Before Zali Steggall was a politician, she was an elite athlete. In 1998, she won an Olympic bronze medal for women’s slalom skiing. In 1999, she won gold at the World Championships. Steggall has acknowledged that these sporting opportunities laid the foundations for her subsequent success as a lawyer and after that, her entry into politics. In Parliament, Steggall’s sporting accomplishments allowed her to speak with authority on the importance of ensuring a drug-free playing field and fair competition. According to what she said only two years ago:
“People want to know that you are going to win or lose fair and square … It's really important that governments and sporting codes work as hard as possible to keep sport as clean as possible.”
Given all this, you would think Steggall would be the first to defend the integrity of women’s sport. It should surprise everyone, therefore, that she now says raising the issue of women’s sport is a “dead cat strategy” – a cynical effort to distract from more important political matters. Further, she dismisses the claim that parents are concerned for fairness and safety in their daughters’ sports as “repeating a transphobia line”.
When asked how she would feel had she been obliged to compete against biological males, Steggall dodged the question. Ensuring that the advantages she enjoyed in life are also secured for the benefit of future generations of Australian sportswomen is, apparently, no concern of hers. In abandoning women and girls so absolutely, we can only suppose that Steggall now speaks purely as a politician, with an eye to her personal re-election. It must be clear to her, as it is to everyone else observing, that if women’s sport is allowed to dominate the public conversation in the run-up to this election, this can only favour her rival for the NSW seat of Warringah, Katherine Deves, who holds the very clear competitive advantage on this issue.
Deves is a mother of three girls who play community sport. Her concern for safety and fairness in girls’ sport prompted Deves to establish the Australasian branch of “Save Women’s Sport”, an international group advocating for the preservation of a female-only sporting category. Both as the spokeswomen for this organisation and as a lawyer, Deves has committed extensive time to listening to volunteers and administrators of community sport as well as leaders of female-only community organisations who are concerned about the lack of protection for women’s sex-based rights under current Australian law. Deves has even worked with members of parliament to craft legislation which, if passed, would rectify the problems being reported.
In other words, unpaid and on her own initiative, Deves has already been doing the work expected of a good MP – representing community concerns and seeking workable legislative remedies.
No wonder, Deves’ endorsement as the Liberal candidate for Warringah has sparked such an intense political furore. Deves represents a formidable challenge to trans activists who, until now, have faced very little opposition as they go about the business of transforming Australian culture. Deves is smart, determined, articulate and effective. If elected, she might just get things done.
Faced with such a formidable challenger, who can blame Steggall for calculating that her best chance of political success lies in joining the pile on against Deves, accusing her of practising “the politics of division” and dismissing women’s sport as an unimportant issue? According to Steggall:
“There is a lot of lying going on about the actual status quo … The Sex Discrimination Act already deals with this situation and all our national sporting bodies have made clear that that legislation works well. It allows them the flexibility to deal with each case and club situation individually.”
In making this statement, Steggall is ignoring the success of her parliamentary colleagues (see, for example, here and here) in exposing the fact that the SDA no longer protects women’s sex-based rights because it no longer recognises “woman” as a biological category.
In 2013, the biological definition of “woman” as “female” was removed from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (SDA) and broad protections for “gender identity” were added. As Women’s Forum Australia has previously noted, the result is that this law – a law that was enacted to protect women’s sex-based rights – can no longer distinguish between “[male] women” and “[female] women” and therefore no longer perform its intended function. Even such protections as were previously offered by the “competitive sporting exemption” have been squeezed to nothing by the subsequent interpretive efforts of activists working in collaboration with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to produce the 2019 Guidelines for Inclusion of Transgender and Gender Diverse People in Sport (“The Guidelines”).
If sporting bodies are not objecting to the status quo, they certainly should be. According to senior sporting bureaucrats, the Guidelines were intended to provide guidance on how sporting organisations should navigate a safe path between the conflicting priorities of “trans inclusion” on the one hand, and player health and safety on the other. The document actually delivered, however, is a manifestly one-sided consideration of that question. The Guidelines never mention obligations to women; they are dedicated entirely to elaborating a suite of (practically impossible) arrangements to be implemented exclusively for the benefit of non-binary or transgender players while emphasising the threat of legal liability for clubs that fail to comply.
Perhaps these sporting bureaucrats, having endorsed this one-sided document, are reluctant to admit that they have been sold a lemon? Or perhaps they are too timid to step into contested political territory for fear of activist backlash. What we can say for certain is that Steggall is wrong to believe the silence of sports administrators somehow proves widespread acceptance of trans inclusion in women’s sports by the Australian people. As the polling shows, the preservation of female-only sports enjoys overwhelming popular support.
All around the world, sportswomen affected by the inclusion of biological males in their events are finding their voice. Only last month, British female cyclists mounted a successful objection to the registration of a biological male in the women’s national championships, threatening to boycott the event and even by-passing British Cycling to appeal directly to the international cycling authority for their intervention. The female swimmers at the University of Pennsylvania have been supported by women’s advocacy groups to lodge formal civil rights complaints against their university for failing to protect their sport and their privacy from the incursions of Lia Thomas.
Australia will not be very far behind, particularly as more parents wake up to the threats now posed to girls by “trans inclusive” policies that allow biological males into women’s sports and girl’s changerooms. People who have been paying attention, like Deves, are well aware of the problems these policies are already causing on the ground: girls who refrain from visiting the school toilets because boys are peering under the door; school authorities that will not intervene because the boys in question claim to be “trans”; girls who risk injury playing against biological males while authorities studiously practice an artificial blindness to a very clear, practical problem; sporting authorities that are obliged to issue public apologies for failing to comply with the demands of male athletes to access the women’s changerooms.
As the “dead cat” issue of women’s sport continues to dominate in both regular and social media this week, Steggall may begin to regret insulting the parents in her constituency who are concerned about their daughters. She has very clearly signalled that her door is shut to them on this issue. Where should concerned parents take their concerns, if not to their MP? Ironically, they will do what they are doing now − they will go to dedicated advocacy groups, like Save Women’s Sport Australasia and people like Katherine Deves, who have demonstrated that they are both willing and able to represent the concerns of the people and advocate sensible legislative reform in Parliament.
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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