A male junior minister has gone around his female senior Cabinet colleague to orchestrate a reversal of the most prominent of the Turnbull government’s pro-inclusion gender strategies.
The Department of Defence is exploring the legal right to discriminate on the basis of gender, in a stunning reversal of one of government’s most prominent and ambitious workplace gender inclusion strategies.
Last night, while Defence Minister Marise Payne was out of the country, junior minister for Defence Personnel Dan Tehan ordered the department to find a way out of protections for non-binary gender individuals. The same legislative protection shielding women from discrimination also protects non-binary gender individuals since a 2014 High Court ruling.
The instruction was prompted by media inquiries about the first non-binary gender cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy. There are two serving at ADFA currently, and seven non-binary gender public servants across the Australian Public Service. On official forms this non-binary gender is notated as X as opposed to M or F.
Defence’s move has not been qualified to just X, rather suggesting it would be excused from all protections in the Sex Discrimination Act, which includes marital status and pregnancy.
If successful, Defence would be the first Commonwealth government organisation to be granted blanket exemptions to discriminate since the 2012 anti-discrimination law reforms. Doing so would undermine the efforts of the Attorney General’s Department, Office for Women, and prominent champions including the Minister for Women Michaelia Cash and former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.
The statement sent last night to The Australian and the Daily Telegraph newspapers was approved by Tehan’s office, but released by a departmental spokesperson:
“The Defence of our nation is our first priority and we will examine anything that arises that may impact on our ability to achieve that. In this regard, the Government and the Australian Defence Force are currently considering the need for an exemption to the Act (Sex Discrimination Act 1984) and the guidelines due to the unique operational requirements of military service.”
Non-binary gender inclusion, required under Attorney General’s Department instructions, has no cost impact. It is distinct from transgender inclusion, which may have a cost impact as medical needs of personnel are covered by government.
Horrified officials in hiding over sex discrimination decision
The Mandarin has been told this reversal was not debated internally, but orchestrated by Tehan’s office.
Defence Minister Marise Payne was travelling back from Washington DC where she was meeting with senior Trump Administration officials and was not included in the decision. Neither Payne’s nor Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne’s office have responded to questions this morning. Michaelia Cash also ducked questions.
Other senior Defence officials have removed themselves from engagements to avoid being questioned on or associated with the decision.
Defence strategic centre officials were blindsided by the directive last night.
Other relevant officials, such as People Group, Defence Force Recruiting and departmental communications officials were not informed until the statement appeared in newspapers today.
On the eve of a major workplace diversity event, speeches are being hastily rewritten to accommodate this policy shift, but so far no command guidance has been produced.
Spin doctors are scrambling to re-write gender diversity talking points and speeches on the eve of the Military Pride Ball. The two-star in charge of Joint Health Command, Air Vice Marshal Tracy Smart, is scheduled to represent Binskin at the ball, speaking on the importance of workplace inclusion and how it contributes to expanding Defence capability.
The 5-year Pathway to Change strategy in Defence expired this year ending an era of major culture change including expanding the roles and opportunities for women.
The wider APS will be celebrating gender inclusion with the APS diversity and gender equality awards later this year.
Meanwhile, in Trump-land
Payne had initially travelled to Toronto for the Invictus Games, but returned via Washington DC where she met with top officials in Donald Trump’s administration including Defence Secretary James Mattis — their sixth interaction this year.
In a statement issued today, the Payne says Australia and the United States are of “one mind on the need for the DPRK to cease its destabilising behaviour and that any attack by the DPRK would spell the end for the regime.”
They also discussed the South China Sea, operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and the US military presence in Australia. Specific cooperation projects such as Joint Strike Fighter and ballistic missile defence were also discussed.
Payne also attended a Women in National Security reception hosted by the Joe Hockey, as part of Australia’s “100 Years of Mateship” campaign.
Top image: Dan Tehan with Malcolm Turnbull. AAP Image/Lukas Coch