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A country in Labor

By Garry Wotherspoon - posted Tuesday, 22 May 2012

While other nations look on in envy at Australia, which has successfully survived the GFC and with its lowest tax, lowest debt, and lowest unemployment globally, Tony Abbott and the Coalition Opposition assure us that the world as we know it will collapse on 1 July when the Carbon Tax comes into operation. It is almost like they are in a parallel universe.

As both an historian and a gay man - a member of a once-despised minority whose emotional and sexual life was illegal in much of Australia a mere quarter of a century ago - I occasionally feel the need to look at what changes have occurred in my civil status over my lifetime. And there have been major changes since that memorable moment in November 2007, when the Australian population threw out not only John Howard’s Coalition government in Canberra but also John Howard himself, only the second Prime Minister in Australia’s history to lose his seat at an election.

I live in a country that was, by the first decade of the 20th century, acclaimed as a world leader, a radical ’social laboratory’. By then, Australia had generally adopted the institutions of representative democracy, including the secret ballot, the abolition of plural voting, the payment of Members of Parliament, and female suffrage. As well, often commented on was its industrial legislation, with such ‘innovations’ as an eight-hour working day, wage regulation with minimum wage rates, legislation covering working conditions in factories, and compulsory conciliation and arbitration.


Apart from the high standard of living for the average citizen, far above what their counterparts in Europe or America might enjoy, most foreign commentators were impressed with the ‘freedoms’ arising from the many social, economic and political experiments that were occurring here, implementing ideas that in Europe were identified with the more radical political parties and groups, and were still issues that were being hotly debated there. But in Australia, governments willingly legislated this situation, and had also legislated for compulsory secular education, and were an agency for social welfare, providing such ‘novelties’ as old age pensions.

But at the start of the 21st century, it had not seemed a bright future for those of us in the GLBTIQ communities. At the Commonwealth level, under the Coalition government, Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, Howard’s bovver-boy, made false accusations under parliamentary privilege against High Court Justice Michael Kirby; while the National Party’s Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson wanted a book featuring two lesbians and their children to be banned from schools. And under John Howard, marriage had been explicitly redefined as a union between a man and a woman from 2004, when the Marriage Amendment Act was passed. Indeed, for us there seemed to be no imminent ‘light on the hill’.

But the incoming Labor government, under Kevin Rudd, openly supported a whole range of rights for same-sex people, especially for couples. Many of the areas of discrimination against peoples from the GLBTIQ communities had already been identified. In April 2006, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) began to investigate financial and work-related discrimination toward same-sex relationships, and in its Same-Sex: Same Entitlements report, released in June 2007, it identified some 58 Commonwealth law statutes and provisions that explicitly discriminated against same-sex couples and, in some cases, their children, by using the term 'member of the opposite sex'. Many of these items were already flagged for change while the ALP was still in opposition.

Eventually, the then Attorney-General, Robert McClelland announced that legislation to remove inequalities in 100 areas of the law would be introduced, giving gay couples the same treatment as heterosexual de facto couples with respect to federal legislation and services such as equal de facto rights for same-sex couples in areas including tax, superannuation, immigration, social security, Medicare, aged care, veterans' and defence entitlements, family law and child support. These amendments were introduced, and passed, over the following years. By 2010, the federal government had amended over 70 pieces of legislation to remove ongoing discrimination, and gay couples are now treated like heterosexual couples for purposes of welfare and taxation.

There is now widespread social acceptance of same-sex relationships, and lesbians and gays can foster and adopt children in most states, have a registered civil relationship, be out at most workplaces, and kiss and cuddle in public in certain parts of the main cities and not be assaulted as a result. So there have been significant improvements.

There are still issues. While most states have passed anti-discrimination laws to protect GLBTIQ peoples, such as the exemptions that certain institutions have from anti-discrimination laws, this has not occurred at federal level. But it will come. In April 2010 the Federal Attorney-General announced a commitment to developing a Human Rights Framework, including introducing federal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. There is also the matter of providing protection for refugees who seek to escape persecution on the grounds of their sexuality; bureaucratic cruelties – like being advised to go back and ‘be discreet’, after having to go public with the reason for their refugee status plea – will eventually be overturned.



And now on the agenda is same-sex marriage. Public opinion polls have shown that it is only a small minority that is actively against it, and that proportion continues to diminish. In a liberal democracy, all people should be treated equally. But we are still less than equal, and the fight goes on, although the terms under which it is fought have changed: it is no longer about gay rights, it is now about equal civil rights – equality for all citizens. And it is not as though the world will come to an end with same-sex marriage. Since the start of the 21st century, ten very diverse countries allow same-sex couples to marry nationwide. In 2001, the Netherlands became the first nation to grant same-sex marriages, and same-sex marriages are also granted and mutually recognised by Belgium (2003), Spain and Canada (2005), South Africa (2006), Norway and Sweden (2009), Portugal, Iceland and Argentina (2010).

The Labor Party now acknowledges that Australians are increasingly in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, and supports amendments to the Marriage Act to allow this, but will give its members a conscience vote on the issue, so that those implacably opposed can vote against the move without being expelled from the Party. And in Australia, the concordance between public opinion on the matter and the growing number of members of the Liberal Party who are coming out in support of it should lead Tony Abbott to overcome his own prejudices – he has acknowledged that he feels ‘threatened’ by gay men – and allow his colleagues in federal parliament a conscience vote, which will allow them to vote in line with their beliefs and in line with the wishes of the wider Australian constituency.

We may no longer be considered a ‘radical social laboratory’, but we still have time to catch up with the rest of the advanced world. We all live within our era’s zeitgeist, conditioned by the values and education of our times, but we are not its prisoners. The world moves on, and ‘the right order of things’ continues to change. Conservatives say they want to hang onto the ‘values’ of the past, but if humanity had always followed this logic, where would we be now? Once upon a time, it was a common belief that the world was created in six days by a white-bearded Charlton Heston lookalike figure who sat on a throne somewhere up there in a place called heaven. Less than two centuries ago, in much of the Western world, it was considered inconceivable – even undesirable – that women would get the vote. And now the issue is gay marriage; and if I can misquote Tony’s own god to him, “Throw off those blinkers, and see!” 

Imagine the leader of the Liberal Party allowing its elected representatives a conscience vote on an issue of individual rights that his party has some internal disagreement on? Bob Menzies would surely turn in his grave…

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About the Author

Garry Wotherspoon is a former academic and NSW History Fellow, whose books include Sydney’s Transport: Studies in Urban History, The Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts: A History, and Gay Sydney: A History. He was awarded Australia’s Centenary of Federation Medal for his work as an academic, researcher and human rights activist.

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