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Public service push for gender-neutral bathrooms

The Commonwealth public service is making a push toward gender-neutral bathrooms at its Canberra buildings, to foster greater inclusiveness of transgender and intersex employees.

But the moves have already angered conservative government MPs, who argue the efforts are a waste of taxpayers' money and may make employees "uncomfortable".

The Department of Environment and Energy has installed "inclusive" bathrooms at its Canberra headquarters, while Fairfax Media has confirmed the Treasury building will be fitted out with unisex bathrooms as part of a refurbishment.

It reflects a movement that is much more advanced in the United States, where debate has raged in recent years about the liberalisation of bathrooms in schools, universities and public buildings.

Australia has largely resisted following suit, but the Greens and LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) advocates are calling for the public service to lead by example.

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A spokeswoman for the Australian Public Service Commission, responsible for policies and practices throughout the Commonwealth departments, confirmed unisex bathrooms would soon be installed at the Treasury building, also home to the Bureau of Meteorology and National Capital Authority.

"Toilets that are specifically reserved as gender-neutral are not part of the scope of work for the Treasury building refit that is currently underway. However, toilets that are accessible for any individual are in scope," she said.

It is understood the bathrooms, likely to be individual cubicles, are intended for use by anyone seeking private facilities, which could include transgender employees or people experiencing stress and anxiety.

While the APSC is unlikely to compel individual departments to install gender-neutral bathrooms, it may encourage them through new inclusion policies.

Conservative Liberal senator Eric Abetz, who intends to raise the issue at a forthcoming Senate estimates hearing, said Commonwealth departments should help reduce the budget deficit instead of pursuing political correctness.

"This is just the latest example of the public service going into political correctness overdrive at taxpayers' expense," he said.

"Most Australians would expect the Treasury of all departments to focus on bringing down the debt, not finding creative ways of increasing expenditure within its own department.

"Understandably, many men and women would feel uncomfortable sharing facilities in a work setting with the opposite gender."

But Greens senator Janet Rice, whose wife Penny transitioned from male to female, called on the public service to implement gender-neutral bathrooms on a much larger scale.

"It's a really important measure to be supporting gender diverse people," she said. "It's about catering for everyone and making them feel comfortable at work."

Tim Bavinton​, executive director of ACT Sexual Health and Family Planning, said he encouraged Commonwealth departments "like any employer" to adopt gender-neutral bathrooms, but acknowledged it was a complex task.

"We absolutely know it's necessary to do it and to do it well," he told Fairfax Media. "But any change in a work environment requires the opportunity for people to understand why the change is necessary, and to address any issues of concern that they may raise."

At an LGBTI event for public servants this week, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade staffer said the issue "does come up from time to time" and revealed DFAT had investigated installing gender-neutral bathrooms at its Canberra HQ.

But the meeting heard the department opted not to pursue the idea after being advised: "If you're not aware of a need, don't do this as a symbol."

In a statement, a DFAT spokesperson said the agency already had accessible bathrooms that were "designed to be suitable for use by all, which benefits population groups who identify themselves outside the boundaries of the male/female descriptor".

It was also committed to an inclusive workplace for LGBTI staff and said the provision of accessible facilities, such as bathrooms, was "an ongoing management priority".