Why ‘symbolic’ legislation is necessary for our Territory’s integrity

Zoya Patel 19 August 2020 31
Rainbow roundbout

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.


What's Your Opinion?


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31 Responses to Why ‘symbolic’ legislation is necessary for our Territory’s integrity
Steve McLeish Steve McLeish 1:18 pm 22 Aug 20

Symbolic Legislation.

David Connell David Connell 2:18 am 22 Aug 20

Children! Children should not have any ideology of any sort enforced on them of a sexual nature. Let them be children, stop grooming them with these crazy ideas

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 5:07 pm 22 Aug 20

    I agree. Ideas about sexuality should not be forced on them. This legislation is to protect against the most extreme of that, as done by some religious groups. They should be left to be children, not groomed and brainwashed to go through these sickening conversion therapies.

    David Connell David Connell 8:56 pm 22 Aug 20

    the conversion therapy is what is taking place after brain washing has already occurred. this seems to suggest that "conversion therapy" ( broad term to define any form of questioning a child's sexual identity, no matter how messed up from LGBQT indoctrination that has already occurred) suggests it is forced upon unwillingly. This is not the case, as any conversion therapy in it's true form is something people enter into willingly.

    The hypocrisy is astounding! it's basically saying: it is ok to indoctrinate and confuse children with ideology they shouldn't be exposed to, but it's completely not okay to question the indoctrination. Leave kids alone!

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 9:50 pm 22 Aug 20

    David Connell Telling children to accept people for who they are, and have respect, whether they be female/male, straight/gay, whatever race, etc is not indoctrination. It's guiding children to be civilised people and nice people. What are you suggesting, or more worrying, wanting? This legislation is to stop the extreme, cruel practices of gay conversion; ie, not accepting people for who they are by nature. It's not to imitate these practices by forcing people to be who they are not.

O L O L 3:46 pm 21 Aug 20

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 Canberra Mike of Canberra 2:55 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.

Fred Pilcher Fred Pilcher 12:38 pm 21 Aug 20

Of course we do. With strong penalties against any moron who practices this disgusting activity.

Patrick McIvor Patrick McIvor 9:05 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.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 8:00 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.

Acton Acton 2:20 pm 20 Aug 20

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.

ssek ssek 12:20 pm 20 Aug 20

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 Keast Martin Keast 12:03 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.

    ssek ssek 12:53 pm 20 Aug 20

    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 Keast Martin Keast 12:38 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.

Spiral Spiral 9:02 am 20 Aug 20

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.

    chewy14 chewy14 10:27 am 20 Aug 20

    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.

Henry Kivimaki Henry Kivimaki 8:51 am 20 Aug 20

No. Because this is a dishonest bill is a direct attack on freedom of speech and religion, parents and teachers who adhere to traditional views of marriage and sexuality. If anyone is even mildly offended from the Alphabets by someone whom would even dare to suggest another path in life...." they were trying to convert me..." hence making that mum,dad teacher or anyone potentially a criminal for simply sharing their views,faith etc . Its a direct attack and very subversive and dishonest. Shame on the Labor greens for even the lack of transparency and public consultation.

    Joey Mann Joey Mann 12:05 pm 20 Aug 20

    Being an "alphabet", as you put it, isn't a "path in life" that we can choose. It's an immutable, integral part of who we are. Just like our race. So yes, I would be very offended if some crank like you demanded that I changed.

    Conversion "therapy" is not the mere suggestion that a person impossibly take "another path in life". It is a systematic approach of dehumanising queer people by making them associate their immutable characteristics with mental anguish and physical pain. Therapists are coercive and queer young people are typically subjected to their violence under threat of ostracism or even violence by their own families and communities - not consensually. It is, put plainly, torture.

    The law envisions conversion "therapy" as an act done to a person, not as the mere belief that queer people need to be converted. It has nothing to do with "traditional views of marriage". "Mildly offending" a queer person will not and cannot be criminalised. The law also applies without regard to religious belief - that is, it applies to secular "therapists" just as much as it applies to religious ones.

    Your comment and others like it are dishonest and it gives religious people with traditional views on marriage a bad name.

    Joey Mann Joey Mann 8:03 pm 20 Aug 20

    Henry Kivimaki I don't deny that you might have friendly relationships with queer people. I do, however, deny that what you said about the bill is correct; a denial you haven't responded to. And if there thousands of testimonies proving the abilities of this unnamed "King of Conversion", they should be easy to find, right?

    Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 2:14 pm 21 Aug 20

    You're funny. Like seriously, a total joke

Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:22 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.

chewy14 chewy14 7:55 am 20 Aug 20

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.

Avril Pounds Avril Pounds 7:31 am 20 Aug 20

They need to be very careful about the definition of 'gay conversion'. There's a big difference between actively trying to 'convert' someone and simply disagreeing with them. There's also a big difference between simply stating, or even sharing, your religious beliefs and forcing your beliefs on someone else.

    Verity Warn Verity Warn 8:42 am 20 Aug 20

    Pffft. Gay conversion therapy is an identified, defined thing - it is abuse, involving dangerous and discredited practices designed to force a person to change their sexuality. You're right, there is a big difference between that and someone simply expressing their opinion or their faith. Not sure what you think has to be done so carefully.

    Edit: and in response to the question above the article: of course, we should ban any form of abuse of our fellow citizens. Gay conversion therapy is a cruel abuse of fellow humans, and is therefore anathema to the sort of society we aspire to here in Canberra.

    Joey Mann Joey Mann 12:07 pm 20 Aug 20

    A Court would be smart enough to be able to distinguish between sharing beliefs and deliberate acts intended to "convert" and the definition of a conversion practice in the actual text is very unlikely to capture merely exchanging beliefs.

    Mark Dawson Mark Dawson 7:45 pm 20 Aug 20

    The legislation applies to "protected persons":

    protected person means—12(a) a child; or 13(b) a person who has impaired decision-making ability in relation to 14a matter relating to the person’s health or welfare.

    Marcel Bond Marcel Bond 11:12 pm 20 Aug 20

    Avril Pounds -"There's a big difference between actively trying to 'convert' someone and simply disagreeing with them. There's also a big difference between simply stating, or even sharing, your religious beliefs and forcing your beliefs on someone else." Parents force their religious beliefs on children every day. If adults want to suspend their intelligence and believe in myths and fairy tales fine... but they should not be permitted to indoctrinate gullible children into their fantasies.

Andrew Duncan Andrew Duncan 7:27 am 20 Aug 20

Should religious schools be able to express and teach its views on sexuality? From what I’ve gathered Legislation will still allow this.

    Tina Newsome Tina Newsome 12:26 pm 21 Aug 20

    Maybe just don't send your kids to a religious school 🤷‍♀️ Also since when are young kids being taught about sex or sexuality. We didn't get taught anything until high school in my day and we had a gay teacher who took sex ed sooooo 🤷‍♀️

    Andrew Duncan Andrew Duncan 12:27 pm 21 Aug 20

    Have a response to my question?

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