10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #8: Because it gives our opponents a platform for their bigotry

One of the more frustrating things about the marriage equality debate, which in Australia has been going for 12 years and, potentially, has several more left to run, is that it has provided the perfect platform for our opponents – religious fundamentalists and right-wing extremists alike – to express all manner of hateful comments about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians and, in particular, about our relationships.

It does not seem like a month has gone by, since the Howard Government first entrenched marriage discrimination in Commonwealth law in August 2004, that we have not been subjected to the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ramblings of bigots who believe that allowing two consenting adults to get married will somehow precipitate the downfall of civilisation.

All the while these vile views have been dutifully reported far and wide, often without challenge, by the media, under an obligation to report ‘two sides’ to any public policy argument, even when one of those sides involves perpetuating hate speech against an already vulnerable minority group.

And the people who oppose marriage equality have certainly given the media plenty of sensationalist material to choose from – no-one more than Australia’s premier anti-gay hate group (and sometime pro-religious organisation) the Australian Christian Lobby.

Two ACL ‘standouts’ (it would be too generous to call them ‘highlights’) of the past 12 years were then managing director Jim Wallace unfavourably comparing homosexuality with smoking in September 2012:

“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years…The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”

And the current managing director’s own disgraceful media release, in May 2013, which went even further. Titled “Rudd’s change of marriage sets up a new stolen generation”, it argued that:

“The Prime Minister who rightly gave an apology to the stolen generation has sadly not thought through the fact that his new position on redefining marriage will create another. Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said Kevin Rudd’s overnight change of mind on redefining marriage ignored the consequence of robbing children of their biological identity through same-sex surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies.”

Mr Shelton has since repeated this appalling comparison, on multiple occasions, including earlier this year on ABC’s Q&A.

Truly, is there anything more disgusting than denigrating the love between two people, who simply want the same legal recognition as other Australians, by linking it with one of the most shameful episodes of Australian history?

Lyle Shelton, breaking Australia’s equivalent of Godwin’s law: The first person to use the Stolen Generations in an argument about something that has nothing to do with the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people automatically loses said argument.

Lyle Shelton, breaking Australia’s equivalent of Godwin’s law: The first person to use the Stolen Generations in an argument about something that has nothing to do with the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people automatically loses said argument.

Nevertheless, some members of our political class have given it their best shot in trying to match the homophobia of the ACL during the marriage equality debate. We all remember Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s infamous ‘contribution’ to public life:

“The next step, quite frankly, is having three people or four people that love each other being able to enter into a permanent union endorsed by society – or any other type of relationship… There are even some creepy people out there… [who] say it is OK to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals… Will that be a future step? In the future will we say, “These two creatures love each other and maybe they should be able to be joined in a union.” I think these things are the next step.”

I would of course not be the first to point out that Senator Bernardi was the only person who seemed ‘creepy’ as a consequence of these comments. But he was certainly not the only Senator to cross the threshold from genuine public debate into outright vilification. His Coalition colleague, National Party Senator Ron Boswell, made a similarly outrageous speech during that debate, which it is not possible to do full ‘justice’ to here, but which did include the following gem:

“Two mothers or two fathers cannot raise a child properly. Who takes a boy to football? Who tells him what is right from wrong? What does he do – go along with the two mums? How does he go camping and fishing? Yes, there might be some attempt by one of the mothers to fill in as a father figure but it will not work. It is defying nature. And what about a young girl changing from a teenager into a young woman? Is it fair to say to her, “You don’t have a mother; your mother can’t take you shopping” or to not be able to help her understand how her body is changing? What are we trying to do here? Why are we trying to defy what has been the right thing for hundreds of thousands of years?”

And, in the spirit of bipartisanship, we should not overlook the Labor Party’s own intellectual vacuum herself, Senator Helen Polley, who during the same debate read the following into Senate Hansard:

“From D and AO: “Most of the world has chosen not to change the definition of marriage. Those who seek to change the definition ignore the impacts on children and the potential to create another stolen generation by putting an adult desire above the needs of children.”

Just like Lyle Shelton, in Helen Polley’s weird but less than wonderful universe it is somehow appropriate to connect the idea of marriage equality with the tragic history of the Stolen Generations (in the process contravening the Australian equivalent of Godwin’s law).

Helen Polley: Bigot.

Helen Polley: Bigot.

These are just the highest profile examples of the many, many outrageous things that have been said about our relationships over the past 12 years. Probably every bit as offensive, and potentially damaging, has been the slow drip of more ‘ordinary’ homophobic comments, the everyday, even mundane, verbal slings and arrows wielded by our opponents against us, attacking who we are.

These comments have come from public figures and politicians not otherwise known for their homophobia, including from one MP who, at least until the 2014 Federal Budget, was generally considered to be at the more ‘mainstream’ end of his particular political party.

In May 2012, on the ABC’s Q&A, then Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey argued against marriage equality by saying:

“Well, I don’t believe we necessarily make better parents because we’re a male and female. I must confess that my view has changed since I’ve had children and that’s very hard and lot of my friends, whether they be heterosexual or gay, they hold the same view as you. But I think in this life we’ve got to aspire to give our children what I believe to be the very best circumstances, and that’s to have a mother and a father. And I’m not saying that – I’m not saying gay parents are any lesser parents, but I am being asked to legislate in favour of something that I don’t believe to be the best outcome for a child.”

Such arguments – essentially bleating ‘but what about the children?’ while simultaneously ignoring all the evidence that the children of same-sex parents turn out just fine, thank you very much – have become depressingly common.

But just because they are common, does not mean that they do not hurt, and does not mean that they cannot cause profound and long-lasting damage. I would try to explain just how hurtful the bigotry of the marriage equality debate can be, but there was a speech in early 2014  which was far more eloquent on this subject than I could ever hope to be.

Irish drag queen Panti Bliss gave an impassioned talk on the 1st of February that year about just what the consequences of gay rights ‘debates’ can be. I encourage you to watch or read the whole speech but one of the passages which stood out to me was this:

“Have you ever come home in the evening and turned on the television and there is a panel of people – nice people, respectable people, smart people, the kind of people who make good neighbourly neighbours and write for newspapers. And they are having a reasoned debate about you. About what kind of a person you are, about whether you are capable of being a good parent, about whether you want to destroy marriage, about whether you are safe around children, about whether God herself thinks you are an abomination, about whether in fact you are “intrinsically disordered”. And even the nice TV presenter lady who you feel like you know thinks it’s perfectly ok that they are all having this reasonable debate about who you are and what rights you “deserve”.

And that feels oppressive.”

Amen. To me, Panti (real name Rory O’Neill) has summed up perfectly the experience of watching as your worth as a human being is assessed, at length, by others, simply of the basis of your sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It doesn’t just feel oppressive. It is oppressive.

Before anyone goes all Andrew Bolt on me, and suggests I am some kind of ‘closet totalitarian’ who wishes to shut down all public debate on terms that are suitable to me and my side of politics, let me first say this: I recognise that in order to achieve this important social reform it is inevitable there will be a public debate which exposes multiple sides to the issue, including some arguments that most normal people find objectionable. After all, that is part of democracy [And of course it is a debate that has already been had, time and time again, since Howard’s discriminatory law was first passed].

And if we are to secure long-lasting change maybe we do need to flush out (and I use that term deliberately) the prejudice, the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic views, of people who are opposed to the fundamental equality of their fellow Australians. Perhaps, in doing so, we can help secure not just marriage equality, but also a more tolerant, and even more accepting, country in the decades to come.

But, that is me talking as an adult, as someone who is comfortable in who they are, who understands the context of the debate and that much of the extreme prejudice currently being expressed is simply the lashing out, the childish tantrums, of people whose narrow view of the world is being challenged – and who are on the verge of defeat.

So, while the comments of the ACL or bigoted Commonwealth Parliamentarians might hurt, and might feel oppressive, to me, my fiancé Steven and to other marriage equality activists, we know that they can be endured on the long path to progress.

For others, who are not as comfortable in who they are, the hurt and oppression of such comments is undoubtedly magnified. For young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, being told that their sexual orientation is worse than smoking, or that recognising their relationships would be akin to recognising bestiality, or even that allowing them to marry the person they love is somehow the equivalent of the Stolen Generations, exacerbates the already high rates of mental health issues, including depression and self-harm, that they experience.

The Jim Wallaces, Lyle Sheltons, Cory Bernardis, Ron Boswells and Helen Polleys of this world need to understand the real-world consequences of their words and actions, that their bigotry can and does lead to depression – and worse – amongst young LGBTI people. Even the more everyday or ‘mundane’ homophobia expressed by people like Joe Hockey can be seen, in this context, as malevolent because it too leads to many young LGBTI people feeling like they are ‘less than’ their heterosexual and cisgender peers.

The fact that they do not accept responsibility for the harm that they cause, that the ACL and others refuse to concede that the bigoted views they express during the marriage equality debate do have consequences, definitely makes this one of the things I hate about marriage inequality – and one more reason why I will be glad when this debate is finally over, and we have taken another step on the path to full equality.

Dear Joe Hockey, $245 million for School Chaplains? You Cannot be Serious

Just over a month ago I wrote to you arguing that, if you were serious about cutting Commonwealth expenditure, you must axe the National School Chaplaincy Program. (link: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/12/dear-joe-hockey-if-youre-serious-about-cutting-expenditure-you-must-axe-school-chaplains/ )

This program is a completely unjustifiable breach of the principle of the separation of church and state, supporting the appointment of people whose primary ‘qualification’ is their religion to positions in secular, government-run schools. It is also ineffective, with little or no evidence that employing chaplains benefits students overall (especially when compared with appointing properly-trained and qualified student welfare workers or counsellors).

Above all, with the National School Chaplaincy Program costing more than $50 million each and every year, this initiative is the epitome of waste. $50 million per year may not have seemed like a huge spend when it was first introduced (as Howard and Costello bathed in the rivers of cash flowing into the treasury coffers) but, in a post-GFC world, when the revenue stream has well and truly dried up, the largesse of this scheme is apparent.

Since I wrote to you, the final report of the National Commission of Audit has been released, and, much to my surprise, they recognised both the extravagance of, and lack of policy rationale for, this scheme, recommending that it be abolished. Even your hand-picked, right-wing Audit warriors thought funding school chaplains could not be justified.

So, when you rose to your feet to deliver the Budget on Tuesday night, the pressure was on you: were you in fact serious about cutting expenditure, including abolishing wasteful and ineffective programs irrespective of which side of politics had introduced them, or did balancing the Budget not matter as much as supporting narrow, ideological interests?

Alas, in the Budget papers, we the Australian public quickly discovered that, despite all the talk of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘repairing the Budget’, you nevertheless had chosen to provide $245 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program, to continue its operation from 1 January 2015 to the end of 2018.

That decision in and of itself was terrible, but it is made worse, by several orders of magnitude, when it is contrasted with some of the other decisions contained in the Budget, including:

  • The introduction of a $7 co-payment for visiting a doctor, as well as a $5 increase in the cost of prescriptions through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme;
  • A $7.9 billion cut in the foreign aid budget over the next 5 years;
  • A $500 million cut to expenditure on indigenous programs over the next 5 years (this under the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs’);
  • A rise in the pension age from 67 to 70 (phased in to 2035), as well as a reduction in future pension increases;
  • An increase in university fees, with loans to be charged at much higher interest rates and the repayment threshold significantly lowered; and
  • The introduction of a 6-month wait for access to unemployment benefits for people under 30 (and even then, payment at a reduced rate).

That list sounds like a ‘Tea Party’ inspired re-imagining of The New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your (global) poor, your sick, your Aboriginal, your elderly, your young, your students and your unemployed, and we will make them pay.” When you spoke of ‘sharing the burden’, it seems like you almost went out of your way to ensure that the burden was shared, disproportionately, by the most vulnerable.

In that context, it looks more than bizarre that one of the main groups who do not have to experience any Budget pain are school chaplains. The decision to give them almost a quarter of a billion dollars doesn’t even make sense when looked at exclusively in the context of the Education Budget.

The $245 million provided to the National School Chaplaincy Program is the single biggest spending initiative in the budget for schools, which implies that it is the Abbott Government’s biggest school-related priority for its first year in office. This funding also stands in marked contrast to the decision not to provide any additional funding for students with disabilities, despite that being a major pre-election commitment.

Do you really think that subsidising chaplains is more important than funding students with disabilities, or indeed funding anything else to do with schools?

The worst part is that the decision to refund the School Chaplaincy program is not even the worst part about this announcement.

In Tuesday night’s media release (“Keeping our Commitments: Funding a National School Chaplaincy Program”, issued by Senator the Hon Scott Ryan, the Parliamentary for Education) the Government stated that “[t]he renewed programme will be returned to its original intent; to provide funding for school chaplains.”

As made clear, in supporting documentation and subsequent media coverage, this means that, from 1 January next year, only religious appointees, from ‘recognised denominations’, need apply.

This is a return to the Howard Government designed scheme from 2007, and abolishes the only redeeming feature of the entire program – which was the 2012 amendment, made by then Education Ministers the Hon Peter Garrett MP, to allow schools the choice to employ secular student welfare workers rather than chaplains.

In doing away with qualified student welfare workers, you have also removed the only fig-leaf of credibility which (partially) covered up the nakedly-ideological, and evidence-free, nature of the overall scheme.

It is impossible for you, and the Commonwealth Government in general, to claim that the National School Chaplaincy Program is genuinely about improving the welfare of students, when you are explicitly denying schools the opportunity to employ the best people for the job.

In the absence of any student welfare-based rationale, everyone can now see that the decision to provide new funding to the National School Chaplaincy Program is, at its core, a joke. The changes to the scheme’s rules, which mean that all 2,900 people employed under the scheme must be religious appointees, and cannot be secular student welfare workers, make it a bad joke at that.

But maybe we only see it as a bad joke because the joke is on us. After all, we the taxpayers are the ones footing the $245 million bill to allow chaplains and other religious office-holders inappropriate access to the schoolyard, and the classroom.

There are, of course, others who are laughing at our expense: the religious organisations who have their ‘outreach’ work to young impressionable minds publicly-subsidised; the religious fundamentalists in the Liberal-National Government (and, it must be said, some in the ALP Opposition) who believe it is the role of Government to ensure Australia is a ‘Christian nation’; and the major churches who want to break down, once and for all, the already fragile separation of church and state in this country.

The group laughing hardest, though, must be the Australian Christian Lobby, because this is your, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s, extravagant, quarter of a billion dollar gift to them. It must gladden your heart that, in his post-Budget media release (where it should be acknowledged he at least made the effort to criticise the overall impact of Budget cuts on the poor and disadvantaged) ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton still found time to be thankful for the Chaplaincy Program. As an aside: Lyle, if you are genuinely concerned about cuts to foreign aid, maybe you should by lobbying for that $245 million to go overseas instead.

So, when you stood up on Tuesday night and said that ‘we are a nation of lifters, not leaners’, it was, like so much of what you said, just empty rhetoric. Because, as you have so amply demonstrated through this single, fundamentally wasteful decision, groups like the Australian Christian Lobby can always lean on you.

Of course, funding the National School Chaplaincy Program for another four years, and even changing its rules, probably wasn’t the worst decision contained in the Federal Budget. It definitely isn’t the decision that will cause the most harm to struggling individuals, both here and overseas (the list of other changes outlined above will likely all have far more deleterious consequences than simply putting 2,900 religious appointees in schools).

But the decision to award $245 million to this scheme reveals, probably more than any other choice made by you and the other members of the Expenditure Review Committee, just how twisted the Budget priorities of this Government really are. In amongst the carnage of savage cuts to health, to education, to the pension and to foreign aid, you and your colleagues nevertheless found room in your hearts, and our wallets, to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program.

The role of the nation’s Treasurer is a serious one, bringing with it solemn responsibilities. You are supposed to tax wisely, spend fairly, look after the most vulnerable and invest for our collective future. In your first Budget, you instead chose to hurt some of those who are the most disadvantaged, while still helping your – ideological and political – friends. I am sorry to say, Mr Hockey, but on May 13, you failed to live up to the serious responsibilities of Treasurer.

Treasurer Joe Hockey, not serious about cutting wasteful programs like school chaplains. Is serious about granting the wishes of groups like the ACL. (image source: news.com.au)

Treasurer Joe Hockey, not serious about cutting wasteful programs like school chaplains. Is serious about granting the wishes of groups like the ACL (image source: news.com.au).

Dear Joe Hockey, If you’re serious about cutting expenditure, you must axe school chaplains

As promised during the 2013 federal election campaign, one of the first actions of the Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National Government was to establish a National Commission of Audit, to review all Commonwealth expenditure in an effort to reduce spending and ultimately deliver a Budget surplus.

Indeed, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Audit described it as a “full-scale review of the activities of the Commonwealth government to:

-ensure taxpayers are receiving value-for-money from each dollar spent;

-eliminate wasteful spending; …

-identify areas or programs where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate…” [among other objectives].

The Commission’s first report was delivered to the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in mid-February, and the second was handed over at the end of March. The contents of both reports were, quite cynically, kept from the public ahead of the Western Australian half-Senate election on 5 April (because you wouldn’t want an electorate to actually be informed about impending spending cuts before they vote), although, with only one month left until the Federal Budget is handed down it’s highly likely they will be released in the next week or two.

It is expected that the Commission will recommended that the axe fall on (or at least make significant cuts to) a wide range of different programs, with apparently ‘authorised’ leaks focusing on things like the aged pension, Medicare (through a $6 co-payment) and other vital health, education and welfare services.

However, there is one program that, I believe, meets all of the above criteria and thoroughly deserves to be cut as part of any serious expenditure review: the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. It is almost impossible to argue that putting ministers of religion into government schools could ever be value-for-money, when compared with almost any other government expense. As well as being enormously wasteful spending, it would also seem to be the definition of a program where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate.

And yet, given the highly political nature of the Commission of Audit, I suspect it is unlikely the National School Chaplaincy Program is under any real threat. Even if the Commission were to recommend its abolition, it is hard to believe that Joe Hockey would actually follow through on any such advice when he rises to the dispatch box on the night of Tuesday 13 May.

More’s the pity. The National School Chaplaincy Program is amongst the worst examples of public policy over the past decade (and there have been some absolute shockers in that time). It was introduced by John Howard in the dying days of his government (2007), as he realised his grip on power was loosening with age – basically, it was a sop to ultra-conservatives and religious fundamentalists (both of which can be found in the form of the Australian Christian Lobby) to entice them to remain aboard his sinking electoral ship.

Alas, in a demonstration that poor policy, and religious pork-barrelling, can be bipartisan, the incoming Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, maintained the National Schools Chaplaincy Program throughout his first stint in the Lodge. When it came time to review the first three years of its operation, frustratingly he and his then Deputy, Education Minister Julia Gillard, chose to continue, rather than close, the program.

As Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, Gillard then announced a $222 million extension of the program til the end of this year (2014). This money was also provided to allow for expansion of the scheme’s coverage, from 2,700 schools up to 3,550 schools.

The only figure that accomplished anything to at least partially mitigate the genuine awfulness of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program over the past seven years was Education Minister Peter Garrett, who changed the program guidelines from the start of 2012 to allow schools to choose between chaplains or qualified student counsellors (hence the revised name). He also attempted to introduce a requirement that all workers, including chaplains, have some level of relevant qualifications, although recognition of ‘prior learning’ on the job was also encouraged.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of people employed as a result of this scheme remain ministers of religion. Imagine that: in 2014, the Commonwealth Government provides up to $24,000 per year to more than three and a half thousand schools to subsidise the employment of someone whose primary ‘qualification’, indeed whose primary vocation full stop, is to proselytise.

Ironically, the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program Guidelines then go to great lengths to attempt to limit the ability of chaplains to proselytise or evangelise from their position of authority within the school community, which is about as useful as telling a tree to stop growing leaves (or telling Cory Bernardi to stop being a bigot). It seems like the apotheosis of a set of rules where adherence, rather than breach, will be the exception.

The Guidelines themselves are also full of loopholes, allowing chaplains to “provid[e] services with a spiritual content (excluding religious education) including facilitating discussion groups and lunch time clubs” with approval and consent, as well as “performing religious services/rites (such as worship or prayer during school assembly etc), with… appropriate prior consent”.

This is an obvious and serious contravention of the principle of the separation of church and state. In the United States, such a program – paying for men (and some women) of faith to introduce their religion into government schools – would be struck out as unconstitutional by their Supreme Court.

Sadly, the anaemic interpretation of section 116 of the Constitution adopted by the High Court of Australia in the “DOGS case” [Attorney-General (Vic); Ex Rel Black v Commonwealth [1981] HCA 2; (1981) 146 CLR 559 (2 February 1981)] meant that it was never going to be struck down here, or at least not on those grounds.

Even after the program was successfully challenged by Toowoomba father, and man of principle, Ron Williams in 2012, with the High Court finding that the scheme did not have a legislative basis to appropriate money, the Government squibbed the ideal chance to abandon a flawed program and instead rushed through legislation to support its ongoing operation [as an aside, the High Court will be hearing a further challenge from Mr Williams, on May 6-8 2014, that the rushed omnibus Bill was itself unconstitutional].

And even if the National School Chaplaincy Program is ultimately found to be constitutional, there is still absolutely zero evidence that it is effective at improving the overall welfare of students.

If any of the Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd (again) or now Abbott Governments genuinely considered that student welfare was a matter of priority, they would properly fund, rather than part subsidise, actual student counsellors or social workers to perform that function in every school, not implement a scheme where cashed-up churches could target individual cash-starved schools and offer the ‘services’ of ministers of religion, essentially as a backdoor way of indoctrinating a fresh generation of children.

There are ways in which the introduction of ministers of religion into schools can lead to direct harm too, not least of which being the issue of potential child sex abuse. In fact, at the same time as the hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, the Government continues to encourage the employment of ministers of religion in public schools, with a code of conduct that allows them to have physical contact with students because “there may be some circumstances where physical contact may be appropriate such as where the student is injured or distraught”. [NB Obviously I am not saying that most, or even many, school chaplains are child sex abusers, but it seems unnecessary, and unnecessarily risky, to bring in people from institutions with a long history of covering-up such abuse and placing them in positions of trust in public schools.]

In addition, some (although obviously not all) ministers of religion also present a clear and present danger to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, given the blatant homophobia adopted by particular churches and their officials. This threat is explicitly acknowledged by the Guidelines, which in response attempts to prohibit discriminatory behaviour on the basis of sexuality (although it doesn’t appear as though either gender identity or intersex status are mentioned at all).

In the same way as the prohibition on ‘proselytising’ described above, however, it is inevitable that there will be some ministers of religion, in some schools, who deliberately flout those rules, and in the process cause untold harm to young LGBTI students.

In short, the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is philosophically unsound, has no evidence that it benefits student welfare, is expensive, potentially causes harm and is clearly an inappropriate activity to be funded through taxpayers’ money. Surely, out of all of the programs funded by the Commonwealth, across almost all areas, it should be at or near the top of any Commission of Audit ‘hit-list’.

Even if the Commission of Audit abrogates its basic responsibility to recommend that the National School Chaplaincy Program be axed, Treasurer Joe Hockey will still have to make a decision on the future of the program as part of the 2014-15 Budget, because, as noted earlier, funding for the scheme runs out at the end of this year.

What action Joe Hockey takes on this will reveal a great deal about what kind of Treasurer he intends to be. Of all the incoming Abbott Ministers, Hockey has been the loudest in condemning middle-class welfare, in arguing that the role of Government must be smaller, and that inappropriate or unjustifiable programs should be cut.

Well, here is an ideal opportunity to live up to at least some of that rhetoric, savings upwards of $222 million in the process (that’s the equivalent of one and a half $6 GP co-payments for every person in Australia). If he does so on 13 May, then he should be applauded for it (noting of course that there might, just might, be some other things in the Budget that warrant a somewhat different response).

If Hockey fails to rise to the occasion, and extends or even expands funding for ministers of religion in our public schools, then it will show that he is not serious at all about reining in inappropriate spending, and does not believe in small Government – instead, it will simply demonstrate that he believes in big government of a different kind, one that takes money from genuine welfare programs and places it in the hands of ministers of religion for the propagation of their beliefs.

So, now it’s over to you Joe: would you rather take money from people who simply want to see their doctor via a bulk-billed appointment, or from a program which funds the placement of ministers of religion into our public schools? I know which one I would choose. I guess we’ll find out on Budget night which one you do.

Abbott’s Paid Parental Leave Scheme and Same-Sex Parents

On Saturday (7 September), it is highly likely that the Liberal and National Parties will together win at least 76 seats (and possibly many more) and that therefore Tony Abbott will be our Prime Minister when he wakes up on Sunday.

There are a range of things which he has promised which essentially amount to undoing, whether in part or in full, things that the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Governments have done (eg the Carbon Price or the NBN), or simply taking things further in the same direction (such as the mistreatment of refugees). There have been very few major new policies or policy directions from Abbott and the Coalition.

However, there has been one major social policy commitment from Tony Abbott. Indeed, it comes with a substantial financial cost, and he has gone as far as to call it his ‘signature’ policy. That is of course Paid Parental Leave (PPL), for women who earn up to $150,000 per year, paid by the Government for 26 weeks (meaning that it is significantly more expansive in both the size of the payment, and its duration, than the existing Labor scheme).

The full details of Abbott’s PPL scheme were announced on Sunday 18 August, through a pre-release with News Corp papers, followed up by a policy launch, complete with a 14 page glossy document, outlining how the policy would operate in practice. It even included a range of scenarios, using different women’s names and estimating how much they stood to gain (and how much more that would be than the Labor scheme).

From an LGBTI activist’s point of view, however, there was a glaring omission: there was not a single mention of parents who did not neatly fit into a ‘traditional heterosexual/opposite-sex couple’. In none of the 14 pages was there a single mention of non-heterosexual or same-sex couples. Which left me, and countless other LGBTI people around the country, asking two questions:

  1. Are same-sex couples even covered by the scheme?
  2. If they are covered, how are their payments calculated? (which is a legitimate and not necessarily straight-forward question, given the PPL scheme states that, where a heterosexual father is the primary carer, he is entitled to PPL – but if he earns more than the mother, his payments are reduced according to the wage of his female partner).

On the morning of the 18th, I scanned both traditional and social media in an effort to see whether there was an answer to one or both of these questions. I could find very little outside of an assertion from Samantha Maiden on twitter that yes, same-sex couples would be covered – although that turned out to be based on nothing more than her assumption that they should be covered (I would post the full twitter exchange here except that it took a lengthy back and forth before establishing that she had absolutely no evidence for her original assertion).

I then turned to social media to ask questions directly of Tony Abbott, and, given he represents one of the most populous LGBTI electorates in Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, but neither responded. I even tried to ask the Liberal Party direct: nada. Eventually, in the evening, I managed to get an answer from Joe Hockey. I reproduce a screenshot of that exchange here:
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Taking him at his word would mean that, for lesbian couples, if the non-birth mother is the designated primary carer, they would be able to receive the payments based on their own wage, even if it was higher than the birth mother’s. For male same-sex couples, the primary carer’s wage would apply irrespective of whose was higher (those are the clear implications from his response).

Wanting to have more to go on than just a tweet, through my involvement in the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, I also helped to ensure that Paid Parental Leave, and specifically whether it covered same-sex couples on a no less favourable basis than opposite-sex couples, was one of the 42 questions which were asked in the 2013 Federal Election survey of the ALP, Liberal-Nationals and the Greens Parties. While both the ALP and Greens responses addressed this question, the Liberal Party response did not (in fact, the Liberal/Nationals did not answer the vast majority of the questions asked: see www.lgbti2013.org.au for more details, a topic I will be posting more on later in the week).

Anyway, that lack of response did not inspire much confidence in me either – both the formal 14 page policy document, and now the direct answer to a question from the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Transgender Victoria and Organisation Intersex International Australia, had failed to include any commitment that the PPL policy was intended to be non-discriminatory in its operation.

Which meant that Tony Abbott’s comments on Jon Faine on ABC Radio Melbourne on Friday 30 August were very welcome. From the Guardian Australia website:

“Abbott gets a caller during the Faine interview who is clearly unhappy with lesbian mothers – two of them – getting access to the Coalition’s PPL scheme. Will two lesbian mothers get the payment?

Abbott’s response:

If they both have kids, fine ..

Abbott says the same would happen with the government’s PPL scheme. The caller says at least they wouldn’t get $75,000.”

At the very least, Abbott has committed that his PPL scheme will cover lesbian co-parents (and, given the policy document does include adoptive parents, by rights it should cover gay male co-parents as well).

As an additional source of comfort, on Saturday 31 August at the LGBTI Policy Forum held in Melbourne, the Liberal Member for Higgins, Kelly O’Dwyer, gave the following response to an ABC journalist:

JEFF WATERS: While you’re there, if I may – will the opposition’s paid parental leave scheme include both parents in same sex relationship who is have children?

KELLY O’DWYER: Our paid parental leave scheme is non-discriminatory. We believe that the carer of the child is entitled to the paid parental leave scheme. That is what we have announced. That is what we are committed to implementing. So the person who is going to be looking after the child will be entitled to the paid parental leave scheme which is capped to ensure that that child has the best possible start in life, and that families, all families, heterosexual families, homosexual families, all families are better off. (Applause)

Overall, despite the fact that it has been much harder than it should have been to get a direct answer from Abbott and the Liberal/National Parties on this issue, we are now in a position where they have clearly promised that same-sex couples will be included in its PPL scheme.

Which means that if, for whatever reason (aka Nationals and/or backbench revolt), they do not extend Paid Parental Leave to cover same-sex parents, it will be a broken promise, and on something which Tony Abbott has claimed is his ‘signature’ policy. That would be a massive blow to the credibility of him and his new Government – put another way, given he is likely to be moving into the Lodge next week, there is significant pressure on him to live up to his commitment for his PPL policy to be LGBTI inclusive.

PS Obviously, if there are other places where the Coalition or its MPs have committed to the PPL covering same-sex couples please send them to me and I will link them here. I would hope that Serkan Ozturk at the Star Observer’s interview with Malcolm Turnbull, which is expected to be published on Thursday, will also cover this topic and I will publish his response on this as well.

Equal Marriage: A failure of political leadership pt 2

I ended my previous post on this topic on a very pessimistic note. I wrote: “Instead, it appears that LGBTI couples will need to wait another eight years or more before being able to walk down the aisle. Let’s hope that, by then, the major political parties are led by people who understand what leadership means.”

I believe this pessimism is justified because, if we look past the failures of the current crop of political leaders (Gillard, Abbott and Truss), there is little evidence to inspire confidence in the next generation. None of the most likely candidates to replace the leaders of their respective parties is, right at this moment, both advocating a yes vote on marriage equality and actually committed to voting yes. That’s right, none of the seven people who are generally considered ‘next in line’ is committed to delivering marriage equality through both words and actions.

There are three who have already committed themselves to voting against marriage equality. The first is no surprise – the future leader of the National Party, Senator Barnaby Joyce. Joyce addressed the annual anti-gay hate rally at Parliament House in 2011 (organised by the Australian Christian Lobby and the Australian Family Association) and claimed, in his usual incoherent manner, that legislating for same-sex marriage would somehow limit the ability of his four daughters to enter into opposite-sex marriages.

Joyce said, “We know that the best protection for those girls is that they get themselves into a secure relationship with a loving husband, and I want that to happen for them. I don’t want any legislator to take that right away from me.” Leaving aside the complete failure of Barnaby Joyce to learn anything from multiple waves of feminism (women can exist without husbands, it has nothing to do with ‘his’ right), it is also devoid of logic, given extending the right to same-sex couples does not affect the right of opposite-sex couples of marry if they so choose. Finally, Barnaby Joyce fails as a human being – if he is the father of four daughters, then surely he must contemplate the possibility one (or more) of those daughters may be a lesbian and wish to enter a same-sex marriage.

The next ‘future leader’ is someone who really should know better. Joe Hockey is supposedly a moderate within the Liberal Party (whatever that means in 2012), and some in the LGBTI community had speculated he may indeed vote for change. However, Hockey cruelled those hopes on ABC’s Q&A in May this year when he said that, after having children, his view on same-sex marriage had changed. He will now vote against marriage equality because he believes that children deserve the right to a mother and a father.

That rationale is almost as lacking in substance as Joyce’s, given that many heterosexual people have children outside of marriage, many opposite-sex married couples choose not to have children (or can’t because of age or infertility) and many gay and lesbian Australians are already having children. It also deliberately mischaracterises the nature of marriage in contemporary society, which has evolved such that it is now the recognition of a loving relationship between two people, nothing more and nothing less. So those hoping for leadership on marriage equality should look elsewhere than the member for North Sydney, whose views have recently regressed instead.

The final leadership contender to have already stated unequivocally that they will vote no on equal marriage is Wayne Swan (and for those thinking he is not a genuine leadership contender, please note he is still the deputy leader of the ALP, deputy prime minister and treasurer, and historically leadership challengers have occupied at least one of these positions). Sadly, despite discovering the power of arguments based on economic justice earlier this year (especially in his attacks on the mining magnates), Swan appears to have little understanding of the meaning of social justice. If he did, he would be supporting the rights of his LGBTI constituents and the principle of equality – instead he is supporting fundamental discrimination against a group of Australians simply on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Shame.

There are three other leadership contenders who, at the time of writing (Wednesday 22 August), have not declared a position on same-sex marriage: Julie Bishop, Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten. One, two or, if Abbott allows a conscience vote, potentially all three could end up voting in favour of equality. That would obviously be a good result numerically, because even if equal marriage is likely to be defeated this year, less momentum will be lost if the result is at least close.

And yet, by failing to adopt a public position, by failing to advocate for change, each has also failed to demonstrate the qualities most desirable in a leader. Irrespective of their reasons for staying quiet (and especially with Rudd and Shorten it can be viewed through the prism of their desires to assume ALP leadership later this year, and consequently not wanting to ‘offend’ the Catholic Right of the caucus), by doing so they have effectively abdicated their responsibility to help achieve progressive social reform and thereby make Australia a better place.

That sentiment might sound a bit ‘pie in the sky’, but, as I wrote in my previous post on this topic, these reforms are usually won when true leaders stand up and be counted, when men and women of substance put forward the case for change and prosecute it until victory is achieved. It is not as if Bishop, Rudd and Shorten could claim to be surprised that same-sex marriage is a public issue either: it has been on the agenda ever since Howard amended the Marriage Act in 2004 (indeed, Rudd and Bishop were already members of parliament at that time).

Equal marriage has also been one of the most discussed issues during the life of this parliament, with Adam Bandt’s successful motion that House of Representatives MPs should consult with their constituents on this issue, the vigorous debate in the run-up to and at ALP national conference in December 2011, and particularly now with three bills already tabled in Parliament seeking to implement this reform. And I am sure that each of them would be aware of the large number of constituents writing to them on this issue (on both sides of the debate), on top of the record number of submissions to the House of Representatives and Senate committee inquiries earlier this year.

In short, there is absolutely no excuse for Julie Bishop, Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten to have not adopted a public position on this issue. Their failure to say or do anything to help achieve marriage equality can be interpreted to mean that they simply do not care enough about LGBTI equality to take a stand. While others inside the Liberal and Labor parties have been fearless advocates, Bishop, Rudd and Shorten have been cowards. Enough said.

There is of course one last member of the current generation of major party leaders to consider: Malcolm Turnbull. As with most things Malcolm, his position on same-sex marriage is more intelligent and articulate than most, but ultimately he remains a politician of words not actions.

In early July, Turnbull delivered the Michael Kirby Lecture in which he eloquently made the conservative case for recognising same-sex relationships as marriages, equal to and no less than opposite-sex marriages (an edited extract of his speech was also published in the Sydney Morning Herald the following day). In doing so, he demolished the religious arguments against change and showed that it was bigoted to believe that LGBTI Australians should accept their status as second-class citizens. Turnbull even announced that, if the Coalition were to adopt a conscience vote on this issue, he would vote in favour of equality.

But that ignores the fact that Tony Abbott has ruled out a conscience vote and, in those circumstances, Turnbull has made clear he would follow the party line and vote against same-sex marriage. Which means that, no matter how nice his words are in support of change, Turnbull’s only ‘action’ will still be to vote against LGBTI equality. Despite being the only one of the current generation of leaders to publicly advocate legislating for same-sex marriage, Turnbull has nevertheless failed this test of political leadership.

That might sound like a harsh judgement. After all, he would have to go to the backbench in order to vote yes, and that is obviously a massive price to pay for any politician. Indeed, Australian Marriage Equality appears to give Turnbull a ‘pass mark’, listing him as a supporter on its website. But in my mind a supporter is not just someone who mouths the words – they also demonstrate their support through their actions, and that is something which Turnbull refuses to do in this case.

By contrast, I suspect he probably would move to the backbench if the vote was to deny Jewish people rights on the basis of their religion, or Indigenous Australians on the basis of their race. It is just that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and bisexual Australians don’t seem to count as much (something which I hope LGBTI residents of Wentworth remember at the next federal election).

Turnbull’s vote against equality means that the failure of this generation’s political leaders on same-sex marriage is complete. Including Gillard, Abbott and Truss, none of the ten leaders or alternative leaders of our major parties have both advocated for – and committed to vote for – equal marriage. Six of them (including Joyce, Hockey and Swan) have announced they will be voting against LGBTI equality. Three (Bishop, Rudd and Shorten) have refused to indicate which way they will vote and have effectively abdicated from the responsibilities of (moral) leadership. Only one, Malcolm Turnbull, is currently advocating for a Marriage Act which does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and even he is voting no.

That is why, even though it might be pessimistic to think Australia might not achieve equal marriage until next decade, it may also be the only realistic view. Maybe by then we will have the real leadership required to deliver this reform. In the meantime we are forced to imagine what that leadership looks like.