Sydney WorldPride Human Rights Conference
Check Against Delivery
I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional owners of the land from which I speak this morning.
I would like to extend my thanks to Daniel for opening proceedings and welcoming us to Gadigal country for the WorldPride Human Rights Conference.
And I reiterate the Government’s commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – beginning with a referendum to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Australian Constitution during this term of Parliament.
I acknowledge the many distinguished guests here today. Ministers and Members of Parliament, officials from the Indo-Pacific region and from all over the world, representatives of Australia’s international partners and the UN Independent Expert on Protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity — and, most of all, the LGBTQI+ human rights defenders, community members and allies here today.
Thank you for your leadership, your fortitude and your resilience. Your advocacy for LGBTQI+ equality has made the world a better place. It has made Australia a better place.
Thank you to Equality Australia for organising this Human Rights Conference as part of Sydney WorldPride – the largest LGBTQI+ Human Rights Conference ever held in the Southern Hemisphere. The Australian Government, through funding provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is proud to support it.
I’m so thrilled to be invited to take part in WorldPride.
I have the honour of delivering this address on the heels of my colleague Senator Penny Wong – Australia’s indefatigable and incomparable Minister for Foreign Affairs – who I know is sorry she is unable to be here with us in person today.
Why advancing equality matters to Australia
On behalf of the Australian Federal Government I’d like to first say, welcome.
Our message to everyone attending today is simple.
No matter who you are, who you love or where you come from – you should be valued, equal and celebrated.
For those who don’t know me, my name is Mark Dreyfus, and I’m the Attorney-General of Australia.
On reflecting on how to welcome you all to Australia as you commence three days of discussion, ideas and debate, I thought it would be useful to say a few things about the struggle for equality in Australia – a struggle led by civil society, activists and the union movement.
As I speak to you today, the Australian Government is committed to supporting civil society organisations, international partnerships and networks to advocate for human rights across our region and around the world.
Advocating for human rights means advocating for the rights of LGBTQI+ people. It means helping to address social stigma and legal discrimination. At home, in our region and across the world.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 67 countries continue to criminalise same-sex relations between consenting adults.
That is a disturbing statistic. But it is worth reflecting on just how recently it was that Australia had a place on that list.
When I started attending university in Melbourne in the 1970s, homosexuality was a crime – not just in my home state, but right across Australia.
At the time of the first Mardi Gras in 1978, only South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory had decriminalised homosexuality – in 1975 and 1976, respectively.
It took until 1997 for the last Australian jurisdiction, Tasmania, to decriminalise homosexuality. 1997.
This occurred following a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee – the landmark Toonen v Australia complaint which was brought by Nicholas Toonen, a gay man from Tasmania.
There was no domestic law that Mr Toonen could invoke – no domestic remedy available to him.
But in 1991, Australia had acceded to the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – and that meant that Australians could complain directly to the United Nations Human Rights Committee if they thought their rights under the ICCPR had been breached.
Mr Toonen made a formal complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee on the same day the First Optional Protocol came into effect in Australia.
Several years later, in 1994, the UN Human Rights Committee upheld Mr Toonen’s complaint. The Committee found that the provisions in the Tasmanian Criminal Code outlawing sex between two men breached Mr Toonen’s right to privacy under Article 17 of the ICCPR. This meant that Australia was in breach of its obligations under the ICCPR.
The Government of Tasmania refused to repeal the relevant provisions in the Tasmanian Criminal Code, and so it fell to the Australian Government to introduce a law in the federal Parliament to override them.
That happened in 1994 under Prime Minister Paul Keating with the introduction and passage of the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Bill.
It was a further three years before Tasmania passed its own law to finally decriminalise homosexuality.
These changes occurred within the lifetime of most people in this room. In the lifetime of many of our children.
In 1982, the New South Wales Parliament passed the first anti-discrimination laws in Australia that prohibited discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation.
It took another 30 years for the federal Parliament to follow suit.
In 2013, under Julia Gillard’s Labor Government and while I was Attorney-General, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act was amended to make it unlawful to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. We introduced three new protected attributes: sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.
And just last year, the Government added gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes under the Fair Work Act. This means workers around the country have better access to legal remedies if they are discriminated against at work.
This year marked the first time a sitting Prime Minister marched in Sydney’s Mardi Gras. As Anthony Albanese said on the night, in 2023 Mardi Gras is a “celebration of modern Australia”. The Prime Minister said:
"People want to see that their government is inclusive and represents everyone no matter who they love, no matter what their identity, no matter where they live."
It shouldn’t have taken that long for a Prime Minister of Australia to march in solidarity with the LGBTIQ+ community.
Today, Australia is committed to being a global leader in promoting, protecting and upholding human rights. Not because we are perfect, but because our own recent history teaches us that positive change is possible – and the progress that has been made to address the social stigma and legal discrimination faced by the LGBTQI+ community in this country has made Australia a better place for everyone.
International progress and what Australia does internationally to promote LGBTQI+ equality
While the journey towards equality for LGBTQI+ people has already been long and difficult, and while I do not pretend that we have achieved full equality, I thought it was worth reflecting on how far Australia has come.
But it is also worth reflecting on what has been happening in our region and around the world. We do see laws changing in terms of decriminalisation, strengthened anti-discrimination laws, marriage equality and gender recognition.
For example, 11 countries – including two in the Pacific – have decriminalised homosexuality since 2012: Lesotho and Palau in 2014, Mozambique, Belize and Nauru in 2016, and then Seychelles, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Botswana, Angola, Barbados.
We are hopeful this trend will continue.
Singapore’s Parliament passed the repeal of Section 377a of the Penal Code on 29 November 2022, ending 84 years of criminalised male-to-male sexual relations.
We are seeing that many states are strengthening human rights protections for LGBTQI+ people, including granting recognition of same-sex relationships.
Thirty-one countries have marriage equality, most recently Austria, Chile, Costa Rica and Switzerland, and an additional 12 made civil unions or registered partnerships available for same-sex couples.
A number of countries, including Malta, Albania, Belgium, Bolivia, Chile, Honduras, United States, United Kingdom and Mexico, have introduced legislation penalising homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic hate crimes and hate speech.
As we look to the road ahead we can see we are building on progress.
But there is always more to do.
As just mentioned by Senator Wong, we are expanding our efforts in the Asia-Pacific through Australia’s first dedicated fund to promote international LGBTQI+ rights.
Because it’s not enough for Australia to protect and promote LGBTQI+ rights within our own borders. As a good international citizen, we should encourage our near neighbours to do the same too. I’m proud to be part of a government that recognises that.
Australia actively works with diplomatic networks and state coalitions to promote the multilateral human rights system.
For example, at the 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council last year, Australia and likeminded states strongly supported and advocated for the renewal of the mandate for the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.
We succeeded against fierce opposition.
I acknowledge Mr Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the outgoing Independent Expert, in the audience here. I commend him for the critical work of the office in research and awareness raising, holding dialogues and calling states to account.
The Foreign Minister’s announcement earlier I hope will continue to support Australia’s international advocacy supporting LGBTQI+ communities.
Australia’s progress towards equality for LGBTQI+ communities
Our Government’s approach to advancing rights for LGBTQI+ Australians is cross portfolio. Across health, foreign affairs, employment and workplace relations, social services – we all have a role to play.
You just heard from the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs.
You will hear from my colleague Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, Ged Kearney. She hosted a Roundtable on LGBTQI+ Health and Wellbeing yesterday as the first step in a national consultation process with LGBTQI+ people about their unique health and mental health issues as well as barriers to access and care.
You will hear from the Minister for Health, Mark Butler, who will be introducing the community responses to mental health challenges panel.
My brilliant colleague Linda Burney, Minister for Indigenous Australians, is introducing the session de-colonisation, sovereignty and justice in the Asia Pacific. This will be one of the important discussions, elevating the experience of our country and our region.
When Australia won the bid to host WorldPride in Athens, we promised you that we want to platform the voices of First Nations people and from the Asia-Pacific region.
This is the first time WorldPride has been hosted in the Southern Hemisphere.
This is such an incredible opportunity to have so many communities gathered in the same place, sharing the stories, struggles and building solidarity across our region and the world.
Take the opportunity to listen to these perspectives and take them with you when you leave, so you can use your platforms to continue to advocate and ensure there is a lasting legacy of Sydney WorldPride.
I welcome you all to Australia and I wish you all the very best for this conference.