Q&A with Fiona Patten, Australian Sex Party

October 27, 2010

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

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

Fiona Patten shows off those bright T-shirts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While we worried about jetlag and passion …

October 8, 2010

… things of real interest have been happening.

It appears that Tony Abbott’s ‘jetlag’ gaffe, and the faux outrage manufactured by his Parliamentary colleagues, has paid off. The media have zeroed in on this issue, barely examining the dissension in Coalition ranks over industrial relations. Meanwhile, Julia Gillard’s comment that foreign affairs was ‘not her passion’, nor the reason she got into politics in the first place, has been analysed and dissected to an incredible extent.

Neither of these comments are big news. Abbott, perhaps inadvertently, made an insensitive remark. Gillard – again, perhaps without much thought beforehand – came off sounding naive. In neither case, though, did we see any kind of significant revelation.

Sky News is the big winner here in terms of trying to beat up stories. Virtually every one of their political programs this week raised the non-issues with their guests. Party strategists, MPs, former leaders and independent analysts were all called upon to explain exactly what the two leaders might have meant by their words. The ABC is not far behind, though. The programs The Drum spent a considerable amount of time on both, even after panellists dismissed the comments as perhaps silly, but otherwise insignificant. The 7.30 Report also took a few shots.

Uncharacteristically, The Australian excoriated both leaders. They reserved their harshest criticism for Gillard, though, somehow divining that what she really meant was that she had no interest at all in foreign affairs, and that her comments damaged Australia’s standing in the eyes of the world. Abbott, by contrast, was only ‘monstrously stupid’.

And the list goes on.

It fell to Tony Wright of The Age to put it into perspective. Neither Gillard nor Abbott behaved in ways that might be considered unusual for travelling Prime Ministers. Australia has a long – and embarrassing – tradition of foot-in-mouth disease when it comes to foreign affairs.

The crucial difference between them is in how their own parties handled the questions that came afterwards in that desperate media scramble to make something out of potentially juicy comments. Labor’s approach was simple – stress that Gillard had been talking about why she got into politics in the first place, and that she had immediately committed to giving foreign affairs her full attention. The Coalition, on the other hand, embarked on a confused and ultimately self-defeating campaign. First they attacked Labor, then switched tactics to proclaim that Abbott had already arranged to travel to Afghanistan before he received the invitation to accompany Gillard. As I wrote here, they managed to give the impression that there was a story behind Abbott’s gaffe. And the media were all over it.

They still are – and while these ridiculous non-issues dominate the political commentary, this is what is not being reported about both leaders:

* Gillard has signalled her intent to open research and development treaty negotiations with the European Union. You’d think this would have garnered more attention than it did; after all, one of the criticisms leveled at Kevin Rudd was that he neglected our relations with Europe in favour of the Asia-Pacific region. It also has great potential for Australia to regain some of its lost standing in terms of scientific innovation, and perhaps stop the ‘brain-drain’ that has seen many of our scientists relocate offshore because they cannot get funding here.

* Gillard stopped off to bolster Australia’s bid for the World Cup soccer tournament. If successful, this could see a huge influx of tourist dollars, boosting the economy.

* Gillard met with Japan’s representative and plans to follow up with a State visit. This is another area where the former Rudd government came in for a great deal of criticism; some experts even claim that our relations with Japan were badly damaged by Australia’s stance on whaling and apparent preference for establishing ties with China.

* Abbott attended the Tory party conference in London, using the occasion to comment at length on how he intended to learn from the English conservative example how to effectively repair the damage from ‘profligate Labor government’ spending. It didn’t matter that Australia and Great Britain are worlds apart, economically speaking; nor that there is a wide policy gap between Australia’s Liberal party and the Tories (who are socially liberal, and believers in action on climate change); what was important was to be seen as establishing ties with a comrade across the pond. In this, Abbott was stepping outside his role as Opposition Leader and positioning himself as an alternative Prime Minister – a clear signal that he has not abandoned the belief that he is one by-election away from power.

* After talking with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Abbott said he was pleased to report that Britain had decided to ‘no longer neglect’ Australia. Even without noting the patronising colonial overtones, it’s easy to see the agenda at work here. Again, Abbott is not acting as an Opposition Leader. He has no authority to negotiate on Australia’s behalf – but a chat between like-minded individuals is a good way to establish foreign policy credentials. Abbott’s also signalling to the Liberal Party base that – unlike Labor – the Coalition acknowledges and embraces Australia’s historical loyalty to its nominal Head of State. It’s a position worthy of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, who once waxed lyrical about the Queen; ‘I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die’.

* Perhaps serendipitously, Abbott has also been able to effectively bury the news that nine Coalition MPs (four on the record) have been grumbling about industrial relations; they want a policy supporting individual workplace agreements and exemptions for small business from unfair dismissal laws. Labor spokespeople may sound the ‘WorkChoices is back!’ alarm, but it seems no one is listening.

* Today the Murray-Darling Basin Authority will release its draft report into water allocations. Rumours already abound suggesting its recommendations will be damaging to farmers, and thankfully, the media are starting to look at this issue. Hopefully, when the report is made public, it will knock the ‘jetlag’ and ‘not my passion’ non-stories right out of the news cycle.

Amazing, isn’t it? Who would have thought so much might be happening in a week where every second political story seemed to be about whether Tony Abbott really was an ‘Iron Man’ or Julia Gillard was embarrassing us on the world stage?

And wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to wade through 779 articles about Gillard’s ‘lack of passion’ to find out what else our Prime Minister was doing while representing Australia to the world?

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