech

Mike of Canberra2:55 pm 21 Aug 20

Given we have had a gay Chief Minister for the last 6 years, it’s highly unlikely any practice that infers that gays can be “converted” (of course they can’t and it shouldn’t be tried) would not, long ago, have been banished from this Territory. I find it particularly interesting that, as we approach what looks to be a tight Territory election, Barr should suddenly happen on this topic, presumably in the hope that this will swing enough undecided voters his way to ensure his re-election. I certainly wouldn’t put such cynicism past him. Of course, when we approach elections where tired old hubristic governments such as Barr’s are desperately begging for another chance, it’s hardly surprising that meaningless stunts become the order of the day.

Patrick McIvor9:05 am 21 Aug 20

I honestly can’t tell whether you are arging for or against this. Conversion therapy “isn’t anywhere near our borders” but banning it would be a nice symbol. As a survivor of these practices, which by the way, do exist, quite honestly it’s disappointing to have both sides of the debate saying that this is an imagined or symbolic issue. If you want to help, great! But try starting with some research on the issue. It strikes me that your opinion piece says we should draw a “clear line in the sand”, but Zoya you seem to be doing your best to sit on the fence.

HiddenDragon8:00 pm 20 Aug 20

Kim Beazley talked about the need for governments to “walk and chew gum at the same time” – most voters and taxpayers are probably happy enough for governments to blow the occasional (gum) bubble, as long as the walking is brisk and purposeful, not interrupted by avoidable stumbles, and not of the Ministry of Silly Walks variety.

For the same reasons the ACT Government should now be enacting legislation to formally ban human sacrifice, slavery, public executions, tomb raiding and praemunire . Unfortunately it is still not a crime to vote for the looney Greens, who are behind this latest silliness.

Symbolic legislation is nothing more than virtue signalling.
The legislation being pushed through right now is detrimental to the mental health of children, just to placate people who want to groom them.

Martin Keast12:03 pm 20 Aug 20

No legislation is “symbolic” – it creates a category of criminal behaviour and sanctions for that behaviour. The trouble is this bill as presented has the potential to criminalise parents, churches and Christian schools who hold to a biblical sexual ethic and view of marriage or who hold to the position, well supported by science, that gender is a biologically fixed fact not a social construct. The loose definition of ‘conversion practices’ potentially includes such things as prayer, preaching, pastoral counselling and reading certain parts of the Bible – it must be tightened significantly. Similarly the potential list of people who could be sanctioned is very large; again, protections for Christian churches and schools and parents must be specifically provided in this bill.

The legislation in its entirety needs to be thrown in the bin. It essentially criminalises parents for doing anything but playing along with mental illness.

Martin Keast12:38 pm 21 Aug 20

Agreed – this is a dangerous area. I can imagine a Royal Commission 30 years from now condemning this sort of legislation as opening the flood gates for well-meaning harm to a lot of children over some wrong-headed identity politics agenda.

That is a very valid point.

If they think about it, I’m sure many people could come up with a number of times in the past when bad things have been done and the authorities have been powerless to take action because there wasn’t suitable legislation at the time.

That type of situation can easily lead to bad legislation as the government rapidly tries to plug the hole while fending off a rabid media and public all wanting then loophole closed and the perpetrators punished somehow.

Better to be proactive.

Hmmm, Yes.

I think we need to enact a law on Thoughtcrime to cover all future possibilities.

Better to be proactive.

You do realise that governments don’t actually have to enact knee-jerk legislation in response to an incident? And that slow, thoughtful and targetted legislation is far superior.

You don’t fix one problem by creating far bigger ones.

Capital Retro8:22 am 20 Aug 20

“………..the ACT can then push for better national standards for hen welfare………..”

If this means protecting them from the bird flu that is currently wiping out ten of thousands of chooks in Victoria than I support it.

I don’t think I could disagree more.

If any legislation is enacted because it’s “symbolic”, it should not be enacted. Ever.

What is the point in doing something that achieves nothing?

And not only that, sometimes the interaction of these symbolic pieces of legislation has unforseen negative impacts on other rights or freedoms or even when it interacts with other pieces of existing legislation.

As the author admits with the laws on “gay conversion” therapy, it could have more wide ranging effects outside of the scope of how it’s been sold, whether you agree with those impacts or not.

On a side note, no one really thinks gay conversion therapy is a thing in the ACT do they?

Our laws are where we set the key rules for our society and should be limited to areas where there is a real need for control or limitations. Wherever possible, we should always be erring on the side of less laws and more freedoms.

Laws aren’t the place to seek something to make you “feel proud”, and I’m almost certain if the author disagreed with the moral positions being legislated by the government, her position on this would be diametrically opposed.

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