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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