george brandis

The Australian Christian Lobby wants TV channels to be forced to air their homophobic ads during the plebiscite debate, according to a letter obtained by Crikey.

The letter, obtained under freedom of information, was sent by ACL managing director Lyle Shelton to Attorney-General George Brandis in April following a meeting between the Attorney-General and the groups likely to head up the campaign against marriage equality — the ACL, Marriage Alliance, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies — on March 28.

In the letter, Shelton outlines “practical” issues those opposed to same-sex marriage believe exist in the plebiscite debate, including limits on TV advertising. Shelton said in the letter there was a “need for a review of relevant broadcasting legislation so television advertisements can be aired freely”.

The group had previously complained about SBS’ decision to pull an ad from another fringe group — Australian Marriage Forum — featuring long-time anti-gay campaigner David van Gend (mentioned only as a “family doctor”) railing against marriage equality during the Mardi Gras television broadcast earlier this year.

The ACL wants the government to change the law in order to force television stations to take anti-gay ads during the plebiscite regardless of whether they want to air them.

This would likely have to be included in the legislation enabling the plebiscite. In addition to forcing commercial broadcasters to air ads they don’t want to, it would also have to override the Australian Association of National Advertisers’ code of ethics, which specifically prohibits discriminatory advertising:

“Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not portray people or depict material in a way which discriminates against or vilifies a person or section of the community on account of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual preference, religion, disability, mental illness or political belief.”

Although LGBTI lobby groups called for people to lodge complaints about the Australian Marriage Forum’s ad when it aired on Seven and Nine, it doesn’t appear that the Advertising Standards Board launched any formal investigation. But the ASB did investigate a picture depicting a woman at work with a rainbow noose around her neck posted online by Marriage Alliance. The board found that the image breached ad standards, but it had been removed by the time the decision was made. Marriage Alliance attempted to argue that it was exempt because it was political advertising, but said that social media was effective as the group had been “effectively silenced” by “a significant portion of the television media”:

“The alleged offence felt by the complainant is based on an intentional and disingenuous misreading of the image to supposedly ground a complaint under the Code; the complaint itself is but another attempt to silence an opinion on a political issue by way of a mendacious appeal to the provisions of the Code.”

The ACL appears to also have a double standard when it comes to wanting its own ads to air unfettered, given the organisation’s long history of opposing even the representation of same-sex couples on TV and in advertising — most recently in an episode of Play School. The ACL’s Wendy Francis argued that Play School should not “include rainbow politics”. The group also successfully had an ad depicting a same-sex couple removed from bus shelters in Queensland, because Francis claimed it “went against prevailing community standards to introduce sexuality to young children through forced exposure in public”.

Crikey contacted Brandis and the ACL for comment but did not hear back. The Attorney-General has already ruled out changes to alleviate the other “practical concern” raised by Shelton in the letter, namely suspending anti-discrimination law to prevent LGBTI people making complaints about comments to anti-discrimination bodies “in the way Hobart Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous and others have”.

The Porteous case was dropped by the complainant, Martine Delaney, before any finding was made by the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission over the “Don’t Mess with Marriage” propaganda booklet the Church had been distributing in Catholic schools. The pamphlet was never censored and is still available. Delaney proposed a few minor changes making it clear that the claims made in the booklet were the Church’s view rather than fact, but the case was dropped when the Church rejected these proposed changes.

Shelton also told Brandis he was “very keen to consult” with him on the form and nature of the plebiscite question, but some detail on this was redacted from release, with the department claiming that it was part of cabinet deliberation, as Brandis has yet to put to cabinet his proposed wording of the plebiscite question. This is expected to happen in the next few weeks ahead of the start of the 45th Parliament at the end of August.

Australian Marriage Equality is already calling for the government to rule out providing millions of taxpayers’ dollars to the Australian Christian Lobby to run the “no” campaign against marriage equality, on top of the estimated $160 million it will cost for the government to hold a plebiscite on the issue later this year or early next year.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey