Gender ideology has featured in pre-election debate for the first time. It won’t be the last.

Gender ideology has featured in pre-election debate for the first time. It won’t be the last.

As always, issue-specific interest groups are pointing to the election results as evidence for popular endorsement of their favoured policies. Noting the wave of female “teal independents” now elected to office, Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor in Media at the University of Notre Dame, has been quick to say that this means “the things that really matter to women and their communities matter at the ballot box, too”. This might be perfectly true, so far as it goes. The more elusive question is what are “the things that matter to women”?

Nelson points to three issues that seem to garner female support: “gender equality”, “LGBTIQ+ rights” and “climate change”. Nelson, and perhaps many voters as well, have yet to realise that “gender equality” and “LGBTIQ+ rights” are capable of divergent interpretations, depending on whether you accept the traditional sex-based approach to these subjects or whether you adhere to gender ideology, which requires the denial of biological sex.

Gender ideology works to fragment groups that would formerly have lined up uniformly behind “gender equality” and “LGB rights”. On the issue of “gender equality”, it is now important to recognise that third wave feminists, who believe that Judith Butler points the way to “equality” in obliterating all male/female sex distinctions now stand in opposition to second-wave feminists, who believe that “equality” can only be achieved if we recognise and adjust for the fundamental differences between the form and function of male and female bodies.

Gender ideology also splits the advocates for sexual minorities: LGBTIQ+ rights advocates, who accept the supremacy of “gender identity” over biological sex; and LGB activists, particularly lesbians, who insist that a lesbian or gay identity is defined by same-sex attraction, not same-gender attraction. Intriguingly, for political analysts, gender ideology also has the effect of cutting across traditional left/right divides as formerly left-voting women and conservative women now find themselves united in their common defence of women’s sex-based rights.

2022 was the first time that gender ideology made much of a showing in pre-election political debate. Katherine Deves’ decision to stand in Warringah, and her courage in weathering the storm of trans outrage sparked by her advocacy for women’s single-sex sport, has put gender ideology on the political map. If women’s sex-based rights did not move the needle in the election this time, we can confidently expect that this issue will grow in stature as more voters wake up to the myriad problems that arise for women and girls where sex-based rights are trammelled by newly-minted “trans rights”.

Since 2019, the ALP has played a close hand on where it stands in this contest of rights, failing to declare itself firmly for one side or the other. It won’t enjoy the same luxury in government. Over the next three years, the conduct of an ALP government on issues where women’s sex-based rights and trans rights are in contest will provide a record that Australian women can refer to when considering how to vote in 2025 and beyond.

The election results suggest support for women’s sex-based rights is a safe political bet

According to LGBTIQ+ advocacy groups, the swing against the Liberal Party is evidence that “Australia wants an end to LGBTIQA+ discrimination”. In this reading, Australian voters were put off the Liberal brand by “the discriminatory Religious Discrimination Bill”. Clearly, the Religious Discrimination Bill features large on the dashboard of “LGBTIQ+ election issues” but there is no evidence that this can be extrapolated to the whole population to explain the swing against the Liberal Party.

The same group claims that the “thumping defeat of anti-transgender candidate, Katherine Deves and the victory of Green, teal and independent candidates with strong commitments to LGBTIQA+ equality” demonstrates that the new government has a popular mandate to move forward on issues that matter to LGBTIQ+ voters. Such an interpretation is hopeful, rather than accurate. Far from suffering a “thumping defeat”, Deves ran a strong campaign, attracting 33.76% of the primary vote, well ahead of Labor (6.11%) and the Greens (6.95%). The swing against Deves in Warringah is consistent with the swing against the Liberal Party all over the country, suggesting the Liberal brand is on the nose, rather than the issue of women-only sport. If anything, the lesson politicians will draw from the results in Warringah is that, for all the activist fury, steadfast support for women’s sex-based rights will do them no harm at the ballot box.

Where do the parties stand on sex-based rights?

In the lead up to the election, the positions of minor parties on the question of “trans rights versus women’s sex-based rights” were abundantly clear; the Greens were unequivocal in their support for “trans rights” and One Nation, particularly Mark Latham, has been a vocal critic of gender ideology.  The major parties, however, were not so clearly differentiated from each other. Although both leaders found they could readily define a woman as an adult female, in other respects both parties have a mixed record when it comes to their support for women.

Neither the Liberal brand nor Morrison personally enjoys a strong reputation for standing up for women. Brittany Higgins’ story was represented as a significant blot on the copy-book of Morrison’s term as Prime Minister by a media that was also highly critical of what they saw as his inadequate response to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. Similarly, the lack lustre response of her own party in failing to support Nicole Flint in the face of sexual harassment and intimidation attempts from far-left activists only cements the impression that, when women need them, the Liberal Party is missing in action.

On the plus side, in May 2021, the Liberal Party’s Federal Council passed a motion in support of women sex-based rights, and Morrison personally endorsed the private member’s bill put forward by Liberal Senator Claire Chandler, which would have protected women’s single-sex sport and restored the biological definition of “woman” to the Sex Discrimination Act (1984).  

By contrast, Labor has clearly been intentional about appealing to women. Their National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality – “a concrete plan for real action and accountability” – aims to establish Australia “among the top countries in the world for equality between women and men”. For example, Labor proposes:

“[e]stablishing a new Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence Commissioner to act as a strong voice for victim-survivors … $100 million will be allocated for crisis and transitional housing options for women and children fleeing domestic and family violence, and older women on low incomes who are at risk of homelessness.” 

Women are mentioned 71 times in the 2021 Australian Labor Party Platform and the ALP has an established track record of actively encouraging women’s political engagement through quotas.

How are we to weigh this against the fact that it was Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, leading a Labor government, who presided over the 2013 changes to the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act (1984) (SDA) that erased the biological definitions of “man” and “woman” and introduced “gender identity” as a protected attribute? Probably unknown to many of the members of both parties who voted for these amendments, the combination of these two changes had the effect of redefining “woman” and thereby compromising the sex-based rights that the SDA was designed to protect. According to the SDA amended by our last Labor government, Albanese’s definition of a woman as “an adult female” is incorrect because it fails to recognise the claims of males who identify as women.

Can we expect that Albanese’s personal conviction that women are female will prevail against the longstanding commitment of the ALP (at least since 2012) to implementing the Yogyakarta Principles – which prioritise gender identity over biological sex – in Australian policy? The current (2021) version of the ALP Policy Platform restates Labor’s commitment to ensuring:

“that the actions of a Federal Labor Government are informed by the Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in Relation to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics and the Plus 10 Supplementary Principles.”

In practical terms, this policy commitment to gender ideology has the potential to completely undermine Labor’s efforts to provide for women. For example, will the crisis and transitional housing for women and children to be funded with Labor’s $100 million be reserved exclusively for biological females or will it also admit biological males who identify as women? The question is fundamental because services for vulnerable women are worse than useless if they cannot provide basic assurances of physical safety and freedom from further harassment.  

We know that female-identifying males around the world have exploited self-ID policies to harass vulnerable women in shelters, even bragging about their exploits online. Under Victoria’s new Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Act (2021) – and again, these laws have only been introduced to Australia in Labor-led jurisdictions; namely, Queensland, the ACT and Victoria – even complaining about biological males in female spaces may now be a punishable offence.

The ALP has benefited from ambiguity for now; it won’t have the same advantage by 2025

If there are inconsistencies between what the ALP says it will do for women and its consistent support for the gender ideology embedded in the Yogyakarta Principles, there is also good reason to believe that these areas of ambiguity have been deliberately cultivated.

Albanese’s review of the reasons for the ALP’s defeat in the 2019 election listed a “cluttered policy agenda” among the culprits. As OUTinPerth explained the matter:

“He argued that Labor had confused voters by having too many detailed policies, a hefty document that gave critics too many opportunities to launch fear campaigns and burry voters in an avalanche of “what ifs”.

What has emerged from that unexpected election loss three years ago is the party’s small target strategy. Shedding policies, and holding back on announcing new positions has made few items that the opposition can be targeted on.

The most common criticism from the government benches is that Labor now actually stands for very little, and has few plans for voters to analyse at this stage.”

Albanese assured OUTinPerth that:

“a back to basics rewrite of the party’s policy document did not represent a walk away from support for LGBTIQA+ communities.”

If this is so, then the deletion of sections of the 2019 Platform that spelled out the ALP’s support for trans rights in unequivocal terms should not be taken as evidence for a change in policy. For example, where the 2019 Policy Platform affirmed a Labor government would work to ensure “every area of policy is inclusive of the needs and interests of all Australians-including lesbians and gay men, and bisexual, transgender and intersex people-without discrimination”. The 2021 Policy Platform makes no such commitment, the passage appears to have been deleted. Similarly, the 2019 Platform announced plans to “establish under the Australian Human Rights Act 1986 a new Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status issues, to work across government and the private sector to reduce discrimination”. Again, this has been deleted for the purposes of the 2021 Platform.

If what Albanese told OUTinPerth is true, then these deletions do not mean the ALP has resiled from its earlier commitments to trans rights, only that political prudence suggested obscuring the implications of its policies would assist with voter confidence. The downside of this strategy, however, is that both LGBTIQ+ groups and women now expect the ALP to deliver policies that will work for them and it is impossible to please both groups at once. Over the next three years, the ALP will have to make decisions that reveal where they really stand on the contest between women’s sex-based rights and trans rights. They will have to disappoint someone and, come the 2025 election, any ambiguity about what the ALP really stands for will have been clarified. The ALP can hardly maintain its present claim to represent the interests of women if it refuses to step up practically in defence of women’s sex-based rights.

Far from going away, the issue of women’s sex-based rights is only going to weigh more heavily in the balance at the next election, and more heavily still in the election after that.

Gender ideology touches on a great many “things that matter to women” including, the education of children, the practice of religion, the privacy of the family, female-specific services, sports, women’s shelters, private spaces and prisons, and the linguistic erasure of women throughout culture. Because the issues are so broad and affect women across the political spectrum and in all walks of life, a party that wishes to be (re)elected to government would be most unwise to ignore them.

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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