Election 2013: The winners and losers
What the LGBTI community can expect from the new federal government. By Sam Butler.
Relax. Take a deep breath. We’re almost there. Yep, we’re finally – FINALLY – almost at the end of the three-and-a-bit-year election campaign that has been minority federal government. And whatever your thoughts on the success or otherwise of the Gillard/Rudd/Greens/Independents alliance since 2010, no one can say it hasn’t been an action-packed time in Australian politics.
One issue that’s dominated this parliament has of course been marriage equality. Here we’ve seen progress from the Labor side and intransigence from the Coalition. And although it’s not the only game in town for many queer voters, what happens on September 7 will be critical in sealing its fate one way or the other, along with other reforms and developments relevant to same-sex couples and LGBTI communities.
LABOR OF LOVE?
Many Australians were pleased to finally see an Aussie prime minister championing marriage equality – and not just a bit surprised, too, that that PM was Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s pledge to allow a conscience vote on marriage equality within the first 100 days of his government (should he be successful) is commendable leadership, and is strengthened by his advocacy as well as that of several senior Labor ministers, along with the party’s social media campaign.
Labor has also shown an encouraging drift away from the hard Christian Right-lobbying industry, whom Rudd once courted so assiduously. The drift started in earnest when Julia Gillard pulled out of being keynote speaker at an Australian Christian Lobby function following Jim Wallace’s appalling “smoking is healthier than homosexuality” comments. Labor later walked the talk in a policy sense by removing anti-discrimination exemptions for religious organisations providing aged care services, to the howls of opposition from the Coalition and groups such as the Salvation Army and Catholic Health Australia. When advocating these reforms in parliament, ALP senator Louise Pratt voiced her personal belief that the party “needed to tighten up [further] on religious exemptions”. Though this is by no means official Labor policy, it would’ve been unthinkable for Pratt to make such a public declaration even only a couple of years ago.
The aims and goals that are official Labor policy, as specified in their 2011 National Platform document, provide some clues as to what other reforms a returned Rudd government might attempt. We know its “pro-marriage equality” platform is tenuous given its dependence on a conscience vote, but beyond this there are firm commitments to, among other things, “[consider] a LGBTI ministerial advisory committee”, “investigate the establishment of a National Gender Centre to provide support and advocacy for transgender and intersex Australians” and “harmonise anti-discrimination laws within a single national law... [noting] the importance of including sexual orientation and gender identity in the new national law”.
Such specifics are sorely lacking over at the Liberal Party website, however. In fact, of the 36 policy and discussion papers released by the Libs in 2013, not one makes any direct mention of GLBTI people, same-sex couples or queer community issues. One odd policy that has emerged during campaigning is the promise of a $200 voucher to straight couples for pre-marriage counselling. Apparently same-sex couples will also be able to recoup the voucher – not for “pre-marriage counselling”, obviously, but for “relationship counselling”.
The Liberals’ Coalition partner, the Nationals, are less ambiguous, claiming to be “committed to removing any discrimination against sexual preference while upholding the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman”.
It would seem that not only is marriage equality “not a priority”, as Tony Abbott argues, but neither are any other potential reforms in areas like health, education, aged care or anti-discrimination legislation as they affect LGBTI people. But this is hardly surprising. Abbott hasn’t just made clear a passive opposition to marriage equality; he’s clearly indicating he’ll fight it.
“If this country lasts for a thousand years quite possibly at some point we might be a republic, but I don’t think a republic is inevitable anytime soon and similarly I don’t see same sex marriage as inevitable.”
These are not the words of a man who’s grappling with an evolution in his thinking or who is quietly resigned to the inevitability of progress. They’re the words of a man – much like “threatened” and “fashion of the moment” – who will fight tooth and nail against same-sex marriage, just as he fought so doggedly against Australia breaking from the monarchy.
As we’ve seen in the US, UK and New Zealand, marriage equality only has a chance when the nation’s leader doesn’t just support it, but actively campaigns for it – and that includes conservative leaders. It’s nigh on impossible to picture Abbott speaking positively of marriage equality as David Cameron and John Key have done, let alone encourage others in his party to change their mind too.
Despite what his well-intentioned sister or daughters might say, there’s just nothing in Abbott’s public rhetoric to suggest a leader who’d accept marriage equality occurring on his watch. And the Coalition leadership vacuum will only be intensified with the presence of Eric Abetz, Barnaby Joyce and other anti-queer senior figures. Pro-equality party members will only be able to do so much in such a hostile environment, especially given the retirement of long-time internal progressive advocates such as Judi Moylan, Sue Boyce and Mal Washer.
Keep an eye out, too, for Connie Fierravanti-Wells. She’s the NSW senator who, as well as condemning Penny Wong and Sophie Allouache for having a child together, also thought it reasonable to defend Wallace’s smoking/homosexuality theorem on Q&A. And she’s also set to become minister for mental health and ageing, two of the most sensitive ministerial portfolios, especially as they impact on younger and older LGBTI Australians.
Naturally, LGBTI policy specifics and positive election promises are blooming in abundance from the Greens. As well as being (so far) the only party with a presence in the federal parliament to have an unconditional commitment to marriage equality for all its members, the Greens also explicitly seek to “remove the out-dated exemptions for religious organisations to discriminate in the provision of services such as health, education or housing” – something that’s only a possibility under Labor at best and probably gathering dust amidst the Coalition’s “never gonna happen” pile.
However, the Greens look set to struggle a little this election. With a drop in voter support from 2010, and the Coalition preferencing Labor ahead of them, Adam Bandt has a battle on his hands to keep his seat of Melbourne. And their long-held desire to snatch Sydney and Grayndler from Labor now seems out of contention, for this election at least. They’re likely to fare better in the Senate, though even then holding onto Scott Ludlam in WA and Sarah Hanson-Young in SA will be a challenge.
WHAT’S YOUR PREFERENCE?
While a healthy Abbott majority seems likely in the House of Representatives, predicting the make-up of our next Senate is more difficult. A coalition of centre- or hard-right minority senators holding the balance of power and being courted by an Abbott government certainly isn’t out of the question. After all, if a moderate Liberal leader like Barry O’Farrell is happy to play political footsies with the Shooters & Fishers Party and Christian Democrats, as we’ve seen in NSW, imagine how enthusiastically a conservative leader like Abbott will do the same. And both those parties, along with the Democratic Labour Party, Australian Christians and Katter’s Australian Party, are all realistically in play to have anti-queer senators elected.
Much has been made of the devillish deals minor parties have made to determine their Senate preferences. The Sex Party, for example, is preferencing One Nation and the Shooters & Fishers Party in NSW ahead of the Greens. But as the party’s spokesperson Robbie Swan points out, “the system forces... the progressive parties to deal with the devil in these preference deals” in order of having any chance of getting up. That’s because Senate voting doesn’t allow, as voting for the NSW upper house does, for people to vote 1, 2, 3, 4 etc above the line, and/or only number some rather than all their preferences. (This year, however, the Australian Electoral Commission is allowing a below-the-line ballot paper that’s 90% consecutively numbered to count as a valid formal vote.)
Until the Senate voting system is overhauled (if ever), a truly empowered voter can do one of two things: number at least 90% of individual candidates below the line, or be absolutely clear about where your party is directing its preferences to should you decide – as most voters do – to vote one above the line.
To all the pro-marriage equality folk out there, prepare for three more years at least of disappointment. What’s reasonably likely is that you’ll be living under an Abbott government; what’s very likely is that while you do, Abbott and others in the Coalition will work very hard to spoil the dreams of those Australians wanting to marry their same-sex partners in the country they call home.
Similarly, the progress in other areas that has been made under two terms of Labor government will come to a halt. And expect to see a return to legitimacy of extremist anti-queer lobby groups such as the ACL. You need only read an Abbott or Abetz speech at one of their functions to know such groups have a dear friend in the Coalition.
At best, things will stay the same. At worst, things will get – well, worse.