When is a knife not a knife?

March 7, 2013

When it’s a sword, apparently.

Remember back in 2010, when Education Minister Julia Gillard and the Faceless Men of Labor ‘knifed’ then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd? The lurid headlines trumpeting, ‘Assassination’? The pundits crying, ‘J’accuse!’ at everyone from Labor junior Ministers to union officials?

Of course you do. After all, it’s not like any of us have been allowed to forget it. As recently as two weeks ago, we were treated to yet another reminder courtesy of the Coalition, complete with dire warnings that federal Labor will ‘inevitably’ see Gillard suffer the same fate as her predecessor.

Back up a second. Let’s remember something. Rudd may have been urged to go, but he didn’t lose a leadership challenge. He resigned in the face of loss of confidence from his party room. Splitting hairs? Maybe, but hold that thought.

Last night, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu also resigned from his leadership position. An earlier leader, Denis Napthine, emerged from the party room as the new Premier as a tearful Baillieu made his farewells.

The headlines made it clear. Baillieu ‘walked away’. He ‘fell on his sword’. In the face of loss of confidence from his party room (not to mention potential corruption charges and a continued slump in the polls), he resigned.

Sound familiar?

Oh, but wait.

It’s not the same at all, clamoured the Coalition. Rudd was ‘executed’. And anyway, he was a bad PM. Baillieu was a good Premier, a ‘man of integrity‘ who had ‘put Victoria’s finances on a sustainable footing and made significant investments in infrastructure,’ to quote Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Never mind the fact that earlier the same day, Victoria officially slipped into recession. It’s not nice to say bad things about an outgoing leader – unless that leader happens to be from the Labor Party, according to the Coalition playbook.

So let’s get this straight. When a Labor leader resigns under pressure from his party, he ‘gets knifed’. When a Liberal leader does the same thing, he ‘falls on his sword’. Is it just me, or is there something just a little ridiculous about that?

Kevin Rudd's tearful resignation

Kevin Rudd’s tearful resignation

Ted Baillieu's tearful resignation

Ted Baillieu’s tearful resignation

The Coalition will now reap everything it sowed when it sought to capitalise on the resignation of Rudd. The new Premier, in power under the same circumstances, is well and truly open to allegations of ‘assassination’ and ‘execution’ – and let’s not forget, Napthine himself was rolled as leader after poor polls and a split in the Coalition. Already, the accusations are flying thick and fast in the Victorian Parliament.

At least The Australian, ordinarily a bastion of Coalition support, didn’t go along with the ‘when-is-a-knife-not-a-knife’ spin attempt. Peter van Onselen was frankly incredulous at the turn of events in Victoria, describing the state Coalition as ‘rats in an experiment that did not learn from their mistakes’.

The frantic efforts to paint Baillieu as some kind of courageous and noble Roman general (notably absent from Parliament today) just won’t work. And the Coalition only has itself to blame. It wrote this script back in 2010, and ever since, have hammered it into public discourse without once stopping for breath. What goes round, comes round, as they say.

The big question, of course, is what – if any – effect this will have on Federal politics. It’s possible there will be none. Abbott’s very good at deflecting media attention, and Gillard risks a backlash from voters if she adopts the dramatic language usually directed at her. Neither stands to gain much (pending an early change of government in Victoria), and Abbott’s ‘sustainable finances’ gaffe is already the stuff of ridicule – so it won’t be long before he drowns it out with yet another criticism of the ‘carbon tax’ or the mining tax.

There is, though, one crucial lesson that we should take to the next Federal election – the knowledge that neither party can claim any sort of moral high ground in terms of loyalty to the leadership. Whether it’s resignation through coercion (as in the case of Rudd and Baillieu), or loss of position through a leadership spill (Nelson and Turnbull), ultimately doesn’t matter. Both parties are ruthless, and will do whatever it takes to gain (and hold) power. No leader is ‘safe’.

That’s something to remember next time you hear a politician wax lyrical about the stability of their party, or the instability of their opponent’s. In the words of Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar, just after the real assassination of Rome’s leader:

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er,
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!
(Julius Caesar, 3.1.111)

How many, indeed?

Just a little bit of history repeating

Just a little bit of history repeating

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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.


National Sorry Day

May 26, 2011

It’s National Sorry Day. But didn’t we already make the capital-A ‘apology’?

Yes. We did make that Apology – shamefully late, and only after a landslide change of government. And it remains one of the most moving speeches ever delivered in the Australian Parliament.

I was at La Trobe University on the day the Apology was delivered. At the time, I wrote:

It was a day in which I can say I was proud to be an Australian, and proud of my elected representatives – well, most of them, anyway. It’s something I haven’t been able to say for a long time.

I also wrote that there was a long road ahead.

Three years later, and the road is still long. Indigenous people still struggle with the consequences of white settlement, and government policies that dispossessed them of their land, declared them to be flora, damaged their culture and left emotional and physical scars that still haven’t healed. Perhaps they never will.

Yes, there have been some steps down that road, but there is still so much, much more to do. Children need access to quality education. Life expectancy is still far too low when compared to other Australians. Indigenous peoples are still not recognised in our Constitution.

Worst of all, some now want to move backwards. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu recently announced that his ministers no longer had to follow protocol in recognising indigenous peoples as traditional owners of the land in their speeches. Why? Because it’s ‘dictatorial’. Because it’s ‘too politically correct’.

Or perhaps because it’s an uncomfortable truth that some people still don’t want to face – because if they do, they must also acknowledge that there is blood on their hands. That, even though they might not personally have done anything ‘wrong’, they share the responsibility for the actions of their ancestors. It’s so much easier to sweep it away and hide behind this vague notion that there is something distasteful about stating what is simply true.

And so we come back to the Apology, and why we should keep saying sorry. It’s important that we don’t forget what led to the Apology, why it was necessary in the first place. That we remember how families were torn apart, how children were taught to despise and disown their heritage, how people suffered because Australian people and Australian government were so arrogant as to think they could do as they liked, in the name of ‘assimilation’ and ‘civilisation’.

On National Sorry Day, I say to indigenous peoples that I am sorry. And that I will never forget.


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.


Does the ACL want blood on its hands?

January 6, 2011

Well, it’s a new year, and a new Victorian government. Sadly, though, it looks like the same old bigotry rearing its ugly head.

This time, it’s about bullying in schools, and the ever-popular concerned citizens who think it’s time Premier Ted Baillieu understood that the current funding situation to address this problem is just too darn unfair. Bullying is a big problem, after all, and our elected representatives need to make sure that taxpayers’ money is spent properly. Accordingly, they’re up in arms, determined to champion the needs of Our Precious Children against the ‘ideological agenda’ of questionable groups.

Sounds reasonable, right? The last thing most parents would want is to see kids become the victims of people pushing narrow and potentially damaging ideas. And bullying is a huge problem, so it’s important to make sure the best possible steps are being taken to protect and educate the kids.

But wait. Who are these Corrupters of Our Youth?

Apparently, it’s the Safe Schools Coalition of Victoria.

This dangerous organisation is a network of schools, Rainbow Network Victoria, the Foundation for Young Australians and interested individuals. Its purpose is to promote school environments where same-sex attracted people are able to find acceptance and support. As part of its work, the SSCV produces information and education resource packages for schools, as well as offering courses in dealing with issues of intolerance and fear.

Pretty scary, huh? Why, you can just see the agenda dripping from their webpage.

Now we know who the ‘enemy’ is – so just who are these Noble Crusaders for Fairness? It’s our old friends, the Australian Christian Lobby. You remember, the lobby group that claims to represent all Christians in our ‘Judeo-Christian’ country? In fact, the ACL does nothing of the sort. They are not an ecumenical or interfaith group – rather, they espouse a narrow and intolerant set of values set squarely in opposition to issues that include equal rights, diversity of religion and freedom of expression. They’re also pretty adept at obscuring the differences that exist between the Christian faiths and are not above inflating their numbers to make a political point.

As lobby groups go, they’re very well-organised. They created an image for themselves of an organisation representing ‘mainstream’ values, speaking for the ‘majority’ of Australians. They’ve been so successful at this that successive Prime Ministers (John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard) afford them special attention. Political parties go out of their way to help that image along by responding to their heavily-slanted ‘values questionnaire’ at election time. Needless to say, the same privileges are not extended to lobby groups claiming to represent Muslims, atheists or any other faith. The ACL are pretty shrewd marketers. But they are not representative of most Christians in Australia.

Now we know who the players are. But just what grievous act did the SSCV commit that moved the ACL to call for Baillieu to cut funding to anti-bullying programs aimed at addressing homophobia and similar issues?

The SSCV sent a letter to schools reminding them that the upcoming Pride March will take place around the same time that classes commence, in case any students want to attend.

Yes, you read that right.

The ACL were outraged. How could the Victorian government be involved with an organisation that promoted events that were ‘no place for young children’? It’s absolutely unacceptable for taxpayers’ money to be used to ‘persuade children to attend a gay pride march’ or take up an ‘alternative lifestyle’. That money should be spent on the ‘wider context’ of bullying, not some vocal minority’s agenda.

According to the ACL, the SSCV aren’t using their funding to keep schools informed and encourage a sense of self-worth and acceptance in students. No, no, they’re actually taking funding away from ‘real’ bullying.

See what they did there?

It’s actually horribly clever.

They appeal to the ‘reasonable expectations’ of parents. Not every parent is queer, or has a queer kid, right? Bullying is a terrible thing that affects all sorts of kids, right? Doesn’t it make sense, then, to make sure we have the best possible programs to stop bullying?

You can almost see people’s heads nodding. Well, of course. But unpack the ACL’s position a little more, and you can see the really ugly side.

ACL: ‘Gay’ is a ‘lifestyle’, and it’s not one we should encourage our kids to take up.

Leaving aside the whole question of genetics, ‘lifestyle choice’ or whatever, the question remains – why not? What’s so bad about being gay that the ACL feels kids must be protected from it at all costs?

Now, obviously there’s a religious dimension here. The ACL has never made any secret of its belief that same-sex attraction is against ‘God’s law’. But it’s nastier. Look at what they said in the Star Observer article:

ACL Victorian director Rob Ward said gay pride marches were “no places for young children” …

This harks right back to a disgusting strategy employed by organisations – usually backed by the same brand of religion as the ACL – that attempts to link homosexual behaviour with pedophilia. They’ve written reams on the subject. If you have a strong stomach and can rein in your anger, just Google the two terms.

It hardly needs saying that there is no correlation between the two – but we are talking about an organisation that doesn’t scruple to misrepresent its numbers in order to push its agenda. Why would a little consideration like absolute lack of factual evidence get in the way of that?

Of course, the ACL doesn’t come right out and say that, but then they don’t have to, do they? There are plenty of other people out there saying that for them – including Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile. And with the current preoccupation with sexualisation of children’s images, child exploitation material and child safety, it’s never far from a parent’s mind.

That particular idea is contemptible – but there’s more, and it borders on the downright dangerous.

ACL: Baillieu should yank funding out of SSCV (and presumably other organisations working to promote sexual diversity) and put it to better use in a ‘wider context’.

This is a tried-and-true ploy; appealing to some notion of ‘fairness’. Is it fair, they ask, for these minority groups to get money to push their ideas while the majority suffer? Why should they get special treatment?

Of course, it’s utter rubbish. The SSCV does not take money from any other anti-bullying initiative – or any other school program, for that matter. They have a one-off grant for $80,000 from the former Brumby government. Compare that to the $800,00 pledged by Baillieu to the school chaplaincy program – a program specifically allowed to promote a particular religion inside public schools – and things fall into perspective.

The ACL wants to muddy the waters by spreading the lie that the SSCV is a tiny group getting more than its ‘fair share’ of public funding. If it succeeds, and Baillieu responds by choking off further funding, the ACL will count it as a victory. Of course, there is no guarantee that the paltry amount earmarked for the SSCV would find its way into any other anti-bullying initiative – but that’s not really the point. The ACL wants to make it very clear that there is no place in Victorian schools for any such program that addresses the needs of same-sex attracted kids.

In other words, bullying is bad, but it’s not as bad to bully the queer kid. We can have programs about not picking on the little kid, not singling out the ‘weird-looking’ kid, not reducing a kid to tears because they have braces or belong to a particular racial group – because that’s ‘real’ bullying. Hounding a kid into suicidal depression for being queer isn’t a signal that we should be teaching kids acceptance of diversity – on the contrary, we should do everything we can to convince that queer kid that there’s something ‘wrong’ with feeling the way he does. We should ‘get help for her’. We should ‘support them by showing them that being queer is bad.

Already, too many queer kids drop out of school because of the bullying and intolerance they suffer. Queer kids are six times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.

And every time that kind of bullying isn’t dealt with quickly and effectively, it sends a message to the bully that what they’re doing is acceptable. That’s the kind of lesson they’ll carry into adult life, and perhaps parenthood.

If the ACL gets its way, an organisation doing far more than its fair share of heavy lifting in trying to combat homophobia and promote diversity will have what little money it does receive choked off. Without money, the SSCV will have to depend on volunteers and donations. Inevitably, there would be a scale-back of programs – not because they wanted to, but because they simply couldn’t afford it. The result would be a void where there is a real, urgent need.

And the next time a queer kid tries to kill himself, or gets bashed to within an inch of her life, the ACL and Ted Baillieu will have blood on their hands.

What frightens me is the idea that the ACL, at least, simply wouldn’t care.


We don’t need your permission, Your Holiness

November 22, 2010

Although this post doesn’t directly bear on Australian politics, it does relate to some of the issues surrounding the imminent Victorian state election. Parties are positioning themselves on issues relating to human sexuality. The most obvious, of course, is same-sex marriage. Saturday’s Equal Love rally in Melbourne saw State Education Minister Bronwyn Pike break ranks with her party to speak out. She was joined by Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens. In contrast, the Democratic Labor Party went on Sky News to strongly oppose same-sex marriage on religious and (increasingly spurious) cultural grounds, and Ted Baillieu, speaking for the Coalition, simply issued a blunt ‘no, I don’t support it’.

Same-sex marriage isn’t the only such issue, however. In the seat of Richmond, Greens candidate Kathleen Maltzahn has taken aim at sex workers, and the Sex Party in particular for putting forward policies targeted at securing rights and protections for them.

Adoption by same-sex couples is also on the table. Premier John Brumby has already flagged his intention to review the laws surrounding this issue, and both the Sex Party and the Greens have policies calling for same-sex couples to be treated as equal under the law.

And that’s without going into abortion policy, access to reproductive technology, sex education and surrogacy!

Sexuality, it seems, is a bigger issue than it might appear in the Victorian election. It probably pales in comparison to people’s preoccupation with an efficient and comprehensive public transport system, but it’s there. People are thinking and talking about it.

With all that in the air, recent statements by the Pope deserve a closer look. There are a lot of Catholic voters in Victoria, and at least one political party – the DLP – with its roots firmly in the Catholic Church and its doctrines. And while, at first glance, the Pope’s words might not seem at all related to any of the above, take a closer look.

The Pope now thinks it’s okay ‘in some circumstances’ to use condoms. How nice of him. But wait, just what are those circumstances?

“In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality,” said the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics …

“There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be … a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes.”

And this ‘softening’ of a hard-line anti-condom stance is being ‘cautiously welcomed’ by HIV activists and health experts. The AMA even likes it.

I don’t think so.

This isn’t any kind of softening. This is the Pope saying, ‘what you’re doing is wrong, and you get one chance to avoid the wages of sin. I’m being generous here – I’m letting you use a condom but you’d better come to your senses.’

Gosh, whatever can he be talking about? Oh wait, of course, he’s talking about anal sex between men. Which is, of course, wrong. His one example is a little homily about a rentboy – who, implicitly, is infected with HIV – who might be ‘allowed’ to wear a condom so he doesn’t spread the disease to any of his clients. Of course, the Pope’s not condoning it, oh no. He wants said rentboy and his clients to realise that, by generously granting permission to protect themselves, they are expected to – what was the phrase – develop a ‘more humane’ sexuality. In other words, stop what you’re doing and be heterosexual or celibate.

And make no mistake, the Pope’s not saying the client gets to use the condom. No, no, it’s the filthy whore who needs to protect the client – who, after all, can be redeemed. Never mind that sexually-transmitted HIV has to come from somewhere, usually the client – in Pope World, just making yourself available for paid sex appears to automatically ensure you’re infected.

Of course, female prostitutes don’t get a look in. They don’t get the special dispensation. And why should they? After all, this whole sorry mess came about because of a woman, didn’t it? It’s one thing to give men the chance to get on the straight and narrow, but a ‘fallen woman’ doesn’t get the same chance. They reap what they sow.

Oh, and forget about using condoms as contraception. The Church is rock-solid on that one. No special dispensations, either. You don’t want kids? You can’t have kids because it would endanger your life/pass on genetic abnormalities/send you to the poorhouse? You have one option – don’t have sex. Because we all know that sex only has one purpose, right?

There’s a lot of talk about how it might be a small thing, but at least people will be protected.

No, they won’t.

Contrary to Papal belief, most prostitutes are extremely careful about the use of condoms. Many will actually refuse a client who won’t wear a condom. (Oh but wait, the clients don’t have to, do they?)

Yes, there are exceptions – people who are victims of sexual trafficking, who don’t get that kind of choice, and people who are either too stupid or too uncaring to take precautions so that they don’t pass on the infection. Now, I’m going to give the Pope some credit for brains here. I’m going to assume that he doesn’t really think some trafficker of underage boys in Thailand will now sit up and say, ‘Hey, the Pope said it’s kind of okay to give my kids condoms, better go do that’.

So what’s the Pope’s real point?

This little pronouncement of the Pope’s – which the Church are already rushing to say isn’t ‘magisterial’ (i.e. insert disclaimer here) – isn’t some indicator that maybe his religion is finally waking up to a few realities of life. It’s not a ‘compassionate’ acknowledgment that there are terrible diseases out there that can destroy the lives of innocent people. (Remember, this is the same guy who said condoms didn’t protect anyone against AIDS, and banned his African followers from using them.)

This is about some kind of horrible pseudo-redemptive ‘lesson’. Some things aren’t permitted, and you’d just better consider yourself lucky that he’s giving you the chance to wake up and toe the line. After all, unless sexuality is ‘humanised’ – i.e., stop with the buttsex you filthy men – not even a condom will save you. If AIDS doesn’t get you, Hell will. And that goes double for sex workers.

And just to spell it out in really blunt language: this is not really about protecting anyone. Although the Pope – when asked – admitted that using condoms might ‘reduce infection’, he was very clear that the real purpose of this ‘permission’ is purely to give people enough time to repent. It’d be a good thing if people (see: men who have anal sex) didn’t infect others, but condoms are not a ‘moral solution’.

This is entirely in keeping with the Church’s historical aversion to the free exercise of sexuality between consenting adults. That the Pope is dressing it up with grudging little concessions doesn’t alter that one bit. It’s still about dictating what expressions of sexuality are permissible. To paraphrase a certain former Prime Minister: he will decide who gets to have sex, and under what circumstances they can have it.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find that just a tad offensive – particularly when it comes at a time when we are at last talking and acting on issues that have for too long been branded as ‘immoral’ or banished to the too-hard basket by politicians with both eyes on the numbers and none on the people.

So, Your Holiness? Take your oh-so-gracious, lesser-of-two-evils concession and shove it. We don’t need your permission to love each other. We don’t need your permission to protect ourselves from infections that have nothing to do with God and everything to do with blind shitty luck And we don’t need you to tell us we can’t have sex unless we’re prepared to risk pregnancy. We will care for each other without your ‘help’.

We live in the 21st Century, and you have no power over us.


Victorian Coalition campaign launch

November 17, 2010

In the lead-up to every election, political parties ‘launch’ their campaigns – usually some time after the first promises have been made, hands shaken and babies kissed. The event is little more than a pep rally for the faithful, at which old leaders are trotted out and families turn on their glassy-eyed smiles for the camera. There might be a few policy announcement, but for the most part, launches are all about motherhood statements.

Of course, there are exceptions. The federal Labor campaign launch in 2007 was peppered with specifics; how much spent, how many things it would buy, and how many people would benefit. The Greens launch for the federal election this year, while unable to provide the hard numbers, was full of details. These are exceptions; but what we got from the Victorian Coalition this time around set a new low in lack of substance.

The campaign slogan stuck to the front of the lectern should have been a dead give-away: ‘Fix the Problems. Build the Future’. Right there you know what’s in store – a diatribe about what a terrible government Victoria suffers under right now, and a non-specific ‘vision’ of how it will all be different if the Coalition are elected instead.

Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott set the tone, indulging in a good headkicking of John Brumby’s Labor government. He didn’t quite manage to work in ‘Stop the Boats’, but otherwise tarred Victorian Labor with almost all the accusations he regularly flings at the federal government. Waste, mismanagement, betrayal of the people – it would have been an easy speech for Abbott’s writers. They could have cut and pasted much of it.

‘Our job is not to save the Labor party, our job is to save Victoria,’ he thundered to wild applause. Then Abbott switched tactics, bringing a message of hope for the believers. ‘You can almost hear the tectonic plates shifting … not towards a hung parliament … but towards a coalition majority … [that will] get things done and have the courage of its convictions.’ Stirring stuff.

After a quick refresher course on the Coalition’s mission statement – lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom, a
strong family and ‘values which have stood the test of time, Abbott wound up by comparing Ted Baillieu to former Premier Jeff Kennett, and added a little garnish of jingoism. ‘As Australian patriots we support policies which will work and build a stronger and better future for this great country.’

See what he did there?

It all sounds very reasonable. After all, who wouldn’t want policies that will work? Who wouldn’t want a better future? Ah, but wait. We’re not talking about just any policies here, oh no. The policies that will ‘work’ are clearly those of the Coalition (given we are, after all, at a Coalition campaign launch). The logical inference, then, is that if you do not support those policies, you are not a patriot. You are un-Australian. Why do you hate this great country of ours?

In case viewers and listeners didn’t get the message, Ted Baillieu opened up with, ‘I love this state! I love this state!’, completed with a pause for enthusiastic applause. After an embarrassed moment, a few belated ‘whoo-hoos’ were heard around the room. Undaunted, Baillieu plowed on, and soon hit his stride.

Our streets are not safe, he warned. He’d spoken to families whose loved ones had been ‘bashed, stabbed or even murdered’, and they were crying out for action. Our transport system was failing. Bushfire-affected families had been forgotten, planning and infrastructure was in ruins, the sky was falling. ‘More of the same is simply not good enough,’ Baillieu yelled.

But, lest we all throw ourselves off the burned-out shells of buildings in our anarchic cities in despair, Baillieu had a message of hope. ‘There is a great Victoria … it’s the Victoria that first emerged 160 years ago with the courage, ambition and aspiration of new settlers. They came in search of new opportunities … unconcerned by fear or distance … what they lacked in labour, skills or technology, they more than covered with determination and passion.’

Ted Baillieu, it appears, is an enthusiastic support of the principle of terra nullius. Before a bunch of British capitalists, seal-hunters and convict ‘guards’ decided that settling Victoria might be a good idea in order to exploit resources and stop the damn Frenchies from getting another colony, Victoria was an unspoiled Eden. It was a land just waiting for white people, and let’s not talk about sites of habitation dating back 35,000 years, diorite mining and established trade networks with the Aboriginal peoples. No no, it’s all about the Pioneer Spirit.

These dauntless types ‘simply got on with it … they dreamed of a future for our state [and] inspired others to go on and build that future’. As time went on, more and more new arrivals were attracted by this visionary settlement, and ‘our multicultural heart’ was formed. ‘No one understands the value of opportunity better than those who came looking for a new start,’ asserted Baillieu.

Unless those people turn up in boats fleeing persecution, right, Ted?

The grand vision of prosperity is all different now – because of Labor, of course. Victorian families are in dire circumstances, struggling to cope with failing services, rapidly rising bills, increasingly unaffordable housing, an economy dependent on population growth and, ‘above all’, escalating debt. ‘Victorians have been asked to tolerate, accept and regard as normal record levels of violence, unsafe streets, unreliable public transport, crumbling country roads, local communities being ignored, a planning system without certainty or confidence … vulnerable children left unprotected … secret hospital waiting lists, under-resourced schools, secrecy and incompetence, waste and mismanagement, and inadequate investigations of corruption. No one should consider this as normal!’

Excuse me a moment while I check my perimeter defences, field-strip and clean my arsenal and throw some chunks of scavenged meat to my slavering guard dogs.

Yes, that’s right. Baillieu’s vision of Victoria – the state he ‘loves’ – is one of a fall from grace. In the golden age of the pioneers, people of spirit and drive came here with their dreams of a capitalist utopia and built something marvellous. (Presumably, these people would have voted Liberal if there had been such a party in those days.) But then, the dastardly, moustache-twirling Labor men (with apologies to former Premier Joan Kirner) snuck in and ruined it all. Weep, weep, for the lost glory.

Excuse me again for a moment. I have to go hold up some old ladies for their pensions so I can get my kids on a secret hospital waiting list – and siphon some diesel for my all-terrain vehicle so I can drive them across the battle-scarred landscape.

Twenty minutes into Baillieu’s speech, and still no policy announcement. Not one. Nada. But wait – here comes the Coalition’s plan.

The Coalition will ‘maintain surplus … get rising debt under control … ensure state taxes are fair and competitive,’ said Baillieu, adding for good measure – in case he hadn’t made the point strongly enough – that people no longer felt safe. ‘We stand for more jobs, safe streets, safe and reliable public transport, quality country roads, strong families and communities, a planning system that works, better access to hospitals, more support for schools and teachers, cutting waste – a government that you and all Victorians can trust.’ All these claims were, he stated, ‘fully costed and fully budgeted’.

Fantastic. Here comes the policy. Now we’ll see some good, chunky detail giving us a credible alternative government.

At which point Baillieu thanked everyone for coming, and left the stage to wild applause.

Wait … what?????

That was it? Not one number? Not one specific policy measure? A bunch of motherhood statements tacked onto the end of some revisionist history and dystopian scare-mongering??

Now, as I said in the beginning, campaign launches are all about revving up the faithful, so perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect a lot of detail. But even the faithful need some sausage with their sizzle – and any swinging voter that tuned in out of curiosity would have been left with the clear impression that the Victorian Coalition was long on criticism, short on policy.

Of course there are policy statements available on the web (and I’ll be looking over them in the days to come). But if you go to the trouble of setting up a big, well-publicised event, invite the media along and have it televised – shouldn’t you at least attempt to show yourselves in the best possible light?

Baillieu’s Coalition appears not to think so. The strategy seems to be entirely about trying to scare Victorians into voting for them. If that means they have to grossly overstate crime figures, misrepresent community attitudes and mislead the public into holding the State government responsible for local and federal government purviews – well, that’s excusable. The important thing, after all, is to get elected.

They’re going to have to do better than that, though. It’s not enough to run down your opponents and mutter darkly about a ‘Labor-Greens alliance’. Voters need to know that you’d do better.

Right now, they don’t know any such thing.


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