Independents accuse Morrison of using trans sport ban as a ‘dog-whistle to the ultraconservatives’

Zali Steggall says ‘Liberal moderates should make clear they would oppose any legislation’ while Christian lobby group wants Coalition to back PM’s ‘strong stand’

Scott Morrison must not use trans people as “political pawns” or as a “dog-whistle to the ultraconservatives” during the election campaign, independent MPs and candidates running against moderate Liberals have said.

The candidate for Goldstein, former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel, was among the independents to round on the prime minister on Tuesday, saying she was “concerned that Scott Morrison appears to be getting ready to weaponise this issue at a cost to a vulnerable community”.

“Trans people are constantly used as political pawns without care – this must stop,” Daniel said.

Senior government moderates Simon Birmingham and Anne Ruston declined on Tuesday to back Claire Chandler’s private senator’s bill that would permit sporting groups to exclude transgender people from single-sex competitions.

The FamilyVoice lobby group subsequently demanded that Morrison clarify the government’s position.

The prime minister’s support for Chandler’s bill on Monday prompted a backlash from not only independents competing against Liberals in socially progressive electorates but some of his own MPs.

Liberal backbencher Bridget Archer told Guardian Australia on Tuesday she stood by previous comments characterising Chandler’s proposal as a “vanity bill” that was not government policy.

When asked about the bill on Tuesday, Birmingham said these were “sensitive issues and they should be handled sensitively”.

“I understand, certainly, the concerns of women’s sporting organisations for the safety and the fairness of the competitions that they run,” the finance minister told ABC TV.

“Equally, it’s important that nobody is unfairly discriminated against in terms of their rights to participate in all aspects of society including sport.”

Ruston was also equivocal about Chandler’s bill. The social services minister told Sky News she supported “the conversation” and this would “enable a debate about whether there is a need for any changes”.

Greg Bondar, the spokesperson of Christian lobby group FamilyVoice, said in a statement that Birmingham had “undermined the prime minister’s strong stand on the issue – aimed at winning back conservative voters who are disillusioned by the government’s failure to deliver on religious freedom”.

“Birmingham needs to come to grips with reality and stop appeasing the trans minority lobby,” he said.

Bondar said the government was “sending out mixed messages” about the trans sport bill. “Who do we trust, if the government can’t agree among themselves? The finance minister is contradicting the prime minister. Who is running the place?”

Morrison also spoke in glowing terms about the Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves, who co-founded the Save Women’s Sport organisation, which campaigns to restrict trans women from playing in female sporting competitions.

Zali Steggall, the independent MP for Warringah, said the prime minister “should be focusing on issues that the vast majority of Australians are deeply concerned about, not engineering new ways to dog-whistle to the ultraconservatives by targeting the most vulnerable in our community”.

“We need to look at the motivation of Scott Morrison in raising this non-issue during the election campaign,” Steggall told Guardian Australia.

“This is one of those classic Scott Morrison diversionary tactics designed to distract from his lack of policy when it comes to climate and integrity, and the media are buying in to it.”

Steggall said the “self-styled Liberal moderates should make it clear that they would oppose any such legislation in the event they are re-elected, because talk is cheap”.

An independent candidate for the Sydney seat of Mackellar, Sophie Scamps, said she talked with people in the electorate every day and “not a single person has raised this issue with me”.

“As someone who has run for Australia and been involved in athletics all my life, I believe this is a matter for athletes and sports bodies, not politicians,” Scamps said.

“I’m very disappointed that Scott Morrison has sought to make this a political issue to distract from his government’s poor record on climate action, disaster response and public health.”

Kylea Tink, an independent candidate for North Sydney, said the fact the issue was being raised now in the context of an election campaign was “simply heartbreaking” and “likely to cause far more concern than constructive discussion”.

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Allegra Spender, the candidate for Wentworth, said the bill was unnecessary because there were already existing protections for women’s sport in the Sex Discrimination Act and in major sporting codes. “I particularly worry about how vulnerable children would be affected by this,” Spender said.

The Greens senator Janet Rice raised concerns that trans children would be subjected to another “round of divisive bigotry and public debate over their mere existence”.

Anna Brown, the chief executive of Equality Australia, said politicians “must learn that there is nothing to be gained by refusing to stand up for LGBTIQ+ people or using debate about our lives to score cheap political points”.

Chandler has previously defended her bill, saying it would clarify “that sport and sporting activity can be operated on the basis of sex and it will not be a breach of the act to do so”.

“By removing a series of complexities from the current decision-making process, sporting administrators will be able to have confidence that they are permitted by commonwealth law to offer single-sex sport for women, which in turn will provide female athletes the certainty that they won’t be forced to compete against males,” Chandler said in February.

Morrison has a record of trying to sow concerns about trans issues. On 5 September 2018 – two weeks after becoming prime minister – Morrison wrote on Twitter: “We do not need ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools. Let kids be kids.”

We do not need ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools. Let kids be kids.

— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) September 4, 2018

In April 2019, Morrison criticised a Cricket Australia decision to release a policy that aimed to allow transgender and gender-diverse people to play the sport at the highest level and guidelines for community cricket as “heavy-handed” and “mystifying”.

Teddy Cook, the vice-president of the Australian Professional Association for Trans Health, wrote in February: “Just like everyone in this country, we deserve protection under the law. Please don’t forget that trans people are not an ideology; we are real, and we are someone you know.”


Daniel Hurst and Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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