I don’t cry much. Well, that’s not entirely true. I cry – a lot – at emotionally manipulative movies (and it doesn’t really matter whether they’re good, bad or Sandra Bullock). But outside a darkened cinema I can count on two hands the number of times I have cried over the past twenty years. And almost never in front of other people.
So why then did I find myself gently sobbing, for about 15 minutes, in the middle of a large crowd in Sydney’s Hyde Park, on the afternoon of Saturday December 3rd, 2011? It wasn’t because it was almost the end of what had been an extremely long year professionally, nor was it because I had only had about two hours sleep (although both factors certainly didn’t help).
No, I found myself crying in public, in a way that I genuinely had very little control over, because that was the moment that I knew that, then already almost two years into my engagement to Steve, it was going to be several more years before we would be able to walk down the aisle, in our own country and surrounded by our family and friends.
December 3rd was the day the 2011 ALP National Conference decided that, as well as making support for marriage equality a part of the Party’s platform, it would fundamentally undermine that position by allowing any Labor Party member of parliament to vote against the equal right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people to get married. And with that decision they destroyed the prospects of marriage equality passing in that term, and made it very difficult in the following term too.
What has happened since – the defeat of Marriage Amendment Bills in September 2012, the defeat of the ALP Government in 2013, and the lack of priority and support for this issue by the iAbbott, and then Turnbull, Liberal-National Government in its first term – were all entirely foreseeable on that early summer’s day.
When I wrote this, more than two and a half years since that National Conference vote and then more than four and a half years into Steve and my engagement – with who knows how many more left – and the hurt and anger which I felt on that day is still with me, often not very far from the surface.
I have learnt to channel that disappointment to provide even more energy and impetus to my advocacy and activism for LGBTI rights, for young LGBTI people who need safe schools and an inclusive curriculum, for LGBTI refugees fleeing persecution but who Australia locks up and resettles in countries which criminalise homosexuality, and of course for marriage equality itself.
But something which we must also do is to hold to account those people who are responsible for the ongoing unjustified and, let’s face it, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination against LGBTI people in the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961.
Almost 12 years into the ban on equal marriage and there is plenty of ‘accountability’, or blame, to go around. From John Howard, whose Coalition Government introduced the ban in 2004, to Mark Latham, who ensured the then Labor Opposition rolled over without anything resembling a fight, to all the conservative cheerleaders and News Ltd columnists (tautology, I know) who have opposed progress since then, to the Australian Christian Lobby whose entire existence appears dedicated to halting LGBTI rights, to Joe de Bruyn who sabotaged change within the ALP, his equivalents who have done the same in the Liberal and National Parties, the 98 members of the House of Representatives and 41 Senators who voted against LGBTI equality in parliament in September 2012, and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott who did all he could to defeat or at least delay marriage equality – all must accept their share of responsibility for the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians continue to be 2nd class citizens under the law.
But there is one person I blame above all else, one person who I believe should assume the largest share of responsibility for the fact that Steve and I can still not get married, one person whose actions had the most potential to change that situation for the better, but who instead chose to do exactly the wrong thing, at exactly the wrong time: former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
On 15 November 2011, in the lead-up to that critical National Conference, Gillard announced her views in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. In that article, she chose to support a continued ban on marriage equality in the ALP platform, while also favouring a conscience vote, to be implemented by a rule change to make whatever policy position was ultimately adopted by Conference non-binding on MPs.
In doing so, Gillard chose what was the worst possible option, the one which would do the most damage to the short- and medium-term prospects of marriage equality in Australia.
That is not an over-statement. In practice, there were five main positions which Gillard could have chosen:
• Support for a platform change and a binding vote (the position of most marriage equality activists at the time)
• Support for platform change and a conscience vote (the position ultimately adopted by Conference)
• No position on either – and instead allowing Conference to decide both
• Opposition to platform change and support for a binding vote (which would at least have been consistent with the previous seven years, when all ALP MPs had been bound to vote against equality) or
• Opposition to platform change and support for a conscience vote (Gillard’s position).
If Gillard had chosen any of the four other options described, it is reasonably likely that both the platform change and a binding vote would have been successful at the National Conference, something which would have made marriage equality entirely achievable in 2012 in the process.
Instead, Gillard used her position as Prime Minister, and Leader of the Labor Party, to lean on people to ensure that, no matter what happened in terms of the policy, marriage equality would never be able to be implemented through a binding vote. She chose to actively exert the influence that she had because of her office to deny the right to marry to her fellow Australians on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.
She went much, much further than simply advocating for a particular outcome: Gillard even chose to be the main sponsor of the motion in favour of a conscience vote, thus transforming the entire issue into a ‘test of leadership’. By stepping into the fray in this way, Gillard had turned the question of marriage equality into a question of loyalty which, for those of us who haven’t (yet) managed to suppress it, was the dominant theme – well, its absence was anyway – of the last term of ALP Government.
Thus, to stand up for the principles of fundamental equality and human rights was seen to be disloyal to the Party leader, and to simultaneously stand up for a binding vote – something which should be standard operating procedure for a collectivist party – was seen as doubly disloyal. And there were people inside the party who were making that very argument – that to support equality, and more importantly, to support a binding vote, was to be disloyal to Gillard – in the days leading up to the crucial ballot.
In the end, Gillard and her supporters couldn’t hold back progress altogether. There was enough support on Conference floor to achieve a resounding victory in terms of changing the platform to support marriage equality – while the vote wasn’t counted, it was estimated to be around 3 to 1 in favour. But her conscience vote resolution was also successful – by a much narrower margin, of 208 to 184.
In short, it was (just) a bridge too far for the ALP National Conference to effectively ‘roll’ a sitting Prime Minister on both parts of the marriage equality equation.
If she had adopted any of the other positions outlined above, Conference would have only had to ‘defeat’ her once, or even not at all (if she had either done the right thing and supported platform change and a binding vote, or not taken a position to begin with). I genuinely believe that, had Gillard taken a different view, a binding vote would have been more likely than not – meaning that Steve and I might very well be married today.
And that is why, of all the people who have contributed to the current sorry state of affairs in Australia, where LGBTI relationships are deemed not worthy of the same recognition as cisgender heterosexual relationships, I blame Gillard the most – because her actions, above those of any other, were the most decisive in ensuring this 2nd class status was continued.
With the release of Gillard’s memoirs in late 2014, there was a concerted effort to glorify her Prime Ministership, and discuss only the positive accomplishments of her time in office – her rise as the first female Prime Minister, the introduction of a price on carbon, the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in federal law for the first time. And I would be the first to admit that they were all great accomplishments.
But biography should never be hagiography. So we must not overlook her central role in the defeat of marriage equality, not just in the last term of parliament, but in the subsequent and also potentially in this one too, because she helped to ensure that ALP MPs would not be bound.
In this important respect, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard profoundly let down not just Steve and myself, but all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians who believe that their relationships should be treated fairly and equally under the law. She was someone who should have been on our side, but instead actively worked against us.
She was wrong, and she wronged our community. Her actions were inexcusable, and I know that I and others won’t be accepting any excuses which she might attempt to proffer. Above all, what Julia Gillard did in late 2011 was unforgivable, and I for one will never forgive her. Nor should we ever forget.
[Postscript August 11th 2016: Of course, Julia Gillard has since been given strong competition for the title of “most disappointing Prime Minister on marriage equality”. And no, I’m not talking Tony Abbott, who, at the very least was widely understood to be opposed to LGBTI equality long before he took up the top job. Instead, I am talking about Malcolm Turnbull, who claims to support marriage equality – and even turned up to the 2016 Mardi Gras parade to ‘celebrate’ with the LGBTI community – but who continues to proceed with Abbott’s unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite. Just like Gillard, he was someone who many people believed would be on ‘our’ side – and yet he is spending political capital doing the bidding of those who would do us harm. Depending on what happens in the next 12 months, it might even turn out that Mr Turnbull snatches this particular title from Ms Gillard’s grasp. But for now, in mid 2016, it is still Gillard who I believe has caused the greatest delay to the happiness of tens of thousands of LGBTI Australian couples.]