The attorney general, Michaelia Cash, rejected a push for changes to the Sex Discrimination Act aimed at excluding transgender people from single-sex sport late last year, despite Scott Morrison embracing the issue throughout the election campaign.
In February, the Tasmanian senator Claire Chandler introduced into the Senate the Save Women’s Sport bill, which the controversial Liberal candidate Katherine Deves has claimed she helped develop.
Morrison has praised Chandler’s bill as “terrific”, and revealed he had encouraged the conservative senator to pursue the legislation, saying he believed she was “outspoken and brave” and “a champion for women’s sport”. He has also said that he shares “their views” on the issue.
“I think she’s been right to raise these issues in the way that she has. Well done, Claire,” Morrison said in February.
The prime minister indicated at the start of the campaign that he shared Chandler’s views on the issue and would “have more to say” about it, but later said there was no plan for it to become government legislation.
But before Chandler introduced the bill, Deves presented a petition to Parliament calling for many of the same changes to the Sex Discrimination Act, which was roundly rejected by Cash in November.
The petition, which was organised by Deves as co-founder of Save Women’s Sport Australasia and had more than 5,000 signatures, was tabled in Parliament by the Nationals MP Ken O’Dowd in October.
In response, Cash said the government was not considering any changes to the act and defended its current operation, including for sport.
“The Australian government believes all people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society, regardless of their personal attributes, and recognises that to enjoy civil and political rights on an equal basis with others, people need to be able to do so free from discrimination,” she said in a letter dated 18 November.
“The Sex Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender identity, sexual orientation and intersex status in many areas of public life, including employment, education, and in the provision of goods, services and facilities.
“In this context, the Australian government recognises that individuals may identify and be recognised within the community as a gender other than the sex they were assigned at birth or during infancy, or as a gender which is not exclusively male or female.
“In relation to competitive sporting activity, the Sex Discrimination Act provides that it is not unlawful discrimination on the grounds of sex, gender identity or intersex status to exclude a person from participating in competitive sporting activity, in which the strength, stamina or physique of competitors is relevant.”
The petition called for many of the same things that ended up in Chandler’s legislation, including amendments to the act to include biological definitions of men and women. The petition demands that the act “unequivocally express that the female sports category is for biological females only”.
Despite Cash’s rejection of the proposed changes, Morrison has continued to stand by Chandler and Deves, even after offensive comments from Deves about transgender children and comparisons of anti-trans activism to opposing the Holocaust prompted widespread calls for her to be disendorsed.
Deves, the Liberal candidate for the Sydney northern beaches seat of Warringah, has apologised for some of her comments, saying the language she used was “not acceptable”.
Morrison has doubled down on his support for Deves this week, saying he would resist pressure to “cancel” her. A leaked text message also suggested he had the backing of the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Morrison was asked whether he felt “comfortable” about his daughters playing sport against someone who was transgender.
“Sports will make their decisions, but my preference is for girls to play girls, women to play women, boys to play boys, and men to play men. I don’t think this is a terribly remarkable statement, I think it is common sense,” he said.
“For those who are trans, I want them to participate in sport as well, I want them to have opportunities fo inclusion in sport, I want every Australian to be treated with dignity but also we need to have some common sense here.”
He did not answer a question about whether the Liberal party was preventing Deves from speaking to the media.
“I’ve been in contact again with Katherine today, encouraging her. Katherine is passionate about the issue of women and girls in sport, and I think the position that she has set out on that issue is one that I think finds a lot of resonance with Australians who just want common sense to apply in this situation.”
Morrison has also indicated that the Coalition party room would want to consider the Chandler legislation before any debate in Parliament.
“Sensitive matters like this have often been raised by private members, and they’ve often been allowed go forward for debate in the parliament, and members have been able to have a conscience vote on these matters,” Morrison said on Sunday.
“Now we are in the middle of an election campaign, there isn’t an opportunity for us to have those discussions in party room,” he said. “But this has always been my instinct on these matters.
“You know, there are many different views on this. There are many, many different views on this, so I’m not seeking to bind at all any of my members of parliament on these issues as a party position.”
Asked for his view on transgender participation in sport on Wednesday, the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the issue was covered by the Sex Discrimination Act.
“It’s covered that girls should be able to play sport against girls and boys should be able to play sport against boys. And that should be covered, it is covered, by the Sex Discrimination Act and that sports currently are in control of this issue.”