Liberal candidate’s trans comments are repugnant

“We believe in the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples.” It is a powerful declaration and the very first words that set out the Liberal Party’s core beliefs. They should be kept in mind when examining the controversy over the Liberal candidate for the formerly blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Warringah, which was held by former prime minister Tony Abbott until his defeat by independent Zali Steggall in 2019.

Katherine Deves was a “captain’s pick”, installed early this month by a committee composed of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and former party president Chris McDiven, after the NSW division failed to preselect candidates through the usual process.

Scott Morrison is standing by Katherine Deves.Credit:Fairfax media

Deves’ preselection came two months after reports in early February revealing the recent law graduate and former Treasury Wine Estates marketer was co-founder of the Save Women’s Sport lobby group. The group has pushed for strict definitions of sex to separate male and female sporting competitors and also argued that a change to the Sex Discrimination Act to provide legal protection on the basis of gender identity might be unconstitutional.

Reporting this week has shown Deves has an extensive track record of using inflammatory and offensive language in public forums. In now deleted tweets, she called trans children “surgically mutilated and sterilised” and said she was triggered by the rainbow flag. She also wrongly claimed, offering no evidence, that “half of all males with trans identities are sex offenders”. In another tweet, from April last year, she said a Canadian father reportedly jailed for speaking publicly about aspects of his child’s transition, in breach of a court order, would “go down in history as akin to the Grudge trials of the Third Reich”. “I do not like to invoke Nazism, but the parallels are remarkable & deeply sinister,” she wrote. There are more examples.

Her comments are disgraceful. Whatever your views may be on the debate over gender rights and women in sport – and there are a variety – such hurtful, offensive and overblown language deserves condemnation. She is using the women in sport “debate” as a pretext for offensive lies. Her statements offer no insight or empathy, no nuance, and therefore do not contribute to the discussion.

Deves has apologised, saying in a statement that “in my dedication to fighting for the rights of women and girls, my language has on occasion been unacceptable”. But these were not one-off statements, and they were not historical. They were consistent and recent. And on Monday she went on the offensive, saying in an email to party members she was “not going anywhere”, deriding her critics as “parts of the left media and twittersphere”.

When Pauline Hanson, then a Liberal candidate for the seat of Oxley, made contentious comments in 1996 about First Nations peoples, then opposition leader John Howard was quick to disendorse her. He recognised that housing a person making racist comments in his party damaged his electoral chances. Deves, by contrast, has attracted the ongoing backing of Morrison, Abbott and Howard, even as several Liberal MPs have called for her to be axed from the ticket.

One wonders what the Liberal Party has become, what offensive behaviour it would not tolerate in 2022. There are some Liberals who have been forthright such as NSW Treasurer Matt Kean, who told ABC Radio on Tuesday that Deves was “not fit for office” and his party was not a place for “bile and bigotry”. But by the afternoon, Morrison had doubled downed on his support for Deves, making her statements a free speech issue. “I’m not going to allow her to be silenced,” he said.

The Age disagrees with the prime minister in the strongest possible terms. Would Morrison accept vicious racist comments from a Liberal candidate? What about hurtful and false sexist comments? Where is the line, prime minister? Deves’ public comments should be called out for what they are – repugnant. That the leader of a mainstream party in Australia is willing to look the other way while she attempts to dismiss the rights and freedoms of trans people is a stain on the party that will not be erased for some time.

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