Mythbusting the Vote

August 19, 2013

It’s less than three weeks to the Federal Election on September 7, so let’s take a step back from the campaigns to look at actual voting. In every election, there are misconceptions, half-truth and outright lies peddled by various groups, all designed to do one thing: convince you that your vote is only worth what they say it is.

That’s the first lie. Let’s bust the rest.

MYTH 1: I live in a safe seat. My vote won’t make any difference.

Political parties just love this one. The more they can convince voters that any given seat will remain in the hands of the current holder, the less work they have to do to keep those voters happy – and that gives them more time and money to campaign in marginal seats they might be in danger of losing. Prime Ministers and senior Ministers tend to hold ‘safe’ seats. Politicians tapped to be future leaders often move to a safe seat held by a party member who might be about to retire. It’s all very organised and stable.

Except when it isn’t. Safe seats may well be anything but. Usually, a seat would be considered safe if, at the previous election, the candidate won with 60% or more of the vote. At the 2007 election, however, a shock result saw Prime Minister John Howard lose his seat in a massive swing to Labor novice Maxine McKew. Howard became only the second sitting Prime Minister in Australia’s history to lose his seat (the first being Stanley Bruce in 1929). And in this year’s election, there are seats held with margins of over 12% that are considered ‘in play’.

When it comes to your vote, then, questions of ‘safe’ and ‘marginal’ are somewhat less meaningful than perhaps they used to be. It’s possible to overturn a safe seat with only a handful of votes. One of those could be yours.

MYTH 2: It doesn’t matter how I number my House of Representatives ballot, as long as I mark the party I want as number one.

This is a common mistake. The green House of Reps ballot requires you to number all boxes, and often people feel that they only need to focus on which candidate they designate as their first preference. As a result, they simply number the remaining positions straight down the paper.

Preferences determine the outcome of most marginal seats. That could mean a result that at first seems unlikely. For example, a Greens candidate ahead in first preference votes could well be defeated after second preferences were counted, if most of those preferences were for one of the major parties. The way you organise your preferences ensures you have the greatest possible influence on the outcome.

MYTH 3: A vote for a minor party or Independent is just a waste.

Oh dear. Another great piece of misinformation from the major parties – and one you’re likely to hear as you front up at the polling booth. The argument goes like this:

1. Minor parties/Independents don’t get elected.
2. You want to make sure your vote counts, don’t you?
3. You should cast your vote for a party that will get elected.

It’s all based on that first premise – which is rubbish. You only have to look at the Parliament just gone to see that. In the Lower House, we had four Independents and a Greens MP. In the Senate, there were 9 Greens, 1 DLP and 1 Independent. The make-up of that Parliament meant that the government of the day was required to be far more open to negotiation than previous, two-party situations.

There’s no clearer illustration that a vote for minor parties or Independents can be extremely effective.

MYTH 4: Electing someone from a minor party or an Independent will lead to a Parliament that doesn’t work.

You’ve heard this one from the Coalition, both in and out of Parliament’s chambers. Peppered with wonderfully ridiculous terms like ‘shambolic’, ‘unworkable’, ‘held hostage’, the Opposition did its level best to paint the 43rd Parliament, and particularly the minority government under Labor, as utterly useless.

Of course, it’s nonsense. That Parliament passed hundreds of pieces of legislation, including major reforms such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband Network, carbon pricing, and the Better Schools program. Additionally, it implemented a number of reforms to the way Parliaments conduct their business – streamlining Question Time, briefing minor party and Independent MPs and giving them access to Treasury for costings being only a few.

As for the notion that the Parliament was ‘held hostage’ – again, this is entirely down to a Coalition attempt to damage the Labor government. The idea there was to convince voters that Labor was somehow so beholden to the Greens that it would betray its own base just to hang onto power.

The minority government worked, whether people (or the Coalition) liked it or not. There’s no reason to think that another minority government would be any different.

Oh, and since Liberal leader Tony Abbott never bothers to remind voters – any Coalition government has also been a minority government, comprising the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Country Liberal Party, and the Liberal National Party. Those governments functioned – and, presumably, Mr Abbott thinks any future Coalition minority governments would do so again.

MYTH 5: It doesn’t make any difference if I vote above or below the line in the Senate, so I might as well save myself some time.

Oh, where to start with this one?

How can I put this simply? IT MATTERS.

Now, it can be an utter pain to fill in every little box, making sure that you haven’t doubled up or skipped a number. If you live in Victoria, this election is likely to be particularly onerous for you. But don’t be tempted to simply stick a number above the line and be done with it.

Why? Because once you do that, you’ve given your vote away to that party. And while you may think that party represents your views, what about those to whom it’s directed preferences? Do you even know who those parties or individuals are, for that matter?

It’s not too hard to find out the preferences for each Senate ticket – all the information is clearly available on the Australian Electoral Commission website. And there are a few unpleasant surprises when you do look. For a start, some tickets in Victoria didn’t even lodge their preferences with the AEC – so you have no way of knowing what would happen if you did simply hand over your vote.

Then there’s the issue of the Wikileaks Party. Broadly considered sympathetic to Left-leaning parties, the WLP was expected to direct preferences to the Greens – and, allegedly, had indicated that it would do so. Instead, it preferenced the extreme Right-wing Australia First Party in New South Wales; and in Western Australia, preferenced the National Party above the Greens.

WLP supporters demanded an explanation, and were told that the NSW preferences came about as the result of an ‘administrative error’.

There are no clearer illustrations of the need to know where your preferred party directs its preferences, and of the need to vote below the line in the Senate. To put it bluntly, it’s the only way your vote can be truly representative.

Thankfully, there are some very clever people out there at Below the Line. They’ve collected the ballot positions and full tickets for all seats and both Houses, and are in the process of setting up their ballot editors. You can find out who’s running in your electorate or State, organise your voting preferences with these editors and print those out on a sheet to take with you into the polling booth. Yes, you still have to write down a lot of numbers, but the majority of the work is already done.

CONCLUSION: So there you have it. Five myths, all easily busted. If you’re skeptical about politicians when they talk about policy, then it’s worth extending that to anything they say about voting. The vote is your power – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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Shame, Australia – no recognition for same-sex marriage

June 20, 2013

The Senate just voted against an amendment recognising same-sex marriages performed overseas, in countries far more enlightened than ours.

The vote was 28-44. Overwhelming.

And one of the most mean-spirited votes I’ve seen. If ever there was a vote that showcased spite and prejudice, this was one.

The prejudice was easy to see. All the usual arguments – marriage is between a man and a woman, ’twas ever thus, talk fast and loud and make sure no one realises we only defined it as such in 1984 – with a hefty dollop of pseudo-Christian jingoism. Yes, pseudo-Christian. When more and more Christians are supporting marriage equality, when queer clergy are ordained, when church spokespersons acknowledge they cannot dictate to those not of their faith, appeals to the idea that Australia is a quasi-theocracy are revealed for what they really are – convenient rubbish.

We’re a secular country. We always have been. We even have Constitutional provisions to prevent us from becoming ruled by any given religion. That’s a good, and necessary thing – and it doesn’t only protect those who hold no religious belief. It protects everyone.

But this is an old argument. Any time someone dares to suggest that marriage equality in any form is desirable, the religious argument is trotted out, looking increasingly tattered. In today’s debate, the most objectionable comments came from West Australian Liberal Senator Dr Chris Back.

He asserted that the only reason – the only reason – this debate was occurring, was in order to prevent the Opposition from thoroughly debating ‘important’ legislation. Important. Talk about a slap in the face.

Just what was this important legislation? Well, he mentioned the education reforms – and those are important, sure. The claim that debating recognition of same-sex marriages made overseas would significantly harm debate on education, however, simply does not follow. For Senator Back, though, it was undeniable.

As if attempting to reduce the issue to a mere annoyance wasn’t enough, Back apparently decided that mockery would be a fine way to argue, and invited the Chamber to join him. He painted a picture of two (presumably) lesbians in their wedding dresses crying as their Parisian marriage was ignored by Australian law – as though that was something funny.

He also made the utterly ridiculous argument that we wouldn’t deny women the vote just because Saudi Arabia does, or do away with speeding laws because European autobahns don’t have speed limits.

And then he had the audacity to accuse supporters of the amendment of engaging in propaganda – scare tactics, emotive argument, ad hominem argument, and mindless repetition.

Uh, Senator Back? You just described your own side’s tactics. Oh, except you forgot the lies. Lies about the Marriage Act, lies about the effect of same-sex marriage on children, lies about virtually everything in this debate – including the increasing number of Australians who support marriage equality.

Perhaps the result of the final vote shouldn’t have come as a surprise. With Labor allowing a conscience vote, and the Opposition firmly against, the only way it could have succeeded was if a significant number of Liberals crossed the floor.

I would, however, like to congratulate Senator Sue Boyce, who defied her party both on this amendment, and on an amendment to end discrimination against LGBTI people (especially couples) in aged-care facilities.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that the result of this vote was, as I wrote earlier, entirely mean-spirited.

Think about it. If the amendment had passed, who would have been hurt?

Heterosexual couples? Hardly. They wouldn’t even have to compete for a date with a marriage celebrant.

Children? How? If they’re the kids of a same-sex union, then their parents are just as married as the next kid at school.

Society? Please. More committed, legally recognised marriages with all the obligations and protections of those solemnised in Australia actually stabilise social groups.

Oh, wait. I know how recognising a same-sex marriage made overseas might be harmful.

Our kids might ask awkward questions.

‘Mum, if Johnny’s Dads got married in New Zealand, how come they’re not married here?’

‘Say, Dad, did you know Angie’s Mums are married, but only in some countries? How weird is that?’

‘Mum, you know how you and Dad and Aunty Jess and Aunty Jan got married on holiday? Why are you allowed to be married here, but not them?’

That’s what this comes down to – a fear that, if we do recognise the marriages made overseas between same-sex couples, that even more people will start to question the utterly arbitrary laws that discriminate against marriage equality in general. Currently well over 60% of Australians support equality, and that number is only rising.

Heaven forfend.

This is a shameful day for Australia. Extending our recognition of marriages made overseas would be such a simple thing. It would hurt no one; in fact, it would only increase both happiness and social stability. It would show us to be a nation that is both compassionate and fair-minded, able to extend our congratulations to even more of our citizens for choosing to formalise their loving commitment to each other.

Instead, our elected representatives showed themselves – yet again – to be narrow-minded, prejudiced, manipulative and hard-hearted.

Australia falls further and further behind the rest of the world every day when it comes to social justice. Today was one more example.

What happened in the Senate today probably won’t even make the evening news broadcasts, which in itself is disgraceful. And the majority of those who voted to deny same-sex couples even this most basic of recognition probably won’t have any trouble sleeping tonight.

They should. They should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. And they should be made aware of just how badly their blithe politicking affects the very people they claim to represent.


Who are ‘Doctors for the Family’?

May 13, 2012

Mother’s Day. It’s one of those terribly sentimental holidays where media gush about the importance of giving Mum a day off, department stores hold sales where everything is pink (right down to a cute little pink cordless drill for the ‘Handy-Mum’, god save us), and we all get to see news anchors say hi to their own mothers and make jokes about perhaps not giving them the right present.

This year, though, every potential parent in Australia got a slap in the face, thanks to News Limited. In itself, that’s not so surprising – but what is worrying is that no media organisation seems to have done more than the most rudimentary of investigation into the report.

The Herald-Sun published a letter signed by 150 doctors, who all expressed their concerns that same-sex marriage – oh, sorry, “so-called same-sex marriage” – posed a health risk to any children those couples might parent.

A health risk. That’s right. And just in case we weren’t sure what that might mean, the letter helpfully spelled it out in a footnote telling us about increased rates of HIV among those who engage in male-male sex.

The letter didn’t stop there, though. There is a further concern for children – that there might be terrible health consequences associated with ‘further “normalising” of homosexual behaviour’. Not least of these consequences is that people might be charged with “hate speech” (their quotes) if they speak out against marriage equality (sorry, sorry, “so-called same-sex marriage”, I keep forgetting), or that their kids might be somehow irrevocably damaged by remaining in Health Ed classes where they’re taught that sometimes boys wants to have sex with boys. Quite what that damage might be was left unspecified. Perhaps that they might learn how important safer sex practices are, and that they’re not damned to hell for who they love?

Naturally, other media jumped all over it. The AMA practically fell over themselves to get into the TV studios so they could denounce the letter, and a raft of evidence showing that same-sex parenting was no more or less damaging than any other kind made it to the airwaves. Uncomfortably, one of the signatories was Professor Kuravilla George, who serves as Victoria’s deputy chief psychiatrist. He’s also a board member of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

Oops. How did that guy slip through the cracks? That’s the question everyone’s asking. How did someone with such blinkered – and frankly wrong – views make it into such a sensitive position? And it’s a good question. But there’s more going on here. What we’ve seen is just the surface.

The letter is headed up, ‘Doctors for the Family’. Question is, just who is this organisation?

It takes about five minutes to find out.

Doctors for the Family describes itself in this way:

“There are many organisations in Australia and internationally that support marriage – the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others – as the basis for family and a healthy society.

Doctors for the Family is a supporting medical organisation to highlight the health aspects of marriage and family and ensure a healthy future for our children.

Its purpose is to be a source of information and at times make representation to parliament or appropriate organisations to ensure policies that enhance and preserve the health and future of our nation.”

There’s no wriggle-room there. It’s an organisation that was specifically set up for the sole purpose of pushing a homophobic, anti-marriage equality agenda. It does not claim to make any form of objective analysis, merely to ‘be a source of information’. And there’s no one presented as a front person. Those who wish to contact the organisation are invited to email ‘web@doctors4family.com.au’ as generic a web address as I’ve ever seen. In itself, that should have rung alarm bells with journalists everywhere to start digging.

Go behind the website, however, and you find out what’s really going on here.

Via whois lookup, a moment’s work discovers that the site is owned by a Doctor Lachlan Dunjey, the first signatory on the letter. So who is he? Behold, everyone’s best friend Google.

Lachlan Dunjey just happens to be one of the driving forces behind the Church in Perth – a fundamentalist Christian group. The site helpfully provides us with a list of his articles, and we can see straight away that same-sex marriage is only one of Dunjey’s crusades – and that the ‘Doctors for the Family’ website is only one of his soapboxes. There’s anti-abortion via Choose Life Australia and Conscience in Medicine; so-called ‘personhood’ issues which affect stem cell research, contraception and embryo destruction; anti-Bill of Rights; and euthanasia.

All of these articles are liberally sprinkled with out-of-context quotes from the Bible, pseudo-science, and outright lies. Far from being simply a group of doctors concerned about the health implications of policy, Doctors for the Family is just another front for a fundamentalist Christian group with a hate-mongering agenda.

Here’s a sample, and it shows just where Dunjey is coming from:

“It is one thing to pass a law that permits evil but it is something more to pass a law that compels evil. We have not been here before in a civilised society. Yes, we need to change people’s hearts and minds by bringing them into the Kingdom of God.”

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Dunjey is spear-heading a fundamentalist Christian attack (complete with recruitment drive) disguised as concern for the health of children – which is utterly reprehensible.

Oh, and best of all? Dunjey is a member of and former Senate candidate for the Christian Democratic Party.

All of that research and reading was accomplished in less than 30 minutes. And that brings up two questions:

1. How many signatories to that Senate submission knew who they were signing up with?

2. Why did no one in the media do even rudimentary research on Doctors for the Family, and find out who was behind it? Dunjey even fronted the media for a very brief soundbite, but nothing was said about his blatant religious agenda.

And here’s a final point – Doctors for the Family clearly attempted to deceive the Senate enquiry by misrepresenting themselves as a ‘health organisation’, rather than a religious group whose arguments are cherry-picked, distorted, and backed up by the flimsiest of ‘evidence’, all operating from a basis of religious dogma rather than science.

That should be the focus for the media, not whether their arguments hold any validity whatsoever.

There’s simply no excuse for letting that slip.

UPDATE:

Nickandrew analysed the signatories of the letter, and discovered around a 35% overlap with those who signed the Liberty of Conscience in Medicine declaration. That particular document affirmed that it had no specific ties to religion or faith, only conscience. Thanks to the efforts of Chrys Stevenson, though, that deception was quickly exposed.

And oh look, here’s our friend Doctor Dunjey again, along nearly 70 doctors who are members or organisers of specifically religious organisations. Many are Catholic, but fundamentalist groups are also well-represented (including – alarmingly – one associated with ‘healing miracles’). Stevenson’s work exposed this organisation as yet another deceptive religious lobby group.

This current issue isn’t an isolated incident … it’s part of a concerted campaign to deceive Parliament in order to push an intolerant and harmful agenda.

It’s time it was thoroughly exposed.

UPDATE, 14/5/12:

After a little more digging, I found out some … interesting information about the so-called ‘evidence’ on which Doctors for the Family relied in their Senate submission. Here’s your link.

You might not be surprised – but I think you will be appalled.


Gracious in defeat on carbon pricing? Hardly.

November 8, 2011

The government’s package of carbon price related bills has finally passed both Houses of Parliament. Despite months of scare campaigning from the Opposition, hundreds of column inches given over in editorials and opinion pieces, astro-turfed rallies on Parliament House lawns, and hours and hours and hours of hysterical lies, the bills have passed.

Even at the last minute, the Opposition tried every possible tactic to delay the final vote in the Senate. They tried for amendment after amendment, which were designed to render the bills useless and which had no chance of passing. Senator Eric Abetz led a desperate charge to suspend standing orders after debate ended, arguing that there hadn’t been sufficient time to examine the legislation properly.

Of course, he carefully didn’t mention that of the nearly 30 hours allotted for debate, almost all the Opposition’s speeches boiled down to nothing more than, ‘Gillard lied to us and we should have an election’. Virtually no substantive debate whatsoever.

When that failed, votes on the last amendments were held up by Opposition Senators leaving the Chamber to force longer-lasting divisions. And what did they gain from that? Around 12 minutes in total.

In the end, though, the vote was called. Even during the vote, there were objections. Could the Opposition hear the question again? Why were they being asked to vote on a whole group of bills at once? (Never mind that this was agreed upon when the bills first came before the Senate.) They did everything but sneak out and set off the fire alarm – and I’m not sure it didn’t cross their minds.

The vote was decisive – 36-32. And a packed Senate gallery erupted with cheers and applause.

So that’s it. End of story, right?

Foolish optimists.

Within seconds, Abetz was on his feet again wanting a suspension of standing orders. The reason? He wanted to have a chance to condemn Labor politicians for their ‘betrayal’ of the Australian people. By name. At length. It was all about the ‘will of the people’. Why couldn’t Labor just accept it?

Accept what, exactly? The result of the 2010 election, when we voted in such a way as to bring about a minority government? The dozens and dozens of polls showing popular support for pricing carbon dioxide emissions? Oh, of course not. The ‘will of the people’ is what Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says it is, apparently.

Senator George Brandis thundered that it was the ‘most infamous day in politics’ in Australian history. He railed against the government’s ‘alliance of infamy’ with the Greens, and contemptuously dismissed the ‘ragtag bunch of people in the gallery’ who’d applauded the vote. Finally, he warned that, come the next election, the Australian people would make sure that Labor wore ‘the crown of thorns’ and would crucify them.

That particular metaphor might have worked better had not Senator Barnaby Joyce been – at the same moment – telling the media that this was in fact, the ‘biggest betrayal since Judas betrayed Jesus’. The part of Judas, it seems, was played by Independent Tony Windsor. ‘Jesus’ was presumably the mythical ‘forgotten families’ so beloved of the Coalition of late.

Not to be outdone, Senator Ian MacDonald practically frothed at the mouth in his condemnation of the government. In a stunning display of utter hypocrisy, he objected violently to Senator Evans referring to the Opposition as being ‘wreckers’ – and then went on to name the Members for Corangamite and Deakin as ‘gutless wonders’ who were too ‘cowardly’ to speak on the bills. To add insult to injury, he referred to the Prime Minister as a ‘liar’, and when asked to withdraw, he argued with the Chair that he had a right to say it because ‘it’s been said a thousand times’. And besides, he muttered, it was ‘true’.

(Incidentally, this is what the Prime Minister actually said before the last election: ‘I don’t rule out the possibility of legislating a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a market-based mechanism … I rule out a carbon tax.’ And what do we have? An Emissions Trading Scheme. Not a tax.)

And so it went. Speaker after speaker, all contributing nothing of substance – in fact, throwing a tantrum worthy of a room full of three year olds.

I used to help out at my local university Co-Op childcare centre. If any of those kids tried behaviour like that, we’d have put them in Time Out. It’s a great shame there wasn’t the same disciplinary option available in the Senate chamber today.

The upshot? The vote was defeated on voices alone. The Opposition didn’t even try for a division. But it wasn’t over. Out they trotted to front the media with their dire predictions of imminent doom for the government and the Greens, and the End of All Employment in Australia. Those left in the Senate chamber bravely soldiered on, pulling quorum to interrupt debate over some of the related bills (such as those designed to assist the steel industry) and regurgitating the same tired old arguments.

Many of us had parents or teachers who counselled us to be ‘gracious in defeat’. Certainly I was always told that the grown-up thing to do when you lost was to congratulate your opponent and to move on. Perhaps the Opposition wasn’t as fortunate. Nonetheless, it’s not too late for them to learn.

Mr Abbott? Mr Truss? Mr Abetz? Opposition members? GROW UP. You lost the vote. Accept that. We’re not asking you to congratulate the Prime Minister, although it would be the gracious and adult thing to do.

If you still want to repeal all this legislation, you’ll have your chance to put your case to us at the time the next election is called. And if we don’t vote you in, perhaps you might finally accept ‘the will of the people’. Do us all a favour, and hold your water until then.

* * * * *

Dear Diary,

Day 1 of our oppression under the Socialist Green Carbon Tax of Doom. Sky not fallen. No anarchy in the streets. Dishes still need washing. Cat still needs feeding. Opposition still complaining.

Same old, same old.


Voting down same-sex marriage: violating human rights

February 25, 2010

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young introduced the Marriage Equality Bill 2010 into the Senate today. The aim of the bill was to amend the Marriage Act 1951 to remove the definition of marriage as between a man and woman only, with a view to facilitating same sex marriage. In effect, it was a re-run of a defeated bill introduced by the Democrats in 2006.

In their great generosity, the Government allowed thirty minutes for debate. Yes, you read that right. This was a bill with profound implications for Australian society. You’d think that a reasonable amount of time would be set aside to talk about it in Parliament, wouldn’t you? Oh, but maybe there are just so many bills that there isn’t that kind of time.

Not so. Since Parliament recommenced for 2010, amendments to finer points of income tax law were debated for over an hour. Changes to Youth Allowance took up nearly three hours only yesterday – and let’s not forget the hours and hours and hours that have been spent so far debating the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation over the past two sessions.

No, the simple truth – the ugly truth – is that the debate was deliberately gagged.

It isn’t hard to see why, really. Of the people in the chamber, only a few would have stood up and spoken in support of the bill. Perhaps the Government felt it wasn’t worth taking up the time for all of them to have a say. After all, it was fairly obvious that the bill was going to be defeated, so really, what was the point?

The point is that the decision was made before that bill even made it to the Chamber. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that it was made before it was even drafted. Those thirty minutes were nothing but lip service – and patronising lip service, at that. Effectively, the major parties patted Senator Hanson-Young on the head, smiled tolerantly while she gave an impassioned speech in favour of human rights, and then sent her to bed without any dinner. They stood up first, though, and smacked down the bill with the kind of pathetic reasoning that would get you booted from any high school debating team.

Let’s take a few samples.

Senator Steve Fielding – no one ever expected him to support the bill. His party’s stated platform is in lockstep with the Assemblies of God churches that back him, and there was no way he was going to deviate from the dogma. ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life,’ he proclaimed.

Apparently Senator Fielding has not seen any divorce statistics, and is absolutely against second or subsequent marriages. I’m sure that millions of unhappy, abused spouses will be comforted to know that.

Note, however, that he was not quoting any religious text here. He was actually quoting the Marriage Act itself, from the Interpretation section: ‘”marriage” means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’. If one were to strictly interpret that definition, there could be no re-marriages – or divorces, for that matter. Nonetheless, over 47,000 people identified themselves as divorced on the 2007 Census, and over one-third of marriages solemnised were second or subsequent unions.

Guess the definition isn’t so strict, after all. Selective interpretation? You decide.

Then there was Senator George Brandis, from the misnamed Liberal Party. ‘Marriage has never ever in any society in history been regarded as anything but between a man and a woman,’ he intoned solemnly.

Senator? Step right this way, please. We have some information for you. We’ll put it in chronological order, so you can see just how wrong you are.

There’s evidence from ancient Greece of male-male unions – cited by Aristotle (c. 500 BCE), for example – which were not the more well-known teacher-pupil type. These relationships were considered identical to heterosexual marriage, even to the point where the men in question could adopt children and arrange for them to inherit.

Rabbinic Jewish midrashic texts on Leviticus refer to same sex marriage contracts taking place in Canaan (which puts it around 200-1500 BCE). In fact, it’s one of the Canaanite practices that made the rabbinic writers foam at the mouth on several occasions – so well-attested, in fact, that it appears in at least four different treatises.

The Emperor Nero married one of his male slaves in the 1st century CE. Later, in the 2nd century CE, the Emperor Elagabulus followed suit. In fact, it was pretty common in Rome right up until Constantine specifically outlawed it in 342CE.

France, in the late medieval period (before around 1400) had a kind of contract that was considered legally equivalent, but there was no religious component. It was symbolised by the sharing of bread and drink in a ceremony.

There’s also a rather curious, if disputed, tradition among medieval Christian monks in France, where they were bound together in a religious ceremony whose text reads exactly like a marriage ceremony, including the exhortations to faithfulness. It was postulated by the historian Boswell, but is generally not accepted – you can imagine why.

From Ming Dynasty China (c.1300-1644) there is evidence of binding contracts between women, and between men.

More recently, among certain Native American tribes, there was the phenomenon of ‘Two-Spirit’ marriage, where one male partner was considered a ‘wife’ and took on a female social role. This marriage was recognised as identical to a heterosexual union.

‘It’s not a discrimination issue,’ stated Brandis. Oh, we rather think it is.

And Senator Brandis? This information is not hard to find, nor (unless otherwise noted) disputed. Five minutes in a library would have told you that.

By far the most shameful performance of that thirty minutes, however, came from the government, led by Senator Nick Sherry. ‘The Government is committed to removing all forms of discrimination,’ he vowed, and went on to list a raft of tax and social security issues that had historically discriminated against same sex couples, and which the Government was going to abolish. Good start.

But then there was this: ‘equally, we are committed to preserving the Marriage Act’. Specifically, the Government stated that it was committed to the ‘man and woman’ definition of marriage. Now, we’ve already seen that Australian society and law plays fast-and-loose with that definition when it comes to divorce and re-marriage. In fact, you could say that it’s not so much selectively interpreted as ignored altogether. Why not, then, ignore the ‘man and woman’ description?

Apparently, it simply cannot be done. To borrow a phrase from Prime Minister Rudd, ‘for reasons passing understanding’ it must not be done.

No explanation is given that holds up under even the most cursory scrutiny. The appeal to history fails miserably. Holding to the strict definition of ‘marriage’ from the Act is completely flawed, and in fact could be said to make a case for allowing same sex marriage, given its ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’ status. Claiming that prohibiting same sex marriage is not discriminatory is, frankly, ludicrous.

I’ll give Senators Brandis and Fielding this: they stated matters of principle in their objections. Yes, they were patently wrong, but at least they tried. Fielding has even said that it is a form of discrimination, one that he supports. Points for honesty, there.

Senator Sherry, however, weaselled around the issue, pathetically offering up a few sops that – in effect – only further ensure that same sex couples are treated as second-class citizens. Same sex couples will be subject to the same income testing for purposes of tax, superannuation and social security as heterosexual couples. On the face of it, that’s pretty egalitarian, right? No. A heterosexual couple can walk into any Government office in the country and have their marriage instantly recognised, and gain the benefits of that. A same sex couple cannot. They are, when it comes down to it, gaining most of the disadvantages of being married – yet Senator Sherry, speaking for the Government, would have us believe that this is removing discrimination.

It is hypocrisy, plain and simple. The Government does not have the excuse of faulty reasoning, or a lack of knowledge of history. They are flat-out stating that what they are doing is not discriminatory, merely holding to the law. Even as Government MPs and Senators say that, though, their eye shift and they rush to fill up their answers with convoluted reasoning that twists in and around on itself, and goes nowhere. They know.

So what is behind it?

One could speculate that Mr Rudd and his fellow politicians have learned their definition of marriage not from the Marriage Act, but from their churches. Homophobia and discrimination against same sex relationships is well-enshrined in all but the most progressive of Christian religious institutions.

There is also the unpleasant truth that Australia has, socially, a history of discrimination and hatred towards same sex relationships that goes hand-in-hand with ‘mateship’ and ‘true blue Aussie bloke’ mythology. Perhaps the Labor Party learned it there.

Whatever the reasoning behind the statements, the bill was voted down. The Government, Opposition and Senator Fielding united to preserve a shameful violation of human rights. Even Senator Nick Xenophon, who had supported the removal of some forms of discrimination in his home state of South Australia, lived up to earlier statements that he was a ‘bit more reluctant to support gay marriage’. And all after barely thirty minutes’ discussion, most of which was taken up by speeches like those from which I’ve quoted.

There is no excusing this. It was incredibly disrespectful – not only to Senator Hanson-Young, but to all those who believe that everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law of Australia. It was blatantly gagged, ensuring that only a single speech supporting same sex marriage made it into Hansard. It was a demonstration of how faulty reasoning and lack of knowledge determine who has rights, and who does not.

And it was an exercise in hypocrisy for the Government,resulting in a devastating loss of whatever credibility it still retained. The Labor Party, under Prime Minister Rudd, stands condemned in the eyes of Australia.

It is my devout hope that this inequality, this meaningless discrimination, will be struck down soon, and that Australian law finally lives up to its ideals of equality and fairness. Until that time, our elected representatives should be constantly aware of one thing:

We are watching you. We see how you act, and we will call you to account for it.


Farewell, Senator Stott Despoja

June 26, 2008

Today marked the end of an era in Australian politics. For the first time in 30 years, there will be no sitting Senators who are members of the Australian Democrats.

Formed in 1977 by Senator Don Chipp, the Democrats formed an effective third party in Federal Parliament. Their half-joking motto, ‘Keep the bastards honest’, summed up the attitude towards the two major parties. They have never regarded themselves as a single- or narrow-issue party; rather, they have always been committed to promoting a solid legislative agenda and using their third-party status to protect the rights and interests of Australian people.

There is no inner party room in the Democrats. All major decisions, including leadership, are conducted by postal ballot of all members. It is a true participatory democratic structure, committed to principles of egalitarianism and honesty.

The one I’m going to miss most is Senator Natasha Stott Despoja. Born and educated in Adelaide, she started her career in politics young, becoming State Women’s Officer for South Australia in the National Union of Students. She joined the Australian Democrats as a student, serving as an adviser for two leaders – Senators John Coulter and Cheryl Kernot.

In 1995 she was appointed to fill a casual Senate vacancy in South Australia, after the resignation of Senator Coulter. Re-elected in 1996, she held her seat comfortably from that time. She was deputy leader under Senator Meg Lees, and later became leader herself for a short period in 2001-2002. Her seat was finally lost to the Australian Labor Party in the 2007 election. Her Senate term expires at the end of June 2008.

Senator Stott Despoja has been an outspoken advocate for causes such as free and accessible education, responsible environmental and research guidelines, welfare for students and disadvantaged people, paid maternity leave for all Australian women and an Australian republic.

She both introduced and amended legislation on scholarships, textbook subsidies, genetic privacy and transparent advertising for pregnancy counselling services. Famously, she defied her own leader and voted against the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax in 1999, despite Senator Lees’ having brokered a deal for the Democrat vote with then Prime Minister John Howard in violation of the Democrats’ stated policy agenda.

She was famous for turning up to Parliament sitting days in Doc Marten boots. Outspoken and cheeky with the media, she was a constant favourite with them. There were no questions she wouldn’t answer.

Senator Stott Despoja was a consistent champion of ordinary Australians, true to her word and one of the few politicians I could confidently say always acted with integrity. Even her resignation as leader was conducted with grace – rather than a leadership vote, she said she preferred not to set the party against itself and risk undermining the Democrats’ strength in politics – rather, she would rather step aside in favour of another candidate.

While there are still Democrats in State politics, the loss of Senators will be keenly felt. The balance of power in Federal Parliament is now extremely precarious. The vote of one Senator could pass or block critical legislation. This Senator may well be Senator Steve Fielding of the Family First Party, whose opposition to same-sex unions, availability of pregnancy termination services and religious intolerance is infamous. Otherwise, it could be one of the Greens, or independent Senator Nick Xenophon, both of whom – despite a passionate commitment to some issues – still pursue a relatively narrow agenda.

This is reading something like a eulogy, I’m aware. I’d like to hope it isn’t the death of the Democrats in Australian Federal Politics, and next election, they will be revitalised and once again become an effective force – what Senator Stott Despoja called ‘third party insurance’ in her valedictory speech to the Senate. Stott Despoja herself hinted at a possible future comeback, but wasn’t committing herself to anything but a rejection of the two major parties. Nonetheless, the loss of the Democrats is a blow, both generally and for me personally.

Natasha, you will be missed. Don’t let this be the end of your political career – you are someone people can believe in.


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