By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, May 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The next Australian government must prioritise laws to ban schools from expelling or discriminating against gay students and teachers, LGBT+ advocates said on Thursday, amid an election campaign marred by homophobic slurs.
Last year Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he planned to ban private or religious schools from expelling students on the basis of their sexuality, but legislation on religious freedom and sexual discrimination became bogged down by political infighting in parliament.
But with Australians preparing to go to the polls on May 18, LGBT+ activists said this was an opportunity to strengthen protections and get legislation on schools over the line.
"We need to make sure that the commitment to protect students from discrimination in religious schools ... is implemented," Anna Brown, chief executive office at Equality Australia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Australia, which overwhelmingly voted in favour of same-sex marriage in 2017, has a number of broad anti-discrimination protections but there are still exemptions for religious schools and services.
"Kids shouldn't be discriminated against for being LGBTQI, regardless of what school they're in," said Joel Clark, a campaigner at Amnesty Australia.
Despite Australia being relatively liberal on LGBT+ issues compared with other nations in Asia-Pacific, the election campaign has been marred by derogatory and inappropriate comments by several campaigning candidates, gay activists said.
Some candidates have linked same-sex marriage to paedophilia and argued against gay adoption and surrogacy, urged Christians to join a party to stop gay people from being elected, and made rape jokes on social media.
"It has been quite shocking this election - there has been a number of candidates that have resigned or been disendorsed by parties for their offensive or inappropriate comments," said Brown.
"We are seeing a general decline in the level of public debate when it comes to the candidates being selected."
A new government should also look to position Australia as a leader in the Asia-Pacific for supporting LGBT+ rights, gay advocates said.
Socially conservative attitudes prevail across Asia, and deep-rooted biases have hamstrung progress on gay rights.
Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore ban sexual relationships between men, and Indonesia has seen an increase in raids targeting LGBT+ people in recent years.
Brunei sparked a global outcry last month with plans to bring in laws that punished sodomy, adultery and rape with death, including by stoning, although it later backed down. Australia had called for Brunei to abandon the law changes.
While respecting a country's autonomy, Australia can do more to support LGBT+ and other marginalized people in the region, LGBT+ and health campaigners said.
"We would expect the Australian government to be lobbying and working with any other country to ensure they're abiding by international laws and standards that we have agreed to and expect our neighbours and allies to uphold," said Clark.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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