Increasing LGBTI Representation

Over recent years there have been a number of legal and policy reforms that have benefitted the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community (not the least of which was the passage of same-sex marriage).

 

However, many of these changes have been piecemeal in nature, and too often they have been unnecessarily compromised by limitations or religious exceptions (once again including same-sex marriage, see No, we don’t have marriage equality yet).

 

At least part of the reason for the ad hoc and incomplete nature of these reforms is the lack, or insufficient amount, of representation of the LGBTI community in decision-making.

 

For the purposes of this article, by LGBTI representation I mean:

 

  • Representation in Parliament
  • Representation in the Executive, and
  • Representation through Consultation

 

I will address each of these areas in turn.

 

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Australia’s first out Commonwealth representative, former Senator Bob Brown.

 

LGBTI Representation in Parliament

 

It is fair to say that there has been rapid improvement in this area in the last four years, especially in relation to Commonwealth Parliament.

 

When I wrote about this issue early last term (see LGBTI Voices Absent from the Chamber), there had still never been an out LGBTI member of the House of Representatives. Now there are five:

 

  • Trent Zimmerman, who was the first out gay man elected to the lower house in late 2015
  • Julian Hill, Trevor Evans and Tim Wilson, who were all elected at the 2016 federal election, and
  • Kerryn Phelps, who became the first out lesbian elected to the House of Representatives in late 2018.

 

These MPs have joined the four current LGBTI Senators:

 

  • Penny Wong, who was the first out lesbian elected to either chamber
  • Louise Pratt and Dean Smith, and
  • Janet Rice, who I understand was the first out bisexual elected at Commonwealth level.

 

There have also been three previous gay Senators (Bob Brown, who was the first out gay man elected to either chamber, Brian Greig and Robert Simms).

 

So, in the lead-up to the 2019 election, we now have nine LGBTI MPs and Senators, out of 226 in total, which is an encouraging start.

 

However, if one of the main benefits of having LGBTI representation in Parliament is to ensure it hears from a diversity of views, then those LGBTI representatives should themselves reflect the diversity of our community.

 

Unfortunately, at this stage that is clearly not the case. As with the Parliament more generally, LGBTI MPs and Senators have so far been predominantly cis white men.

 

There have been twice as many male LGBTI MPs and Senators as female ones (with a similar discrepancy in the NSW Parliament as well).

 

There has still never been a transgender MP or Senator in Australia, or even an MP at state or territory level (for comparison, New Zealand’s first transgender MP, Georgina Beyer, was elected almost two decades ago).

 

Despite making up a large proportion of the LGBTI community, there has only been one out bisexual MP or Senator.

 

There has also been only limited representation of queer people of colour, with Penny Wong federally, Harriet Shing in Victoria’s upper house and Chansey Paech, the first gay Indigenous MP in the Northern Territory Parliament, and

 

There has never been an out intersex MP, at Commonwealth or state and territory level, although Tony Briffa was the first intersex person elected mayor in the Western World.

 

While increasing the number of MPs and Senators who are LGBTI is important, so too is ensuring that they come from across the LGBT and I communities, so that we do not continue to have a mostly white, mostly gay male, with some lesbian and one bisexual, but not transgender or intersex, parliamentary contingent.

 

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Australia’s first out female Commonwealth representative, Senator the Hon Penny Wong.

 

LGBTI Representation in the Executive

 

Perhaps just as important as having LGBTI voices in the Parliament, is having LGBTI representation formally embedded within the executive arm of Government.

 

The most obvious example of this would be having a formally appointed Minister for Equality, a role Martin Foley has played in the Victorian Government for more than four years.

 

There is no equivalent position within the Morrison Liberal-National Government federally, although Louise Pratt is currently the Shadow Assistant Minister for Equality in the Labor Opposition (and would presumably fulfil this role in a Shorten Government, should they be elected in May).

 

As far as I am aware, there is also no current Minister or Shadow Minister for Equality in NSW, although perhaps that is something that could change after the upcoming state election on Saturday 23 March 2019.

 

At the Commonwealth level at least there is another way in which LGBTI issues should be represented, and that is through the appointment of a standalone Commissioner for LGBTI issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

As I have written previously (see 5 Years of Commonwealth LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws. 5 Suggestions for Reform), the Commission is currently unable to adequately perform this function, with LGBTI issues forming just one part of the overall policy responsibilities of the Human Rights Commissioner, sitting alongside ‘religious freedom’ (with which it often competes for attention, sometimes unsuccessfully).

 

Fortunately, the appointment of a standalone LGBTI Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission has been promised by the Shorten Labor Opposition, so this is potentially something that may change in the near future.

 

Another model of LGBTI representation that has been adopted in Victoria is a Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality within the public service, to coordinate LGBTI policy and programs across Government. This is something that again should be considered elsewhere, including at Commonwealth level and in NSW.

 

Any Minister for Equality and/or public service LGBTI Commissioner should also be supported by an office for equality within a central agency, preferably the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and its respective state and territory equivalents.

 

Adopting any of the above formalised representation structures within executive government (and preferably all of them), will hopefully ensure that LGBTI issues are adequately considered by Governments of all persuasions.

 

LGBTI Representation through Consultation

 

The third and final means of LGBTI representation is no less important than the first two – and that is ensuring Government hears from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities themselves about the issues that affect them.

 

While this happens occasionally now (with Governments consulting directly with a few key groups on select policy proposals) what is needed is an ongoing, formalised structure whereby LGBTI organisations, and individuals with relevant expertise, are appointed to panels to represent the views of the LGBTI communities to decision-makers on a consistent basis.

 

Given the impact of justice, health and education laws and policies on LGBTI communities, especially at state and territory level, I would suggest (at least) three standing committees on each of these respective portfolio areas, and in other areas on an ‘as needed’ basis.

 

There are of course risks to this model, including that panel members do not accurately, or adequately, reflect the views of the communities they are supposed to represent.

 

These risks can be minimised by ensuring there are open application processes, and that applicants demonstrate how they propose to reflect the opinions of the LGBTI community in performing their role. Consideration could also be given to term limits to ensure appointees are not ‘captured’ by the bureaucratic process, thereby reducing their effectiveness in advocating to Government.

 

Ultimately, if LGBTI representation can be increased in Parliament, the Executive and through Consultation, we will see better decision-making by Governments on LGBTI issues, for the benefit of the entire community.

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.

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