About 70 government agencies and departments are signed up to a program administered by the LGBTQ advocacy group ACON, raising concerns about the impartiality of public services.
ACON spearheaded the successful campaign for marriage equality and has increasingly taken up transgender advocacy, which some critics say resurrects regressive gender stereotypes and potentially erodes the rights of women and LGB people.
ACON describes itself as a health promotion organisation and denies it is a lobby group.
“To describe ACON as a lobby group is disingenuous and denies a sector wide approach to advocacy that is common to non-government health organisations who work to improve the health and wellbeing of marginalised people,” a spokesperson told Government News.
But while ACON says its programs are about promoting inclusive workplaces, critics say initiatives like Pride in Diversity (PID) and the Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI) are about embedding the ideology of an interest group in what are supposed to be impartial public institutions.
Pride in Diversity
The Pride in Diversity program allows organisations to pay $6,200 plus GST to become standard members and $10,450 plus GST to become Principal Partners.
As well as training and support, Pride in Diversity offers members preparation to enter the AWEI, which ranks organisations on their support of LGBTQ issues in the workplace and awards the best performers.
The spokesperson said “dozens of government agencies and departments from all levels of government” are currently members of Pride in Diversity but didn’t provide specific numbers.
The AWEI “saw participation from several government agencies and departments”.
The current PID members list includes the WA Department of Communities, the Department of Defence, the NSW Education Department and Victoria Police as Principal Partners. It also lists seven members from local government and 28 state government members.
Federal government departments aren’t included on the current members list, however archives show that as of October there were 35 members from the Australian government, including the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the NDIA, the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the federal Health Department, the APSC and the ATO.
Invoices seen by Government News show that ASIC, the ATO and Services Australia paid $6,600 each for PID membership this year, although they aren’t listed on the website.
The invoices also show ASIC paid $2,470 in June for a ‘Train the Trainer Program’, and that the ATO paid $11,000 in February for ‘2022 Australian LGBTQ Inclusion Awards Luncheon – Silver Sponsorship’.
The spokesperson said the federal government list has been removed from the website because members were being “targeted and attacked by anti-trans activists”.
Encouraging social inclusion
ACON describes PID as a “not-for-profit employer support program for all aspects of LGBTQ workplace inclusion.”
“Pride in Diversity are specialists in HR, organisational change and workplace diversity dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ people by reducing exclusion, invisibility, homophobia and stigma in the workplace,” ACON says.
Pride in Diversity are specialists in HR, organisational change and workplace diversity dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ people.ACON
“As a member-based program, Pride in Diversity works closely with HR, diversity professionals and LGBTQ Network Leaders in all aspects of LGBTQ inclusion within all sectors of the Australian workforce.”
Pride in Diversity offers training and consulting services on LGBTQ workplace inclusion as part of Pride In Diversity membership as well as on a fee-for-service basis for non-members.
Training includes “LGBT awareness, ally training, support for staff members who are transitioning and training for HR staff and executives”.
It also provides policy review, LGBTQ strategy training and preparation for the AWEI.
ACON administers the AWEI scheme as part of PID. The scheme, described as “the definitive national benchmark on LGBTQ workplace inclusion”, surveys participating organisation on their implementation LGBTQ positive practices, scores them on their answers, and hands out awards.
In 2022, AWEI gold winners from the public sector included the ABC, Services Australia and the Queensland Department of Education.
The federal health department, CSIRO, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and Victoria’s Education Department were awarded silver. Bronze went to ASIC, the Department of Home Affairs and Border Force, the DPMC, DSS, Energy Queensland and the NSW Police Force.
ABC Managing Director David Anderson won CEO of the year and the ABC won best external media campaign for its Innies and Outies podcast which explores stories from LGBTQA+ people about coming out or staying in.
UK agencies quit Stonewall
ACON says Pride in Diversity, launched in 2010, was established with the assistance of UK LGBTQ advocacy organisation Stonewall UK.
However a number of UK government agencies, including the UK Cabinet Office and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) cut ties with Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme, on which Pride in Diversity is modelled, amid an investigation by BBC journalists Stephen Nolan and David Thompson.
Nolan and Thompson argue in a ten-part podcast series released last year that as a lobby group, Stonewall has every right to lobby. But the investigation raises the question of whether it’s right that in a democracy a lobby group should have so much influence over government and government policy.
“Why did (these public institutions) bring (Stonewall) in and allow them to influence their own policies? And can they then say they’re truly independent?BBC Nolan Report
“Institutions like the Scottish government, the Welsh government Whitehall, police, the NHS – all of these organisations have brought Stonewall in, presumably aware that Stonewall holds some controversial views,” they say.
“So why did they bring them in and allow them to influence their own policies? And can they then say they’re truly independent?
“All public institutions that should have their own thought of mind should be standing back and saying to themselves is this in line with our ethos, our policies.”
‘Baking in’ an ideology
Holly Lawford-Smith is Associate Professor in Political Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, whose current research is focused on the conflict between gender identity and the rights of women and gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
Dr Lawford-Smith says she supports moves to encourage diversity in the workplace but is concerned about an interest group like ACON “embedding” itself in government institutions.
Encouraging diversity in the workplace is a good thing but … it’s quite another thing to mistake for the entrenching or baking in of an ideology.Dr Holly Lawford-Smith
“It’s especially concerning when it comes to government institutions, because a huge part of their mandate is to deliver public services impartially,” she told Government News.
Dr Lawford-Smith says there are lesson for Australia from the Stonewall experience.
“The BBC report did show that there was a serious concern with perception of partiality, that these institutions that should be neutral are essentially paying to be lobbied,” she told Government News.
“We’ve got an organisation here, ACON, that explicitly builds itself on Stonewall’s program, and that is embedded in institutions in exactly the same way.”
Cordelia Fine, a professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne, was the academic lead on a recent panel discussion called Pride and Prejudice in Policy which looked at what Australia’s public institutions could learn from the Stonewall controversy.
She says it’s important to understand that the debate isn’t about the rights or wrongs of ACON’s position on any particular issue.
“It’s about the core principles and values of government agencies and departments,” Professor Fine told Government News.
“Pride in Diversity can offer valuable advice to organisations, and many of the recommendations suggested in the AWEI to promote LGBT inclusion are very helpful.
“However, there is a problem if only one group in those contestations enjoys the role of expert, and marks and scores organisations’ performance according to its own criteria, beliefs and values.
“Government agencies and departments need to be independent, impartial and transparent.”
ACON says program mischaracterised
In a statement on its website ACON says the PID program has been mischaracterised and attacked by opponents of LGBT equality.
“Diversity and inclusion programs are just as important in the public sector as they are in the private and not-for-profit sectors,” it says in the statement.
“ACON is proud of the work we do in improving the health and wellbeing of sexuality and gender diverse communities. We know that health and wellbeing outcomes of LGBTQ people are directly related to experiences of stigma, prejudice, discrimination and abuse in many settings, including the workplace.”
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