Queensland’s sinister civil union changes

June 21, 2012

At a time when there are bills before the Parliament calling for marriage equality, you’d expect a fair amount of opposition to rear its head. For reasons that surpass understanding, it seems that a lot of people become somewhat nervous when they have to consider the idea of allowing equal access to marriage for same-sex couples.

Unsurprisingly, we have the Australian Christian Lobby – yet again claiming to represent all Australian Christians – frantically scrambling to spread a tissue of lies designed to panic the populace and pressure the politicians. In step with the ACL are Doctors for the Family, who I exposed as a religious lobby group hiding behind their qualifications. And then there are those who claim not to be influenced by religion, but who cling to some bizarre idea of ‘culture’. Funny how they all have the same arguments, though.

There’s the obvious ‘God-hates-fags’ message – not that they say that, oh no, there are some very nice homosexuals, even if they are going to hell. That one usually gets dressed up with an appeal to tradition, as though Christianity actually invented marriage and gets to say who can have it. That one goes hand-in-hand with ‘kids need a Mummy and a Daddy’, otherwise we will warp our precious darlings into tolerant – nay, celebratory – human beings who don’t understand why it’s so important to keep heterosexuality on a pedestal.

Then there are the absurd arguments, which usually take the form of the good ol’ slippery slope. Homosexual marriage will lead to polygamy! Homosexual marriage will lead to bestiality! If we let the gays marry, then anyone can marry!

No, I’m not kidding. Senator Michaelia Cash’s office actually issued media releases asserting that Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s marriage equality bill was covering up the ‘real’ Greens agenda, which is to enshrine polygamous marriage in law.

And then there’s the downright disgusting. Doctors for the Family’s submission to the Senate enquiry into the bills used dodgy studies to suggest that same-sex marriage would put children at risk of AIDS. Perhaps worst of all, some opponents of marriage equality (notably Christian Democrat Peter Madden) draw the connection between homosexuality and pedophilia, suggesting that gay marriage would put children at risk of sexual abuse.

And too many politicians are still listening. Despite a record number of submissions to the Senate enquiry, despite every poll conducted by a non-partisan organisation (i.e. not the ACL) showing 60% or greater support for marriage equality, despite the passionate arguments and the massive rallies calling for nothing more than the basic human right to marry – the Coalition is immovable in its opposition (no pun intended), and the Labor Party offers only the sop of a conscience vote.

Stephen Jones’ bill has been moved forward, and more time allowed for debate. This may sway undecided MPs, but the real reason for the change is because members of Labor’s Right faction are worried that this issue has caused too much division.

(I should take a moment to acknowledge that in recent days, more Labor MPs have signalled their intention to vote for the legislation. Among these are Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, Arts Minister Simon Crean, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, Finance Minister Senator Penny Wong, Stephen Jones, Graham Perrett and Laura Smyth. On the Opposition side, Communications Shadow Malcolm Turnbull expressed support, but said he was not free to cross the floor unless he was prepared to go to the backbench or even lose his membership in the party. You can find out how your local MP stands on the issue by visiting this helpful site set up by Australian Marriage Equality.)

And while all this is going on, let’s not forget the States. In particular, let’s have a look at Queensland.

Under former Premier Anna Bligh, one of the State Labor government’s biggest achievements was to legislate in favour of same-sex civil unions. The Civil Partnerships Act was still second-class treatment, drawing a spurious line between ‘real’ marriage and ‘marriage-lite’, but there was, at least, movement towards marriage equality. Couples could be married (or is it ‘unionised’?) in a registry office, with a civil celebrant conducting a ceremony.

After Labor’s devastating defeat at the last election, the new Liberal government moved fast to entrench itself as sole occupiers of the palace by locking the tiny Opposition out of the Parliamentary offices, and started unravelling many of their predecessors’ reforms. Premier Campbell Newman stated his intention to repeal the civil union legislation, rendering existing unions null and void. For this, he received considerable praise from the ACL and similar organisations.

Today, the Queensland government announced that instead of repealing the Act, they were rushing legislation into the Parliament to water it down.

Same-sex couples can still have their civil unions – except they won’t be called unions anymore. They’re ‘registered partnerships’. Romantic, huh? Just like a business. What they can’t have is a ceremony. Instead, they can simply fill in a form, hand it over (presumably with some kind of fee), get it stamped and voila! Off to the portrait place to get their ‘registration’ framed. Even better, if the relationship ends, they can do the same thing. (Appallingly, the Sydney Morning Herald suggests this is actually a positive outcome. Perhaps they thinks it’s akin to de-friending someone on Facebook.)

It’s such a simple process. No mess, no fuss. No tedious worries about what to wear or who to invite. No juggling of table places to make sure Aunt Jemima isn’t seated next to Cousin Kylie. It’s cheap, it’s neat, and best of all – it’s quick. You could pop over in your lunch hour. Or better yet – how about drive-through? Pick up your form at the first window, fill it out while you’re in the queue, and hand it in when you get to the second window. You could even pick up a couple of coffees while you’re at it.

(And perhaps we could see a whole new franchise – McGay-Weddings!)

Why, it’s just like … it’s like … registering a dog! Who wouldn’t want that?

Who wouldn’t? Any person with a shred of decency or fellow-feeling. Anyone who has even the tiniest speck of empathy, who can imagine themselves subjected to the same sort of prejudice and snobbery. Any same-sex couple who just wants to be treated like every heterosexual couple in the entire country.

Does Newman really think people are going to line up at Town Hall windows to ‘register’? (And doesn’t that phrase send a chill down your spine?) Is the Liberal government so completely out of touch that it thinks same-sex couples will settle for whatever they can get?

Of course they don’t.

This isn’t just an attempt to pacify marriage equality advocates while pandering to bigots. This is a sneaky political ploy. I suspect Newman knows very well that same-sex couples will elect not to be a part of such an obviously insulting, second-class system. I suspect that’s exactly what he’s waiting for – because then he’ll have statistics he can use to back up the argument that gay people don’t ‘really’ want marriage. They’ll be false, twisted statistics, but since when has that ever mattered to politicians pushing an agenda?

And what about those over-the-counter divorces, I mean de-registrations? Well, it might be awfully convenient – if you didn’t have children, or any communal property whatsoever. That this is even a part of the legislation betrays just how little thought the Queensland government put into the real, human cost of ending relationships. If you’ve been through a divorce, you know how potentially upsetting the process can be – and you also know that there are all sorts of considerations that need to be taken into account, often with the aid of lawyers and court rulings. It’s not something anyone goes into lightly.

Perhaps Newman thinks that same-sex couples won’t have kids, or won’t stay together long enough to buy a house or amass communal property – or perhaps he knows exactly what he’s doing. The thought of ending even a medium-term relationship is daunting enough – to do so without the benefit of access to the same legal protections and assistance that heterosexual couples receive is frightening. And so, we have another disincentive to ‘register’.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s just incompetence on the Queensland government’s part. Maybe Newman is blinded by his need to appease religious bigots, and foolishly thinks he can throw a crumb to same-sex couples so that they’ll go away thinking, ‘well, at least we have this’.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I am wrong. It’s not merely about keeping the ACL on side. I think this is designed to support the contention that this is purely a niche issue, affecting a tiny minority of people, and not worth taking up valuable time in Parliament. That’s an argument squarely aimed at Queenslanders who have no particular ‘stake’ in the question of same-sex marriage – those who are dealing with issues of rural health shortfalls, loss of farm income, education issues, etc. It’s a way of painting same-sex couples as selfish and petty, uninterested in the struggles of ‘real’ people.

It’s pernicious, it’s effective, and it’s utterly inexcusable. And it should be exposed for what it is – a cold, calculated attempt to pit people against each other for political advantage.

Boycott Gloria, but put the pressure on Julia

June 12, 2012

There’s a lot of noise going around the web about Gloria Jeans, the coffee franchise that recently donated $30,000 to the notoriously homophobic Australian Christian Lobby. Remember the ACL? Sure you do. They’re the ones who think that teaching kids not to bully their gay peers is part of the ‘homosexual agenda’. The ones that Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu happily pandered to when he used his party’s majority to completely subvert the democratic legislative process – because the ACL said it was attacking ‘freedom’ to update Equal Opportunity laws. They’re a vocal minority that claims to speak for all Christians, pushing their bigotry, intolerance and outright hatred while crying foul and hugging their martyr’s crowns when any dares to point out their utter hypocrisy.

And they’re the ones our major political parties have given special treatment time and time again. Whether they’re taking meetings with representatives or providing answers to election quizzes, both Labor and the Liberal/National parties allow the ACL an extraordinary level of access. For a secular state, there’s a truly disproportionate level of influence going on there.

But back to Gloria Jeans, now the subject of any number of blogs, newspaper articles and social media calls for boycotts. (A particularly good blog on the current subject comes from That’s My Philosophy, who do a marvellous job of shredding GJ’s claims to be entirely unaffiliated with religious groups.)

GJs has long been associated with Hillsong, a Sydney megachurch that’s come in for its fair share of scrutiny (not least because of some of its more famous visitors, including former Treasurer Peter Costello and former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer). In fact, one of Hillsong’s elders, Nabi Saleh, founded the coffee chain, owned a controlling interest and sat on its board. Saleh’s bio is pretty darned interesting. He looks like your average coffee mogul at first glance, until you look closely at the names of his businesses – Petra and Maranatha, both words closely associated with Pentecostal and Dominionist Christianity. Then there’s his directorships of some of the biggest megachurches around, including Kenneth Copeland Ministries.

Oh, and there are more than a few GJs franchisees who are members of Hillsong. Not really surprising, then, that GJs should be donating money to the ACL. And that’s their choice – it’s not up to us to tell a business they can’t support a cause in which they believe. Of course, they also have to be prepared to cop the flak from people who take offence at their choice of beneficiary.

But wait.

This is by no means the first time GJs has ended up in the spotlight, with people calling for a boycott. They’ve got form.

Back in 2007, I reported on another cause to which GJs was donating money – and providing collection boxes on their counters so that others could help contribute a little more. This time, the cause was a ‘counselling centre’ for women – specifically, women as young as 16.

In reality, that counselling centre was Mercy Ministries, and those brochures were whitewashed lies. Girls who were unlucky enough to fall into MM’s program reported emotional, financial, religious and physical abuse at the hands of their ‘counsellors’. Women suffering from mental illness were subjected to exorcism to expel ‘demons’. They were required to sign over their Centrelink benefits for up to a year, their lives utterly controlled – and if they were pregnant, it was so much worse.

Put yourself in the shoes of one of these girls – the daily meetings with the counsellors who told you your only choice was to ‘face your sin’ and have the baby, the Bible studies focused on promiscuity and the sin of murder, the ‘accountability counsellor’ who would make sure you were ‘doing the right thing’ – all in an environment that you can’t leave except to go to church once a week.

And that church? Yep, you guessed it – Hillsong.

The Sydney branch of Mercy Ministries finally closed in 2009 – almost two years after the original stories started to surface, and women came forward to speak of their experiences. By that time, GJs and Hillsong, no doubt seeing the proverbial writing on the wall, had cut them loose – but until then, they were in lockstep with this abusive organisation masquerading as ‘counselling’.

So, we’re not talking about a simple case of a coffee business making a donation. This is a business with a history of supporting groups that are not only religiously bigoted, but outright deceptive and abusive. Gloria Jeans actively solicited money from the public to further Mercy Ministries’ vicious tactics, and allowed false information to be distributed from their counters. They collaborated in keeping the truth from would-be donors.

At least, in giving money to the Australian Christian Lobby, they’re being honest. Or are they? After the initial outcry, it seems that GJs is not all that comfortable with being associated with the recipient of their generosity, after all – or the church that founded them, and which so many of their franchisees and employees attend. Curious, that.

The ACL seem happy to accept money from an organisation that helped fund a program so destructive to women as to seem almost designed that way. Now they’re receiving money from that same business to prop up their own deceptive campaign against marriage equality. Really, is any of this surprising to anyone?

Actually, there is one thing – that the government has any time for these kinds of tactics at all – although, perhaps that’s not so much surprising as worthy of a cynical sigh of despair.

You want to boycott Gloria Jean’s? Go ahead. Put your money where your convictions are – in fact, I highly recommend doing that no matter what you believe.

Just be honest about it. Don’t hide behind a professional title, or a slick brochure, or weasel words about ‘freedom’ and ‘fairness’, if what you’re really after is the right to determine other people’s lives.

Oh, and don’t forget who the real targets are while you’re buying your coffee from somewhere else – the Federal and State governments who overlook deception and pander to hatred because they think there might be a few thousand votes in it. They’re the ones who should be in focus – not the poor bastards who make a lousy wage frothing milk and making sure your soy chai latte grande is exactly how you ordered it.

We’re looking at you, Prime Minister.

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