Letter to Bill Shorten re LGBTI Under-Representation in Parliament

The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Leader of the Opposition

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Monday 13 October 2014

Dear Mr Shorten

LGBTI UNDER-REPRESENTATION IN PARLIAMENT

On this day exactly one year ago, you were elected Leader of the Australian Labor Party, after the historic first ballot in which ordinary party members were allowed to cast a vote.

During the public campaign which preceded this ballot, one of the issues which you raised was the lack of representation of some groups within society inside the ALP caucus, and the Commonwealth Parliament more broadly.

Specifically, during your campaign you announced: “[w]e should consider quotas for sections of our community that are under-represented in our parliaments, including Indigenous Australians and the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) community.”

It is encouraging that a then candidate, and now leader, of a major Australian political party so openly acknowledges the failure of our nation’s Parliament to even come close to approximating the demography of its population.

It is shameful there have only ever been four recognised Indigenous members of the Commonwealth Parliament – and that the first Indigenous ALP MP, and first-ever female Indigenous MP, Senator Nova Peris, entered Parliament only last year, after more than 112 years of ALP caucuses.

It is almost as shameful that there have only ever been six openly identified members of the LGBTI community elected to Commonwealth Parliament, and none in the House of Representatives[1]. Of those six, only two have been from the Australian Labor Party – Senator the Hon Penny Wong and Senator Louise Pratt – and the latter was essentially ‘replaced’ in Parliament earlier this year, at the WA half-Senate election, by Senator Joe Bullock, a person who strongly opposes LGBTI equality.

It is clear from this historic under-representation that there have been countless talented and capable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and LGBTI, individuals who have not had the opportunity to serve in the nation’s Parliament – and that our Parliament has unarguably been poorer for their absence. It is also clear that this under-representation continues today.

One of the options for resolving this ongoing under-representation is, as you identified last year, the introduction of ‘quotas’ for Indigenous and LGBTI candidates (by which I assume you mean the implementation of new rules within the ALP setting minimum targets for Indigenous and LGBTI candidates in ‘winnable seats’).

The benefit of such an approach has been amply demonstrated by the success of targets for female candidates within the ALP over the past 20 years. When the 35% target (now 40%) was first adopted in 1994, the proportion of female MPs within the major parties was roughly the same: 14.5% within the ALP, 13.9% within the Liberal Party.

Two decades later, and the difference between the two major parties is stark: 42.4% of current ALP Commonwealth MPs are women, while only 21.6% of Liberal MPs are women (and, of course, there is only one woman inside the Abbott Liberal-National Cabinet, significantly lower than during the previous two terms of Labor Government).

While there have been other contributing factors, including the work of EMILY’s List, it is undeniable that the affirmative action rules first adopted in 1994 have played a major part in helping to ensure the ALP caucus is now more representative of the Australian population, and that talented and capable female candidates have a fairer chance at being elected to the nation’s parliament.

It is also no coincidence that, of the three ‘social groups’ mentioned in this letter – women, Indigenous people and LGBTI people – the only one where the ALP has adopted minimum targets is also the only one where the ALP has a significantly better track record than the Liberal Party.

All of which suggests that, despite some of the criticism which your original proposal received, ‘quotas’ – or some form of affirmative action rules – are at least worthy of further consideration as one possible policy tool to overcome Indigenous and LGBTI under-representation.

Other approaches to improve LGBTI representation specifically, include actively stamping out any institutionalised homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia that may exist within the Australian Labor Party, including in affiliated organisations that participate in and strongly influence the direction of the Party.

And, if you are serious, and indeed if the ALP is serious, about ensuring that the issue of ongoing LGBTI under-representation in Commonwealth Parliament is finally addressed, then I believe the ALP should also ‘reach out’ to the LGBTI community by ensuring that LGBTI equality is a core, and non-negotiable, plank in the national ALP policy platform.

That means recognising that LGBTI Australians are full and equal citizens in every single way, including in the recognition of our relationships, and not allowing ‘conscience votes’ where individual MPs are allowed to vote against this equality simply on the basis of personal prejudice(s).

Each of these three approaches – affirmative action rules, stamping out any internal homophobia, and adopting a platform supporting full equality, with no exceptions – would increase the engagement and involvement of LGBTI people inside the ALP and ultimately ensure more LGBTI members of parliament. Ideally, from my perspective, all three would be adopted.

My questions to you, Mr Shorten, are these:

12 months since you were elected Leader of the Australian Labor Party, and more than a year since you identified the under-representation of LGBTI people in parliament as an issue to be addressed, what approach(es) do you support?

With the pre-selection of some ALP candidates for the 2016 federal election already underway, what steps have you taken to ensure that these processes encourage more LGBTI people to nominate as potential candidates?

And, finally, what (if any) possible rules changes are you developing with respect to this issue, to be put forward for consideration at the next ALP National Conference in Melbourne in July 2015?

I look forward to receiving your answers to these questions, and your response to this important issue more broadly, in the near future.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[1] For more on this, see https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/11/16/lgbti-voices-absent-from-the-chamber/

12 months after being elected, what is Bill Shorten doing on LGBTI under-representation in Parliament?

12 months after being elected, what is Bill Shorten doing on LGBTI under-representation in Parliament?

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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.

Image

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].