Joseph Mann

Gender and principle in the federal Labor Party

While in London for the coronation, federal Labor leader and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gave an exclusive interview with Piers Morgan. In it, Morgan asked (among other things) “what is a woman?”, to which Albo responded “an adult human female”.

The particular string of words Albo used here, which he has used before, has become something of a transphobic dog-whistle. “Female” here excluding trans women. The only reason Morgan asked the question, of course, is that he is one of the leading “anti-woke” crusaders in an obsessive culture war which has increasingly seen trans people targeted for violence and discrimination around the world. In the Australian context, it was a rallying cry of the fascist TERFs at the Melbourne Let Women Speak rally a few weeks ago: a rally Albo (sort of) condemned. Is Albo aware of this nuance? Likely not, but its certainly what I would call a Bad Look.

Morgan continued, “How difficult was that to answer?” to which Albo replied, “Not too hard”. While the Oxford dictionary used by Google now lists “adult female human being” as its primary definition of “woman” (changed from the one Albo used), it also lists “a person with the qualities traditionally associated with females” as an alternate definition.

Put another way, it would not have been difficult to give a snappy short television interview answer for this question in a manner that is inclusive of trans women (who also exhibit qualities traditionally associated with females even if they are not considered female).

The ALP National Constitution at clause 5(p) and the National Code of Conduct at rule 6.1.8 bind the party’s membership to oppose transphobic discrimination of the kind that this specific string of words is increasingly used to justify.

  1. To achieve the political and social values of equality, democracy, liberty and social co-operation inherent in [the party’s] objective, the Australian Labor Party stands for: (p) elimination of discrimination and exploitation on the grounds of class, race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, religion, political affiliation, national origin, citizenship, age, disability, regional location, economic or household status

In bringing this up, I do not seek to accuse Albo of breaching party rules noting that I don’t know what his own beliefs about trans people are. However, it is concerning to me that matters of principle as core to the Labor movement as not risking people’s lives in a culture war based on their gender identity seem increasingly dispensable.

(If it were not, in fact, a core Labor principle: why is it in clause 5?)

That said, as Rob Harris in the Herald surmises, Albo is trying to show that he isn’t ideological: “ideology” – that is, a basic set of principles (or, say, ideas) underlying a political movement like ours – has become a dirty word.

Under Albo’s leadership, the federal parliamentary party have had several problematic clashes with queer communities, best illustrated by the qualified endorsement of the Religious Discrimination Bill by the majority of the caucus in February 2022 [a write-up of which is long overdue from me, but in the meantime you can read this letter I wrote at the time]. That particular incident left me, and many other queer ALP members, anxious that our rights were dispensable in the name of being electable.

The issue of Albo on trans people intersects with other incidents. Julian Hill caused a stir on Twitter when he reacted to the news that perennial candidate and transphobe Katherine Deves was thinking of running to fill a Senate vacancy by appearing to celebrate it.

In his view, Deves’ elevation to the Senate – where she would be given a megaphone to vilify queer Australians for five years – would make the Liberal party more unelectable. It was not until later, after liking some pretty cooked tweets on the subject, that he moved towards acknowledging the lack of empathy for increasingly terrified trans communities that he was showing.

No doubt the staffers and focus group leaders will pull out the book of Whitlam quotes and point to “certainly, the impotent are pure”, but we’ve already shown that sticking to principle on queer rights (and respect) is not an issue of ideological purity that holds that party back from electoral success. The ACT government of Andrew Barr, the first openly gay Australian head of government, leads the nation on issues of queer rights and dignity. Dan Andrews is an unabashed ally and defied expectations to win a third majority government last year. Same-sex marriage won large majorities across Australia. Voters in key seats hate this fighting over basic dignity as seen by Deve’s failure to win back Wentworth in 2022 and the outrage over the RDB should have shown that most Labor people hate it too.

Perhaps a re-think on the federal party’s approach on issues of queer safety is in order. The state parties have shown the dog-whistles aren’t “necessary”.

NB: While I am the secretary of the ACT branch of Rainbow Labor, this post does not represent the formal position of that organisation and was not made on its behalf