My latest article for Humanists Australia has just been published on Medium. It asks – should ANZAC Day public commemorations be purely secular? Are the current Christian services divisive? And do they reflect the true Anzac ethos?
During the Sky News leaders’ debate last night (20/4/22), the mother of an autistic child asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison why she should vote for his party, given that, following a review, her son’s NDIS had been slashed by 30 per cent. Morrison responded:
“I’ve been blessed, we’ve got two children that don’t … haven’t had to go through that. And so for parents, with children who are disabled, I can only try and understand your aspirations for those children.”
Not surprisingly, many people took that to mean:
“Geez, lady, I dunno. Us being good Christians, me and Jen, God gifted us with “normal” children.
You have to understand, if you do the right thing, praise the Lord and learn to speak in Tongues, you get rewarded. If you piss God off, you end up with a kid on the NDIS.
Who’s fault’s that? Certainly not mine; certainly not the taxpayers’!
So, instead of bitching about the NDIS, lady, maybe you should look at what you did to get yourself into this pickle, eh?
When’s the last time you praised the Lord? Did you have premarital sex? Did you vote “Yes” in the marriage equality postal survey? Have you ever had an abortion? Do you even tithe? God, forbid! You’re not bloody Catholic, are you?
Maybe try getting right with God and your kid will be cured. Tithe enough and God might even make you rich.
By the way, would you like to join my Amway downline?”
Harsh? I don’t think so.
Morrison makes no secret of the fact he is a Pentecostal Christian – absolutely immersed in that faith (see my post about that here). Pentecostals are big on shrugging off institutional responsibility and apportioning individual blame, and there’s not much difference between their views on poverty and their thoughts about disability.
The Prosperity Gospel teaches that if you’re not at the top of the Amway pyramid, it’s your own damned fault. As Morrison said to people living in poverty in Australia, “If you have a go in this country you’ll get a go.” (Tell that to all the Pentecostal Christians with garages full of cleaning products they can’t sell.)
It’s this mindset – that if people are struggling they only have themselves to blame – that rationalises Morrison’s determination to keep the NewStart allowance at $46 per day. Living in destitution is seen as a surefire way of motivating bludgers – oops, sorry – people to ‘have a go’ in Morrison’s Australia.
As Tanya Levin, a former member/victim of Hillsong Church and author of the exposé People in Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story of a Life Inside and Out of Hillsong” explains:
“Prosperity theology is explicit in its assertion that wealth demonstrates God’s approval. The prime minister believes that “the poor you shall always have with you”. It is understood that if you are not financially successful, you have not tithed enough, prayed enough, or been holy enough.”
This prosperity gospel thinking is a mirror image of the Pentecostal theology relating to disability. But Morrison was never meant to say it out loud.
Following an outcry from people with disabilities, the families of those with disabilities and social media in general, today has seen a great deal of re-framing and back-peddling from the Morrison camp.
Morrison has apologised for his comment, saying:
“I meant no offence by what I said last night but I accept that it has caused offence to people … I think people would also appreciate that I would have had no such intention of suggesting that anything other than every child is a blessing is true.
Every child is precious and a blessing to every parent.
I don’t think that’s in dispute and I don’t think anyone would seriously think that I had the intent of anything different to that.”
Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham insisted the Prime Minister’s words had been taken out of context:
“The PM, actually in that context, was talking about not having to deal with the many challenges of systems that you have to work through to get support.”
While Senator Hollie Hughes, a conservative Catholic, said the disability community’s ‘rage machine’ was to blame for the sector’s failure to achieve “constructive gains.”
Let’s be clear. The Prime Minister didn’t ‘mis-speak’, he wasn’t taken ‘out of context’, his words aren’t being twisted by his opponents. In a rare moment of honesty Scott Morrison said exactly what he has been taught to think by his church: that disease and disability are inflicted by God as punishment for sin. Following this line of thought, the logical conclusion is that those who follow the Pentecostal faith will be ‘blessed’ with exemptions from these ‘curses’.
I understand this aspect of Pentecostalism from bitter experience. When a member of my family began experiencing worrying symptoms, they were referred by their church to a church-approved, Pentecostal psychologist. The verdict, after much probing into the piety of my relative, was that the symptoms were a punishment for the fact one of our ancestors was a Grand Master of the Freemasons. Ardent prayer was prescribed. (In fact, as it turned out, my relative had a malignant tumour.)
This toxic belief that disease and disability is either self-inflicted or the result of some kind of ancestral sin is causing havoc in African countries that have been effectively colonised by evangelical Christians of the Pentecostal variety. In Uganda and elsewhere, sick and disabled people are expelled from their homes, brutalised and sometimes burned as witches. This is not an Indigenous practice – it has been imported and inflamed by missionaries of Pentecostal Churches.
Reporting from the ground, Ugandan Humanist, Leo Igwe says:
“It cannot be overemphasized that churches in Africa are instrumental to the witch craze in the region. Programs and activities of faith organizations continue to fuel witchcraft suspicions with sometimes horrific consequences on alleged witches.”
Similarly, a theological treatise on Pentecostalism in Zimbabwe states:
” …. there is a common misconception in these prevailing and mushrooming prophetic, charismatic and Pentecostal religious organizations that people living with Disability have been either cursed, bewitched or possessed by the evil spirit.”
Australian Pentecostals may not be as forthright about this toxic belief as the evangelicals infecting African nations, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, bubbling just below the surface – until the Prime Minister had a brain fart on national TV.
It wasn’t that long ago when Hillsong sponsored Mercy Ministries, an arm of the church set up to heal young women suffering from eating and other ‘disorders’ (including – shock, horror – lesbianism). In exchange for their social security cheques, these vulnerable girls were promised in-house therapy and treatment. But what Hillsong/Mercy delivered was not medical treatment but exorcisms.
Call it demon possession or witchcraft, the basic premise of this theology is that disability and disease are Satanic and the result of some kind of personal or familial spiritual weakness.
Scott Morrison was a member of Hillsong Church (Waterloo) around the time that Mercy Ministries was operating, but he is now a member of Horizon Church (Sutherland). But Morrison maintains strong ties to Hillsong. In his first speech to Parliament, and even more recently, Morrison cited disgraced former leader, Brian Houston, as a spiritual mentor.
Even after decamping to Horizon Church, Morrison was pastored by Michael Murphy, the former Associate Pastor to Brian Houston at Hillsong. So, we can be sure that the spiritual lessons he was being taught at Horizon were much the same as those at Hillsong.
Horizon is now headed by pastors Brad and Alison Bonhomme but, with Horizon still associated with the Pentecostal Australian Christian Churches, and this view of disability being fairly consistent throughout that denomination, we can assume the same kinds of beliefs prevail.
In a scholarly paper on Pentecostalism Luke Thompson from the University of South Florida explains how Pentecostals think about sickness and disability:
“Well established within Pentecostal theology is the belief that the presence of suffering (sickness or debilitating conditions) may indicate personal sin, symbolize unholiness, or result from demonic influence.”
According to Thompson, Pentecostals:
“readily accept Exodus 15:26, a passage of scripture indisputably relating to ancient Jews, which links health with obedience, and sickness with disobedience as evidence for the contemporary normative association of sin with suffering.”
“Those who repent or who are truly saved are believed to be ‘supernaturally rescued’ from suffering through prayer. Pentecostals’ view of the Bible supports the Pentecostal view of disability.”
Pentecostals believe that healing is to be expected as a result of obedience and faith (or the casting out of demons). It follows then that lack of obedience or lack of faith is to blame when the disabled stubbornly refuse to “heal themselves”.
Given this perspective it’s not surprising that, under Morrison’s stewardship, the NDIS and the people it is meant to serve are in crisis. Nor is it a coincidence that this monumental fuck-up has occurred under the control of Morrison’s spiritual brother, fellow Pentecostal, Stuart Robert – the man Morrison affectionately calls “Brother Stuie”.
It was Brother Stuie who praised Scott Morrison’s rather creepy practice of surreptitiously “laying hands” upon random strangers and praying for them. One wonders how often that was inflicted upon unsuspecting people from the disability community?
Last night, when Scott Morrison said he was ‘blessed’ to have two non-disabled children, he meant exactly what he said. It was a dog-whistle, a humble-brag – “Look at me. See how holy I am? God gave me kids off the good pile, and boy, do I deserve it!”
Of course, he’d never be so crass as to say it as baldly as that in public, but the theology in which Morrison has immersed himself throughout his adult life leaves no doubt that, despite his protestations to the contrary, this was, indeed, what he meant.
In the 2022 Federal election, Katherine Deves is Scott Morrison’s ‘captain’s pick’ for Warringah, the electorate formerly represented by Tony Abbott and, currently, by independent Zali Steggall.
This week, social and mainstream media has erupted over the fact that Ms Deves is a notorious TERF – a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. This claim can be made with no fear of defamation. Ms Deves, herself, has proudly confirmed this status by wishing an interviewer a “Merry TERF-mas”.
Specifically, Ms Deves wants to ‘protect women’ by excluding transgender women from sport. Make no mistake, TERFS (who argue that transgender women aren’t ‘real’ women) are an extremist fringe group and do not represent the vast majority of feminists or, indeed, women in general. But this is not the argument I wish to make against Ms Deves.
The cruel, harmful, callous divisiveness of this candidate’s crusade against trans women should be sufficient reason for her to be disendorsed. But even for those who are not offended by her stance on transgender women, there is a very good reason to reject Ms Deves’ aspiration to represent the electorate of Warringah. In my opinion, Ms Deves has failed a crucial test of professional competence which should exclude her from the opportunity of holding any public office.
A huge part of of a politicians’ responsibility to their electorate involves reading reports from various stakeholders, critically analysing those reports, and arriving at a conclusion based on which information provides the best evidence for a particular course of action. Using these skills, we entrust our political representatives to choose a position and defend it by reporting honestly and accurately on the material which supports it. Our entire democratic system depends, in large part, to our politicians mastering these skills of comprehension, critical analysis and clear and accurate communication.
Ms Deves has recently apologised for a statement in which she suggested that 50 per cent of transgender women are sex offenders. Regardless of the context in which it was made, the statement is false.
I happily concede that this single tweet may have been part of a broader conversation with additional context – but Ms Deves had an opportunity to clarify that in her apology, and didn’t. Further, because her social media was such a sewer of transphobic excrement, Ms Deves had to close down her social media accounts to avoid scrutiny – so it’s no longer possible for me to see the entire thread. Therefore, I can only critique Ms Deves on the statement she has clearly, and unequivocally, made in this tweet.
First, Ms Deves refers to ‘males with trans identities’ when, of course, what she means is transgender women.
Second, she suggests that 50 per cent of transgender women are sex offenders, compared to 20 per cent of men. This is clearly untrue.
In Australia the rate of sexual offences in relation to the male population is about 55 in 100,000. That’s .06 per cent, not 20 per cent as stated by Ms Deves. For someone seeking a career in which statistics play a huge role, that’s an incredibly big margin of error.
The report on which Ms Deves’ allegation is based is a 2018 study commissioned by the trans-exclusionary radical feminist group, Fair Play for Women. It took a while to pin this down because Ms Deves hiked up their figure from 41 per cent to 50 per cent (what’s 9 per cent between TERFY friends?). As we shall see, in a catastrophic failure of either professional skills or personal ethics, Ms Deves completely misrepresented this discredited study.
Importantly, the Fair Play for Women report did not look at the general population but at a particular population of prison inmates in the UK – something that Ms Deves did not refer to in her tweet. To be fair, Twitter’s brevity does mean that sometimes you have to leave stuff out. But, Deves’ defamatory tweet was extremely brief – she still had an unused 134 characters which she could have used to clarify that she was talking about inmates in English and Welsh prisons, not all men or all transgender women.
Politics requires superior communication skills – even when communicating in précis. Despite being trained as a lawyer, and despite having plenty of room to clarify her statement, Ms Deves sent out a tweet which clearly implied that 50 per cent of all transgender women are sex offenders. It was, at the very least, careless and, at worse, malicious.
Ms Deves’ willingness to use the Fair Play for Women report in public discourse is cause for alarm. Political representatives act (or should act) on the best information they can accrue on any particular issue. But not all information a politician receives is good, accurate, nor even honest information. It is their job to sort the wheat from the chaff and they must have the skill-set to do this.
The questions politicians must ask of reports and submissions are the same questions academics ask:
- Who wrote this?
- What is their agenda?
- Who did the research?
- Is the methodology sound?
- Are the findings consistent with those of experts, or are they wildly out of kilter?
- If so, why?
- Is there some ideological bias here?
- Are the figures contested? If so, by whom?
- Are the figures supported by official sources?
- Is this study from a peer-reviewed, credible academic journal?
If we choose politicians who carelessly latch on to any report that appears to support their particular bias – no matter how disreputable the source or how shaky the figures – we end up with politicians of the calibre of Pauline Hanson, Stuart Robert and George Christensen. I think even Captain Scott Morrison would agree that’s a very low bar to set.
As a professional researcher I do these kinds of checks every day. Yes, it’s time consuming. But I’ve found that if you look, you’ll often find that reports which feature in public debates have already been expertly interrogated. That’s how I found that the BBC had fact-checked Fair Play for Women’s claim that 41 per cent of transgender female prisoners were sex offenders, compared with 20 per cent of male prisoners, and determined that it was, to be blunt, bullshit.
The BBC reality-check team went straight to the authority on prisons in the UK – the Ministry of Justice. The MoJ confirmed that, to the best of their knowledge, in the whole of England and Wales, there were 125 transgender prisoners (but they conceded they really don’t have accurate numbers). They could not say whether these were transgender males or females.
If the Ministry of Justice says they couldn’t do the study undertaken by Fair Play for Women because reliable data simply isn’t available, you have to seriously question the validity of the study on which Ms Deves has, inadvertently, staked her future political career.
Remember that old quote about there being “lies, damned lies, and statistics”? In my work I repeatedly find that bad actors use dodgy statistics in a strategy commonly referred to as FUD – weaponising “fear, uncertainty and distrust”.
The idea that 41 per cent of transgender women in prisons are sex offenders is confronting and scary – and it’s intended to be. But even if that figure were true (and it isn’t) let’s look at it in context.
In 2017 (the year in which the Fair Play for Women report was compiled) there were 82,773 inmates in English and Welsh prisons. That means that, according to the best estimate of the Ministry of Justice, identifiable transgender people accounted for .001 per cent of felons.
And even if it were true that 50 per cent of those people were sex offenders, they would account for a minuscule .05 per cent of the prison population.
Do the people of Warringah really deserve a politician who’s willing to weaponise “fear, uncertainty and doubt” against a minority group? This isn’t how responsible politicians behave.
But it’s not just a question of ethics. It’s a question of responsible use of public resources; and a politician’s time is a tax-payer funded resource. Constituents should not be paying for a politician to spend a disproportionate amount of time on a meaningless hobby horse when there are more important issues to be concerned about. Consider, for example, George Christensen’s passionate interest in adult entertainment bars in Manila which takes him away from his electorate for months of the year. OK, Ms Deves may not be cruising titty-bars in the Phillipines, but she has decided to devote an inordinate amount of her time to campaigning against a group of people which, in the very worst case scenario, might (but doesn’t) account for .01 per cent of prison inmates. Doesn’t that sound just a wee bit silly?
Of course, Ms Deves will claim that her primary concern is that cisgender women are unfairly disadvantaged by transgender women’s involvement in competitive sport. Research into this issue is on-going and contested, but a systemic review of the literature in 2017 concluded that:
“there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition (e.g. cross-sex hormones, gender-confirming surgery).”
And, even if subsequent studies show that, in some cases or in particular sports, some athletes have an unfair advantage, the solution is not to ban transgender athletes, but to implement a system which takes account of abnormal physiological advantages of competitors, regardless of their gender.
Surely we need politicians who can think laterally about problems to find solutions that don’t unfairly demonise or disadvantage minorities?
Returning to Deves’ assertions about transgender women in UK prisons. As you probably suspected, neither 50 per cent, nor even 41 per cent of female transgender inmates in English and Welsh prisons are sexual offenders. In reality, the figure magicked up by Fair Play for Women is based on identifiable transgender prisoners serving long sentences for serious crimes in the UK prison system and involves a ridiculously small cohort of just 125 subjects.
The Ministry of Justice confirmed to the BBC that counting transgender inmates is not a simple task. For various reasons, transgender females serving shorter sentences are less likely to appear in official statistics (more details are included in the article).
Any study that looks at identifiable transgender female prisoners will inevitably provide an inaccurate picture, because only a portion of the population (the very worst offenders) is included in the data. The Fair Play for Women report ignores an unknown number of unidentified transgender transgressors in jail for any number of lesser crimes. The “60 out of 125” prisoners identified as sex offenders in the study may, in reality, be 60 out of 250 or 500 or 1000. The MoJ doesn’t know, so neither do the geniuses who wrote the Fair Play for Women paper.
Imagine if a politician were asked to determine whether a bridge, or a carpark, or a childcare centre was required in their electorate, but, had their own intractable view on the necessity of the infrastructure. In order to get get the result they want, the politician only canvasses information from the portion of the electorate they know will support their foregone conclusion; ignoring the rest. This would, of course, be reprehensible and dishonest behaviour. But, in looking only at the worst portion of the prison population, this is, essentially what happened in the Fair Play for Women report. The dodgy use of data in this report, and Ms Deves’ uncritical promotion of its findings, is either incompetent or malicious.
There are many reasons why the people of Warringah should be very wary about voting for Katherine Deves.
Katherine Deves is a transphobe and that should be more than enough to exclude her from membership of any self-respecting political party – let alone pre-selection as a political candidate.
In her crusade against transgender people, Ms Deves has distastefully compared herself to the Germans who stood up against Nazis.
And while 41 per cent of transgender females are absolutely not sex offenders, we know that a percentage close to this will attempt to take their own lives; largely because of the kind of propaganda bandied about by TERFS like Ms Deves. According to a 2022 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Interpersonal Violence, between 40-56 per cent of transgender people are likely to attempt suicide. And yet, when discussing this very real concern recently, Ms Deves said:
“We hear from the other side the toll, all the harm, the devastation, we’re all going to commit suicide and blah blah.”
No politician will ever be perfect. But you would expect, at a minimum, an aspiring politician with an interest in gender issues would educate themselves about the alarming statistics relating to LGBTIQ+ suicide and self-harm. It is not unreasonable for the people of Warringah to expect that a political candidate would have sufficient human compassion not to dismiss the deaths of real people as “blah, blah, blah.”
But, even setting these glaring flaws, in perpetuating (and misquoting) the propaganda in the Fair Play for Women paper, Ms Deves has demonstrated that she lacks the critical thinking skills and discernment necessary to be an honest and effective political representative.
To be scrupulously fair, it may well be that Ms Deves (who, after all, has earned a law degree), does have the skills I have accused her of lacking, but, in her zeal to degrade transgender women, simply chose not to apply those skills. In that case, one can only view her promotion of the Fair Play for Women report as intentionally malicious and dishonest.
It’s really one or the other.
Whichever it is, the citizens of Warringah must really consider whether Katherine Deves is the calibre of politician who best represents their interests and values. I think the answer is clear.