Morrison and Nile – it’s just a lurch to the right

March 1, 2013

Some days, it doesn’t pay to log on and read the news.

It started when a 24 year old asylum seeker on a bridging visa was charged with sexual assault. It’s a serious offence, and not to be belittled or dismissed. Nor is it a situation where the facts are known, or a verdict obtained. Apparently the Opposition’s Shadow Immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison, doesn’t care about that.

On the basis of this one arrest, Morrison launched into a speech full of deafening dogwhistles and rife with racism. Asylum seekers should have to conform to ‘behaviour protocols’ before being released into the community, he argued. Moreover, residents in the area should be informed before asylum seekers or refugees are settled there. While they were at it, there should be regular reports to police.

All on the basis of one arrest. No confession. No verdict.

It wasn’t long before Senators Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi (infamous for his ‘halal by stealth’ comments) jumped in to support their colleague. Abetz thought it was all quite reasonable – after all, residents would find it hard to live next to someone who didn’t speak English well. In fact, he was prepared to go even further. We should make sure that police and health authorities be notified of an asylum seeker’s arrival into the community, just in case their ‘traumatised’ state led them to need intervention.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott thought it was fair enough, and quickly pointed the finger at the government, using his patented ‘look-over-there-at-what-Julia’s-doing’ tactic. The media went along obediently. Even Malcolm Turnbull, who usually represents a voice of moderation in the Coalition, was silent.

Mind you, the government weren’t exactly quick to jump on the subject, either – not the Prime Minister, nor the Immigration Minister, nor even Kevin ‘someday-he’ll-challenge-again-you-betcha’ Rudd.

Of the major parties, only Opposition backbencher Russell Broadbent and Senator Doug Cameron spoke out against these sentiments, and they were voices crying in the wilderness.

Unable to contain her fury, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young let fly at Morrison and those who supported his comments. Whether in the media (particularly when she held her own against some extremely provocative questions from Tony Jones on ABC1’s Lateline), or in the Parliament itself, she made it clear just how disgusting she found their ideas. She announced that she would be lodging complaints with ACMA, the broadcast regulator, and attempted to move a motion in the Senate condemning the vilification of asylum seekers.

Senator Sarah-Hanson Young

Senator Sarah-Hanson Young

Now, you might think that a motion like this would be a godsend for the government. Here’s a chance for them to get stuck into the Opposition, to paint them as completely heartless, and make even their own inhumane treatment of asylum seekers look better by comparison. Best of all, they didn’t have to bring it to the chamber. But no.

The major parties once more showed that – all evidence to the contrary – they are capable of bipartisanship – when it comes to silencing the Greens. The government joined the Opposition, and refused to allow standing orders to be suspended so that Hanson-Young could move her motion. They didn’t even allow the motion a full debate.

Later, one Coalition Senator in an Estimates Committee commented to Greens Senator Richard di Natale, ‘I suppose your colleague feels better now she’s had her say’. It was a blatant pat on the head to Hanson-Young, who frequently attracts criticism for being an outspoken, young woman.

So we’re left with this; a call for asylum seekers, who’ve committed no crime and are not even under suspicion of unlawful activity, to be treated worse than convicted sex offenders. Yes, worse.

You see, under Australian law, you can’t tell people if you know someone is on the Sex Offenders Register. Not even if that person is being asked to babysit your friend’s children. You can’t go door-to-door in a neighbourhood and tell everyone that a sex offender is moving in down the street. There’s no Megan’s Law here. But if Morrison had his way, innocent people would be subject to far harsher reporting conditions and invasion of privacy than those who commit sexual offences. Men, women, and even children.

All on the basis of one arrest. No confession. No verdict.

* * * * *

As if that’s not bad enough, New South Wales state politics took a sharp lurch to the far right of the Tea Party when Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile introduced a private member’s bill that would allow charges to manslaughter to be brought if the actions of another person caused a baby to die in utero, or be stillborn. It’s called ‘Zoe’s Law’ (Zoe was the name given to a NSW woman’s unborn baby who was stillborn after a car accident), and Nile claims it’s purely about protecting a baby from a third party – say, an abusive partner or a mugger. It’s not about abortion, he says: ‘This bill provides an exemption for medical procedures, which is the terminology for a termination or abortion’.

There’s just one problem with Nile’s claims. There’s nothing in the bill to prevent the pregnant woman from being charged. Nor is there any specification in the bill to say when a foetus becomes a ‘baby’. A woman who goes horse-riding and miscarries at 8 weeks could be charged. A drug-addicted woman who is in rehab, but even sober, cannot carry the child to term. A woman who falls asleep at the wheel. A woman on antidepressants or other medications that are necessary for survival, but which can pose a danger to a foetus. A woman on chemotherapy.

All of these women could be charged under the proposed ‘Zoe’s Law’. For all Nile dresses it up as some kind of compassionate protection for the vulnerable, this is no different to the tactics used by anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-choice groups in the US. There, a woman can be locked up in some states until she has her baby, and refused medication. It’s not a big step from charging a woman with manslaughter after the death of a foetus and deciding that preventative action is a ‘better’ option. It’s all hearts and flowers and cuddly babies.

And let’s just ignore the fact that this law would see women’s rights are abrogated to a completely unacceptable extent.

So, friends and neighbours, this is the double barrel we’re looking down. A Federal Coalition that – let’s face it – has a damned good chance of forming the next government. A notoriously conservative State government that, all too often, gratefully accepts Nile’s vote.

And a desire to criminalise the innocent in the name of ‘protecting’ Australians.

We’re supposed to be a society that enshrines the presumption of innocence. We’re supposed to protect the right to privacy and the right to live our lives. And we shouldn’t let flowery words and protestations of ‘compassion’ distract us from what’s at the heart of these proposals – racism, fear, and social control.

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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.


Conscience vote on marriage equality an insult

November 15, 2011

After declaring earlier this year that she supported the ‘traditional definition of marriage’, and saw no reason to change it, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today that she would allow a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. This is a remarkable turn-around, given the strength of Gillard’s previous declarations on the subject.

But hey – a conscience vote! Not only is the question going to come up in Parliament, but MPs and Senators will be free to speak their minds. That’s brilliant, right? Those who advocate for marriage equality should be dancing in the streets, surely.

Reality check.

A conscience vote on same-sex marriage will almost certainly fail in the House.

Despite polls as recent as this morning showing nearly 70% support for same-sex marriage, enough MPs oppose it to ensure any bill’s defeat, even with a so-called ‘free vote. The Coalition overwhelmingly opposes the issue, while Labor is split.

That’s not to say that governments should be ruled by opinion polls. ‘Weather-vaning’ not only brings no votes, but also contributes to a picture of a party or politician as entirely inconsistent (and therefore untrustworthy). There’s also the question of conviction – if a party makes a decision to support or oppose a particular issue, it then needs to demonstrate unity.

So what is the point of a conscience vote, then?

It helps to take a look at what issues have attracted such votes in the past. The majority deal with so-called ‘social issues’ – sexual behaviour, medical procedures such as abortion, medical experimentation such as cloning, euthanasia and capital punishment. In 1996, for example a conscience vote allowed the Federal Government to strike down a Northern Territory law permitting euthanasia.

The argument for a conscience vote in these instances usually centres on the idea that these are areas of life that are likely to cause division within any given political party. Moreover, they are so important that an MP may feel compelled to vote against their party’s policy, thus demonstrating disunity. ‘Crossing the floor’ is a serious decision. It can result in a member’s expulsion from their party, seriously damaging their chances of re-election.

Arguably, however, the real reason behind assigning a conscience vote on these issues has little to do with their importance, and much to do with the weight of religious lobbying. Groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby wield a great deal of influence in the political arena. By allowing a conscience vote, a party leader can assume a posture of appeasement by publicly declaring a position consistent with theirs, while apparently granting others the ‘right’ to disagree. Former Prime Minister John Howard took that a step further in 2006, castigating those members of his party who conscience votes disagreed with his own, religiously-motivated position.

This is certainly the position taken in a paper produced for the Australian Council of Social Services in 2009.

At first glance, this appears reasonable. Some issues, apparently, should be a matter for the individual conscience, not the party line. But hold on a moment. Let’s take abortion. It’s been a matter for conscience votes in the past (most notably, perhaps, the RU486 bill of 2006). Today, however, Labor does not allow a conscience vote on matters of reproductive freedom. It has a firm, stated policy supporting a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy (albeit with certain caveats). The Liberal-National Coalition also has a firm policy, opposing that stance.

So what changed? Did everyone in both parties suddenly undergo the blinding realisation that their side was ‘right’, thus removing the need for a free vote?

Or perhaps some new facts came to light that took the issue out of the realm of belief and opinion altogether?

Nothing of the kind.

A generous explanation might say it was a decision made by cabinet and caucus that reproductive freedom was an issue that demanded a strong, united stance in support of a position for which the majority felt a strong conviction.

An uncharitable explanation might say that it was simply politically expedient, given each party’s analysis of public opinion.

Either way, it shows that a conscience vote is little more than a sop to party members who agitate for policy change, and a nod and a wink to religious pressure groups. For all the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘too important to dictate a position’, the reality is that these are simply hot-potato issues. Party leaders don’t like that; vehement division in public opinion is a nightmare when you’re trying to attract votes from all areas of society.

Nonetheless, they’ve done it. Gillard sought the moral high ground by proclaiming that the carbon price was ‘the right thing to do’, and did not allow any form of conscience vote on that issue. There’s the abovementioned abortion policy. What’s so different about same-sex marriage?

The short answer is: nothing.

At its base, Gillard’s announcement of a conscience vote on this issue is an insult. It’s a safe bet for the Prime Minister, who’s already announced that she’d vote against it; she knows any such vote will fail. And once it does, she can claim a demonstrated mandate for refusing to revisit the issue on a policy basis. Much like the referendum over a Republic, the details wouldn’t matter. Gillard could hide behind the numbers.

The argument for a conscience vote rests on the premise that some things are too important to be left to party policy.

I’d argue that there are some things that are too important to be allowed to be hijacked by political expediency. As Rainbow Labor said today, ‘Matters of equality should not be the subject of a conscience vote’ (my italics). At its heart, same-sex marriage is just that – a matter of equality.


A close look at the Rise Up Australia Party

June 6, 2011

When people are dissatisfied with their elected representatives, they have a few options open to them.

They can protest, lobby, or mount advertising campaigns to pressure politicians. They can join a party and attempt to change it from within. They can decide to run for office as an Independent. They can ‘opt out’ of voting altogether.

Or they can do what the Australian Democrats and Australian Greens did before them – start their own political party.

This weekend, two groups did exactly that.

Independent MP Bob Katter announced the formation of his Katter’s Australian Party.

And evangelical Christian group Catch the Fire Ministries launched its Rise Up Australia Party.

Since Katter is already a serving MP, he’s attracted a lot of media attention already, particularly since he declared his intention to break the stranglehold of Coles and Woolworths on Australia’s grocery markets. As such, I’m not going to spend time on them here, because I want to get to the party that’s so far gone under the radar.

The RUAP is headed up by Pentecostal minister Reverend Danny Nalliah and Catch the Fire Ministries. The parent group has been in the headlines more than once in recent years; they’ve called for the destruction of mosques and places associated with witchcraft, Hinduism and gambling, they’ve warned that sharia law is being instituted by stealth in Australia, and held numerous prayer vigils in Canberra to ‘break the Satanic power’ allegedly being used by witches to influence the government. Nalliah himself was convicted under Victoria’s racial and religious vilification laws – a verdict that he appealed twice before it was finally overturned. (The judgment is available through VCAT – case number A392/2002.)

The group’s name is directly tied to CTFM – it refers to a series of prayer meetings that began in 2002. In fact, Nalliah refers to CTFM as the ‘cover’ for Rise Up Australia, and had this to say in the 9th anniversary blog:

‘There is one thing I know-we cannot compromise the Gospel in order to maintain status quo. We need to boldly stand for what we believe. Come on men & women who know God, don’t compromise in order to maintain your reputation. Stand up for what you believe. If not, we will lose the Christian heritage of our homeland of Australia.’

The RUAP builds on this statement in its listed aims. But let’s break them down a bit, shall we? Some are listed out of order for the purposes of analysis, but I’ve left in the original numbers assigned to each point.

1. Protect freedom of speech.

Sounds like a good idea, right? But wait. At the very least there’s a vested interest here. Remember that Nalliah was initially convicted under vilification laws for his comments about Islam and Moslems.

2. Establish full employment and fair wages; support/re-establish manufacturing industries in Australia.

Another apparently good idea – until you take into account this point:

7. Faith-based schools are to have the right to employ people of their choice.

So RUAP supports the idea of allowing religious (read: Christian) organisations to discriminate when hiring and firing. I’m sure Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu is happy to know that.

3. Reduce the cost of living by limiting the size of government and limiting the levels of taxation, with the least possible intrusion of governments into the lives of individuals and businesses.

Unless those businesses are churches or church organisations, of course. CTFM is already on record as opposing tax-exempt status for other religions.

4. Reaffirm our Constitutional right to freedom of religion.

6. No religion or religious practices are to be forced upon another person.

Technically, there is no such right. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution states that ‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’ As has pointed out in numerous court cases, that is not a guarantee of religious freedom per se. But okay, religious freedom. Sounds good. And this point sounds even better.

But then there’s this:

8. Schools to have faith-based chaplains.

9. School curriculums to include the teaching of the history of Western civilization and our Judeo-Christian heritage.

So, chaplains should not merely be permitted, but mandatory. Given that – as blogger Mike Stuchbery has established beyond doubt – the chaplaincy program and its accompanying Special Religious Instruction program are firmly in the grip of an evangelical Christian group bent on recruiting children into their religious beliefs, this is hardly consistent with religious freedom (or indeed freedom from religion).

Even worse, RUAP advocates shaping the national curriculum to teach distorted history in order to further their deceptive claims of pre-eminence, to – in their own words:

5. Recognise and affirm our Judeo-Christian heritage.

Australia is not and has never been a Judeo-Christian nation (and even using that word is in itself both nonsensical and insulting – it implies that Judaism is merely a form of Christianity). Our indigenous inhabitants were not Christian until converted by missionaries. Our population has always included migrants who did not subscribe to any form of Christianity – the Chinese migrants to the goldfields were some of the earliest. Our Constitution guarantees no state-mandated religion. And holding no religious belief at all well predates any white settlement on this continent.

RUAP would insist, however, that children be taught nothing of Australia’s varied religious heritage. That children be misled into thinking that white settlement brought one form of religion to this country, establishing itself as the sole possessor of Australian spirituality.

And just to drive the point home, the RUAP have this policy:

15. Protect Australia from multiculturalism. People who live in Australia should become Australian – we are multi-ethnic, not multi-cultural. We do not advocate homogenising – immigrants are free to celebrate their own backgrounds, but must respect the Australian culture. We are opposed to a dual legal system, i.e. we oppose introduction of Sharia law in Australia. We will educate people about the implications of radical Islamic teaching. We advocate no Centrelink benefits for polygamists.

Freedom of speech – unless you want to talk about sharia law in a positive way. Freedom of religion – unless that religion is something RUAP finds abhorrent. Celebrate ethnic heritage – within narrowly specified guidelines that conform to an evangelical group’s definition.

And then there’s the odd little after-thought of the anti-polygamy statement. Clearly, that’s aimed at religious groups, but there is growing support for polyamory in Australia that has nothing to do with issues of faith. They, too, would be affected by this policy – although in the eyes of RUAP, that might simply be an unlooked-for bonus in the quest to make Australia in their religious image.

Which brings us to this:

20. While we recognise the Aboriginal people as the first people of Australia, we encourage them to accept our Government’s apology and invite them to issue a statement of thanks for the good that the British heritage has brought to our nation.

In other words – we did something for you, now it’s your turn to do something for us. This is Brendan Nelson’s non-Apology speech as policy: indigenous people should acknowledge that white settlement was a good thing, accept the symbolic apology they were given (apparently the formal acceptance of the Apology speech by indigenous representatives doesn’t count), and stop whining.

10. Improve discipline in our schools.

This is one of those motherhood statements that is ultimately meaningless unless read in the light of the overall agenda. What, exactly, constitutes ‘discipline’ for RUAP? Obeying the teacher? Complying with a ban on expressions of religious freedom like wearing a burqa or questioning the indoctrination it wants to replace historical inquiry?

And then we get to the social policies:

11. Protect the traditional family unit – father, mother, and children.

12. Parents have the right to discipline their children, within sensible historical, non-abusive guidelines.

13. Protect children from homosexuality as it creates health problems. Promote children’s rights – children have the right to have both male and female role models as parents (father and mother).

14. We wish to make abortion history by providing those social conditions that support women in their lives to become fulfilled and not being forced into situations where they feel there is no option but to have an abortion.

No surprises here, really. Every one of these is consistent with Pentecostal doctrine. And every one contains some extremely ugly ideas. Let’s just grab a few.

‘Protecting children’ is code for any number of repressive policies. This can already be seen in the US, where states and counties justify the removal of women’s reproductive rights, single parents’ rights and queer people’s rights ‘for the sake of the children’. It’s all supported by lofty sentiments about ‘health’, or ‘fulfilling women’, of course – RUAP is not going to come right out and say, ‘Homosexuals and women who have abortions are evil and going to hell’.

‘Homosexuals cause health problems’. HIV/AIDS, obviously. This is the tried-and-true tactic of blaming the victim. The comment about the ‘traditional family unit’ ties in with the generally homophobic sentiment – queer parents would hurt their kids (with the disgusting whiff of ‘gays are pedophiles’ that tends to accompany such sentiments).

‘No option but to have an abortion’. And how about women becoming ‘fulfilled’? Clearly, RUAP’s stance is that every woman’s destiny is to have children, and those who find fulfilment elsewhere are either sick or evil. No woman chooses to be childless, right?

To round out these social policies, the inevitable dogwhistle:

16. All boats trying to enter Australian waters by illegal means should be stopped to preserve the lives put at risk by people smugglers.

RUAP appears to have assimilated Abbott’s ‘Stop the Boats’ slogan – and its ridiculous justification – remarkably well.

Finally we have a couple of motherhood statements:

17. Protect the environment, as God gave it to mankind to look after.

18. We support the right for Israel to exist with Jerusalem as its undivided capital.

19. All elected Members of Parliament for RUA Party are encouraged to donate a percentage of their salary to the poor and the needy.

Number 17 is meaningless – there’s no detail other than the restatement of what is by now unmistakable – it’s all about enforcing a particular religion’s view of the world.

I actually agree with the notion of charitable donations from MPs – only the RUAP doesn’t go far enough. Anyone elected to public office should be encouraged to do this.

The foreign policy statement is pretty much self-explanatory.

So that’s the Rise Up Australia Party – a narrowly representative, single-agenda driven body directly linked to a religious organisation known for its bigotry, hate speech and determination to dominate Australia. It probably won’t get much attention from the media – after all, it’s just a small party, right? What are the chances it could ever influence any government?

I imagine people said much the same thing about Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats, Steven Fielding’s Family First and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.

In an era where two-party dominance is increasingly coming under fire, and where Independent MPs can hold the balance of power, nothing should be taken for granted.

And our best course of action is to stay informed.


Q&A with Fiona Patten, Australian Sex Party

October 27, 2010

It’s fair to say that the majority of media coverage of the Australian Sex Party during the election tended towards one of three types: the flippant – like this article about Austen Tayshus announcing he would run against Tony Abbott in the seat of Warringah; the bemused – as in innumerable panel discussions on the likes of Sky News’ Agenda programs; or the outraged – such as Christian Democrat MP Fred Niles’ attempt to excuse the evidence that pornography had been found on his computer by saying he was ‘researching’ the Sex Party (which he considered dangerous). It’s also fair to say that, for the most part, very little attention was paid to any policy platforms that didn’t involve pornography or the proposed internet filter.

As a result, anyone could have been forgiven for thinking the Sex Party was a one-issue party whose only purpose was to promote controversial issues of sexuality. This image was probably helped along by the eye-catching T-shirts worn by volunteers during the campaign:

Fiona Patten shows off those bright T-shirts

Now the election results are in, though, and the Sex Party surprised many people with their polling. It gained 260,000 Senate votes in Victoria (roughly 2%), coming third overall and narrowly missing out on a Senate seat after preferences. In the House of Representatives, Sex Party candidates finished fourth overall. Its best result was, surprisingly, in the Northern Territory, where the party gained more than 5% of the vote, and polled over 15% in some booths.

People are now taking a second look – and there’s a lot more to the Sex Party than they might first have thought. Far from being a narrowly-focused special interest group, the Sex Party aims to establish itself in the niche once occupied by the Australian Democrats – as a ‘major minor party’ with broad policy platforms across a range of issues, holding crucial, independent seats in Parliament.

Fiona Patten, the Sex Party’s founder and spokesperson, attended a Q&A with the Secular Society at La Trobe University on October 21. The choice of venue and audience is interesting: this was not a huge rally sponsored by highly visible groups with large memberships. Instead, she spoke to a small but interested audience at an event that had no media value whatsoever. That she could do this is partly due to the relatively minor status of the Sex Party; however, by agreeing to come along, Patten showed that she was willing to engage the community on even this small level.

Patten’s opening talk focused on some of the issues that the Sex Party has identified as among the most crucial for their campaign for the upcoming Victorian election. She spoke passionately about the current preoccupation among politicians with censoring or banning pornography and erotica, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the systemic sexual abuse of children by clergy (particularly within the Roman Catholic Church). For example, she cited how the New South Wales Government recently passed legislation allowing police to determine what classification should be given to material they may encounter – a power normally only granted to the Australian Classification Board. If a retailer does not agree with any police assessment, they will need to pay hundreds of dollars to have material formally classified. In talking about this bill, Patten paid tribute to Labor MP Amanda Fazio, who crossed the floor to support a Greens amendment to remove these police powers from the bill – and thus put herself at risk of expulsion from the party.

Patten linked the discussion on the prevalence of sexual abuse of children to a key Sex Party policy – sex education for all children from an early age. This would not only address the usual subjects of anatomy and reproduction, but also teach children about consent and abuse, encouraging them to report any inappropriate sexual contact. Education would take into account the increasing use of new technologies, to make children aware of potential issues surrounding them (such as cyber-predators and use of mobile phones to distribute sexual content to minors).

Both major parties came in for strong criticism for their willingness to accommodate the Australian Christian Lobby, an organisation that opposes same-sex marriage and blames the aforementioned sexual abuse on churches being ‘infiltrated by the gays’. Even Gillard, a self-proclaimed atheist, took the trouble to appear at one of their events to talk about her government’s priorities. When asked if she would attend a similar gathering organised by the Atheist Foundation of Australia, however, she refused. Patten also pointed out the large number of Parliamentarians who are members of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, a number which she says hardly reflects the diversity of religious belief and non-belief in Australia.

In her blunt, sometimes abrasive style, Patten took aim at the disparity in school funding in Australia. While she recognises a need for funding to both private and public schools, she sees a double standard at work. Donations made to private or religious schools are tax-deductible; the same, however, is not true of public schools. She said she welcomed contributions on this issue, as the Sex Party was developing its policy on the subject.

The party has a mainly consistent stance on the intersection of religion with civil society. This encompasses not only matters of public education, but also extends to issues like abortion, stem cell research and support for the teaching of ethics in schools as part of the proposed National Curriculum.

The exception is the Sex Party’s call for a Royal Commission to be established to look into institutionalised child sexual abuse. Here, governmental intervention is completely justified by the fact that these ‘appalling’ crimes are often concealed by organisations, and never prosecuted. Unfortunately, it is a policy that is unlikely to be supported by either of the major parties, although common ground could almost certainly be found with the Greens.

On the subject of pornography, Patten made it clear that she did not advocate allowing exploitative or abusive material to be freely available. In fact, she was adamant that material featuring children, in particular, did not constitute pornography, but was a criminal act. In contrast, she pointed out that current laws regarding banned content were inconsistent to the point of nonsense. For example, depictions of lactation or female ejaculation are prohibited. ‘It shouldn’t be banned just because you might not like it,’ she said. Sex Party policy calls for a national Non-Violent Erotica classification that encompasses all forms of media (including computer games), and the establishment of a legal ‘X’ rating, which includes fetish erotica. The party also advocates training members of the Classification Board, to keep them aware of issues of sexuality and subculture.

Asked if she agreed with studies showing that access to pornography actually lowered the rate of sex crime, Patten said that in her opinion there was no real correlation between the two. Good sex education and healthy sexual relationships lowered sexual crime, she asserted.

Two of the most controversial policies espoused by the Sex Party concern euthanasia and drug laws. The party advocates a complete decriminalisation of all illegal drugs. Rather than treat drug use as a legal matter, it should be seen as a health issue. There is more danger to the public in keeping drugs illegal than in the drugs themselves, Patten argued. She cited the case of Portugal, which has implemented this decriminalisation policy, spending funds formerly earmarked for law enforcement on health education and health care. Far from becoming a ‘drug mecca’, the incidence of drug use has actually declined, and drug-related crime is virtually non-existent.

Voluntary euthanasia is endorsed by the Sex Party – not as a conscience vote for all members, but as a matter of party solidarity. Patten, who has worked with the Die with Dignity Association to develop this platform, described it as a ‘flagship’ policy. She acknowledged that there is no ‘single’ solution to this issue, but does suggest that there should be less government intervention in people’s end-of-life situations, and more consultation between people and their doctors.

On matters of Industrial Relations, the Sex Party’s policies to date focus mainly on improving conditions for sex workers. Patten commented that this is a policy area under development, as is dealing with the problem of climate change. She was at pains to point out that she felt it was more important to be thoroughly informed about an issue before announcing a policy than to rush out something under-developed to grab headlines.

Perhaps the most striking and refreshing feature of Fiona Patten’s visit to La Trobe was her readiness to admit that she did not have all the answers. Rather than indulge in sloganeering, or retreat to the safe ground of criticising either the Government or the Opposition (although there was plenty of that!), she was willing to canvass other opinions, acknowledged her own lack of knowledge on certain issues, and encouraged her audience to engage with the Sex Party on issues of policy development. It’s a far cry from the polished spin we are used to seeing from Gillard, Abbott and the like.

You could put it down to inexperience, although Patten is clearly media-savvy and quick on the uptake. Perhaps when the Sex Party becomes more practised in the business of politics, we’ll start seeing some slick phrases and elegant evasions of the question. On the other hand, Patten’s own confrontational style may well prevail, and Sex Party representatives could join the likes of Tony Windsor as those strangest of creatures – politicians who give a straight answer.

And when asked whether she would ever change the name of the party to become more mainstream, Patten was characteristically direct. She made no apologies. The name is controversial, she says, and captures people’s attention. That’s exactly what the Sex Party wants – to grab the attention of the Australian people, and engage with them.

‘And you can’t miss our t-shirts,’ she laughs, showing a slide of a polling booth volunteer resplendent in bright yellow with the word ‘SEX’ emblazoned in red across the chest.

The Sex Party seems to have set its sights on becoming what the Australian Democrats once were – the centrist party focused on civil liberties and equality. Although it’s early days, it might just do that.


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