Strange Bedfellows for Freedom

What do the recent travails of the Australian Christian Lobby in Western Australia have in common with the equally recent travails of the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alliance in Tasmania?

On the surface not a lot, it would seem.

There appears to be a Tertullianian divide between Athens and Jerusalem here, not merely a geographical divide, but a huge chasm in terms of aims and reason for existence.

Yet not so fast.

Both groups have found that, despite their obvious differences, they have this in common: The government and its agencies wish to control their freedoms around messaging and association.

The ACL was recently refused the use of state government owned facilities in Western Australia to hold its “The Truth of it LIVE” speaking tour events on the basis that the government disagreed with the ACL’s views.

The state government owned facility in the town of Albany, run by The Perth Theatre Trust, stated:

‘The Perth Theatre Trust will not enter into an agreement to hire a venue where the content of the event does not represent the views of the Western Australian government or the vast majority of Western Australians.’

There was evidence that statement was the result of a hastily derived cut-and-paste job to keep the ACL out of government venues given that the government of the day in WA leans in the progressive direction.

Eventually, after the issue was highlighted in the media, and the hasty nature of the decision was exposed, the government relented, and the ACL was given permission to rent the venue.

In the meantime, here was the usual obfuscation from those Christians who are hostile to the ACL, who could not come out and say that this was a gross overreach by an elected government in a liberal democracy. 

This coupled with the frequent social media comments “I don’t always agree with the ACL on FILL IN THE BLANK but …” means that the shock of such a move has not sunk deep enough.

This has not been helped by local LGBTQI groups backing the government’s stance. A stance which, given the level of concern across the secular medial and the legal fraternity at the government’s perceived overreach, may prove detrimental in the long run. Surely the point of freedom of association and freedom of speech is that it is most celebrated when it is permitted to those with whom we disagree.

However, let’s move from Jerusalem (and as a Sandgroper, WA is Jerusalem), to Athens, and the situation in Tasmania. For I wonder what the same LGBTQI groups would say about the government legislation that has made it discriminatory for lesbian groups to exclude “women with penises” from attending lesbian events.

As The Australian newspaper reports:

Lesbians will be breaking the law if they exclude biological males who are transgender from social events, after a controversial discrimination ruling set to become a national test case. Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination commissioner Sarah Bolt has ruled lesbian events that exclude trans-women carry a “significant risk” of breaching legislation … Ms Bolt refused to grant an exemption to allow the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alliance to exclude “biological men” from lesbian events.

In other words, lesbians don’t get to decide who a lesbian is, the government does.

Jessica Hoyle, who made an exemption application on behalf of the event, is reported in The Australian as saying:

“Many lesbians feel ­uncomfortable having transgenders in their spaces, because they are not female; they are biological males. “We are forced to have them in our groups but none of us want to date them …I feel discriminated against by Sarah Bolt on the basis of being a lesbian same-sex ­attracted (woman).”

Whatever schism one sees between the ACL and gay groups in Australia, that’s going to pale beside the growing internecine war about to descend on the alphabet letters within the sexual communities.  The “T” is going to come apart from the “L” at some stage if it hasn’t already.

Yet the common enemy is government surely. How can a government led by like the seemingly lovely, common garden variety dad and husband, Mr Mark McGowan, who has a virtually monopoly on the state legislature, believe for an instant that it is the government’s role to determine what the majority of Western Australians believe about an issue?

If the government believes for one moment that the same sex marriage majority in WA translates to meaning that the citizens of the state are happy to hand over freedom of association and freedom of speech issues to the government at the same time, they are either naive or … well I don’t know what the “or” is.  But it should concern us.

How can such a statement even be presented to the public with nary a blush from those who made it?  It seems absurd. Kafkaesque. Which of course it is.

And the lesbians in Tasmania? Who determined that the government could decide that they must, must, admit “women with penises” into their events or face the possibility of state censure.  The fact that we don’t – or increasingly don’t – blink at the term “women with penises” shows how down the language rabbit hole we have gone.

As Henry Ergas observed, also in The Australian:

Were there a Platonic ideal of participation in such groups – the “pure idea” of the lesbian dating club, or its dialectical sublation – those puzzles might be readily resolved. However, in its unfortunate absence, it is not a slippery slope that the commission has embarked upon: it is a headlong plunge into the abyss of micromanagement, sacrificing what remains of freedom of association along the way.

Micromanagement.  That’s the word.  Governments in the late modern West seem to love it. And find myriad reasons to undertake it.

And therein lies the problem for western liberal democracies going into the future.

Faced with a breakdown of any societal understanding of the common good, the government has taken on the role of values adjudicator, at the very time those values are most contested.

Faced with the inability for us to cohabit with our deepest differences, and the accompanying refusal to engage those we disagree with in good faith, the government steps in. 

The risk of course is the tyranny of the majority.  So what if the majority of the state’s citizens disagree with a perspective? Let’s not forget that many a majoritarian position has been dismantled by solid, long term arguments from the minority. 

In a healthy democracy mediating institutions provide the buffer between the individual and the state. Government overreach can only be arrested as we reinvest societal trust in mediating institutions, and call on the government to keep its fingers out.

The Australian Christian Lobby in WA and the lesbians of Tasmania may be miles apart geographically and philosophically, but as these two examples show, when it comes to calling out government overreach they make strange bedfellows.

Picture “Mark McGowan, Community Day of Action” by “Flickr user CPSU/CSA” licensed under CC BY 4.0


Stephen is a pastor, blogger and ex-journalist who writes on issues of theology, culture and the church. He works at a national level for City Bible Forum, developing and presenting evangelistic material for a project called Third Space. He and his family reside in Perth's eastern suburbs.