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Cam Wilson

Scott Morrison knows exactly what he’s doing when he talks about trans people

During an interview on the first day of a crucially important election campaign on Sydney’s top-rated radio breakfast program, Scott Morrison wanted to talk about trans people.

Unprompted, the prime minister brought up the defining policy of his handpicked Liberal candidate for Warringah, and co-founder of Save Women’s Sport Australasia, Katherine Deves.

“​​She’s standing up for something really important, and that is to ensure that, you know, when it comes to girls playing sport and women playing sport, that they’re playing against people of the same sex. And that’s, that’s, I know it’s a sensitive issue —” Morrison said before being interrupted by host Chris Smith, and even returned back to it after the interjection to say he shares Deves’ views.

Morrison and Deves know exactly what they’re doing when they bring up trans women in sport. 

Australians overwhelmingly support the rights of trans people. A YouGov poll conducted for Equality Australia in July 2020 found that four in five Australians agree that trans people deserve the same rights and protections as other Australians.  

Even still, conservative political campaigners have identified trans people as a potential wedge in people’s support for the LGBTQIA+ movement. At a conference in 2021, Australian Christian Lobby director Martyn Iles called transgender people “where the lie is most fragile”. In the UK and increasingly the US, the rights of trans people has become a bigger and more popular culture war topic.  

Trans women in sport specifically has been a target for anti-trans campaigners. Australian anti-trans group Binary published a poll that found a majority of Australians thought trans women shouldn’t compete against biological females — however, it is worth noting that the group did not name the polling firm and it is difficult to assess just how reliable these results are versus an established pollster like YouGov. But we know from credible polls in the US that support for trans women in sport is a lot more contested, like this 2021 Morning Consult poll that found 40% of people supported trans women competing at collegiate level sport versus 42% who opposed.

But talking about restricting trans rights — even if it’s specifically about women’s sport — isn’t as popular as talking about whatever the government is doing on the economy or how it’s recovered from COVID-19. 

Plus, the number of people who it actually affects is vanishingly small: less than 2% of Australians are trans and not all of them are playing sport. The deletion of Deves’ Twitter account just before the election and the lack of mention of trans women or sport in her Liberal Party website biography may hint at a campaign decision to steer away from this issue. Punters in the pub, around the dinner table, aren’t spending all their time talking about it.

So why is Scott Morrison talking about it? Well, the prime minister has a track record of bringing it up. Less than a month after becoming PM, Scott Morrison responded to a Daily Telegraph article about NSW teachers being taught to recognise children questioning their gender by tweeting, again unprompted, his opposition: “We do not need ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools. Let kids be kids.” 

Morrison has previously been vocal in his support for an anti-trans sport bill private members bill from Senator Claire Chandler, a rising star in the Liberal Party who has staked her flag to campaigning against trans women in sport

Plus, the Morrison government was all too happy to use transgender school children as a wedge when attempting, and ultimately failing, to pass its religious discrimination legislation through Parliament earlier this year. 

The sudden appearance of moderate Liberal MPs coming out of the woodwork to “express concern” about Morrison’s comments isn’t proof that this was Morrison freelancing. This is the government’s attempt to be all things to all people: Morrison, Chandler and Deves are sending a signal to a more conservative base worried about gender and the “wokeism” boogeyman, whereas Senators Andrew Bragg and Simon Birmingham are smoothing it over by saying that there’s nothing to worry about. 

All of this article has been about politics, but debates about trans people doesn’t just concern politicians. It affects trans people. They are among the most marginalised and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. They are at higher risk of suicidal ideation, self harm and mental health issues. They’re the ones who have to hear their identity and rights debated by the national media, despite it really impacting very, very few people. They will, no doubt, be chilled by a promise from the prime minister on the campaign trail on Monday. 

“I’ll have more to say about that at another time,” he said.

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