LGBTI Voices Absent from the Chamber

This week marked the first sittings of the 44th Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. It also marked the 44th sittings in which there have been no openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) members of the House of Representatives. The achievements of prominent Senators over the past 15 years – most notably former Greens Leader, Bob Brown, and current Leader of the ALP Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong – mean many people, including some within the LGBTI community, are unaware of this fact.

However, the truth remains that, 38 years after the first Australian state decriminalised homosexuality (South Australia in 1975), and 16 since the last (Tasmania in 1997), no openly LGBTI MP has ever occupied a seat in our federal lower house. This ongoing absence is both an embarrassment, and means Australia is a statistical outlier amongst similar countries.

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Above: now retired, Senator Bob Brown, former leader of the Greens.

The United Kingdom has a long, and mostly proud, history of ‘out’ House of Commons MPs. Leaving aside the ‘outing’ of Labour’s Maureen Colquhoun in 1976, fellow Labour MP Chris Smith voluntarily came out just a year into his first term, way back in 1984. The first Tory to come out in office – Matthew Parris – did so the same year. In fact, with roughly 20 current openly LGBTI House of Commons Members (there’s so many it’s getting hard to keep up), even adjusting for size Westminster features the equivalent of 4 or 5 openly LGBTI Australian House of Reps MPs.

New Zealand is similarly a long way ahead of Australia. Like the UK, our Trans-Tasman cousins had a female MP who was ‘outed’ whilst in office (Marilyn Waring from the Nationals, in 1976), with the first MP to publicly come out being Labour’s Chris Carter, shortly after his election twenty years ago. New Zealand even had the world’s first openly transsexual Member of Parliament, Georgina Beyer, before the turn of the last millennium. And, despite having a national list as part of their electoral system, these (and several other openly LGBTI) MPs represented single-member geographic electorates.

Meanwhile, the Canadian history of openly LGBTI lower house MPs has already reached a quarter century, following Svend Robinson’s pubic declaration in 1988. Even the United States Congress has featured openly LGBTI members in their House of Representatives; after Democrat Gerry Studds was outed in 1983, fellow Democrat Barney Frank came out voluntarily in 1987. Heck, the first Republican Members of Congress to either be outed (Steve Gunderson in 1994) or come out voluntarily (Jim Koelbe in 1996) happened almost two decades ago.

So, what has gone wrong in the Australian political system such that, despite having six openly LGBTI Senators or Senators-elect (in addition to Brown and Wong, there’s Democrat Brian Greig, Labor’s Louise Pratt, Liberal Dean Smith and newly-elected Green Janet Rice), not one openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender of intersex MP has ever won a seat in the House of Reps? How is it that Liberal Kevin Ekendahl, contesting the seat of Melbourne Ports in September 2013, appears to be the candidate to come closest – and even he fell more than 3.5% short?

The first possible explanation is that the party machines, in particular of the Coalition and the ALP, have actively operated to prevent LGBTI politicians from rising to the top. Given Australia’s incredibly strong two-party system (much stronger than the UK, New Zealand or Canada), it’s plausible that the increasingly powerful religious/conservative wing of the Liberal and National parties, and the virulently homophobic SDA, led by Joe De Bruyn inside the ALP, have each stopped the emergence of LGBTI politicians in Australia.

Except they haven’t been completely successful – 3 of the 6 openly LGBTI Senators have come from major parties (although none yet from the Nationals). And it ignores the Senate’s position as a quasi-‘insiders club’, where the majority of people elected have themselves emerged from, or at least have the support of, the party hierarchy. Which means that, even if discrimination within the party machine offers some of the explanation, there must be more to it.

A second possible explanation is that our political parties, operating in a system of single-member electorates with compulsory voting and compulsory preferential voting, have taken conscious decisions to find candidates who do not risk alienating any specific part of the electorate, and therefore have ruled out pre-selecting openly LGBTI candidates; or have nominated them to the multi-member Senate instead. Especially in marginal suburban or regional electorates, even a small backlash from voters motivated by homophobia (or who could be made to feel so through an exploitative campaign by opponents) could arguably be the difference between success or footnote.

At least historically, that could have been a somewhat rational, albeit craven, view from inside our major parties. But over time, with the growing acceptance of LGBTI people throughout Australian society, that perspective should have become irrelevant. And, once again, it cannot offer a full explanation, because, even accounting for different electoral systems in other countries, LGBTI candidates have had to counter, and survive, explicitly homophobic campaigns against them elsewhere. That could, and should, have happened here too.

A third possible explanation is that LGBTI people themselves have ‘self-selected’ out of becoming members of the House of Reps. There are two main ways in which this could have happened. First, if LGBTI advocates and achievers, becoming disgruntled by a (real or perceived) lack of progress on equality inside the major parties, chose instead to focus their energies on minor parties like the Democrats or, later, Greens, then they have largely ruled themselves out of being viable candidates for the House of Reps. The fact that 3 of the 6 openly LGBTI Senators to date have come from these smaller parties lends some weight to this hypothesis.

The other way in which an LGBTI person might rule themselves out is that, having progressed within the major parties and been in a position to challenge for pre-selection, they instead chose not to expose themselves to public scrutiny of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, or the possibility of outright homophobia. It’s been reported before that this is one reason why Justice Michael Kirby chose the law instead of politics (as an aside, imagine the achievements of Kirby as an activist Attorney-General?). It’s possible this fear continues to be a factor today. And, given the sexism and misogyny that is still directed at our female politicians, who’s to say they’re being irrational?

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Above: Senator the Hon Penny Wong, currently Leader of the ALP Opposition in the Senate, with her family. Unfortunately, as a Senator she can no longer be promoted unless or until she moves to the House of Representatives.

Last month, Bill Shorten made addressing this issue, through the introduction of LGBTI affirmative action rules for ALP candidates, one of his policy planks in the contest for Labor Leader. The proposal, oft described as a quota, drew condemnation from a diverse range of people, including Andrew Bolt and Crikey’s Guy Rundle. Disappointingly, the debate over his solution (which, for the record, I think is worthy of consideration) ignored the fact that Shorten was talking about a real problem – that LGBTI people continue to be excluded from Australia’s House of Government, long after they have stormed the barricades in comparable nations.

It’s important this problem is addressed, not because a Parliament must automatically reflect the demographic make-up of the people it represents, but because, at a time when the rights of LGBTI people continue to be a matter of major public debate (see: marriage equality), we should at least be at the table; or on a green chair or two, anyway. But above all, removing the barriers which have, in the past, operated to prevent openly LGBTI people being elected to the House of Representatives, means clearing the way to ensure that the best possible candidates are put before the Australian people, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. That’s something we all deserve.

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UPDATE 7 JANUARY 2016:

On Saturday 5 December 2015, Trent Zimmerman became the first out gay man to be elected to the House of Representatives, in the North Sydney by-election created by the resignation of former Treasurer Joe Hockey.

A Liberal, Mr Zimmerman will be the first out member of the LGBTI community to serve in the lower house of our federal parliament when he formally takes his seat on Tuesday 2 February 2016.

While his historic victory was a long time coming, there is some hope that the 2016 Federal Election may even see other out LGBTI representatives elected to join him. The best chance at this stage appears to be gay army major Pat O’Neill, standing for Labor in the marginal seat of Brisbane.

Other candidates with admittedly longer odds include Carl Katter (ALP) and Jason Ball (Greens) in Higgins which is currently held by Liberal Kelly O’Dwyer (they both had much stronger chances before Malcolm Turnbull replaced the bigoted Tony Abbott as Prime Minister), and Labor’s Sophie Ismail who is running against Green Adam Bandt in Melbourne.

Of course, even if Mr O’Neill succeeds, two MPs out of a chamber of 150 do not a landslide make. LGBTI voices will still be under-represented when the issue of marriage equality is debated (yet again) next term, as well as other issues of importance to the LGBTI community.

And Australia remains well behind in terms of LGBTI representation, both in comparison to similar countries elsewhere, and when we remember the fact that there has still not been an out transgender or intersex member in either house. Despite Mr Zimmerman’s victory, there is still a very long way to go.

Trent-Zimmerman

Liberal Trent Zimmerman became the first out LGBTI person elected to the House of Representatives on 5 December 2015 [image source: The Weekly Times].

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