Patrick Parkinson’s long association with Christian lobby groups and the campaign against marriage equality has been questioned after his appointment as dean of the University of Queensland law school. By Bri Lee.

Exclusive: Christian lobby academic heads law school

Two months ago, the University of Queensland announced Professor Patrick Parkinson as the next head of its TC Beirne School of Law and the school’s new academic dean. The media release listed Parkinson’s extensive qualifications, including a long professorship at the University of Sydney. Having worked on the Independent Advisory Council on Redress for Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, as well as countless other committees and reports, Parkinson is often consulted as an expert in matters of family law and child protection. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2009 for this work.

The official announcement made no mention of Parkinson’s affiliations with religious lobbying groups, including the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), nor his conservative advocacy. It did not address the role Parkinson and his research played in both the marriage equality vote and the opposition to the Safe Schools program. Since the announcement, staff, students, alumni and LGBTQIA+ legal professional organisations have expressed concerns to The Saturday Paper about Professor Parkinson’s appointment.

Some are unhappy that Parkinson has used his position as a “family law and child protection expert” to, they believe, advocate what the professor describes as “traditional values”. Then there is his work for the ACL, largely commissioned under the tenure of Jim Wallace. In 2012, then prime minister Julia Gillard cancelled her speech at the ACL’s annual conference, after Wallace argued that the health effects of homosexuality on individuals were worse than smoking. Clarifying his comments to the ABC, Wallace said he had wanted to talk about the “health risks associated with homosexuality” and could not understand why his comments had offended people.

Parkinson’s ties to Wallace appear to extend beyond his work for the ACL. On Parkinson’s CV, provided to The Saturday Paper by his secretary, he lists his role as a board member of Freedom for Faith, an organisation that describes itself as “a Christian legal think tank that exists to see religious freedom protected and promoted in Australia”. In an audio recording from the organisation’s annual conference this year, Parkinson told the audience: “Freedom for Faith was formed about six years ago. I was one of the two co-founders... Jim Wallace was the other.”

The “Freedom18” conference was held on May 23, 2018, one week after Parkinson’s appointment to the position at the University of Queensland (UQ) was announced. In his speech at the conference, Parkinson went on to say that “all faith-based organisations are being threatened by what I call ‘the new fundamentalism’ ”, and asked, “Why shouldn’t a Christian school insist that all its staff are Christian?” He added: “You can do whatever you like in private. There are no boundaries on sexual conduct as long as it’s consensual”, but, he said, religious organisations insisting on certain characteristics for hiring is “positive selection ... not discrimination”.

“My particular approach to the great controversies of our time is to try to build bridges, not to dig deeper chasms,” Parkinson said during an interview with The Saturday Paper, responding to the concerns some members of the UQ community had expressed about his appointment. “So, why should anybody be concerned that somebody in the university has a different view to them? It seems to me very odd.” When it was put to Parkinson that some students at his previous university, the University of Sydney, voiced similar concerns when he was publishing anti-marriage-equality statements, he expressed surprise. “Really? No student has ever expressed that to me.”

Thomas Parer, a recent alumnus of UQ’s law school, who identifies as a gay man, said that although a diversity of opinion is important, especially at a university, “this isn’t just a professor, this is a dean – he has decision-making and agenda-setting powers. When you take on a leadership role like that it’s not just about qualifications – the ideology underpinning your decisions plays a major role.” Parer said there had been an increasing understanding of gender and sexuality representation at the UQ law school when he was a student. “I felt blindsided when I learned about Parkinson’s appointment and his position on those issues,” he said.

“I find it extraordinary,” said Parkinson, responding to another comment from a LGBTQIA+ student from UQ who said they felt “less welcome” at the law school under his leadership. “Sexual orientation is completely irrelevant to the workplace. I would not know, nor wish to know, nor be bothered by knowing, the sexual orientation of any colleague or student. It’s a bit like saying people should be worried if they have ginger hair. Why would they be concerned? I’m baffled by such concerns.”

Dean Clifford-Jones is the president of Pride in Law, a non-political, non-profit legal networking association for the LGBTQIA+ community and allies. He is also an expert in law and child protection, having been employed in the Office of the Director of Child Protection Litigation since 2016. “Professor Parkinson might find it ‘extraordinary’ that sexual orientation has relevance in the workplace,” Clifford-Jones said. “Pride in Law takes a different view.”

“Research shows that in Australian workplaces approximately 45 per cent of LGBTQIA+ employees hide their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status at work,” Clifford-Jones told The Saturday Paper. “One in two LGBTQIA+ employees have witnessed homophobia – jokes, harassment or discrimination – at work. One in six have personally experienced [it].”

For some of UQ’s students, staff and alumni, Parkinson’s work with the ACL is a recurrent point of concern. Former managing director Lyle Shelton, who stepped down earlier this year to join Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives political party, labelled transgenderism a “contested gender ideology” on ABC-TV’s Q&A and suggested allowing same-sex parents to marry and have families would lead to a second stolen generation.

Back in 2011, Parkinson published a report commissioned by the ACL called “For Kids’ Sake”. He thanked Shelton, then the organisation’s chief of staff, for reading the draft report and providing comment.

The role “For Kids’ Sake” played in Australia’s protracted marriage-equality debate is a complicated one. High-profile figures, such as then director of beyondblue Jeff Kennett, have cited the study as proof children are adversely affected by growing up with same-sex parents. Kennett said Parkinson’s work proved “happy heterosexual marriages are the best environment for the mental health of children”. However, the report makes no specific mention of same-sex parents. “While it would be simplistic to posit just one or two explanations, if there is one major demographic change in Western societies that can be linked to a large range of adverse consequences for many children and young people, it is the growth in the numbers of children who experience life in a family other than living with their two biological parents, at some point before the age of 15,” Parkinson writes, citing separation of parents, family violence and step-parent families.

Asked about “For Kids’ Sake”, Parkinson said the report “was all about the wellbeing of children, and the fact that it was commissioned by the Australian Christian Lobby is neither here nor there, because there’s not a word about faith in the entire document”.

The funding for the report appears to have religious ties beyond ACL. The acknowledgements note that the research “was made possible by a generous grant from the Vos Foundation”, a group that describes itself as being “Deeply committed to the Christian principles and values found in the Bible”. On Parkinson’s CV, he notes receiving a $90,000 grant in 2010-11 from the Vos Foundation.

The Saturday Paper does not suggest this funding impacts the independence of Parkinson’s work or his fitness to act as dean.

When asked if he would ever work with ACL again now that he is dean of the law school, Parkinson didn’t rule out the possibility, saying, “I will work with anybody who is concerned with the wellbeing of children.”

Elsewhere, in a paper authored by Parkinson in September 2016 entitled “The Controversy over the Safe Schools Program: Finding the Sensible Centre”, he accused the authors of the Safe Schools’ teaching resource “All of Us” of exaggerating statistics regarding the number of people experiencing transgender and intersex identities and argues they did so because “it is regarded as necessary to support the authors’ belief system to show that gender is ‘fluid’ and can even be chosen”. Parkinson described “the differentiation made between sex and gender, and the notion that gender is fluid and may be socially constructed… [as a] belief system” with its own “language” and “rituals” – such as communicating preferred pronouns when meeting new friends. He goes on to say “sincere people hold all sorts of strange beliefs” and likens Safe Schools to the teachings of Scientology. 

“While some adolescents who identify as same-sex attracted will go on to have a same-sex orientation in adulthood, a lot of girls in particular go on to lead mainly heterosexual lives,” says a blog post on Freedom for Faith’s website attributed to Parkinson, posted in November 2016. “Most children and young people who experience gender dysphoria (i.e. think they are ‘transgender’) are able to resolve these feelings with therapeutic assistance and live healthy adult lives, accepting the gender of their birth.”

When asked if he would support the move for university students’ paperwork and status to reflect their gender identity, Parkinson initially would not respond, saying he would have to know the particulars of the policy being put forward. The Saturday Paper asked if he would support students being able to tick a box of “they” rather than “he” or “she”.“A lot of organisations and government organisations have gone to ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘other’,” he said. “We’re struggling with terminology, aren’t we? There’s ‘gender X’ and various things – it’s a small issue. If people want an ‘other’ box, that’s fine.”

Dean Clifford-Jones rebuked Parkinson’s characterisation, saying that “to classify a person’s gender identity as a ‘small issue’ is part of the problem”.

This year, Parkinson was noted as the author of Freedom for Faith’s submission to Philip Ruddock’s Religious Freedom Review, which recommended – among other reforms – “to give freedom for religious organisations to have staffing policies consistent with their religious values and mission” and “to protect from discrimination on the basis of religious belief”. Speaking at Freedom for Faith’s annual conference this year, Parkinson claimed that “the Prime Minister’s Office has been keeping me informed with what’s going on” with the Ruddock review.

On the Freedom for Faith website, Parkinson described his concern that people with views like his were being discriminated against. “A major [issue] is protection from discrimination for those who hold to traditional views about marriage. Incidents of serious discrimination based upon people’s beliefs concerning marriage continue to mount,” he wrote.

At UQ, the student union’s vice-president of gender and sexuality, Nicholas Comino, said, “The University of Queensland has many programs and strategies to actively endorse diversity in our university community. I trust they would keep these in mind in their hiring practices.” He endorsed Parkinson’s accomplishments and said that he did not believe the new dean’s views would “directly impact the teaching and culture within the UQ law school”.

“That being said,” Comino added, “I’ve met with a few staff and students who have shown their concern towards the appointment of Professor Parkinson. The situation is being monitored from many places, to ensure that UQ remains an accepting and diverse community.”

One alumnus of TC Beirne, a senior leader of a large LGBTQIA+ organisation who asked not to be named, said the tone of Parkinson’s writings may lead students to “assume that the professor might not accept people of all genders, sexes and sexualities equally”, but suggested all that was needed was some kind of statement for clarity on the matter. “I think properly triggered discussions between the community, students and the professor are occurring, to give the professor a chance to respond.”

Another current student said, “There’s a lot of talk about this being ‘just a political opinion that won’t affect his position,’ but given Professor Parkinson’s pre-appointment comments and actions, he now needs to show somehow that he won’t treat some students as second-class citizens.” Parer agreed, saying “his views have previously adversely impacted an at-risk group of people, some of whom are now under his care”, and that some form of new “policies and procedures statement” was necessary.

When The Saturday Paper asked Parkinson if he intended to release any kind of statement clarifying his position he demurred: “Why would I?” He did say he wished to put his new colleagues at ease, saying they needn’t be concerned about his different opinions on matters of public policy because “people who may have been concerned would only be because they don’t know me”.

The Saturday Paper put additional questions to Parkinson about his role in founding Freedom for Faith, by way of reply. The University of Queensland forwarded links to its Wellness, Mental Health and LGBTQIA+ inclusion strategies.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2018 as "Christian lobby academic heads law school".

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Bri Lee is a legal academic and the author of Who Gets to Be Smart.

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