Why, in 2022, are we still having this debate?
In the lead up to the debate on the Religious Discrimination Bill in federal parliament, this is the question that keeps being asked, over and over. On social media, on TV and radio, and in homes across the country. So, why are we still debating basic human rights? Didn’t the 2017 Marriage Equality Plebiscite settle it once and for all?
The answer of course, is that yes, it did. An overwhelming majority of Australians voted in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage. And more recent polling by Equality Australia suggests that the majority of Australians also support transgender rights and oppose anti-LGBTIQ+ discrimination on religious grounds. But at a time when society is more accepting and queer people are more visible than ever, a small, well-connected group of Christian fundamentalists represented by the Australian Christian Lobby (the ACL) are getting ready for a new war.
Rather than blaming an amorphous entity called ‘Western Sydney’ for anti-LGBTIQ+ policy in Australia, we should look to the well-funded, well-connected, and very white ACL. It was the ACL who led the attacks on Safe Schools and trans kids during the Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite, who co-wrote and undersigned the Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bill, and it was the ACL who withdrew their political support for the bill after it was amended in the House of Representatives, to remove the right of religious organisations to expel or sack transgender students and teachers.
Even among Christians and faith-based organisations, the ACL represents a particularly conservative, minority view of religion. They don’t run any schools or minister to the poor, don’t have a church – their ‘ministry’, conducted online and at campaign events – is indistinguishable from political activism. Their public political activities are limited almost solely to lobbying against reforms that would grant LGBTIQ+ people equal rights such as marriage equality, anti-discrimination protections and the rights of religious service providers. However, the ACL uses its ‘Christian’ label to try and conflate political opposition to its homophobic and transphobic policies with ‘anti-Christian’ religious discrimination. They effectively use their religion as a shield against legitimate free speech and democratic opposition.
So why does the ACL exert so much influence over the political process? Let’s follow the money.
The ACL received over AUD8 million in donations in 2021 alone (in addition to AUD250,000 in government grants), and spends on average, AUD60,000 to 100,000 on political advertising each year. The majority of donations are from private donors, including high net worth individuals. In recent years, the Australian Christian Lobby has become more secretive about the identity of its board members and major donors. But a careful search of publicly available information shows that since its inception the ACL has had connections to a small group of powerful and wealthy businessmen, with ties to some of Australia’s largest mining, finance, telecommunications, technology and management consulting firms.
The list of the ACL’s supporters since it was founded in the mid-1990s includes Terry Winters, former CEO and founder of Optus; Mark Allaby, former managing partner at Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC); Craig Winkler, founder of MYOB and major investor in cloud accounting software company Xero (on track to hit AUD1 billion in revenue this financial year), who was also on the board of Philanthropy Australia. Then we have Dave Hodgson, CEO of Paladin Corporation, a consortium of companies estimated to be worth over AUD800 million, and now-retired Army Officer Jim Wallace AO.
Mark Allaby is probably the most prominent of all. In 2017 he left PwC – which is a member of Pride in Diversity (PiD) and the Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI) – after it was revealed that he was on the ACL’s board of directors. Allaby is now a senior executive at IBM Australia.
Despite its money and political influence, the ACL’s track record in recent years has overwhelmingly been a losing one. It’s hopefully a sign of the times that Allaby is no longer at PwC – one of Australia’s top 4 management consulting firms with revenue of AUD2.6 billion. And in 2022, Optus, whose founding CEO is an ACL supporter, was a major corporate sponsor for Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The failed Religious Discrimination Bill only succeeded in uniting and galvanising support around the LGBTIQ+ community – leading to far greater awareness of the threats to the community.