Doctors and psychiatrists want the Andrews government to make changes to its plan to ban gay conversion therapy, due to concerns it will discourage some practitioners from treating vulnerable patients.
The Victorian branches of the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists say the proposed legislation is too broad and the sanctions are too severe.
Australian Medical Association Victoria president Julian Rait voiced concerns over the proposed laws.Credit:Justin McManus
The bill to criminalise gay conversion practices, which will be introduced to the upper house on Thursday, includes penalties of up to 10 years in jail and maximum fines of $10,000 for anyone caught trying to suppress or change someone’s sexuality.
Dr Kerryn Rubin, chair of the college’s Victorian branch, said he feared the bill would potentially harm some of the most vulnerable people in society, who “need more help not less”.
Dr Rubin said the role of a psychiatrist was often to challenge the ideas of their patients and explore the reasons they feel a certain way.
“[The bill] is too much of a blanket statement on what constitutes a conversion practice versus exploratory therapies,” he said.
“Our concern is that there needs to be clarity around what is a conversion practice and what are acceptable practices when you are helping people.”
Dr Rubin said he had been inundated with correspondence from psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists who want the state government to clarify the legislation.
“There will be people who stop doing the valuable work they are doing over fears it will be considered conversion therapy. The unintended consequence is that it will make people more and more reticent to support people who really need our help.”
Victoria’s peak medical body has sought independent legal advice on the government’s proposal.
Julian Rait, president of the AMA’s Victorian branch, said he supported the intent of the policy but said that the sanction was extreme.
“We are just very anxious,” Associate Professor Rait said. “We think they should reconsider the high penalty.”
He said the association would like to see the penalty brought in line with other jurisdictions where those found guilty of conversion therapy face prison terms of two years or less.
“While we vehemently oppose conversion therapy and we acknowledge the LGBTIQ community has been subjected to discrimination, we think the bill needs further explanation.”
“Even though the government has tried hard to craft this legislation, it could well be something that discourages health practitioners,” he said.
The Victorian branch of the AMA has raised its concerns with the government but has yet to receive a response.
”We don’t feel we were appropriately consulted as we only saw the bill for the first time when it was introduced to Parliament,” Associate Professor Rait said.
On Tuesday Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said the proposed legislation was based on extensive consultation with survivors and other interested parties.
“This bill contains necessary caveats so health services and health professionals can still do their jobs and does not prevent them from following their professional guidelines,” she said.
“They also clearly set out the kinds of actions that constitute change or suppression practices – anyone doing the wrong thing should and will be captured by these laws.”
On Monday, Ms Symes told The Age: “LGBT people are not ‘broken’ and they do not need to be ‘fixed’ – these views won’t be tolerated in Victoria, and neither will change or suppression practices.
“We consulted closely with survivors, LGBTIQ+ organisations and religious organisations on the legislation to make sure it is effective in stamping out abhorrent change and suppression practices once and for all.
“The new laws strike the right balance between protecting people from the serious harm caused by change or suppression practices, while respecting the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”
Doctors and psychiatrists are also concerned that the bill conflates the separate issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, which they say require differing approaches.
“For some people those two things are intertwined, but we take a different approach in terms of how we approach them as issues with patients,” Dr Rubin said. “As an example, hormonal treatments wouldn’t be given to someone with a different sexual orientation but it can help with gender identity.
“I see people who come to me and say ‘I wish I wasn’t gay’ and it’s up to us to challenge and explore why they might feel that way.”
The National Association of Practising Psychiatrists and Victorian Association of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapists have also written to the government and upper house MPs demanding changes to the legislation.
This comes as faith-based organisations ramped up their opposition to the bill on Tuesday. More than 75 Christian protesters held a demonstration at Parliament House.
Protesters on the steps of Parliament House on Tuesday.Credit:Eddie Jim
The Victorian bill goes further than a similar law to ban conversion therapy passed in Queensland last year in that it outlaws harmful practices not only in healthcare settings but also in religious settings.
The Liberal Party confirmed on Tuesday that it would not oppose the bill, after The Age obtained a leaked email outlining the state opposition’s plan to put forward amendments that would ultimately fail.
In the upper house, where every vote counts, this sends a signal to Legislative Council MPs that the party room supports the bill, which has already passed the lower house.
During a tense party room meeting on Tuesday, several Liberal MPs expressed reservations about the bill and reserved their right to defy their leader and cross the floor to vote against it in the upper house.
David Davis, opposition leader in the upper house, all but confirmed some Liberal MPs would defy the party’s position and oppose the proposed legislation.
“We are all united in our opposition to conversion therapy but the other aspects of the bill we will seek to amend do worry some people within our party and the broader community,” he said.
Three Liberal MPs confirmed to The Age that during Tuesday’s party room meeting one opposition member criticised colleagues for leaking internal discussions to the media, describing the MPs that allegedly leaked an internal email as “terrorists” determined to blow up the opposition.
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