Open Letter to Jenny Macklin

January 2, 2013

Dear Ms Macklin,

I understand that being the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs in the Second Gillard government as well as the Federal Member for Jaga Jaga must be an incredibly difficult job. You have to participate in government debates and voting, wade through all that paperwork, open community centres, hold press conferences, and who knows what else. Then there’s all that travel – whew! All those demands on your time must be terrible.

So I can understand why you wouldn’t necessarily be sympathetic to those who are about to be booted off their sole parent pensions and onto Newstart. If you have to work, so should they – and they should stop whining about not having enough money to pay for all their little extras. Right? If they can’t stretch $35 a day to cover their costs, either they need to learn how to budget, or just get a job.

It’s great to see you leading the way on this, too. When our leaders set an example, it always makes me proud to be an Australian. You might want to talk to the people who issue your transcripts, though. Somehow your assertive statement that you could live on the dole got lost in the works. You should really work to find it – stand up for your beliefs!

It seems to me that you’ve unfairly come under fire lately, what with that ‘extreme Greens’ fellow, Mr Bandt issuing that absurd challenge. Fancy him claiming you couldn’t live on $245 a week. I’m sure you’d have no trouble cutting down from your current $6321 – and you could easily do without your travel allowance, accommodation allowance, electoral allowance and all the rest.

It’s all about tightening the belt, as I’m sure you know. Why, my friend @theriverfed and I were talking about this just today, and she was very much of the same mind. In fact, she came up with a little list that you might find useful. Perhaps your office would like to distribute it to those single parents who’ll be ringing you up in the weeks to come.

How to be a Single Parent on Newstart Allowance

1. Live somewhere really cheap. Get used to it being socially isolating, with bad public transport. It’s affordable. Estimate about 75% of your income = rent.

2. Use your $15 petrol/public transport allowance getting to half a dozen different shops to get cheapest the food possible, non-bulk (since you certainly can’t afford either a chest freezer or bulk food prices).

3. Never, ever go anywhere for social purposes. Even if you don’t need to buy a coffee, you can’t afford to get there.

4. Be really grateful that your sister pays for you to have a telephone and your mother buys your child shoes, if you are lucky.

5. In winter, when the park is out of the question, act like going to the play area at Bunnings is a really fun treat for the kids. Add a $2.50 snag? Luxury.

6. Forget about replacing stuff that breaks. Never going to happen. Even if it was a necessary thing.

7. Learn to live with paying bills late.

8. Get really, really stingy. Like counting squares of toilet paper stingy.

9. Get over the shame of buying stuff with 5 and 10 cent pieces. And learn to love Home Brand everything.

10. Learn to cut hair, make your own bread, and just eat whatever your child leaves on his plate.

11. Finally, try really, really hard to avoid depression. Chances are you won’t succeed and all access to support has
disappeared. But Lifeline is still free.

So in conclusion, Ms Macklin, I hope you will be encouraged to continue your campaign to shake single parents out of their complacent, easy lives. It’s about time we saw some tough love.

Oh, and Ms Macklin? Do get back to the Australian people when you’ve given up all your benefits, blocked access to your savings, bought a public transport card and restricted yourself to $245 per week for a few months. Perhaps you could borrow some children as well. I, for one, wait breathlessly to hear how easily you managed your extravagant new income to pay rent, childcare, school fees, utility bills, groceries, transport, etc.

It’ll be a real lesson, I’m sure.

Regards,

The Conscience Vote

(Credit goes to @theriverfed for her marvellous 11-point list.)


Marriage equality bills to hit Parliament today

February 13, 2012

Today ALP backbencher Stephen Jones will introduce a bill into the House of Representatives calling for marriage equality. Greens MP Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie will introduce a similar co-sponsored bill, containing a specific provision that will exempt religious ministers from solemnising marriages between a same-sex couple.

I’d like to be optimistic, even enthusiastic, about this. But I’m afraid I really, really can’t.

Because unless Opposition Leader Tony Abbott loosens his stranglehold on the Coalition’s consciences, the bills will fail.

We’ve already seen what happens when Bandt or Wilkie tries to introduce ‘controversial’ legislation. The major parties fall into lockstep against them. Granted, the ALP passed the resolution at its last conference to make marriage equality a matter of conscience, so perhaps there might be a few more bums on seats sitting with the two minority MPs this time around. But there are enough Labor members determinedly opposed to same-sex marriage to ensure the bills suffer a resounding defeat.

Jones’ bill may fare more kindly. After all, he’s a Labor man, and even those who won’t support Bandt and Wilkie on principle might vote for one of their own. Again, though, the bill runs up against the Coalition’s refusal to allow its members a conscience vote.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has already signalled her intention to introduce a marriage equality bill later in the year. This is as clear a signal as she could send that she expects today’s bills to fail – and probably her own as well. At this point, the strategy appears to be one of simply flooding the Parliament with similar bills in the hope that it will wear down MPs’ resolve – and that in the end, they might vote for it just to get the issue out of the way.

That this strategy should even have to be considered, let alone employed, is shameful. It’s a matter of civil rights – human rights – that are denied to Australian citizens. Worse, it’s a matter of a privileged majority not wanting to have that privilege ‘sullied’ by having to share it.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the numbers will be there. Maybe some Coalition members will defy Abbott’s decree and cross the floor to support marriage equality – or at least inform him privately that they intend to do so, at which point I predict a swift reversal of the ‘no conscience vote’ stance. Maybe the rest of the ALP will realise that clinging to privilege and discrimination flies in the face of everything that party supposedly stands for, and support a bill.

It’s possible.

It’s also possible politicians will stop lying in Parliament, abandon mindless party loyalty in favour of the good of the people, and remember that they are our servants, not our masters.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.


This is not bipartisanship

August 22, 2011

I think we all owe Opposition Leader Tony Abbott an apology.

There’s been so much criticism of the Opposition for refusing to work with the government to pass significant reforms. As each bill comes up for debate, they propose a raft of amendments or try to push the bill back to a Senate committee. They push votes wherever possible, calling for divisions as a way of gambling on the reality of minority government to perhaps deliver them an unexpected win. At every turn, they’ve made it clear that they’re just not interested in co-operation.

And the government doesn’t exactly have clean hands on this issue, either. For all the talk of offering olive branches and a seat at the table for Opposition MPs, they’ve carefully manoeuvred to ensure that if this did occur, it would undermine policy positions.

But really, we’ve judged them too harshly. Last week we saw a heartwarming display of bipartisanship. Two, in fact, one right on the heels of the other. We saw what happens when major parties work together.

What we saw was the major parties banding together to kill two Private Member’s Bills on the second reading.

Just what were these bills, that they could prompt such a lockstep response?

One was from Independent Andrew Wilkie. The other was from Greens MP Adam Bandt. Both addressed the issue of live exports. Wilkie urged the government to – at a minimum – ensure that Australian standards of humane slaughter be insisted upon as part of contracts with other countries, while urging a permanent ban on trading with countries that did not meet these standards. Bandt called for the outright abolition of the trade, insisting that it made both economic and compassionate sense for slaughter to take place in Australia, under Australian standards.

The two MPs supported each other, which was why they were able to call for a division when the second reading came to a vote. It was a pitiful sight, however, to see Wilkie and Bandt sitting together to the right of the Chair, while the major parties crowded in to sit shoulder to shoulder on the Opposition benches. The scene wasn’t helped by an apparent technical problem which shut off half the lights in the Chamber, casting a rather dismal gloom over already depressing proceedings.

With less than five Members voting for the bills, there was no need to take a count in either case. Wilkie and Bandt got their names recorded in Hansard, but that was it.

A futile gesture? Perhaps. Certainly Bandt was well aware that the major parties had no intention of supporting his bill, and remarked on it in his second reading speech. Both he and Wilkie sat with rueful yet resigned expressions during the division.

But was it simply a waste? After all, this isn’t the first time that the major parties have joined forces to shut down the minority members. In the Senate, for example, the Greens suffer this on a regular basis. Just ask Senator Sarah Hanson-Young how often she’s tabled a bill on same-sex marriage, or protection for asylum seekers. In every case, Labor and the Coalition have killed those bills. In fact, it’s a wonder that Bandt’s motion calling on MPs to canvass their electorates on same-sex marriage was passed at all.

But then, that was a non-binding resolution. A toothless tiger, effective only to the extent that anyone felt like going along with the recommendation.

Minority government has the potential to open up Parliamentary proceedings. One vote can make all the difference, as we’ve seen a number of times (notably when Rob Oakeshott nearly provoked a crisis by voting against a Speaker’s ruling). Some feel that there’s an imbalance at work there, that these ‘balance-of-power’ Members wield influence far above their actual representation.

Yet no one provides commentary on a minority government where there is little difference between the major parties. For all the Opposition is out there trying to erode confidence in the government on matters as diverse as carbon pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes, they are quick to close ranks when a minority Member proposes a socially liberal or environmental policy. In fact, the major differences between Labor and the Coalition on such matters are largely a matter of detail. Both are committed to mandatory offshore detention; both are resolutely opposed to same-sex marriage; both have no interest in overhauling the live export industry. Ultimately whether one supports Nauru and the other supports Malaysia as an asylum seeker destination is irrelevant; both oppose the idea of on-shore detention, or even doing away with a mandatory detention system at all.

So when the Greens pop up with a bill challenging these essential statuses, the differences melt away to nothing, and suddenly we have a united Parliament. It’s arguable, in fact, that much of the Opposition’s obstructionist stance towards Labor stems from purely ideological opposition to the presence of the Greens and Independent support of the government. The rhetoric’s a dead giveaway at times – remember ‘Labor may be in government, but the Greens are in power’?

It says something about a government when bipartisanship is something that gets employed not for the good of the country, but primarily to silence minority voices. What we have now is a far cry from the united efforts of successive government to dismantle the White Australia Policy. ‘Opposition for opposition’s sake’ is not simply an accusation to be levelled at the Coalition; the government appears to enthusiastically embrace that stance when it comes to matters as diverse as gambling machine reform and live exports, despite a lot of high-flown rhetoric about caring for animal and human welfare.

But hey – on the bright side, at least we know the major parties are capable of working together. I’m not sure you can call it bipartisanship, though – more like bipartisan bullying. The equivalent of two schoolyard gangs banding together to make sure the little kids and the nerds don’t get to the canteen before the bell rings.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had real bipartisanship? If we had elected representatives that worked together for the good of the country instead of simply using their majority to silence minority voices?

Yeah, I know … tell her she’s dreaming.


Tony Abbott, the boy who cried ‘Censure!’

June 16, 2011

Few would argue that under the current government, Question Time in the House of Representatives has become little more than a farce. Questions from the Opposition tend to be variations on the themes of ‘When will the government abandon its toxic carbon tax’ or ‘When will the government pick up the phone to the President of Nauru’. Add a liberal sprinkling of revisionist history on Building the Education Revolution, a soupcon of ‘you knifed Kevin Rudd’ and garnish liberally with transparent Dorothy Dixers designed to allow the government to verbally bash the Opposition – and you can just about write the script for each sitting day.

Then there’s the censure motions. Out of 28 sessions of Question Time, the Opposition has attempted to suspend standing orders preparatory to censuring the Prime Minister or the Treasurer no less than twelve times. It’s become so common that those who tune in each day to join the Twitter #qt conversation run a mock sweep on what time it will be before Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stands up to utter the familiar lines, ‘I move that so much of standing orders be suspended’. That group includes many members of the media who are physically present in the Canberra press gallery as well as independent journalists, teachers, lawyers, full-time parents, students and a host of others. It’s quite a remarkable cross-section.

There’s no doubt that these constant censure motions are a source of both hilarity and frustration for those watching. On the one hand, the predictable nature of it all is utterly absurd. On the other, however, it disrupts proceedings and wastes the Parliament’s time.

The motions to suspend are always defeated. Really, it comes across as an exercise in futility.

So why do they do it? Is it such a matter of deeply-held principle for the Opposition? Or is it – as many suspect – an opportunity for the Coalition to make long speeches accusing the government of everything from forgetfulness to incompetence to criminal behaviour – all protected by Parliamentary privilege. Factor in the daily Matters of Public Importance – where various Opposition speakers deliver long diatribes to a largely empty House – and it starts to look more and more as though the Coalition are just going with the theory that something repeated often enough eventually enters the public consciousness as truth.

It’s a clumsy ploy, to say the least. And it carries the very real risk that people will not believe, but rather ‘switch off’ as soon as they realise it’s being tried once again.

Today’s Question Time was a case in point.

At 2.25 pm, Abbott moved to suspend standing orders in order to censure the Prime Minister. The immediate reaction from those watching was confusion that he’d chosen to do it so early – usually, the motion happens just before 3 pm. That quickly gave way to the usual dissatisfaction and mockery from the Twitter gallery as the government benches emptied. The consensus could well be summed up as, ‘Meh, we’ve seen it all before’. We had indeed – out of three sessions this week, this was the second time Abbott employed this tactic.

There was one significant difference this time, though. Abbott was acting on a motion brought by Greens MP Adam Bandt earlier today:

That this House:

(1) condemns the Gillard Government’s deal with Malaysia that would see 800 asylum seekers intercepted in Australian waters and sent to Malaysia; and

(2) calls on the Government to immediately abandon this proposal.

That motion passed 70-68, with the support of Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and KAP MP Bob Katter. A similar motion was passed by the Senate in May, making this the first time on Parliamentary record that both Houses had directly condemned the government. It wasn’t quite open revolt – such motions are not binding, but it was a very clear signal to the Prime Minister that she did not have the support of the Parliament on her Malaysia policy.

Her refusal to accede to the motion set up the conditions for a censure, and rightly so. Finally, Abbott had firm grounds. It was an opportunity not to be wasted – but waste it he did.

Unable to confine his argument to condemnation of the Malaysia plan, Abbott couldn’t resist extolling the virtues of Nauru. ‘There is a better way … Nauru is a humane solution! It’s cost-effective! There are no whipping posts in Nauru.’ It was the same argument the Coalition pushed all this week.

Julie Bishop, seconding the motion, was similarly unable to keep to the issue. She covered a wide range of subjects in accusatory tones: ‘She’s betrayed her leader … this arrogant Prime Minister looked down the barrel of a camera and said “There will be no carbon tax under a govt I lead”.’

The vote eventually saw the motion to suspend standing orders defeated – and the effective end of Question Time with less than half of its alloted 90 minutes/20 questions expired. All in all, it accomplished precisely nothing.

Abbott had strong grounds for a censure. He could have built an effective argument based on the Bandt motion alone, stressing the Parliament’s lack of support for a policy widely condemned as futile at best, inhumane at worst. He could have pointed out that a leader prepared to ignore the Parliament’s expressed will set a dangerous precedent. He could have appealed to everything from people’s sense of humanity to the need for democracy to be consultative.

He might have started that way – but he fell back on the same old formula – haul out every campaign slogan, every slur, every tired bit of rhetoric the Opposition has employed against this government. In so doing, he virtually assured it would fail – and he lost the support of any who might otherwise have put aside party loyalties.

Perhaps there was no chance that the censure could work. It would have taken the co-operation of all the Independents, Katter and Bandt to accomplish that. But the attempt was rightly made.

When the vote was defeated, someone on the Opposition benches called out, ‘A moral victory!’

It wasn’t. It was a wasted opportunity to properly criticise the government. And it was a wasted opportunity to gather public support for an issue with potentially dreadful consequences.

Abbott’s cried ‘Censure!’ so many times, and for such trivial reasons. People have come to expect that anything he says on the subject will be the same kind of noise, designed to do little more than get a few sound-bites into the evening news. Crudely put, it just looks like he wants the attention.

Now, at a time when a censure was not only appropriate but almost necessary, no one can be bothered to listen.

The Coalition have already made comments pointing the finger at Bandt, who did not support them on the motion to suspend standing orders. The implication is clear: Bandt doesn’t have the courage of his convictions when push comes to shove.

But really, Abbott’s got no one to blame but himself here. Gillard is free to defy the Parliament – because he couldn’t stop himself from crying ‘Wolf!’ once too often.


Crisis averted – for now

June 1, 2011

Question Time in the House of Representatives yesterday was anything but business as usual. For a few minutes, we teetered on the brink of a Parliamentary crisis.

It started when the level of rowdiness and generally un-Parliamentary conduct finally proved too much for Speaker Harry Jenkins. He issued a general warning to every member. Now, as he often reminds the House, if the Speaker formally warns someone, it’s the equivalent of telling them they have one strike left. Any further misbehaviour would see that member ‘named’ – and when that happens, the member can be suspended from the Parliament for 24 hours.

In a situation where one party has a clear majority, this is not such a dire prospect. When the numbers are as tight as they are in this Parliament, however, a 24 hour suspension might be the difference between winning and losing a vote. Every member knows this – and usually the warning is sufficient to pull them into line. Yesterday, however, Bob Baldwin (Liberal member for Patterson) apparently chose to risk it, and for his pains was formally named.

Anthony Albanese, Manager of Government Business, immediately moved that Baldwin be suspended. It should have been a pro forma vote; after all, the motion was merely designed to support the Speaker’s decision.

It wasn’t. The Opposition, effectively challenging the Speaker’s authority, called for a division. In the resulting vote, Independent MPs Bob Katter and Tony Windsor were conspicuous by their absence. My feeling is that they’d decided to unofficially pair themselves, thus having no effect on the eventual outcome (since Katter has generally sided with the Opposition on most votes, and Windsor with the government). The Greens’ Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie voted with the government. The real surprise, though, was Independent Rob Oakeshott. His was the deciding vote – and he voted against the Speaker.

By voting against him, the House had in essence declared that they had no confidence in him.

At that point, Jenkins announced that, following Question Time, he would ‘consider his position’ – in other words, that he might resign. You could see the shock on some members’ faces.

In doing so, he was following the example of Speaker Jim Cope, who resigned from the chair in 1975 after the government refused to support his decision to suspend Minister for Science and Consumer Affairs Clyde Cameron.

There’s no rule that compels a Speaker to do this, although it’s considered Parliamentary protocol. Jenkins could have simply continued with the business of the day. In declaring his intention to consider resigning, however, Jenkins was sending a message.

That message was clear; the current House consistently disrespects the Speaker. Anyone who’s listened to or watched Question Time will be familiar with Jenkins’ frequent cries of ‘Order!’ and the extent to which those instructions are ignored. Members, particularly those on Opposition benches, argue with many of his decisions. At times, four or five Opposition MPs have risen, one after the other, to challenge a single ruling.

In itself, questioning a ruling is not objectionable; when the challenges are simply repetitions of the original objection, however, it ceases to be anything but bullying. When that bullying goes on day after day, it’s scarcely a surprise to find that the Speaker might consider that the House has no confidence in him. And when his own ruling is overturned, that can only confirm such a suspicion.

Almost before Jenkins finished speaking, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott leaped to his feet and moved a motion of confidence. In speaking to that motion he was both eloquent and – unexpectedly – heartfelt. He didn’t quite acknowledge the Coalition’s role in bringing about this crisis, but he admitted that the minority government situation was difficult for everyone to navigate. Nonetheless, he had complete confidence in the Speaker. ‘Please, please, Mister Speaker, please do not take this as anything other than an example of the difficulties of this new paradigm’. In fact, he said ‘Please’ nearly half a dozen times, and each time it sounded genuine.

Gillard clearly had long to think about her answer, and didn’t shy away from making a political point in her speech. The government had always supported the Speaker, she argued. It was the Coalition that had voted against the motion to suspend Bob Baldwin.

Finally, Rob Oakeshott stood. He was unapologetic about his role in the vote, stressing that he would always consider the rights of a private member in such situations. In this he was at least consistent; he voted against a similar motion to suspend Christopher Pyne back on March 23rd). Nonetheless, he too supported the Speaker – ‘Don’t go,’ he said. ‘Don’t go, Mister Speaker’.

Jenkins finally called the vote, which passed unanimously without a division – and business resumed. A potential crisis was averted yesterday – but had the Speaker followed through and actually resigned, it could have been a very different story.

Remember, Labor holds government by the slimmest of margins – only two seats. One of those seats needed to be sacrificed to install Jenkins as Speaker, reducing their margin to 1, which is incredibly tenuous. Should the Independents decide to vote against the government, any given bill or motion can be defeated just as happened yesterday. If Jenkins stepped down, the government would return to its 2 vote margin – but a new Speaker would need to be immediately elected.

Logically, Deputy Speaker Peter Slipper would be next in line. He is a member of the Liberal Party, however – and if elected, the Opposition would have only 73 seats, making it much harder to defeat any government bills or pass their own. It’s fair to say that Abbott would probably resist any move to reduce his bargaining power.

When the Parliament was first formed, there was considerable speculation that Oakeshott would take the chair. If Jenkins stepped down, no doubt that speculation would resurface. His support for the government on crucial issues such as carbon pricing and the National Broadband Network is very solid – the loss of his vote could jeopardise these two initiatives. The same would be true of any other Independent.

It’s likely, then, that the government would be forced to fall back on another of their MPs, returning us to the situation we have now. But there’s always the possibility that both parties would simply engage in a staring contest, and hope that the other blinked first. And if neither did … well, we could end up back at the polls. Given Abbott is positively champing at the bit to fight another election – and you could be forgiven for thinking that’s what he’s been doing ever since the last one – Gillard would be crazy to let it go that far.

So for now, the crisis is over, and it’s back to business as usual – yelling across the chamber, trotting out the lies and distortions, and pushing talking points instead of answering question. The government avoids giving out any information, while the Opposition reverts to the same kind of rowdy, disrespectful behaviour that provoked the situation in the first place.

I’d like to think Abbott’s speech to the confidence motion was an indication that he realises the tenuousness of the situation, and the extent to which his Opposition has contributed to nearly plunging the Parliament into a potentially disastrous situation. I’d like to think everyone took a step back and re-evaluated their behaviour, and decided to put the country ahead of the opinion polls.

I’m watching Question Time now, though – and it’s like yesterday never happened. Christopher Pyne has already received a warning.

But it did. And it should not be allowed to pass out of people’s minds with the next day’s news cycle. Jenkins showed that he has a point beyond which he won’t be pushed. And perhaps next time, it won’t be resolved so quickly and easily.

The kind of spectacle that Question Time has become is neither desirable nor irreversible. Debate and challenge can be respectful and rational. It requires discipline, and a willingness to set aside opposition for opposition’s sake.

Our Parliament has been given another chance. It should make the most of it.


Nuclear power or same-sex marriage? Why choose?

December 1, 2010

If you’ll forgive the bridge metaphor, lately it seems that the government just can’t take a trick. If they stand on principle, they’re not listening to the electorate. If they talking about re-examining policy, they’re weak, deceptive or just plain fractured. Either way, it ends up all over the media – and you can practically see the Opposition rubbing its hands together with glee. They’ve got the government between a rock and hard place, and they’re going to exploit that as far as they possibly can.

It’s no wonder people increasingly feel that politicians simply don’t know or don’t care what’s really going on outside Canberra. Legitimate debate is as poisonous to a party’s image as principled stances. What’s worse, where debate on a subject is both necessary and, apparently, possible, all too often it becomes undermined by those seeking to shut it down in favour of their own agenda.

That’s what’s going on right now. Two issues, both the subject of firm Labor policy, are being challenged from within the party. Not only is this being framed as a problem, the issues have now been pitted against each other.

First it was Sports Minister Senator Mark Arbib, who challenged the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage. He called for the party to debate changing the policy at their national conference next year. Then Finance Minister Senator Penny Wong broke her long and much-criticised silence on the subject to support the idea. Their voices joined those of Human Services Minister Tanya Plibersek and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, whose support for the right of same-sex couples to marry was already on record.

Coming on the heels of Greens MP Adam Bandt’s successful motion in the House of Representatives calling on all members to canvass their electorates on the subject, it looked like a groundswell was in motion. Certainly Joe de Bruyn, head of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, thought so. He delivered a stern warning to Prime Minister Julia Gillard that his union wouldn’t stand for ‘pandering’, and recommended she get on with tackling ‘real issues that the ordinary person in the electorate cares about’.

There it is again. There’s that calculated, belittling, marginalising language. It’s not a ‘real’ issue. Hardly anybody cares about same-sex marriage, certainly not an ‘ordinary person’. It’s a despicable tactic, getting far too much unanswered airplay lately.

But it gets nastier.

Last night, Energy Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and Senator Mark Bishop recommended that Labor should also re-examine its policy against nuclear power in Australia, adding that it was ‘at least as important’ as the issue of same-sex marriage. Seems like a fair call. No matter what your personal stance on nuclear power or same-sex marriage might be, both are equally deserving of consideration.

Well, you’d think so. But New South Wales Senator Steve Hutchins had other ideas. Nuclear power was not just as important as same-sex marriage. ‘It is more important for the country’s future than gay marriage and it affects a lot more people,’ he said.

Now, there’s no denying that nuclear power would directly affect far more people. Everyone needs access to electricity; not everyone wants to formalise a same-sex relationship. That’s a no-brainer. But what Hutchins said goes well beyond this apparently obvious point. He’s added an insidious little wrinkle to the ‘it’s just not that important’ argument. To give time to a debate on same-sex marriage, by Hutchins’ logic, is just plain irresponsible – and he was happy to provide some rhetoric that goes beyond hyperbole to border on the outright ridiculous to ‘prove’ it.

Nuclear power is an urgent issue, he’s argued. If we’re going to talk about a carbon price, and alternative energy, we need to at least talk about adding nuclear to the mix. If we give time to these ‘fringe’ issues like same-sex marriage, why we could all find ourselves living like Neanderthals and burning down our houses just to stay warm!

I’m not exaggerating here. This is his direct quote: ‘I cannot see us returning to living in the cave and burning fallen timber to keep us warm’.

Apparently Senator Hutchins, de Bruyn and some conservative voices in the media, think that politicians have a limited allotment of policy debating ability – and that it has to be divided up carefully. In order to do that, one must set priorities, and it’s unacceptable to ‘squander’ that limited amount on something as unimportant as same-sex marriage.

It also tries to position supporters of a same-sex marriage debate in opposition to those who want to address our power needs. Naturally, the former will be moved to defend their right to a debate – and it’s all too easy to be drawn into the trap of belittling the nuclear issue as way of conveying the necessity of dialogue about same-sex marriage. It’s a tricky thing to avoid, especially on those issues that engage our most passionate emotions – and I have to wonder whether this is deliberate, or just a fortunate side-effect for Hutchins and his ilk.

This is, perhaps, the worst argument yet brought against same-sex marriage. (It’s not the most ridiculous – that distinction is reserved for ‘because the Marriage Act says so’.) Not only does it tacitly argue against the issue, it urges people not to even consider it. And, just in case people feel that it couldn’t do any harm to just talk, it asserts that doing so will actually cause harm – that talking about same-sex marriage might threaten our ability to meet even the most basic needs of our society.

This is pernicious. When someone tells you not to talk about something because it’s ‘trivial’, there’s always the possibility that you might disagree – or perhaps just get annoyed enough with such a high-handed attitude to do it anyway. But this – this appeals to you as a responsible citizen, as a parent, as someone who wants to provide safety and comfort for your loved ones. This argument whispers to you that if you give time to thinking about same-sex marriage – no matter how well-intentioned you are – you might hurt us all. You might even be complicit in dragging us back to the Stone Age.

And, of course, it’s UTTER RUBBISH.

We’re human beings. We’ve got pretty big brains, and – all evidence to the contrary – we are capable of thinking about multiple issues. Yes, how we generate our power is a huge priority – it’s something with the potential to affect all life on the planet. But does that mean we cannot also think about something that might only affect a relatively small number of us? Will debating same-sex marriage prevent us from investigating renewable, or even nuclear, energy?

I shouldn’t even have to ask that question.

It’s not something the government can officially argue, and they know it. In defending their opposition to same-sex marriage, they’ve clung to the indefensible ‘Marriage Act’ justification. Now it looks as though both the Left and Right factions of the Labor Party want that policy changed – or at least want it re-examined. For the first time, members of the Senior Ministry have spoken out in favour of that.

But are they being applauded? Far from it. The Opposition leaped at the chance to spin this as ‘a clear sign that the government is fracturing’ (thank you, Steve Ciobo from this morning’s AM Agenda program), that they are held hostage to the Greens and hijacked by minority interests. The mainstream media question whether this means Gillard is soon for the chop, if her Ministers are in revolt against her. Voices in queer media carp about Wong’s ‘hypocrisy’.

There aren’t a lot of people out there applauding Mark Arbib – most of them think he’s a ‘factional warlord’ who’s just salivating in anticipation of toppling another Prime Minister. Anthony Albanese has been on the receiving end of abuse. Tanya Plibersek, still away from politics with her new baby, has been spared a lot of scrutiny – and Penny Wong has copped the worst of the lot. Now, you can argue that, to a certain extent, these people deserve criticism for not speaking out earlier, or more firmly.

What’s happening, though, is that those who are now publicly calling for a change from within Labor party ranks are being pilloried by not only their opponents, but those whose cause they champion. Meanwhile, Gillard moves to quell debate with authoritative pronouncements. Worse, Steve Hutchins and Joe de Bruyn get away with poisonous arguments designed to send this issue back into the streets and the blogs – and try to enlist the fabled ‘ordinary people’ to help them do it.

These marginalising, false arguments should be challenged at every turn. It’s not a question of choosing between talking about nuclear power or talking about same-sex marriage; both are equally deserving of consideration, and equally able to be considered by the same party at the same national conference.

What if those who want to see every Australian have the same rights to marry regardless of gender or sexual orientation focused on destroying those arguments in a calm, reasoned way – by refusing to compete, or apologise, and by saying there is room at the debating table for many issues? What if there was a real effort to encourage more politicians – both government and Opposition, state and federal – to scrutinise their policies without fear of being criticised for being slow to act, or held hostage to extremists, or on the verge of fragmentation?

There might be a possibility that those ‘ordinary people’ – the ones Steve Hutchins apparently thinks can be frightened into suppressing debate on same-sex marriage – would start to listen, and discuss it themselves.

We might even find to time to talk rationally about nuclear power while we’re at it.


Same-sex marriage – yes, it’s that important

November 15, 2010

Greens MP Adam Bandt will introduce a Marriage Equality Amendment bill into the House tonight. Simply put, the amendment will call for the definition of marriage to be changed in order to include same-sex marriages.

Both major parties have already signalled that they have no intention of supporting this bill. Neither will allow a conscience vote. Government Senator Mark Arbib, a former leader of the Labor right, said in an interview last week that he believed Labor should change this policy, and said he would raise the question at the next national conference in 2012. It’s possible that the parliamentary party could consider it sooner, but there’s no guarantee of that. Labor Senator Doug Cameron, an outspoken member of Labor’s left faction, rejected the idea of a conscience vote – because, he said, it is ‘absolutely crazy’ for the party not to endorse same-sex marriage. Even with pressure coming from both the left and right, however, Prime Minister Gillard stands firm. Labor policy does not support marriage equality.

The Coalition, for its part, remains in lockstep. No same-sex marriage. At all.

Given all this, Bandt’s bill looks utterly doomed. It won’t even make it to the Senate. Why, then, introduce it at all? Well, there are several reasons. There’s always the hope that someone might cross the floor to support it, even though it could well be political suicide (at least for Labor MPs). It keeps the issue alive in the Parliament. And – perhaps most importantly – it keeps the issue alive in the public sphere. It forces parliamentarians to keep justifying their stances, and subjects them to close scrutiny.

And on the subject of those stances – let’s take a long, close look. (And yes, I’m going to leave aside religious objections here – they have no place in a political debate in a secular parliament.)

The major justification for not supporting marriage equality hangs on two points: the ‘traditional’ view of marriage, and the definition of marriage as contained in the Marriage Act 1961 – or rather, the definition as amended:

Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.
Certain unions are not marriages. A union solemnised in a foreign country between: (a) a man and another man; or (b) a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.

Let’s start with the second point. Because of the way marriage is defined in the Act, politicians argue it simply is not possible to allow same-sex marriage. Indeed, to hear people like Gillard talk, you might think that this definition is possessed of an eternal quality that binds even those who might disagree with it. ‘That’s just the way it is’ seems to be the way the thinking goes.

Reality check.

That definition, originally crafted by former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, did not exist in law until 2004. In fact, there was no definition of marriage. Ruddock’s amendment was, according to the Howard government, designed to bring the Act into line with common-law understanding. In other words, everyone ‘knew’ that marriage was between a man and woman, and it simply hadn’t been necessary to define it before.

That, of course, brings up a question: what made it necessary to define marriage as between a man and a woman in 2004? It was all about ‘protecting’ marriage – so what was the threat? Answer: the desire of same-sex couples to marry. This definition was brought into law – with the shameful, weaselly co-operation of the then Labor Opposition – purely to deny same-sex couples the right to formalise their relationships in the eyes of Australian law and society on an equal basis with mixed-sex couples.

So much for the immutable nature of Australian law.

And then there’s the rest of the definition, which is equally out of touch with Australian society. It presumes that a marriage will be lifelong, and that the partners will stay faithful to each other. One only has to look at the massive divorce statistics to see that this is far from true. One-third of marriages ends in divorce, and divorced partners often remarry. This is in clear violation of the definition of marriage – but do we see anyone in Parliament calling for tougher penalties for those who break that vow?

Of course not. The very idea is ludicrous – and politicians know that. It’s a rare MP who would stand up and argue that divorce should not be allowed in our society. Presumably, these representatives are aware of the definition of marriage – and yet they seem able to ignore that particular section.

So where is the consistency? The answer is short and brutal – there is none. Those who quote the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act as a good reason to deny same-sex couples equal rights are simply hiding behind it. Perhaps they have a religious objection that they don’t want to disclose, because they are worried they’ll lose votes – which goes beyond cowardly to downright deceptive. Perhaps they have a poll result that tells them they’ll win more votes by opposing same-sex marriage – in which case they should fire their pollsters. Galaxy’s 2010 poll showed that 62% of all those surveyed supported marriage equality, and 80% of respondents aged 18-24 years of age.

Or maybe it’s the ‘traditional view of marriage’ argument. After all, marriage has always been between a man and a woman, right? Think again. Even in so-called ‘Western’ society, same-sex relationships have had equal weight of law at various periods throughout history.

Another ‘traditional’ argument has a somewhat Darwinian slant. The most important thing a species can do is survive, right? And they do that by reproducing, right? So marriage is really about continuing the species – and therefore denying marriage to same-sex couples makes sense.

Wow. Where do I start? Let’s take that argument to its logical extreme. If we accept it, we would need to make sure that anyone seeking to marry was not only capable of reproducing, but would commit to doing so. No marriage for infertile people, or anyone not wanting to pass on genetic abnormalities, or even just not wanting to have children, for whatever reason. Oh, and if a marriage didn’t produce children, the licence would have to be revoked, and possibly some kind of penalty would be applied.

Absolute nonsense. The mere idea flies in the face of people’s essential rights to self-determination – and while those rights may not be enshrined in Australian law, they form the assumed basis for much of our social freedoms and protections. Why, it would be like denying couples of different races the right to marry! No sane, right-thinking person would dream of applying such a draconian regime.

Yet apparently ‘sane, right-thinking’ people don’t see that, in denying the right of same-sex couples of marry, they are doing exactly the same thing.

Exactly one week ago, Prime Minister Gillard announced that she would hold a referendum with a view to changing the words of our Constitution to acknowledge the first peoples, who have long been wrongly disenfranchised by our society. This was couched in terms of ‘respect’ and ‘healing’. To quote Gillard:

‘There’s a false divide between working practically and working to increase trust. In fact they go hand in hand … building trust can make practical things possible. To make a life you do have to feel that you are recognised and respected.’

Noble words, and a truly noble goal. (And I am absolutely not attempting to downplay the significance of this historic resolution.) Yet this is the same Prime Minister who hides behind the weaselly justification that she is bound by the amended definitions of the Marriage Act, and who tries to excuse that by talking about all the practical measures her government has put in place to remove discrimination against same-sex couples.

Apparently, she doesn’t see the hypocrisy of holding such a double standard. She doesn’t think allowing same-sex attracted people the same ‘symbolic’ right of marriage as is granted to other-sex attracted people has any value. At least, not any value that might justify the serious step of changing a definition in law that was only made in order to deny those rights. For Gillard, Abbott and the major parties, it’s enough to allow same-sex couples to be recognised by Centrelink – what else could they possibly want?

What else, indeed? Only the right to fully partake of Australian society without discrimination. Only the right to publicly show their commitment to a beloved other – and have that commitment recognised throughout the country. Only the right not to be treated as second-class citizens, ‘separate but equal’ (and what a filthy phrase that is).

As long as the government enshrines this discrimination, the tireless work of those who give their time, money and – sometimes, horribly – their lives to build trust, rapport and respect between all Australians regardless of their sexuality will continue to be undermined. It’s easy to look at other problems in Australia – continuing discrimination and disenfranchisement of indigenous people, the terrible burdens of living with mental illness or caring for someone with disability, and the dreadful racism against people of Muslim faith – and say that same-sex marriage is a ‘minor’ issue compared to what else is going on.

It’s not a minor issue – none of them are. It’s a matter of building what former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described as ‘a future that embraces all Australians … based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.’

And that’s why Bandt’s bill is so important, and why it, or something like it, must keep being presented to Australian Parliaments – both state and federal. It may be not be as ground-breaking as the Apology, but without it, we will never have that future.

(The GetUp ‘Marriage Matters’ campaign has a form where you can leave your local MP a letter urging him to support the amendment.)


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