When the prime minister hand-picked anti-transgender activist Katherine Deves as his party’s candidate in the Sydney federal seat of Warringah last month, key moderates were shocked. Not because of her views, but because Scott Morrison’s political lieutenants had persuaded them he was going to appoint someone else.
The deliberate stalling of key New South Wales Liberal preselections had left Warringah among a dozen seats subject to a federal intervention, allowing Morrison to choose the candidate personally. It had come down to Deves and the moderates’ preferred candidate, disability advocate David Brady.
The Saturday Paper has been told that in a series of individual conversations, Morrison’s factional proxy, minister Alex Hawke, and his principal private secretary, Yaron Finkelstein, left key moderates with the understanding that Brady would be selected. This influenced their decision to waive the requirement that Deves be a party member for at least six months before running for preselection. Why cause controversy in knocking her back when she wasn’t going to be chosen anyway? But then, she was.
“We were quite shocked,” one says. “… They never once said they were going to sign off on Katherine Deves.”
Another Liberal had a similar reaction. “I was just shocked – I think everybody was. It just seemed to be another Hawke game.”
The choice of Deves has reignited a debate on transgender women in sport. It has led to strong protests from moderate Liberals calling for her disendorsement – notably NSW Treasurer Matt Kean – and created constant media questions on the campaign trail. Morrison has strongly defended Deves and attempted to parlay it into a conversation about political correctness.
The whole debate has prompted speculation about why Deves was chosen, given that her views were well known to those who chose her, if not all of her more extreme – and now-deleted – past social media commentary.
It has also raised questions inside the Liberal Party about the risk of a backlash in some moderate seats under threat from so-called teal independents – and whether this would be offset by possible gains in conservative marginals in the outer suburbs.
There is particular concern about the seats of North Sydney and Wentworth in Sydney, Goldstein in Melbourne, and Curtin in Perth. Liberal insiders say these seats will be key to preventing Labor forming government and that Morrison and his strategists are well aware of this.
It is understood David Brady did not live in the electorate. Regardless, some say Morrison wanted a female candidate. They insist those around the prime minister were confident they could pivot any controversy about Katherine Deves’ views into a debate about women in sport. They say the subsequent emergence of her more inflammatory remarks suggesting transwomen were sexual predators and even serial killers – and saying those who fail to stop moves towards gender fluidity are like Nazis – were an unexpected and unwelcome complication.
One moderate wonders if key Liberals “deliberately chose her to start a culture war fight in the middle of an election campaign because maybe it could wedge Labor and maybe it could play well in the outer-suburban seats”. Some Liberal hardheads scoff at that suggestion, insisting transgender issues are a fringe obsession of elites and nowhere near the top of voters’ priority lists, no matter where they live.
Others insist the gender debate is unhelpful to the Coalition because it is obscuring important campaign messages on the economy and national security.
Morrison’s repeated and escalating endorsement of Katherine Deves’ right to speak out has started a wider conversation about both gender and political correctness and is winning some support.
It certainly has strong endorsement from influential conservatives, including the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). Wendy Francis, the lobby’s national director of politics, says, “I think good on her and I’m so glad the prime minister hasn’t buckled to members of his own party.”
The ACL represents conservative Christian churches and had made its displeasure known at the government’s failure to deliver promised religious freedom laws. It is now flexing its political muscle on these and other issues.
“That’s the sad thing – that if we weren’t making a big noise, even about the religious discrimination bill, they would just want it to go away.”
The ACL was particularly unhappy that five moderate MPs crossed the floor to support a crossbench amendment during debate on the religious freedom bill to stop religious schools from being able to teach and operate in accordance with their beliefs.
Francis said they had ensured faith-based schools could not “act on their belief” that gender was biological.
The ACL is now campaigning against those five MPs, whom they blame for killing the bill, along with Labor and the Greens.
Even before this election was called, the ACL had a significant win with the Morrison government. The issue was not transgender rights but refugees.
In February, Francis was part of a delegation of representatives of faith-based organisations who went to Canberra to urge the government to take more Afghan refugees.
The delegation also included the Anglican bishop of North Sydney, Chris Edwards, who told Immigration Minister Alex Hawke he had never before lobbied a government in this manner.
In a frank exchange, Francis told Hawke that unless the government upheld its promise to take more Afghan refugees – they were pressing for 20,000 – the ACL would campaign against Coalition candidates across the country at the federal election. “We said ‘If it’s not in the budget, you’re all talk.’ ”
Francis also pressed Hawke to free refugees being held in long-term detention. Edwards and others present did the same.
In March, Edwards followed up with a letter to Hawke bearing the signature of 40 Anglican bishops. It highlighted the fact that the government’s existing commitment on Afghan refugees, made in January, was actually taking numbers backwards. This was “a disappointing outcome” and the bishops indicated they were prepared to convey their view to parishioners.
“We eagerly await changes to the policy that will demonstrate the compassion and commitment the Australian public expect for the people of Afghanistan we walked alongside for two decades of military and humanitarian engagement,” they wrote.
A week later, and with little fanfare, the government used the federal budget to increase the Afghan refugee intake by 16,500 places. It also finally accepted a longstanding offer from New Zealand to take refugees.
Just as the election campaign began, it released refugees from long-term detention, some after nine years.
Katherine Deves’ advocacy against transwomen entered the spotlight the day before the religious freedom bill was withdrawn.
Deves first publicly indicated her interest in Warringah on February 8, in the pages of The Australian Financial Review. It was the beginning of a sequence of events highlighting transgender issues.
The report by journalist Aaron Patrick trumpeted Deves’ campaign for strict definitions in sport based on biological sex.
“I would really like to be part of the wave of change in the party,” Deves was quoted as saying.
The report noted she argued that a 2013 change to the Sex Discrimination Act that provided some legal protection on the basis of gender identity “may be unconstitutional”.
The same day, the government’s religious freedom legislation went through the Coalition party-room in a marathon session with some moderate MPs protesting.
Morrison had insisted on the bill going to a parliamentary vote in the short sitting period before the election. Under pressure from those moderates, he had agreed to also amend the Sex Discrimination Act to stop schools banning students because of their sexuality. But he had refused to extend that protection to transgender students.
The parliamentary debate ran long into the night and in the early hours of February 9 five moderate Liberal MPs crossed the floor and voted alongside Labor, backing a crossbench amendment extending the protection to transgender students.
Rather than let the amended version pass, Morrison withdrew the bill. Media reports depicted a divided government.
One Liberal observer outside parliament suggests the bill was designed as a political wedge “but that ended up wedging the Liberal Party not wedging the Labor Party”.
On February 10, a private senator’s bill from Tasmanian Liberal Claire Chandler was suddenly introduced into parliament. It was designed to keep transgender women out of women’s sport.
The following week, retiring Western Australian Liberal MP Steve Irons spoke in support of the bill in parliament. Irons is a close friend of Scott Morrison’s.
Chandler has championed the issue since entering parliament in 2019 and has been proposing legislation since late last year.
Such bills by individual MPs or senators are rarely allowed to come forward for debate and can only do so with the government’s express endorsement.
Chandler’s bill was titled Sex Discrimination and Other Legislation Amendment (Save Women’s Sport) Bill 2022. Save Women’s Sport is the name of Deves’ lobby group.
Chandler’s bill received some media coverage, particularly in her home state of Tasmania. Just under two weeks after its introduction, Morrison was campaigning in Tasmania alongside Chandler when he was asked what he thought about the bill.
“I support her, as Claire knows,” Morrison said. “I think it’s a terrific bill and I’ve given her great encouragement. I mean, Claire is a champion for women’s sport, and I think she’s been right to raise these issues in the way that she has. Well done, Claire.”
Five weeks after that, Morrison selected Katherine Deves for Warringah. Her more extreme past comments began emerging in leaks to media soon after.
Morrison said she had “stepped over the line” on occasion but continued to defend her, broadening the issue into one of free speech and “cancel” culture.
“I think Australians are getting pretty fed up with having to walk on eggshells every day,” he said, “because they may or may not say something one day that’s going to upset someone.”
Morrison said such issues should be dealt with sensitively and nobody should seek to upset others, but those who made mistakes should be allowed to “put those behind them”.
“Others might want to cancel her. Others might want to cancel other Australians for standing up for things that they believe in, but I’m not going to have a partnership with them.”
As nominations closed on Thursday, confirming Deves among the Liberals’ candidates, Morrison fielded more questions about whether he would like his own girls to play sport against transgender athletes.
“My preference is for girls to play girls, for women to play women, boys to play boys, and men to play men,” Morrison said.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese expressed similar sentiments: “Girls should be able to play sport against girls and boys should be able to play sport against boys.”
On Thursday, Morrison insisted he wanted trans people to also participate in sport. “I want every Australian to be treated with dignity but we’ve also got to have some common sense here.”
Like Chandler, he described Deves as “a champion”, taking a position “which I think Australians understand”.
“They want it to be dealt with sensitively and respectfully, and so do I,” he said. “But, you know, it’s a pretty straightforward, common-sense position, which I think Australians agree with.”
Jackie Turner, the trans equality advocate at Equality Australia, says sport should build self-esteem and be available to all, not become the subject of politics.
“Everyone deserves to live with dignity and respect,” Turner told The Saturday Paper. “But this election, the lives of people who are trans are instead being used as fodder for fake debates, cooked up by some politicians and commentators. It’s cruel, it’s divisive and it’s completely unacceptable, particularly when our community already experiences disproportionate levels of discrimination.”
Turner noted that the Sex Discrimination Act already allowed for discrimination on the grounds of sex, gender identity or intersex status by excluding people from competing in sport, where strength, stamina and physique is relevant.
Turner said political candidates should stop weaponising the lives of marginalised people and commit to treating people with dignity and respect.
The ACL is also calling for commitments from the major parties – on protecting religious freedom. Francis told The Saturday Paper that both the Labor and Liberal parties had undertaken this week to provide written assurances that they would move to protect religious freedom in the next parliament.
“We feel like for a long time that the Coalition have taken people of faith for granted because they think, ‘Well, there’s no one else to vote for.’ So they just give us the crumbs. And the Labor Party think, ‘Well, they don’t vote for us.’ ”
But she said Labor had changed its approach since the 2019 election, and she vowed to hold both parties to their commitments.
“As we’ve seen in the previous government, we were told one thing and it wasn’t delivered,” Francis says. “In one way, the Labor Party are more bound by what they say because they can’t cross the floor.”
She believed faith-based organisations were having an impact on the government. “It does behove people to keep speaking up.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Katherine Deves preselection ‘another Hawke game’ ".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription