I grew up in Sri Lanka during a time of civil war. Anyone who criticised the Sinhalese-dominated government disappeared. And anyone who criticised the Tamil rebels was assassinated. So we all learned to keep our mouths shut.
In September 1991, I changed nationalities. I swore allegiance to Australia at a citizenship ceremony in Parramatta Park. During that ceremony, I delivered a speech where I committed myself, as one of those who come from “beyond the seas”, to “advance Australia fair”.
Migrants like me love Australia because “we are young and free”. And many of us come from countries which are not free – where deviating from the approved political opinion is punished, therefore there’s no free speech. Public speech, in countries like the Sri Lanka of my childhood, was costly. It could cost you your life.
And it’s precisely that love of freedom, and my desire to advance Australia fair, that makes me worried about the Victorian government’s Change or Suppression Bill 2020.
The bill aims “to ensure that all” LGBT+ people “are able to live authentically and with pride” and “to denounce and give statutory recognition to the serious harm caused” by practices which suggest that “a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity” is in any way “broken”.
Nobody who opposes this bill is seeking to harm people who identify as LGBT+. The problem with this bill is the its definitions and prohibitions are so broad, it potentially criminalises any suggestion that sexuality has an objective order and that discovering and conforming to that order could be healthy for individuals, families, and society as a whole.
Most of human civilisation has, throughout history, believed that human sexuality is not a matter of personal preference, but possesses an objective order. Not all cultures agree on what that healthy pattern is. And not everyone within that society lives according to that healthy pattern. But they agree that it exists. And that talking about it, trying to discover it, and helping each other live according to it, is good.
This bill denounces that kind of belief, and prohibits and suppresses talking about it. This bill is on the wrong side of history. It seeks to criminalise something that has historically made human civilisation civil and humane.
Therefore, this bill is not actually progressive. It takes us backwards, into a dark age where public speech is costly and deviating from the approved political opinion gets punished.
LGBT+ activists often speak about “authenticity” and “pride”, and often accuse people who hold conservative values – especially religious people, and within that, especially Christians – as “harming” them. They’re welcome to do that. That’s an application of free speech.
And under conditions of free speech, social conservatives, religious people – including Christians – can talk back. We’re allowed to defend ourselves against those accusations of harm. And explain why we think healthy sexuality is not a matter of personal preference but possesses an objective order. And invite all people – including LGBT+ people – to willingly join us in living that sexuality because they’ve been persuaded that it’s right and good.
But by being an instrument of law, this bill takes away the right to talk back. If this bill becomes law, any assertion that healthy sexuality is ordered, not a matter of personal preference, could cost money or land you in jail. This threat of formal, legal punishment would intimidate people to self-censor. And that amounts to a stifling, in practice, of free speech.
That’s why this bill is dangerous. Not just for Christians, religious people, or social conservatives. This bill wrecks the social environment which has underpinned what we take for granted as a free, open, tolerant society – the kind of Australia I migrated to, love, and vowed to advance.
Mainstream media tend to caricature those who oppose this bill – especially religious people – as using public freedoms, like freedoms of speech and assembly, to protect themselves in a selfish, self-interested way. Is the mainstream media broad-minded enough to consider that we oppose this bill out of love? Love of freedom and tolerance? And love of country? And even – shock, horror – love of LGBT+ people?
And is the Victorian government broad-minded enough to make Victoria a place where social conservatives and religious people feel safe and welcome? Or has Australia gone backwards to become precisely the kind of country I was trying to escape from – a place that is not young and free, but old, cynical, and enslaved?
Kamal Weerakoon is a minister of the Presbyterian Church.
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