Politics

Ruddock Religious Freedom Review “Questioned” LGBTIQ+ Health Claims

Philip Ruddock allegedly questioned whether young queer people truly suffer from greater mental health issues.

Ruddock

Activists have questioned whether the government’s hand picked leader of an inquiry into religious freedom has the necessary understanding of the issues at hand, after he appeared to question whether LGBTIQ+ youths truly suffer disproportionate levels of self-harm or mental health problems.

Former Attorney General Philip Ruddock allegedly made the comments while questioning representatives from PFLAG (Parents & Friends of Lesbians & Gays) Perth during one of the review’s private hearings on Tuesday.

Michele Davis, who was in the hearing representing PFLAG Perth, said the session was “respectful and friendly”, but questioned whether the panel had the necessary expertise to tackle such a complicated issue.

“I’m concerned with the lack of knowledge they have at their fingertips — knowledge that I think should be just passing knowledge, they don’t even have that,” Davis told Junkee.

The Ruddock review was set up by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull following the passage of marriage equality through parliament last year. Critics say it is merely an attempt to placate government conservatives who lost the same-sex marriage debate.

Activists fear the review will be used as a backdoor to enshrine wider discrimination in law, such as allowing businesses to refuse to serve gay couples, or to allow wider employment discrimination in government-funded services in the health, education, charity and aged care sectors.

PFLAG Perth was invited by the Prime Minister’s office to speak at a private hearing of the review after making a written submission to the enquiry last week.

Davis told Junkee that Ruddock prefaced several questions with phrases such as “let me be a little mischievous here”, indicating he was acting as a kind of devil’s advocate and deliberately asking provocative questions.

PFLAG Perth alleges that during the meeting, Ruddock queried several assertions made in their submission, including that young LGBTIQ+ people are more likely to suffer from mental health issues than the wider population. Ruddock allegedly asked if the statistic was accurate, and said he found it “hard to believe”.

“He suggested… that if I have any access to any studies that indicated that, I should submit them to the panel because in their experience they didn’t think that LGBTI people would be displaying any more health issues than any other child,” Davis said.

There is a mountain of evidence to show that young LGBTIQ+ Australians suffer disproportionately from poor mental health outcomes and are at much higher risk of self harm than the general population.

Mr Ruddock said he did not dispute the figures. “Asking questions of stakeholders should not be taken as implying a particular view or conclusion,” he told Junkee.

PFLAG alleges that Ruddock also questioned why LGBTIQ+ students need specific anti-bullying provisions, and queried the notion that up to 10 percent of young people identify as LGBTIQ+.

According to PFLAG Perth, another panellist questioned whether students who identify as LGBTIQ+ sometimes change their minds later in life, and appeared to be surprised by the notion that most children only come to understand their sexuality or gender identity in their teen years, when they may be approaching the critical exam years at a religious school, making it much harder to move to a different school.

Davis expressed concerns that the controversial private hearings favour religious groups over LGBTIQ+ groups. She suggested several other queer-friendly groups who could speak at the review to the Prime Minister’s office, but did not believe her suggestions were taken up.

“I’m concerned with the lack of knowledge they have at their fingertips — knowledge that I think should be just passing knowledge, they don’t even have that.”

“I’m very glad we attended because I think the voice we added to the panel was a voice of reason amongst many voices that are conservative, and damaging to LGBTI people. So I can only hope we weren’t alone in representing the rights of our children and highlighting the amount of discrimination that still exists.”

The Prime Minister’s office declined to provide a list of organisations that have been invited to speak at the private hearings. A full list will be published in the panel’s final report.

Last week, Junkee reported that some LGBTIQ+ activists felt they faced “hostile” questioning from the panel, which they believe was set up to entrench discrimination, not eliminate it.

The review has been criticised for holding the “private sessions”, which are not recorded and will not have transcripts of the proceedings published. Earlier this year, Ruddock pledged the review would be “as open as possible in its approach to submissions”, but did not mention the private sessions.

The Prime Minister’s office has defended the sessions, saying they will allow participants to speak more freely.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed a motion calling on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to provide greater transparency into the review after criticism from the LGBTIQ+ community that the hearings appeared to be biased in favour of religious organisations.

Rob Stott is the Managing Editor of Junkee Media. Follow him @Rob_Stott

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