Rudd’s marriage equality line in the sand

September 3, 2013

Kevin Rudd’s appearance on the ABC’s QandA program was always going to be a drawcard. Whether you were looking to see him roundly criticised for everything from challenging for the leadership to the PNG asylum seeker policy, hoping for some substance, or just wanting to see some sign that Labor might not be doomed at Saturday’s election, there was a reason to tune in. And he didn’t disappoint.

This format – alone in front of a live audience – is where Rudd reveals both his best and worst self. Best, in that he can let rip on issues where he feels real conviction. Worst, in that he has a terrible poker face where his temper is concerned. If he’s getting angry with a line of questioning, you can see it.

There was a little of both last night. He completely failed to break through on the issue of superannuation, and at one point looked ready to give host Tony Jones an ear-bashing when the latter challenged him on his constant use of the misleading ‘$70 billion black hole’ phrase. (For the record? The number was confirmed by both Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and Shadow Finance Spokesperson Andrew Robb – but not during this election campaign, and not on the current set of Coalition policies.) On the other hand, his ability to admit where he’d made mistakes in the past, and to own those mistakes rather than make excuses, went over well with the audience.

Where both sides of the man came together was on the question of marriage equality – and it was an amazing thing to see.

The questioner described himself as a ‘pastor’, and gave a rambling statement about Rudd changing his position on various issues, before zeroing in on marriage. It wasn’t quite a case of a trembling finger of rage pointed from the pulpit, but it was close. The questioner actually quivered. It was clear that, whatever else he’d said, the real reason for his anger was that he felt personally insulted by Rudd’s change of heart on marriage equality.

Rudd started off mildly enough, but then asked the questioner whether his view was that homosexuality was normal. The pastor answered with the claim that ‘we’ – he and his fellow pastors – performed weddings between men and women, that the Bible was clear on marriage and homosexuality, etc, and why didn’t Rudd believe the words of Jesus. At that point, Rudd’s whole demeanour changed. His words became passionate, and his manner full of conviction; and he took the questioner to task. Watch it:

For political tragics (like your obedient correspondent) who loved The West Wing, it was a familiar moment – a leader pushed too far on questions of social justice, fighting back as a member of that religion. There was no doubt that Rudd didn’t give a damn about that questioner’s vote, or the votes of anyone who felt the same way. Nor was he simply trying to grab the so-called ‘gay’ vote – his earlier announcements on the subject of marriage equality had already signalled his intention to introduce legislation, and support it. Rudd, simply, was telling it like he saw it.

But there was something else going on, something not immediately obvious. Rudd’s answer wasn’t just a declaration of support for marriage equality. It was a line in the sand.

There are any number of people or groups on the other side of that line, including influential factional bosses of his own party such as Joe de Bruyn of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union. Arguably the biggest, however, is the Australian Christian Lobby.

This group claims to represent ‘Australia’s Christians’. I’ve written before about the staggering misrepresentation in such claims, and how virtually no media outlet bothers to correct them. The ACL is homophobic, anti-choice, anti-secular education and little more than a mouthpiece for certain fundamentalist groups. Hiding behind the mantle of ‘Christian’, it has, in the past, successfully spooked Premiers, Prime Ministers and Opposition Leaders, and political parties have bent over backwards to answer the imperious ‘policy questionnaire’ it sends out at election time. (The notable exception is the Greens, which has, at least some of the time, politely told the ACL where it can put its questions.)

As the issue of marriage equality has grown in Australia, the ACL’s tone has become ever more shrill, to the point of hysteria. It seeks promises from political leaders that they will not tamper with the ‘sanctity of marriage’, and for the most part, the parties have made such promises. Whether directly – as in the case of the Rise Up Australia Party (another mouthpiece, this time for a Pentecostal church – Catch the Fire Ministries), or indirectly, as in Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s weasel words about a possible party room discussion sometime in the distant future, the ACL gets what it wants.

In the past, Rudd did his fair share of pandering to Australian Christians. Even then, his language was considerably less enthusiastic than some. During a 2007 ‘debate’ with former Prime Minister John Howard hosted by the ACL, Rudd repeatedly hammered the points of tolerance and diversity, and acknowledged the fact that Christians were not a homogenous mass devoid of individual thinking. Nonetheless, the fact he was prepared to take the time to address the ACL showed Rudd acknowledged its power as a lobby group.

Because, let’s not forget, that’s what the ACL is – a lobby group. The clue is in the name, people.

The pastor who angrily demanded of Rudd that he ‘live by Jesus’ words’ was Matt Prater, from New Hope Brisbane. It’s one of those ‘non-church churches’ that claims to provide an alternative to the mainstream churches – which, according to places like New Hope, have lost the ‘truth’ of God’s message. This is exactly the kind of place that signs up to the ACL.

Prater was singing from the ACL hymn book. He was not simply asking for a religious exemption from having to perform same-sex marriages – he believed all Australians must live by his church’s interpretation of select portions of the Bible (and the Old Testament, at that – Jesus was silent on the question of homosexuality and same-sex marriage). That’s called Dominionism (so-called ‘God’s kingdom on earth’), and it’s the backbone of the ACL’s principles. Nobody gets a choice, because ‘God knows best’, and the ACL (and its affiliates) know what God wants. And politicians have let these religious groups get away with it, giving them – at best – a cautious wag of the finger.

After last night, though, the ACL and those who subscribe to its tenets are on notice. Rudd signalled that, as far as the Labor Party is concerned, the ACL’s influence is irrelevant.

That might not be entirely true – never underestimate the power of the pulpit. Just ask the Catholics who were around when the Democratic Labor Party split off from the ALP in the 1950s. It’s possible Rudd hammered a pretty big nail in Labor’s coffin last night.

What matters, though, is that the issue of marriage equality last night become important enough that a major party was prepared to send a message to a big lobby group that it would rather do without the votes than compromise its support.

And – no matter what the outcome on Saturday – we shouldn’t lose sight of it.

Goodness knows there will be few enough moments of which we can really feel proud when we look back on this campaign. We should celebrate what we can.

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.

More on Doctors for the Family and their ‘evidence’

May 14, 2012

Last night I revealed that ‘Doctors for the Family’ were not simply an organisation of health professionals with valid health concerns about same-sex marriage, but rather a religious lobby group who used their qualifications to obscure their real agenda.

That knowledge still, apparently, hasn’t made it to the mainstream media – nor have they bothered to check the sources cited in the letter submitted by the group to the Senate marriage equality enquiry. Now, we can understand that the Herald-Sun might not be too interested in looking closely; it was originally their story, after all. (And readers might be interested to check out the redacted version, which now includes quotes from the AMA and Australian Marriage Equality – described by reporter Brigid O’Connell as ‘gay rights’ activists’. It also includes quotes from Dr Lachlan Dunjeny, though strangely, fails to mention his other crusades.)

But what’s the excuse for no one else doing a bit of elementary research? This isn’t simply some obscure Senate paper; it was splashed all over the media yesterday, becoming the lead story for some news providers. Extraordinary claims were published and re-published, and never challenged.

The story is out now that there is a religious agenda driving Doctors for the Family. But what about the apparently authoritative sources they use to back up their arguments that same-sex marriage (specifically, marriage between two men, which seems to be their major preoccupation)? Who are they?

Let’s take a look.

The major study cited looks, on the face of things, to be above reproach. It was completed by the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney, and only last year. Looks pretty damning. But wait.

The study was commissioned by our old friends the Australian Christian Lobby, and ‘made possible by a generous grant from the Vos Foundation’. It also thanks someone named Antoine Kazzi.

The Vos Foundation are an interesting group. Primarily, they’re land developers – one of those stories where a family business grows from humble beginnings to become incredibly successful. Some of that success finds its way into what they describe as a ‘philanthropy vehicle’. Just so that everyone’s clear on what kind of philanthropy, the Foundation helpfully provides information on their values – and right up front is a profession of faith, followed by ‘family and marriage relationships’.

Antoine Kazzi, whose research was so invaluable, works for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney – specifically, their Life, Marriage and Family Centre.

The study also thanks Focus on the Family Canada, a multi-national group well-known for their opposition to same-sex relationships and marriage equality. The acknowledgements wind up with statements of gratitude to several people for reading and comments – including Lyle Shelton and Paul O’Rourke from the ACL.

These are clearly partisan individuals and organisations, with a massive agenda to push. Any credible academic study should seek data which is as neutral as possible – or at the very least, balance the contributions with data or statements from opposing views.

The ‘evidence’ on which it relies is sketchy, its bias clear, and its original premise is shaky. It’s the kind of study that would earn an undergraduate student a verbal spanking and a low grade – and it’s certainly not of the standard expected by learned and lauded Professors.

And the unsurprising conclusion? Everything – everything that is wrong with our kids today stems from their not being raised in a two-parent heterosexual marriage environment.

This study is the equivalent of those ‘scientific research papers’ that used to say that smoking cigarettes was not only harmless, but might actually benefit us – you know, the ones that were commissioned and underwritten by tobacco companies. It’s questionable at best, worthless at worst.

Of all the sources cited in Doctors for the Family’s letter, this one is the most credible. The rest are either statistics taken out of context and twisted to serve the agenda, or partisan articles from international groups pushing the same religious agenda – notoriously, the hate-group Mass Resistance. That group is particularly vicious – reading their diatribes against same-sex attracted and transgender people is actually sickening. The Southern Poverty Law Center details some of their more revolting actions, including attempts to criminalise male-male sex as a form of ‘bestiality’ and to plant false allegations that ‘normalising homosexuality’ had led to skyrocketing levels of domestic violence.

And these are the groups on which Doctors for the Family based their submission to the Senate. These are the arguments that the lobby group attempted to give a veneer of respectability through using their professions to obscure their true purpose. And – most importantly – these are the groups that are easily exposed, and who have not been investigated even after the letter was made public.

Part of the media’s job is to challenge those sorts of assertions, so that those of us who work in other sectors can learn the facts behind them. It’s not enough to simply reprint part of a media release and get a comment from the most easily identified opponent to someone’s views. You need to investigate.

The letter from Doctors for the Family is going to the Senate. It will form part of a raft of submissions to an enquiry whose recommendations could have serious ramifications for thousands of Australians, their families and friends.

So-called ‘health organisations’ that cite partisan studies and rely on propaganda from hate-groups should be exposed for what they are, and that knowledge should be shared as widely as possible. The Senate should know what they’re getting.

Marriage equality and Labor’s national conference

December 2, 2011

The Australian Labor Party’s 46th National Conference starts today – and rarely has a meeting of politicians attracted such attention from so many areas of Australian society.

It’s got a full agenda – discussions on the sale of uranium to India, fundamental changes in how the leader is elected and possibly even the institution of a US-style primary system to decide pre-selection in individual electorates. The big issue, however, is same-sex marriage. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has already signalled she intends to propose that the issue be declared one of conscience – that is, to allow members to vote according to their own beliefs rather than along party lines. Rainbow Labor, led by Andrew Barr and Senator Penny Wong, in conjunction with the Left faction, intend to push for the adoption of same-sex marriage as part of the national policy platform.

Yesterday, Barr said that he thought he might have the numbers to win that argument. With Left and Independent factions determined to push for a firm platform, only twelve votes are needed from the Right. Last night, however, the Right announced they intend to vote in a bloc for Gillard’s solution. It comes down to numbers at this point.

For an issue that many commentators (such as former Labor Minister Graeme Richardson and Labor historian Troy Bramston) dismiss as ‘not first-order’, not ‘centrepiece’, same-sex marriage has become the major focus of this conference. Members of the Right accused the Left this morning of ‘pressuring’ people, union leader Joe de Bruyn voiced his vehement opposition to same-sex marriage under any circumstances, and – reportedly – some Labor MPs announced they would cross the floor if the party did change its policy platform, and risk expulsion. Interestingly, there’s been far less media time given to the Left – only Andrew Barr has had any substantial air time.

Paul Howes, head of the Australian Workers Union, managed to be sanctimonious, hypocritical and just plain wrong this morning when he was asked about the impending discussion. ‘Labor has a long and proud history of allowing conscience votes on these issues,’ he said, and went on to castigate those members of Labor’s Left who are pushing for a party policy on same-sex marriage, for daring to attempt to force their beliefs on others.

Honestly, where do I start with that one?

Howes, in high dudgeon, practically vibrated with righteous indignation as he tried to claim the moral high ground here. And oh, doesn’t it make for a good sound bite when someone passionately defends freedom of choice? Surely no reasonable person could argue with the idea that politicians must be able to hold to their own beliefs on important issues?

The problem here is that Howes ignores a basic fact of politics – that politicians are elected not to vote their own consciences, but to represent their electorates. And given that overwhelmingly, almost every poll shows a massive groundswell of support for same-sex marriage (at least 60% in favour), Howes is effectively advocating that Labor selectively ignore those voters. Coming from a man who regularly points to popular support to shore up his positions on various issues, this is inconsistency at best, hypocrisy at worst.

And let’s face it, most of us hold strong beliefs on a variety of issues. My religion, for example, was strongly opposed to the idea of invading Iraq. My religion absolutely rejects the idea that children should be exposed to religious indoctrination while attending a government school. Neither of these issues has ever been exposed to a conscience vote, nor are they likely to be. The so-called ‘moral issues’, such as abortion and euthanasia, are the ones that receive that dubious privilege.

What makes these ‘moral issues’? Nothing more than the fact that some religions declare them to be so. It’s cherry-picking of the worst kind – you won’t find many people arguing that there is a need for conscience votes on whether to allow women access to high office or to prohibit the sale of contraception, despite these issues being apparently as important to those religions.

Yet it’s perhaps even more disgusting that Howes chose to take this line, given that his appeals obscure the fact that, in effect, he’s advocating that Labor continue to deny that same freedom to others – just because some people don’t like the idea of same-sex couples being married. In this, he is no different from those Christian fundamentalists who declare that marriage equality would somehow destroy civilisation as we know it.

These are the same people who scream bloody blue murder when they think Australia is being ‘converted by stealth’ to Islam if they eat halal meat without realising it. These are the same people who raise their hands in horror and lament the death of ‘Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage’ if their kids come home from school saying, ‘Happy Holidays’, instead of ‘Merry Christmas’. And these are the people who argue passionately that no one, no one, has the right to prevent them from living according to their beliefs.

And yet … by writing and upholding in law the idea that some love and commitment is less deserving of recognition – by, in effect, saying that only those forms of union that conform to their beliefs are worthy and legitimate – they force their beliefs on everyone.

But deep down, they know that. They know exactly what they’re doing. If they’re honest, they’ll say so proudly and point to some idea of divine ‘truth’ to back themselves up. If not, you can see it in their eyes. They’ll squirm and dance and fall back on mealy-mouthed appeals to ‘tradition’ – which, of course, means only those traditions they feel like preserving. And Howes, by clasping to his bosom this completely hypocritical ‘Champion of Freedom’ mantle, has put himself firmly in the camp of people like the Coalition’s Cory Bernardi and Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby.

And let’s not forget that Howes is just plain wrong, too.

Labor has not historically allowed conscience votes on ‘these issues’. In 2004, when the Marriage Act was changed to explicitly exclude same-sex couples, no conscience vote was either asked for or allowed. Labor simply voted its party line, which was to enshrine mean-spirited discrimination in law. If, as Howes and others have claimed, the issue of marriage is so important as to require that MPs be allowed to wrestle with their consciences, why weren’t they allowed to do so then?

Gillard, during the 2010 election campaign, proudly declared that Labor’s policy platform specifically included reproductive freedom for women. Back then, that issue was so important that it required party unity. To now claim, as she and supporters from the Labor Right have done, the exact opposite where same-sex marriage is concerned, frankly beggars belief. And raises more than the whiff of suspicion that those who hold this position are attempting to curry favour with one minority group by discriminating against another – and yes, fundamentalist Christians are a minority group, protestations by Wallace and his cronies notwithstanding.

No one’s life will be threatened if same-sex couples are legally married. No country will go to war with us over this. There’s no reputable conflicting science, as there is with matters of human cloning (which, incidentally, the Prime Minister supported during a conscience vote in 2007). By trying to place same-sex marriage on a par with issues of abortion and euthanasia, Gillard and the Labor Right are trying to sweep under the rug the real issue of equality. We no longer socially ostracise or legally penalise heterosexual couples who choose to co-habit rather than marry. We no longer prohibit interracial marriage. We don’t even require people to show ’cause’ for divorce. Those are the issues which should be discussed in conjunction with this question.

Marriage is a secular institution. Sorry, religious folks, but there it is. For a long time now the State has been solemnising marriages without benefit of church or clergy. As such, the State should serve all people equally.

Let’s suppose someone wanted to bring in a law designed to exclude a particular religious group from the right to marry. The screams of outrage would be heard from orbit. After all, it’s an utterly nonsensical notion, right? Yes. It is – as nonsensical as the idea of excluding an entire section of the population from marriage for being same-sex attracted.

The ALP National Conference will tackle this issue tomorrow. At this point, it looks like Gillard will get the result she wants. Which will, no doubt, be a great relief for her. She won’t have to worry about fending off interview questions about whether she has the support of the party. She can say she’s done the ‘moral thing’, and ‘listened’ to the party.

What she won’t be able to say is what Queensland Deputy Premier Andrew Fraser said when State Labor passed same-sex civil unions legislation two nights ago: ‘Today was a momentous occasion for civil rights’.

This issue now hangs on whether twelve people out of around 200 decide that those fundamental human rights are more important than a handful of religious beliefs and cultural prejudices. That equality is more important than doctrine, and that allowing the expression of love and commitment is more important than allowing bigotry to remain enshrined in Australian law.

Gillard argued in her keynote speech this morning that ‘fairness begins in the workplace’. That may be so – but why should fairness end at the altar?.

Gillard also said that ‘only Labor can govern for all’. I wonder how those who she denies the same rights she has the choice to embrace or reject would feel about that statement. When did ‘govern for all’ become ‘exclude those whose issues might upset Labor’s polling numbers’?

Perhaps those members should go home tonight and wrestle with their consciences on those issues. There’s an opportunity here for Labor to show itself to be a champion of human rights, regardless of personal belief – it shouldn’t be missed.


In response to requests, I’ll be live-blogging the same-sex marriage debate tomorrow on Twitter and posting a summary here afterwards. Feel free to follow me on Twitter, or to follow the hashtags #alpnc and/or #marriageequality.

Census Night and that pesky religion question

August 9, 2011

Tonight is Census Night. I’ve been to more than a few census dinner parties in my time, all of which were a good excuse for hanging out with friends and sitting on the floor after dessert with a wheel of brie and some crackers. One of us would be the designated census-taker, and the rest would call out responses to the various questions.

Recently, though, the Census has become something of a battleground. It entirely revolves around Question 19 – Religion. Interested parties make vehement pleas for us all to write a particular result. This year, that militant rhetoric erupted into outright conflict.

There are two major campaigns: a plea to mark your religion as ‘Christian’ in order to prevent the government building mosques in your neighbourhood; and a plea to mark ‘no religion’ in order to prevent the government privileging the religious over the non-religious.

(That’s by no means a comprehensive list. For example, the ‘Pagan Dash’ campaign is aimed at having ‘Pagan’ included as a category of its own rather than being filed under ‘Nature Religions’.)

Now, the religion question is flawed. Horribly so. For a start, if you practise a religion with very few known adherents in Australia, you’re confined to the ‘Other’ category. The wording of the question also suggests being a member of a religion is the default, or ‘normal’ state of affairs. Finally, if you enter your particular sect in the ‘Other’ category (say, Theravada), it doesn’t count towards the total ‘Buddhist’ number.

All in all, it could do with a serious overhaul, if only to make it more representative of the likely diversity of responses. But let’s examine the assumptions behind these two campaigns.

First the ‘Christian’ campaign. This is scare-mongering, pure and simple – ‘tick Christian or the Muslims will take over!’ And like most scare-mongering, it’s utterly without foundation. The government isn’t about to start building mosques willy-nilly based on census numbers (and wildly inflated ones at that: only around 340,000 people identified as Muslim on the 2006 census, and 2 million rather than 10 million marked ‘no religion’). In fact, the government isn’t about to start building mosques at all – any more than they’d build a church. Why? Because the government doesn’t provide religious infrastructure. That’s the job of private organisations.

It tries to panic people into providing a false response, and sweeps away any concerns that this may not be a true result. Even if you’re not Christian, you’d be doing the right thing by marking your ‘upbringing faith’ (and note the assumption that you were probably raised a Christian. Never mind that it is an offence to knowingly lie on the Census. The cause is too important to worry about such things.

Then there’s the ‘no religion’ campaign. This one starts with a false claim: that governments use census results to privilege the religious, at the expense of those who do not subscribe to a religious belief system. On the face of it, this looks like a strong argument: we have chaplaincies in our public, supposedly secular schools, and government funds are allocated for religious instruction (which is in reality little more than recruitment and indoctrination). But is this really because of the census?

Or is it a cultural blind spot based on the idea that Australia is a white, Anglo, Christian country – always was, always will be?

Never mind the wealth of religious tradition amongst indigenous peoples. Never mind the immigrant workers, especially the Chinese, who brought Buddhism, Taoism and ancestor worship with them. For that matter, never mind the atheists who eloquently defended their right to non-belief in English writings of the period. Early Australia suffered from ‘dominant culture’ blindness and that still hasn’t gone away.

If this were really about the census numbers, then the religion question would likely be compulsory, instead of the sole optional one.

If this were really about the census numbers, the government would be tripped up by a few basic statistics. Even a quick perusal of census results shows a steady decline in Christian religions – dropping almost 30% since Federation – and an increase of almost 600% in those who select ‘no religion’. Hardly a case of the government relying on numbers to justify their programs.

And again – the government doesn’t build religious infrastructure. City planners might look at census results to decide whether a proposed church is warranted in a given area, but they don’t pay for it.

What’s important to remember is that the census is a tool, and like all tools it can be wielded both well and inappropriately.

Census data on religion contributed to the abolition of archaic anti-witchcraft laws in Victoria. Those who identify as witches and pagans may now safely practise their religion without risking prosecution for vagrancy or fraud.

The proliferation of new religious movements (so-called ‘minority religions’) has brought about a serious blow-out in the ‘Other’ category. Although this is broken down into broad groupings in detailed results, strong arguments are now being made for rephrasing the question to be more representative of Australia as it is today.

For that matter, census data such as that quoted above forms part of the current argument against the near-total monopoly of certain Christian groups over school chaplaincies.

And then there’s the Australian Christian Lobby. They claim the right to speak on behalf of every person who nominated some form of Christianity on their census form. But the census isn’t what drives the ACL – it’s simply a way for them to represent themselves as more important than they really are.

The data is valuable. There’s no other way to provide such a comprehensive picture of religious belief and atheism in this country. And if we answer the question honestly, it’s a true picture.

With that data we can mount counter-arguments to the ACL and similar groups. We can demonstrate the diversity of Australian life. We can thoroughly shred the racist claims of those who see the spectre of sharia law lurking around every corner.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to answer the question without trying to frame our responses to serve an agenda. We don’t need to bring up accusations of ‘privilege’ or exaggerated fears of ‘a mosque in every neighbourhood’ (and I’m still not sure why people who think that was a bad thing, in any case). We should focus on the positive aspects and simply encourage everyone to answer honestly.

And if you truly don’t like even the idea of the question, or want to be completely private? Leave the question blank.

Nothing bad will happen. I promise.

By any means necessary

June 2, 2011

One of the simultaneously best and most annoying things about living in a democratic system is that bills sometimes get defeated. An Emissions Trading Scheme might go under, but equally, a proposal to make asylum seekers pay for the privilege of being locked up might fail. That’s the system we set up for ourselves in Australia – where ultimately, the vote in the Parliament decides what will become law, and what will end up on the floor.

We might not always like it – we might lament what we see as a backward step, or rage when a much-needed reform is blocked – but the system isn’t there for us to like. It’s there to provide the best checks and balances to power that it can, and to aim to reflect the will of the people. Nothing prevents us from complaining, but that’s how the system works.

Unless you happen to be Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu, that is.

Remember back in February when Ted Baillieu signalled his intention to allow faith-based organisations to discriminate against anyone who didn’t follow their beliefs? At the time he trumpeted this idea as ‘reform’. As I wrote then, however:

This is not reform, Mr Baillieu – it’s repression, pure and simple.

The bill – which held the potential to enshrine bigotry and prejudice in law – came to Parliament last month. And there it was defeated, after State Minister for Mental Health Mary Wooldridge missed the vote. The Minister issued a statement afterwards, saying she was ’embarrassed’ that she’d missed the vote – but the damage was done. Those who had dreaded the bill celebrated, while Baillieu summoned the Leader of the House and the Whip to his office.

It was the first time in ten years that a government in Victoria had lost a vote. To say that Baillieu and Attorney-General Robert Clark (the bill’s champion) had egg on their faces was an understatement. But it was done. End of story. Disaster averted. Right?


In Victoria, a defeated bill can’t be put to the Parliament again. It’s cut-and-dried. No wriggle room.

Unless, of course, you pull this dirty trick: you suspend the standing orders of Parliament so that you can introduce, debate and vote on the bill again.

And that’s exactly what the Baillieu government did this week.

Clark argued that because Wooldridge missed the vote, the bill should be put before the House again. There’s nothing in the Victorian standing orders that allows this – so Clark pointed to the Federal Parliament’s new protocols, put in place as part of minority government negotiations. Under those rules, if someone misses a bill due to ‘misadventure’, a new vote can be held.

The most absurd – and most outrageous – argument reflected the bald-faced arrogance of this move. Clark declared that the initial defeat of the bill ‘did not reflect the will of the Parliament’.

Yes. You read that right. The bill was legitimately defeated on the numbers. The majority of the House decided to vote against it, and it failed.

If that doesn’t ‘reflect the will of the Parliament,’ then what on earth does?

The Opposition kicked and screamed. They urged the Speaker to consult the Solicitor-General. They pointed out that Wooldridge, far from being a victim of misadventure, was conducting a meeting with her department at the time of the vote. They argued that this was nothing more than Baillieu seeking to change the rules to suit himself. Which is, of course, precisely what the government was attempting to do.

Using their majority, the suspension motion passed – and the bill was back before Parliament. Despite three hours’ debate (during which Baillieu was unflatteringly compared with former Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett), the bill passed through the Lower House late on Wednesday night.

It will now go to the Legislative Council – where the government also holds a majority. Barring an attack of conscience from at least two members on the government side, it will pass.

Baillieu didn’t get his way, so he threw a tantrum. It’s the equivalent of two kids playing a made-up game, where one changes the rules just because they don’t like losing.

It’s utter contempt of the Parliament.

So we are at the point where – but for what amounts to the application of a rubber stamp – any organisation that calls itself ‘faith-based’ or ‘religious’ will be able to legally refuse to employ or serve anyone they feel doesn’t subscribe to their values.

Single parent? Muslim? Atheist? Queer? You’ll have to be careful where you apply for jobs … or where you seek help … or healthcare … or go to school. Because you’ll effectively be declared second-class citizens. The rights that guarantee equal treatment for all people will be amended – and you won’t qualify anymore.

As a Victorian voter, I’m deeply angered and deeply ashamed. Yet another government has pandered to a vocal, bigoted minority who thinks they have the right to impose their prejudices on everyone in Australia. Worse, they have shown that they will not accept the will of the Parliament if they don’t like the result.

And I fear that – having done so once – they will not hesitate to abuse the Parliamentary process every time they don’t get their way.

As a non-Christian, queer Victorian, I’m appalled. My elected representatives want to declare me – and almost everyone I know, including my own children – unworthy of equal rights, just to placate bigoted lobby groups for the sake of a few votes. And they’re willing to resort to all sorts of machinations to do so.

So I say to the Liberal government in Victoria – you don’t just represent the vocal minority that’s led by the Australian Christian Lobby. You represent us all. And if you pass this bill, you will be condoning discrimination and enshrining bigotry. Is that the legacy you wish to leave of your time in public service?

Remember that you are the servants of the people, not their masters.

Remember that what you do in that chamber isn’t just about winning numbers games or scoring political points. What you do affects lives.

Most of all, remember that you are human beings – just like us – and do the right thing.

Cross the floor, and vote down this abomination of a bill.

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