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?

Wrong.

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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Gillard and the Bible – it’s all about the votes

March 22, 2011

By now, no one should be surprised to hear that the Labor government is firmly opposed to same-sex marriage. With the exception of a few outspoken mavericks, the message is pretty solid: no change to the Marriage Act. Add to that the fact that the Coalition have managed to gain traction – at least in some areas – with their accusation that the Greens are ‘really’ in power, and it was probably inevitable that the government would try to present itself as a distinct entity, policy-wise.

That’s exactly what Prime Minister Julia Gillard appeared to be trying to do on Sky News’ Australian Agenda last week. The result, however, was a series of incredible statements that delighted the Coalition as much as it enraged many Labor supporters and social progressives.

Gillard labelled herself a ‘cultural traditionalist’ – which is nothing less than a synonym for ‘social conservative’. Fair enough. There are plenty of social conservatives out there, looking to the past to provide guidance on how to live today. Many of them even acknowledge the fact that they need to set their personal beliefs aside when it comes to social issues. Not Gillard. Her loyalty to her ‘old-fashioned’ upbringing leads her to oppose same-sex marriage – even though the Marriage Act never contained an exclusively heterosexual provision until former Prime Minister Howard shoe-horned one into it.

Gillard’s newly-declared social conservatism is pretty selective, mind you. She’s staunchly pro-choice when it comes to abortion, a vocal supporter of women’s representation in the workplace and the rights of indigenous people to full participation in society. On the issue of same-sex marriage, however, she’s adamant.

But it was what followed this ‘cultural traditionalist’ re-badging that had jaws hitting the floor. Gillard – the avowed atheist Prime Minister – lauded the Christian Bible as a positive, foundational influence on ‘our’ culture. It is so important, apparently, that it is ‘impossible to understand Western literature’ – and, by extension, Western law and culture – without it. Not that she’s advocating religion, oh no – but coming on the heels of her avowed ‘cultural’ opposition to same-sex marriage, it’s not difficult to connect the dots.

Gillard talked about the necessity of understanding Bible stories. Which stories might those be? The story of how a man who threw out his concubine and their son into the desert because his wife was jealous? The story of how that same man was prepared to kill his remaining son to show his faith in God? How about the story of how a woman secured victory for the Israelites by first seducing, then murdering an enemy war leader?

The suspicion has to be, though, that Gillard – who’d just finished voicing her belief that heterosexual marriage had a ‘special status’ – had Sodom and Gomorrah in mind. You know, the story of the evil cities, destroyed by God because they were places where men had sex with other men?

But hold up a moment. Let’s take up Gillard’s recommendation, and really look at the story, which can be found in Genesis. There’s no indication as to why God wants to destroy the cities – just that there is an ‘outcry’ against them. The one instance where male-male sex is even mentioned is in a sequence where a group of men threaten to gang-rape two angels – and this happens after the descruction is decreed. And just incidentally, the sole ‘righteous man’ in the city tries to protect the angels by offering his daughters up as substitute rape victims. Not exactly the story most people tell, is it?

Gillard’s right – you can learn important things by reading Bible stories. In this case, you can learn that a story long used to deny same-sex attracted men equality is actually completely different.

Maybe Gillard was thinking of Leviticus, where there are a whole slew of laws set down for the ancient Israelite people – including prohibitions against male-male sex, punishable by exile. That’s fairly clear – but then why doesn’t Gillard have a problem with men who engage in sex with menstruating women? Or recommend that a man who curses his parents be executed?

Oh, maybe she’s just thinking of Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he warns that those who engage in same-sex intercourse are evil and will suffer God’s wrath. But then she doesn’t seem equally concerned with gossips (read: leakers), who will apparently suffer the same fate.

All of which is a revolting display of cherry-picking, but ultimately, means nothing.

Why?

Because we are not a theocracy.

We are a secular nation. We have specific Constitutional prohibitions against any form of mandated religion. And make no mistake – for all Gillard’s claims that what she’s talking about is ‘cultural’, the reality is that she appeals to a religious text to justify her actions as Prime Minister in denying equal rights to same-sex attracted people.

Gillard is simply trying to hide behind a smokescreen, here. It’s not ‘religious’, it’s ‘cultural’. It’s not about exalting one religion’s doctrine, it’s about staying true to an ‘important part of our culture’. Classic spin – reframe the issue, change the language, and obscure the truth.

And it’s a fair bet that the truth, in this situation, is that Gillard is dogwhistling to the Australian Christian Lobby and similarly vocal conservative Christians.

It wouldn’t be the first time, after all. Despite Gillard’s protestations that she would treat people of all faiths equally, it’s very clear that the only faith she has any time for is that espoused by the most socially regressive lobby group in Australia. And why? Because it’s vocal. Because it consistently pushes the lie that it is representative of all Christians, who – when all sects are lumped together – remains the single largest represented religious group on the Australian census. In other words, it’s about buying votes.

This is hypocrisy on a grand scale.

It is absolutely nonsensical. There are no dire economic consequences foreseeable by removing discrimination against same-sex couples – in fact, a University of Queensland study suggests an economic boost from marriage licence fees and wedding costs. There are no dire social consequences foreseeable – the old myth that ‘kids need a mum and dad or else they’ll grow up to be juvenile delinquents or worse – homosexual‘ has been well and truly debunked. No one is seriously suggesting Australian society will shatter into tiny pieces because ‘Heather has Two Mommies’.

Labor’s oft-stated opposition to same-sex marriage always rang hollow. ‘We don’t want it because, um, it’s traditionally between a man and woman, and besides, the Marriage Act says so’. They hung their argument on legislation, and recently-amended legislation at that. Now, perhaps, we see what’s really at work.

Whether Gillard’s new justification is political expedience or an admission that conservative religious beliefs influence her far more than her atheism might suggest is irrelevant.

What’s relevant is that Gillard gave legitimacy to prejudice, and enshrined it in an appeal to a mythical Golden Age.

Maybe that will get her the votes she needs to govern in her own right at the next election. But those votes come at the expense of the hopes and dreams of Australians. In granting authority to a bigoted minority, Gillard has coldly dismissed the fact that she is condoning prejudice and perpetuating victimisation.

And who are those victims? They’re the people next door. They’re the people we work with, and socialise with every day. They’re the people who service our cars, fix our computers, stack our supermarket shelves and teach our children. They’re same-sex attracted people who simply want to enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. They want to get married. As long as they are denied that right, the message is clear: they do not have ‘special status’. They are not ‘real’ couples. Their love is not worthy of recognition by the State. All in the name of votes.

And for that, Prime Minister Gillard, you should hang your head in shame.


Repression is not reform, Mr Baillieu

February 15, 2011

Newly-installed Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu isn’t wasting any time making good on those campaign promises. Or at least, making good on some – those that have a potentially devastating effect on the way we live. It’s all about religion, you see. Specifically, it’s all about how insisting on compassion, decency and above all fairness unfairly discriminates against a few vocal conservative groups.

The former Brumby government laid down a series of changes to Equal Opportunity legislation that would have taken effect in August. Religious organisations would have had to prove that they had good reasons for refusing employment or services to people beyond the basic excuse of, ‘We don’t agree with how they live their personal lives’. Under these changes, such organisations would have had to show that employing someone who was gay, or a single parent, would ‘undermine’ the organisation’s beliefs or that the job in question required someone who conformed to the faith in question.

Christian lobby groups – most particularly the Australian Christian Lobby – complained bitterly at what they characterised as an attack on freedom of religion, particular religious schools. Well, now they’ve got a government who speaks their language, and that is prepared to allow these organisations to go on discriminating against anyone they don’t like.

This is what the Attorney-General, Robert Clark, had to say in this article in The Age:

‘The 2010 legislation is a far-reaching attack on the freedom of faith-based organisations and freedom of religion and belief. The amendments will restore tolerance and a sense of the fair go. Faith-based organisations and political organisations should be free to engage staff that uphold their values.’

He went on to talk about the ‘direct attack’ on religious schools, implying that somehow, the Liberal government were protecting parents’ rights to choose a good education for their children. This was further rationalised by the claim that the issue had been ‘well-canvassed’.

Well-canvassed among the vocal – and rabid – minority of the Australian Christian Lobby, perhaps. A minority that, for reasons passing understanding, seems to have the ear of government at every level.

This is an appalling decision by the Victorian government. This policy decision doesn’t only prevent reform that would allow real fairness. It sends a clear message that these organisations can go even further. By scrapping the proposed reforms, Baillieu is effectively saying to these organisations – you can do what you like, and we’ll back you up. We consider your interests to be more important than those of single parents, queer people, and those who don’t believe as you do.

This is the party that frequently rails against the idea of giving in to ‘special pleading’ from ‘minority groups’. Apparently, it’s only some minority groups, however.

Baillieu’s government thinks this is a great piece of reform, and they’ve trotted out the clichés to back themselves up. It’s a ‘fair go’. It’s about ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’.

It’s nothing of the kind.

It’s a warning: conform or be punished. And it’s targeted at people who already suffer massive discrimination simply for being who they are.

Oh, it all seems very reasonable. After all, if you’re not a member of this kind of religion, why would you want to work for them, or seek their help? But it’s not that simple. Understand, we’re not talking about church membership here, where belief – or even, the will to believe, could be considered a reasonable requirement. This unlimited power to discriminate extends to any business that describes itself as a religious organisation. That’s a broad spectrum, encompassing everything from schools to charities to community-based organisations to health care.

Single mum looking for a part-time job now that the kids are at school? Young gay school-leaver seeking to work in a gap year before going to uni? Devout Muslim woman wanting to help the local community by working for a welfare agency?

Need not apply.

In rural areas, sometimes these religious organisations are the only ones available. Baillieu’s so-called ‘reforms’, then, have
potential knock-on effects that could disrupt people’s lives. The only job going for teachers in any given town might be in the local Catholic school (the only one in the area) – but if the most qualified applicant is an atheist or in a de facto same-sex relationship, that school can legally refuse to employ them on those grounds alone. So that teacher faces two equally unpalatable choices; seek a job much further away, perhaps requiring hours of travel or even moving to another town, or forget about the idea of becoming a teacher in their home town.

What if a single woman employed by a religious charity became pregnant, and elected to keep the baby? She could be dismissed. Ditto the man who, after wrestling with his own sense of self for many years, finally accepts that he is a woman, and needs to transition.

And it goes further. A religious school would be able to pick and choose its teachers. Evolution? Sex education (beyond abstinence)? Forget it. And the kid who’s discovering her sexual identity is something other than what she’s been told is ‘normal’? Well, she’d better be prepared to keep it quiet, because her principal might just decide she needs to go elsewhere.

Oh, and just as a point of contrast … a convicted criminal would have more protection under Equal Opportunity in Victoria than a bisexual man or a pagan if Baillieu has his way.

Baillieu and Clark are happily condoning the kind of prejudice that leads to mental illness, violence and suicide. Worse, they’re actually championing it. Their ‘wide canvass’ doesn’t seem to have included people like these teens, who wrote of their experiences with homophobia at school:

I tried to kill myself because I was so badly teased at school for being a lesbian.. it never ended and I got severe depression and I saw no other way to be happy, I was in hospital for 2 months trying to control my depression and because doctors thought I would hurt myself again if they let me out and it also forced me to drop out of school.
(Claudia, 16 years)

i thought about it so much, i came close just as many times. but for some reason i never bought myself to try. i did have a complete plan though, i took a week to plan the whole thing out. (Craig, 16 years)

(Source: Writing Themselves In Again: 6 years on, 2nd national report on the sexual health & well-being of same-sex attracted young people in Australia, via La Trobe University)

These are the kind of kids who exist in a school system where there are programs to address issues of homophobia and violence, and where teachers are encouraged to support same-sex attracted students. Imagine these kids under Baillieu’s ‘reforms’. Because their parents want them to get a good education, or because there’s no decent public school available, they attend an independent school (most of which, as the ACL has noted on many occasions, are at least nominally religious). No teachers for them to turn to when they are victimised, no positive role model with whom they can identify. An unmistakable message that there is something ‘wrong’ with them for being queer – or even suspecting that they might be so.

This isn’t about ‘freedom’. Baillieu and Clark, with this plan, would sacrifice the well-being – and perhaps the lives – of Victorians just so they can pander to groups that believe they have the (literally) God-given right to demonise others. The very same people who tend to howl about how badly they are discriminated against if another religious group wants to exclude them, or if Mardi Gras tells them their lying rhetoric alleging all gay men are pedophiles isn’t permitted in their celebrations.

And they have the nerve – the absolute, outrageous nerve – to tell us it’s reform. It’s fair.

This is not reform, Mr Baillieu – it’s repression, pure and simple. You can dress it up with buzzwords designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, because after all, none of us like to feel we’re being denied a fair deal. But there is nothing fair about this.

The Shadow Minister, Martin Pakula, weaselled when asked whether Labor would support Baillieu on this plan. He said Labor would have to look at the amendments. That’s not good enough, Mr Pakula. Your government wanted to bring in these changes in the first place. Your government was the one that really undertook a wide canvass. You know just how important it is that these groups not be allowed to reduce people to outcasts. No amount of appeals to sacred texts can disguise the fact that what they want is the ability to arbitrarily declare some people less worthy than others. Despite their often-repeated claim that Australia is a ‘Judeo-Christian’ nation, we are a country of diverse beliefs, none of which should be subject to favourable treatment or prejudice. We are not a country subject to the doctrine of one interpretation of one religion.

And we should not be a country that turns a blind eye to the deliberate attempts of a lobby group to strip away the rights of those they simply do not like.


Paid parental leave – the policies side-by-side

July 29, 2010

Australia has lagged behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to paid parental leave (the US being a notable exception). Countries as diverse as Japan, Israel and the UK all have schemes, varying in terms of amount and duration. Sweden’s paid parental leave scheme, for example, lasts for up to 15 months. Various groups have been agitating for Australia to institute a scheme of our own.

Now, after years of failed attempts, we have two policies to choose between at this election. Both of these policies have been around for a while, but they haven’t come in for a lot of scrutiny until this week.

So let’s have a look at them side by side. The devil is definitely in the details here.

The ALP’s policy is fairly straightforward. New parents (including those who adopt a newborn) will be able to receive 18 weeks’ parental leave, set at the federal minimum wage (currently $544 per week). People in casual or contract work, or who are self-employed, will also be eligible. The scheme will also allow parents to share the period of leave according to their needs – for example, if both parents wish to spend time as primary carers, they will be able to do so.

Funds for the scheme were set aside in the 2010 budget.

The immediate objection that is likely to be raised is that people taking leave under this scheme may well incur a pay cut. The median gross wage in 2009 for males aged 25-34 was around $1100 per week, and $913 for females (sourced from ABC Diamond). Unlike the normal weekly income, however, paid parental leave is expected to be tax-free, which narrows the gap.

There is also the question of whether 18 weeks is a sufficiently long period. Opinions from experts in early childhood development differ wildly on how much time is ideal, to the point that there is no consensus. In the end, though, personal circumstances are likely to be more important to any family than suggested figures. Parents also have the option of taking their normal holiday leave entitlement after paid parental leave ends if necessary, negotiated with their respective employers.

The most attractive part of the ALP policy has to be its application to both genders. In 2003, men were the primary carers in only 3.4% of families. The major reasons given for this were economic, and many fathers stated they would prefer to spend much more time with their babies. The male median wage is still approximately 20% more than the female, meaning that a man would likely face a greater pay cut if he chose to stay home under the ALP scheme. He would, however, have the option.

The Coalition’s policy as it currently exists on the Liberal Party website is out of date. This week, a press conference with Tony Abbott in Mackay and interviews with Sharman Stone (via news.com.au) and George Brandis (on Sky News AM Agenda program of July 27) have confirmed that the details I’ll outline here now form the policy that the Coalition will take to the election.

Under the Coalition’s scheme, a mother will receive 26 weeks’ paid leave at her normal pay rate (up to $50,000) or the minimum wage, whichever is greater. As with the ALP policy, this includes casual and self-employment. A father will be eligible to receive two weeks’ paternity leave at his normal pay rate. If he becomes the primary carer, however, he will be paid at the mother’s rate.

The scheme will be funded through a levy on businesses earning over $5 million a year.

The original policy referred simply to a ‘primary carer’ as a recipient of paid parental leave, without any mention of different rates for each gender. The change to the current scheme was defended by Sharman Stone, who said it was simply ‘too expensive’ to pay men their full wage for six months. Tony Abbott’s defence focused less on the figures, and more on ideology. The policy is, Abbott said, ‘fundamentally designed to allow mothers to bond with their newborns’ (my italics). It was ‘very good for mothers, very good for women, for families and ultimately our economy as well’.

The policy is deliberately discriminatory. It is designed on the assumption that the primary carer of a baby should be the mother, and effectively penalises a father who wishes to stay at home. There is no provision for shared care – the presumption is that only one parent will be the primary carer during the early weeks of a child’s life. Finally, there is no mention in the Coalition’s policy of adoption, so presumably a family who adopts a newborn baby would not be eligible. This discriminates against couples who are unable to have children through natural conception or IVF. It also discriminates against same-sex couples, particularly males, who may adopt under Australian law.

I should point out that these comparisons operate on the assumption that both parents are working at the time a child is born, and receive the median wage. Neither policy addresses a situation where only the father works, and then takes parental leave. This may be for a number of reasons, including illness related to pregnancy and birth, postpartum depression, existing illness or disability and other family circumstances. As a matter of pure speculation, the ALP policy would likely still apply as is, since the mother’s wage is irrelevant. What would happen under the Coalition’s policy, however, is unclear, since the mother’s wage is the determining factor for the rate of payment.

Purely in financial terms, the Coalition’s policy is likely to be better for some fathers who stay home. Six months at 80% of a normal wage is a higher rate than 18 weeks at approximately 60-70% – so families who are economically disadvantaged would theoretically be better off under the Coalition’s policy. In practical terms, however, women in low-income families tend to earn below the minimum wage – so the end result is that neither policy would be of greater benefit to them. Unless a parent earns below the minimum wage, they would no better off under either policy. The real winners would be high income families, where the mother was earning well above the median wage, since high income families tend to have greater savings and greater economic capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Under the Coalition policy, moreover, they would be less likely to need to spend those savings.

The ALP’s policy assumes that a level playing field is the best possible outcome in terms of fairness, while the Coalition’s is aimed at preserving the family’s before-baby economic status quo – no matter how this might discriminate against some parts of Australian society.


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