2,756 Days. Frustration and Love.

It’s five o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting on a bus leaving Sydney, and I finally have some time to process the extraordinary events of the past few days.

 

It really is hard to put into words just how devastating, heart-breaking and frankly appalling the actions of the Liberal Party room on Monday evening, and Turnbull Coalition Government yesterday, have been.

 

First, was the devastating decision not to adopt a conscience vote on marriage equality, but to instead push once more for a ‘traditional’ plebiscite.

 

That’s the same unnecessary and wasteful non-binding opinion poll that was rejected by the Senate in November 2016, at the request of LGBTI Australians, because of the harm it will inevitably cause young and vulnerable members of our community.

 

It is no exaggeration to say that lives could be lost as a direct result of the extreme, hateful, hurtful bigotry that would accompany any such vote.

 

Second, was the heart-breaking decision that, even if the Senate once again rejects the legislation for a ‘traditional’ plebiscite (as it appears highly likely to do), the Government will attempt to hold a ‘postal’ plebiscite on the issue.

 

A ‘postal’ plebiscite has all of the disadvantages of a ‘traditional’ plebiscite, plus a few more of its own, including that it will be voluntary rather than compulsory to participate, it will disenfranchise large sections of the community, including young Australians (as even Malcolm Turnbull conceded, about the last one held twenty years ago) and, without legislation to give it effect, is constitutionally doubtful.

 

Which brings me to the third, and perhaps worst, decision of all – that they now intend to hold it as a ‘statistical survey’ conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, rather than an actual vote overseen by the Australian Electoral Commission.

 

This ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’ is nothing more than a naked attempt to circumvent not just the will of the Parliament, but also the legitimate limitations of the Constitution.

 

Thankfully, multiple groups campaigning for marriage equality have already indicated they are seeking legal advice before potentially challenging this postal plebiscite-in-all-but-name in the High Court. Here’s hoping they are successful, and that this bad joke of a policy is stopped before it starts to wreak its damage.

 

These three decisions, taken together, reveal the absolute contempt that some members of the Liberal and National Parties have for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

No other group has ever been subjected to this kind of process merely for the chance of being treated equally under secular law. No other group has ever been expected to jump through these ridiculous hoops just to have their human rights recognised.

 

Of course, in a debate that is about symbolism as much as it is about substance, it isn’t just the process they have chosen to adopt that is offensive – it is the way in which they have carried on the debate, a depressing mixture of denial, inconvenience and frustration.

 

Denial that marriage equality is an issue that is important to everyday Australians (it is). Denial that LGBTI couples, our families and friends exist in every electorate across the country (we do).

 

And denial that access to marriage rites is a fundamental right (it is – and if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be so many Coalition MPs and Senators who have chosen to exercise that rite, and right, themselves).

 

It seems like many in the Liberal and National Parties find the entire marriage equality debate, and the ongoing demands of LGBTI Australians for equality under the law, to be terribly inconvenient (I’m sure there are some who probably find the mere existence of LGBTI people to be inconvenient too, but that is a topic for another time).

 

It is as if they are somehow ‘hard done by’ just by being forced to consider this issue, and wish it would all go away (here’s a newsflash for those MPs and Senators who mustn’t have been paying attention until now – we will not go away until we are truly equal, and we will keep on making ourselves as ‘inconvenient’ as possible in the meantime).

 

Then there are those, like Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who have actually said, out loud, that they are ‘frustrated’ by this issue, and frustrated by the fact they cannot spend their time talking about ‘more important issues’.

 

Frustrated? Are you f#$%ing serious?

 

With all due respect, they have absolutely no idea what frustration about this subject feels like.

 

Frustration is being a member of the LGBTI community, and having your human rights, your dignity and your worth as a person publicly debated, year after year, with no apparent resolution in sight.

 

Frustration is being the family member or friend of LGBTI couples, wanting nothing more than to celebrate the wedding of your loved ones, but being denied that ability because of the ongoing, unjustifiable and inexcusable inaction of Commonwealth Parliamentarians.

 

Frustration is me typing this, on day two thousand, seven hundred and fifty-six of my engagement to my fiancé Steve, and still having no idea when we will finally be able to ‘tie the knot’.

 

We have been engaged now for more than seven and a half years (it bears repeating, for the benefit of those MPs and Senators who think that marriage equality is a hypothetical issue, one that doesn’t affect the lives of real people).

 

In that time, we have been involved in campaigns to change the ALP platform to support marriage equality (which was won almost six years ago), and to adopt a binding vote (partially won, coming into effect at the next federal election).

 

We spent the better part of twelve months fighting against ‘Plebiscite 1.0’, even though it could have meant us marrying sooner, because the recognition of our relationship as adults was not worth the harm it threatened to LGBTI young people, and the children of rainbow families.

 

We could not stomach the thought of saying ‘I do’, while knowing the pain that would have been inflicted on 15-year olds around the country, just like 15-year old Steve and Alastair had once been, in order to for us to walk down the aisle.

 

And, just when we thought the marriage equality debate in this country couldn’t go any lower, it reaches a new nadir, with ‘Plebiscite 2.0’ (or a postal plebiscite, or a ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’ dressed up as a supposed statistical survey).

 

Whatever it is called, we’ll fight it too – to stop it from happening, and if it does proceed, to win it. Because, no matter how tired we are, we must.

 

The worst part of all of this is that it is a completely unnecessary battle, imposed upon us by a Government that refuses to do its job – by voting on legislation, in Parliament – but instead shirks, and outsources, its basic responsibilities.

 

Indeed, today could have been the day that a Bill to introduce marriage equality, one that stood a decent chance of success, was finally introduced into the House of Representatives.

 

That would have been a lovely way for Steve and I to celebrate nine years of being together (did I forget to mention that we first met on this day way back in 2008?)

 

Instead, we’ll remember our anniversary as the day the Turnbull Government reintroduced the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill in the Senate, its latest attempt to delay, and if possible derail, the equal treatment of our love.

 

Of course, despite that personal indignity, there is another date, and another anniversary, this week that is far, far more depressing.

 

This coming Sunday it will be 13 years since the Senate approved the Howard Government’s original ban on marriage equality, on August 13 2004.

 

The passing of a law the sole aim of which was to treat LGBTI people and our relationships as lesser than other Australians was unconscionable.

 

The fact that, today, the Marriage Act 1961 continues to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics is unconscionable.

 

That MPs and Senators in successive Parliaments have failed to take action to remove this stain from our statute books, meaning that many, many couples have died while waiting for the ability to wed, is unconscionable – and unforgivable.

 

And the fact that, through its actions, the Turnbull Government apparently wants nothing more than to unnecessarily prolong the engagements of couples of Steve and me, and to ensure all LGBTI Australians endure as much vitriol as possible in the meantime, is completely unconscionable too.

 

**********

 

It is now almost 8am and the bus will soon be pulling into Canberra, where I will be spending the next three days at a conference just across the lake from our institutions of Government.

 

From a Parliament, and Senate, that I hope will reject the reintroduced legislation to hold a traditional plebiscite.

 

From an Executive that will respond by pushing ahead with a ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’, a mean and tricky proposal that will cause serious and sustained injury to young and vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, and waste $122 million in the process.

 

And from a Judiciary who I hope will find this entire farce to be unconstitutional.

 

Like many in the LGBTI community, I know I am going to find today to be incredibly challenging, just like yesterday was and the day before – and probably tomorrow, and the weeks and months ahead too.

 

But I am going to try my best to spend the rest of today thinking about Steve, and our relationship, and not the parliamentarians who wish to do us harm.

 

Because I love him with all my heart. Because the last nine years have undeniably been the best years of my life.

 

And because one day I will marry him. It won’t be on day 2,756 of our engagement. It probably won’t be on day 3,000 either. But it will happen, and there is nothing, and nobody, who I will let stand in our way.

 

311032_10150319757443027_200380029_n

Steve & I at one of the many marriage equality rallies we’ve attended over the years. We’ll keep fighting until it’s won.

 

Advertisements

It’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace

Commonwealth Parliament returns this week, for the final sitting fortnight of the year.

 

During the previous sitting week, on Monday 7 November, the Senate finally killed off, once and for all, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

The welcome actions of Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team Senators, and even Derryn Hinch, have spared the country from what would have been an entirely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and inevitably divisive public vote on the human rights of a minority group.

 

In doing so, they have also ensured that the public, and political, pressure to finally pass marriage equality sits squarely where it should have been all along – on Liberal and National MPs and Senators.

 

After all, they are the ones sitting on the Government benches, meaning they shoulder the responsibility to introduce legislation to treat all couples equally, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

From now until the next federal election, likely to be held in the 1st half of 2019, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should put pressure on Coalition parliamentarians to fix this mess.

 

More specifically, we will need to target one of the three main groupings within the Government, the cohort who are more likely to be receptive to our messages – Moderate Liberals.

 

It is difficult to see the other two ‘factions’ changing their respective tunes. National Party MPs, who are supposed to represent all people in rural and regional areas, have instead shown themselves completely uninterested in the relationships of the many LGBTI couples that live in their electorates.

 

In fact, the old ‘Country Party’ rump of the Coalition have been so determined to delay and potentially defeat marriage equality that they included the plebiscite as a core component of its formal agreement with Malcolm Turnbull when he became Prime Minister in September 2015.

 

Apparently, it is far more important to spend at least $170 million, and probably more than $200 million, on a non-binding opinion poll, than on meeting the health, education and infrastructure needs of non-metropolitan Australians.

 

The other major grouping within the Coalition – Conservative Liberals – are even less interested in recognising the human rights of LGBTI people. They would prefer just to see marriage equality blocked, and only agreed to holding a plebiscite under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott because they saw it, correctly, as a stalling tactic.

 

With the plebiscite now dead, the terrible Tory trio of Abetz, Bernardi and Christensen, and their factional colleagues, are comfortable in seeing this issue left off the political agenda – from their perspective, hopefully permanently.

 

All of which is to say that the only hope of passing marriage equality in the remainder of this term rests with what is, in 2016, perhaps the smallest and least powerful of the Coalition groups – Moderate Liberals[i].

 

These MPs and Senators are the only ones within Malcolm Turnbull’s Government who could foreseeably take any action on marriage equality, at least in the short-term.

 

That’s because, if they are genuinely moderate in their beliefs, they are likely to understand the following three things:

 

  1. There is no justification for discrimination against people solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status under secular law – and that includes in the Marriage Act 1961.

 

  1. The plebiscite was the wrong process to achieve marriage equality. Not only was it unacceptable to the vast majority of LGBTI people, it also contravened the traditions of Australian democracy[ii], which has only ever witnessed three national plebiscites, and none on substantive policy for almost a century, and

 

  1. Most importantly, LGBTI Australians have already waited long enough (far too long actually) for their relationships to be treated equally under the law, meaning a parliamentary vote should not be delayed until 2019.

 

But, while they may understand these points, the real question is: What will Moderate Liberal MPs and Senators now do about it?

 

Will they stand up for their principles and push for a parliamentary vote, or will they continue their modus operandi from the past ten to 15 years and adopt the path of least resistance against their National Party and Conservative Liberal counterparts, by maintaining their official support for the discredited plebiscite?

 

Unfortunately, the signs to date are not encouraging. North Queensland LNP MP, Warren Entsch, who has pushed for marriage equality inside the Coalition for several years, has indicated that he is choosing right now, when we arguably need him most, to ‘give up the fight’[iii] on this issue for the remainder of this term.

 

He has, in effect, walked away from the LGBTI community rather than walking five metres across the chamber floor to vote for reform.

 

Disappointingly, few if any of Entsch’s colleagues have so far suggested they are interested in picking up where he left off.

 

warren-entsch

Warren Entsch, introducing his private member’s bill for marriage equality in 2015. Sadly, it seems he is unwilling to even vote for equality for the next two and a half years.

 

What would we ask them to do if they were ‘ready and willing’? There are two ways in which Moderate Liberals could progress marriage equality this term.

 

The first, and most challenging, path would be for them to push for a conscience vote inside the Liberal Party room (and in the absence of National MPs and Senators who, as Christopher Pyne accurately pointed out, were included by Tony Abbott in August 2015 as a means of ‘branch-stacking’ against equality).

 

Their arguments would be strong – the Government has tried and failed to implement its election policy (to hold the plebiscite), so it needs to find another way to recognise the legal equality of LGBTI relationships. A free vote also has the benefit of being far more consistent with the past practices of Australia’s main right-of-centre party than a public vote.

 

But they would also face strong resistance, led by PM-(again)-in-waiting Tony Abbott, among others, meaning it is unclear what the outcome would be.

 

If they failed, the second way in which Moderate Liberals could help pass marriage equality would be by ‘simply’ crossing the floor.

 

It would only take one or two principled Senators to secure passage in the Upper House, and probably only a small handful of MPs, perhaps half-a-dozen, to do so in the House of Representatives.

 

In the absence of a Prime Minister, Ministers or Assistant Ministers who were prepared to give up their positions of power for the sake of the human rights of their fellow citizens, they would all need to come from the backbench. And, by taking such a step, these backbenchers would know they were potentially jeopardising any future advancement within the Party.

 

It is unclear whether there are enough Coalition MPs and Senators to make that crucial difference. But, it is incredibly important that Moderate Liberals find these numbers, one way or another.

 

Not just for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and our family members and friends, who have already endured 12 years – and counting – of John Howard’s homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ban on our weddings.

 

It is also important for the future of Moderate Liberals themselves.

 

Make no mistake, this is a fundamental test for the section of the Liberal Party who identify as moderate, even ‘progressive’, on social issues.

 

Their ‘slice’ of the Coalition has been diminishing for decades, and their influence has waned noticeably from even the time when I was growing up.

 

On many issues, from the (mis)treatment of people seeking asylum, to the prioritisation of ‘national security’ over civil liberties, and even their growing obsession with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, they are now almost indistinguishable from their National Party, and Conservative Liberal, colleagues.

 

So, if they cannot stand up to the rabid right-wing on this, a straight-forward question of inclusion versus discrimination – a clear-cut choice between granting human rights or actively denying them – it is difficult to see them standing up on anything.

 

If Moderate Liberals fail to ‘deliver the goods’ on marriage equality by the time the next election rolls around, it will be tempting for most Australians to reach the conclusion that they are ‘good-for-nothing’.

 

And, in my view at least, the public would be right – if Moderate Liberals cannot make progress on this issue before 2019, then they will have demonstrated that they have no place in contemporary Australian politics. It probably won’t be that much longer before they discover they have no place in Commonwealth Parliament either.

 

All of which means that, if they want LGBTI Australians to be able to walk down the aisle – and if they want to retain their seats on the ‘right’ side of the political aisle – it’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace.

 

**********

 

Footnotes:

[i] Irrespective of their actual factual alignment, for the purposes of this article this grouping includes the four out gay men in the Government: Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson, Trevor Evans and Senator Dean Smith.

[ii] The argument made by WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith in declaring that he could not, in good conscience, support the plebiscite enabling legislation.

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 2016, The same-sex plebiscite is dead. So what happens now?

Malcolm Turnbull wants YOU to pay $10.83 so HE can keep HIS job

 

Some of the details of the proposed marriage equality plebiscite were finally revealed on Tuesday (13 September), more than 12 months after it was first agreed as Coalition policy under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

 

That includes the estimated cost: a massive $170,000,000.

 

In the days since, there has been plenty of coverage of the wastefulness of this national public opinion poll, especially when the alternative – passing a Bill through Parliament, in the ordinary way – would cost exactly $0.

 

There are, of course, an almost limitless number of ways in which this enormous sum of money could be better spent, including on funding additional nurses, teachers or postgraduate students[i].

 

But we also shouldn’t forget where this money comes from: from us, the taxpayer. Or, in this context, from us, the Australian voter.

 

The Australian Electoral Commission estimates that, at 30 June 2016, there were 15,696,874 people on the nation’s electoral roll[ii].

 

Which means that EVERY AUSTRALIAN VOTER – cisgender, heterosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) alike – is effectively being charged $10.83 for the ‘privilege’ of participating in a plebiscite which nobody can provide a compelling justification for.

 

Indeed, there are very few people or organisations who are clamouring for the marriage equality plebiscite to be held. The extreme right-wing of the Liberal-National Government. The Australian Christian Lobby and other religious fundamentalists. And the Prime Minister, one Malcolm Turnbull MP.

 

Yes, the same Malcolm Turnbull who argued against the plebiscite in the Coalition party-room in August 2015.

 

The same Malcolm Turnbull who claims to support marriage equality, but who cannot bring himself to do so on the floor of the House of Representatives.

 

The same Malcolm Turnbull who, even as he introduced the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2016 on Wednesday, conceded that the cost of the vote is ‘substantial’, and that this is a ‘valid argument’ against holding it[iii].

 

So why exactly is he pushing ahead with a policy that he knows is wrong, both in principle and in practice?

 

The answer, as it nearly always is, is politics. Turnbull is tied to the plebiscite because it is only way he keeps himself tied to his job.

 

One year to the day before he introduced his plebiscite bill, and the day after he had rolled Tony Abbott to become Leader of the Liberal Party, Turnbull signed a new Coalition agreement with the National Party in which he committed to holding a plebiscite. In doing so, he signed away any principles he may have once held on this issue.

 

Even now, he is so single-minded in pursuing the plebiscite because he continually needs to appease the narrow-minded Abetz, Bernardi and Christensen, the ultra-conservative Senators and MP who, it seems, are the ones actually running the Government.

 

There is no moral justification for this pursuit – it is all about base political motivations. And so we are left to draw the following conclusion:

 

There are no good reasons to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, but plenty of bad ones.

 

Chief among them is that it is being held so that Turnbull can keep his job.

 

You, the Australian voter, are being charged $10.83 each, so that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull can stay on as our 29th Prime Minister.

 

We are all being charged a ‘Turnbull Tax’.

 

10 dollar note

Malcolm Turnbull wants YOU to pay $10, and change, so HE can keep HIS job as Prime Minister.

 

Of course, the great irony of this situation is that we are all expected to pay $10.83 so he can keep his job, despite the fact he is refusing to actually do his job (by passing legislation), and is instead making us do it for him.

 

What a wonderful system for him. And what a horrible outcome for Australia’s LGBTI community, and indeed for all those who believe people should be treated equally under secular law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

 

Okay, so maybe the above is a little bit unfair – no, not on Malcolm Turnbull, who is after all the Prime Minister who wants to inflict an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on the population.

 

Instead, it is unfair because there are others who are also responsible for this abhorrent policy, and who therefore should be both named and blamed.

 

As I indicated above, this includes the extremists within the Liberal and National Parties who have advocated the plebiscite as a way to delay the equal recognition of LGBTI relationships.

 

And so, just as you are being asked to pay the Turnbull Tax, you will also be contributing to the ‘Extremist Excise’ if the plebiscite proceeds (I would have called it the ‘Fringe Fee’, except that these bigots are no longer fringe-dwellers within the Coalition, they seem to be in the majority).

 

It would also be unfair to overlook the role of the Australian Christian Lobby in this mess, as one of the few non-government organisations who believe an extended national debate about the validity of LGBTI relationships is a good idea.

 

Which means that the $170,000,000 spent also represents the ‘Australian Christian Lobby Levy’ – or perhaps even the ‘Lyle Levy’, so-named after its managing director Lyle Shelton.

 

Finally, we shouldn’t forget that of this $170 million, $15 million is being allocated towards the cost of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns ($7.5 million each).

 

Except that the ‘Yes’ side doesn’t want this money. Indeed, this public funding is one of the main reasons why practically every LGBTI organisation in the entire country came together on Wednesday to reject Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite[iv].

 

Only the ‘No’ side wants it, presumably so that the Australian Christian Lobby can have a bigger platform to compare marriage equality and safe schools to the rise of Nazism, or link rainbow families with the Stolen Generations, or to incite ‘bathroom panic’ against trans people, and trans women in particular[v].

 

Mr Shelton and the ACL want your money to be able to promote intolerance against LGBTI Australians on the basis of who they are. In effect, you, me, all of us, will be paying an ‘Intolerance Impost’, on top of the Turnbull Tax, Extremist Excise and Lyle Levy.

 

I mentioned earlier that there are no good reasons to hold the plebiscite. Well, as we all know there are plenty of reasons to oppose it[vi].

 

The fact that we are expected to pay for the ‘privilege’ of participating in this pointless exercise – of paying the Turnbull Tax, the Extremist Excise, the Australian Christian Lobby Levy and the Intolerance Impost – is just one more. And it’s a reason that affects all of us – because we are all being asked to cough up.

 

**********

 

Footnotes:

[i] Mamamia, There are so many better ways we could spend the same-sex marriage plebiscite funding, 15 September 2016.

[ii] Australian Electoral Commission, Enrolment Statistics, 30 June 2016.

[iii] “The other one is the cost – and that is substantial – but then you have to ask yourself: what price democracy? So those are two arguments that are valid.” Hansard, Wednesday 14 September 2016.

[iv] Media Release, LGBTI Groups Joint Statement on the Plebiscite, Wednesday 14 September 2016.

[v] Please see: Lyle Shelton’s Respectful Debate.

[vi] Please see: Letter to ALP MPs and Senators Calling on Them to Block the Plebiscite.

Malcolm Turnbull’s Mid-Term Report Card

 

It is now one week since polls closed, and it is gradually becoming clear that at worst Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition will form a minority Government, with the support of Bob Katter, but it is much more likely they will achieve the slimmest of parliamentary majorities.

 

However, what is even clearer is that Turnbull himself emerges from this election in a greatly weakened position, with rabid elements within the Liberal Party (hello Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi) undermining his leadership and calling for the Coalition Government to move even further to the right (if that were possible).

 

In fact, members of the conservative commentariat have already called for his resignation (the most predictably unhinged, but nevertheless hilarious, of the lot being Andrew Bolt).

 

In the midst of this in-fighting and bitter internal recriminations, and without being able to point to a clear election victory in his defence, it is now highly unlikely Malcolm Turnbull will still be Prime Minister this time next year. Indeed, many people doubt he will survive until the end of 2016.

 

All of which means, given he only became leader ten months ago, we are now probably more than half-way through the ‘grand experiment’ that is Turnbull’s stint in the Lodge. What better time to ask what he has to show for it? And so, here is Malcolm Turnbull’s Mid-Term Report Card as Prime Minister of Australia.

 

First, let’s assess the positives – what have been Turnbull’s accomplishments?

 

Malcolm Turnbull's Successes as Prime Minister_

 

 

Nothing. Despite being Prime Minister since September 2015, there is literally nothing I can think of to list as a lasting achievement of his time so far in office.

 

Sure, he managed to become Prime Minister in the first place – which is a great personal accomplishment – but filling out his own CV doesn’t automatically help anyone whose surname isn’t Turnbull (or who lives outside Point Piper).

 

If you had asked people late last year they might have nominated ‘getting rid of Tony Abbott’ as an achievement – and at the time I probably would have agreed. But, given Turnbull has spent every day since meticulously transforming himself into Abbott 2.0, right down to the vacuous three-word slogans (‘Jobs & growth’), it is increasingly difficult to see any difference between them.

 

The shrinking band of Turnbull supporters within the Coalition might also highlight his ‘victory’ on July 2, however close, as an accomplishment. And granted, winning an election is hard, but it also matters what you are able to do with it.

 

Given his entire election platform seemed to consist of a 10-year, $50 billion corporate tax cut – that appears doomed in the new Senate, given the size of the ALP, Greens and Xenophon contingents, and the ‘messy’ state of the cross-bench – Malcolm doesn’t have a mandate to do anything much in the remaining weeks or, at best, months of his Prime Ministership.

 

Now, let’s turn to the negatives – what have been the failures of PM Turnbull?

 

Malcolm Turnbull's Failures as Prime Minister_

 

On this last point, marriage equality, the list of Malcolm Turnbull’s failures might yet grow longer. Because, in the dying days of his leadership, one of his final acts as PM might be to try to push through the enabling legislation to hold the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite, first proposed by Tony Abbott but then adopted by Turnbull in his largely unsuccessful attempts to ingratiate himself with the ‘DelCons’.

 

Even if marriage equality is ultimately passed after a plebiscite, it still won’t be Turnbull’s achievement – because it will be the LGBTI community and our families, friends and allies who will need to put in the hard yards to ensure a ‘Yes’ vote wins (and, irrespective of victory or defeat, it will also be the LGBTI community that pays the price of the hatred and intolerance whipped up during the campaign that precedes it).

 

All in all, then, that’s no achievements (or ‘A’s) to list on Malcolm’s Mid-Term Report Card, and a helluva lot of failures (or ‘F’s).

 

For someone who is accustomed to succeeding at most things he turns his mind to (outside the failed 1999 ‘Republic’ campaign anyway), it must be particularly galling to be such a complete non-entity when finally given the nation’s top job. In the many years ahead after he leaves office Turnbull will have to reconcile himself with being remembered as the ‘Nothingman’ Prime Minister.

 

Of course, he was supposed to be better than this. The Liberal who believed in climate change – once famously saying “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am” – but who now presides over the farcical Direct Action policy.

 

The inner-city moderate, small ‘l’ liberal, who in March 2016 became the first sitting Primer Minister to attend the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade – but who refused to stand up to the bigots on his backbench and their nasty attacks on Safe Schools, and their ongoing attempts to delay and/or defeat equal relationship recognition.

 

Malcolm Turnbull once famously described John Howard as “the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart”. Well, given his own inconsistencies and hypocrisies, it could be argued that Turnbull himself is far worse. Because a heart can mend, whereas during his time as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has diminished our hopes – and that is something that is far harder to replenish.

 

Malcolm Turnbull’s Proposed Marriage Equality Plebiscite is Truly Extraordinary

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s policy – that, if re-elected, he will hold a plebiscite to determine whether marriage equality will finally be introduced in Australia – is truly extraordinary.

 

Unfortunately for him, and even more so for us, it’s not extraordinary like Adele’s voice (or, if you’re not a fan, at least her extraordinary ability to sell music).

 

Instead, it’s extraordinary in a ‘Donald Trump is in with a real chance of becoming President of the United States’ kind of way: unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent and radical.

 

Unprecedented

 

The Commonwealth of Australia is now in its 116th year. A significant number of national votes, other than elections, have been held over that time, including 44 referendums (although only eight of those were successful).

 

But there have only been three plebiscites since Federation in 1901 – and, given the High Court has already found that Commonwealth Parliament has the power to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to introduce marriage equality[i], any national vote on marriage equality would be a non-binding plebiscite rather than a constitution-altering referendum.

 

Of those three plebiscites, only one has been held since World War I: the 1977 ‘multiple-choice’ vote to select a new national anthem (for the record, the options were to retain God Save the Queen, or to change to Advance Australia Fair, Song of Australia or Waltzing Matilda, with Advance Australia Fair ‘winning’ with 43.29% of the ballots cast).

 

With a voting age of 18 (having been lowered from 21 in 1973), only people born before April 1959 were able to participate in that symbolic decision[ii]. To put it another way, nobody born in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s has ever voted in any Australia-wide plebiscite.

 

To find a plebiscite that was used to consider a substantive issue of public policy, we have to travel even further back in time – to almost a full century before the present day. In the depths of the so-called ‘war to end all wars’, the Billy Hughes-led Commonwealth Government conducted the only other two plebiscites in our history, to determine whether to introduce military conscription.

 

These votes – held in October 1916 and December 1917 respectively[iii] – are in effect the only precedent of any kind for the holding of a national vote on a policy issue that did not require constitutional change.

 

But, with the voting age then set at 21, and the most ‘recent’ of these votes a mere 98 and a half years ago, in order to participate in a plebiscite of this kind you needed to be born in 1896 or before – or older than the current oldest person in the world[iv]. In other words, nobody alive today has ever voted in an Australia-wide plebiscite to decide a substantive policy issue.

 

The fact that there is literally no-one around who has participated in a policy-based plebiscite confirms that Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed public vote on marriage equality is essentially unprecedented in modern Australia.

 

As for ‘the Donald’, well, you don’t need to be Nate Silver to understand that his Presidential candidacy is unprecedented in contemporary American history too – there hasn’t been anything like him over the past 50, or even 100, years either.

 

Bizarre

 

One of the strangest things about Turnbull’s policy is that he wants to hold the first substantive plebiscite in almost a century on an issue like marriage equality. Think for a minute about all of the significant changes that have occurred since December 1917 without the need for such a vote.

 

We’ve been through multiple wars – World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and more recently we’ve followed the United States into seemingly endless wars in the Middle East (a somewhat terrifying aside: who knows how many more we would enter at the behest of President Trump?) Australia even had conscription during WWII, and again for the conflict in Vietnam – yet none of these wars, nor the introduction of conscription, required a single plebiscite to be held.

 

We’ve experienced the Great Depression, the post-War boom, the major challenges of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, economic rationalism, and the Global Financial Crisis – still no plebiscite.

 

We’ve seen massive social changes too – including the rise of the women’s movement (imagine for a second the reaction of someone from 1917 to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard), and the recognition of Aboriginal land rights (to some extent anyway), as well as substantial LGBTI law reform, such as decriminalisation, anti-discrimination legislation, parenting rights (in most states and territories) and de facto relationship recognition. Not one of these social reforms needed a plebiscite either.

 

There has even been revolutionary change to the institution of marriage itself – with the 1975 introduction of ‘no fault divorce’ having a much greater impact on a much larger number of families than something like marriage equality could ever hope to achieve. And, once again, it was done without Commonwealth Parliament derogating from its primary responsibility to pass legislation by instead calling a national vote.

 

In this context, it is downright bizarre that, of all the possible issues that could have been the subject of a plebiscite over the past 98 and a half years, Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Government believe the simple question of whether two men, or two women, can marry is the one worth making the subject of an expensive and time-consuming public vote.

 

Although, admittedly, it’s possibly still not quite as bizarre as the fact someone who is perhaps best known as the star of a reality-TV show, and who has never held public office of any kind, is the presumptive Republican nominee for what remains the most powerful job in the world.

 

Inconsistent

 

One of the things many people find most frustrating about Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed marriage equality plebiscite is that it is entirely inconsistent with recent political history. Or, if you’re being less charitable, that it is hypocritical given the actions of the Liberal and National Parties over the past 12 years.

 

Then-Prime Minister John Howard did not hold a public vote before introducing his Marriage Amendment Act 2004 that legislated to deny the right to marry to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians. There was no push for a plebiscite on the issue by anyone in the Liberal and National Parties during the many failed attempts to repeal that ban in the years between 2004 and 2011, either.

 

During the September 2012 debate, and (sadly unsuccessful) vote, on the most recent marriage equality Bill to be considered at length, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his Coalition colleagues did not use the opportunity to describe the process of Parliament voting on marriage equality as inappropriate – they simply used the votes that they held as MPs and Senators to help block it.

 

All of a sudden, however, in August 2015, just as it appeared that the numbers in Parliament might finally have caught up to existing majority community support for this reform, the Liberal-National joint party-room decided to ‘backtrack’ on more than a decade of practice, and refused to use their own votes on this issue, either for or against marriage equality, altogether.

 

Instead, they chose to embark upon a process that we have already seen is essentially unprecedented in modern Australia – before they hold any further parliamentary votes on marriage equality, they will first conduct a $160 million Australia-wide public vote.

 

It is difficult to see this dramatic change in process – from MPs and Senators voting on an issue, just like all other legislation, to holding a nation-wide plebiscite – as anything other than unfair, given that it moves the goalposts on people, and campaigners, who have been working to effect this change for the past decade.

 

But, irrespective of whether you think a plebiscite is ‘fair’ or not, it is impossible to deny that the policy Malcolm Turnbull is taking to the July 2 election – to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality – is fundamentally inconsistent with what he, and his colleagues, have done since John Howard’s ban on marriage equality in 2004.

 

Donald Trump could be described as the King of Inconsistency (although he might upgrade himself to Emperor). As his recent embrace of the National Rifle Association – after previously supporting gun control measures[v] – demonstrates, there is no position he won’t change, and no principle he won’t sacrifice, in order to become POTUS.

 

Radical

 

The one defence that Liberal and National MPs – including both former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – regularly make with regards to holding a plebiscite is that it is ‘the most democratic way to make this decision.’ After all, how much more ‘democratic’ can you get than letting the people decide via a public vote?

 

And I’ll readily acknowledge, holding a plebiscite on marriage equality does fit with certain conceptions of ‘participatory’ democracy. But it is also a very different approach to determining matters of public policy from our usual modus operandi, one that does not sit particularly well with our more traditional ‘representative’ democracy.

 

For example, Tony Abbott has said that holding a plebiscite “is the best way to decide something that’s so important but so personal… It’s to let the people decide so that the decision, whichever way it goes, will have their authority”[vi] [emphasis added].

 

Implicit in describing a plebiscite as the best way to resolve controversial issues is a criticism of our Parliamentary system as an inferior, or clearly ‘second-best’, option.

 

This is actually an extremely radical view of how our democracy should operate – and it’s coming from precisely the same people who usually like to describe themselves as ‘capital C’ conservatives (as an aside: we’ve grown accustomed to a Liberal Party that is not liberal, a National Party that isn’t national, and even an Australian Christian Lobby that isn’t very ‘Christian’, but we should also be highlighting that contemporary ‘conservatives’ are actually nothing of the sort).

 

The logical conclusion of statements such as these is that Australia should be holding more plebiscites, and on a wider range of subjects, rather than simply ‘letting the politicians decide’.

 

In fact, this argument neatly complements the first point of this post – while a plebiscite like this is unprecedented today, by conducting a public vote on marriage equality Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National colleagues would be creating a precedent to hold plebiscites on all sorts of other topics.

 

It is a radical shift that even WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith has identified, while warning of its potential consequences[vii]:

 

“We must also bear in mind the precedent being set as we embark on this latest democratic experiment. After all, if Parliament is to send the nation to a plebiscite to determine the question of same-sex marriage, what is to be done the next time an overseas military commitment is needed?

 

“Into the future, shall we defer to popular vote the question of euthanasia? What of changes to family law and child custody arrangements? These issues are informed by people’s moral views and impact upon people’s personal lives just as much as same-sex marriage.”

 

We could add to Senator Smith’s short list an almost limitless range of possible plebiscites: from abortion to assisted reproductive technology; action on climate change and even access to health and education services – all are influenced by people’s moral views, and all would have an impact on people’s lives.

 

More worryingly, you could easily imagine the same types of people currently agitating for a plebiscite on marriage equality subsequently calling for public votes on – or rather against – immigration, refugees and ‘flag-burning’. You could even see public votes to reintroduce the death penalty or to officially declare Australia a ‘Christian’ nation.

 

The fact that ‘conservatives’ within the Liberal and National Parties are willing to risk these consequences by holding a plebiscite, in what is a fairly transparent attempt to delay or defeat marriage equality, shows just how little they are committed to Australia’s traditional system of representative democracy. Theirs is a genuinely radical agenda, and it should be resisted.

 

It almost goes without saying that Donald Trump’s agenda as a Presidential candidate is genuinely radical too – from building a wall between the US and Mexico (and then making the Mexican Government pay for it – WTF?) to banning all Muslims from entering the United States, he’s more parts radical than conservative.

 

Trump

Just like US Presidential candidate Donald Trump, Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed marriage equality plebiscite is extraordinary, unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent and radical.

 

**********

 

There are of course several other aspects of Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed marriage equality plebiscite that are truly extraordinary. As I’ve written elsewhere[viii], holding a national public vote on this issue would be:

 

  • Extraordinarily unnecessary, given the High Court has already found Commonwealth Parliament can introduce marriage equality,
  • Extraordinarily inappropriate, because the human rights of a minority group shouldn’t be determined by a popularity contest,
  • Extraordinarily wasteful, with a cost of at least $160 million that would be better spent on other priorities[ix], and
  • Extraordinarily divisive, with a real risk that the next six to 12 months will witness extreme attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

But what I have attempted to show in this post is that the process is extraordinary in and of itself. Just like Donald Trump’s candidacy to become US President, the proposal to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality is unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent and radical.

 

Thankfully, there is another similarity between these two otherwise disparate phenomena: neither is inevitable. In the same way we hope (and for the religious among us, pray) the American people choose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump come November 8, we can also choose not to have a marriage equality plebiscite via our election on July 2.

 

If we elect Bill Shorten and Labor at the upcoming poll, then not only will we avoid a plebiscite, we will also most likely have marriage equality within 100 days[x]. Even if the Liberal and National Parties are returned to Government, the proposed plebiscite could nevertheless still be rejected by the Opposition, Greens and minor parties in the Senate. There’s even a much slimmer chance that 2016 Malcolm Turnbull might remember pre-2015 Malcolm Turnbull’s principled stance against a plebiscite.

 

But none of this will happen if we don’t make our voices heard, telling anyone and everyone who will listen: We don’t want a plebiscite. We don’t need a plebiscite. All we want is to be treated equally under the law – and we shouldn’t have to negotiate an extraordinary, unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent and radical process to do so.

 

 

Footnotes

[i] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55.

[ii] The result of the 1977 national anthem plebiscite (‘Anthem-vision’) was treated with so much importance it wasn’t even implemented for another seven years.

[iii] The October 1916 plebiscite voted narrowly against conscription 51.61% to 48.39%, while the December 1917 margin was slightly larger: 53.79% No versus 46.21% Yes.

[iv] The older person alive at the time of writing, Italian Emma Morano, was born on 29 November 1899.

[v] The Guardian, May 21 2016, “Donald Trump endorsed by NRA despite history of gun control support”.

[vi] The Guardian, 30 January 2016, “Tony Abbott will back result of plebiscite on same-sex marriage”.

[vii] Dean Smith, Sydney Morning Herald, December 21 2015, “Marriage equality plebiscite would set a precedent for when we defer to a popular vote.”

[viii] No Referendum. No Plebiscite. Just Pass the Bill.

[ix] 7 Better Ways to Spent $158.4 million.

[x] If Shorten wins, start planning those weddings for Monday 10 October.

What does Malcolm Turnbull want his legacy to be?

It’s time for Malcolm Turnbull to seriously consider what he wants his legacy to be.

 

That might sound premature to some, especially given that tomorrow (Monday 14 March 2016) it will be only six months since he replaced Tony Abbott as Leader of the Liberal Party. Tuesday, the clichéd ‘Ides of March’, is the six-month anniversary of his official swearing in.

 

However, in the life of an Australian Prime Minister, six months is not an insignificant period of time. Indeed, for many, six months is a considerable slice of their term.

 

In the just over 70 years since World War II, Malcolm Turnbull is the 15th person to ascend to our top job. The average term in office – even including the 16-year rule of Robert Menzies[i] – is less than five years. In fact, only four Prime Ministers[ii] in those seven decades have even made it to the five-year mark, while six ended up serving less than three years.

 

The pace of turnover of Prime Ministers also appears to be accelerating – in the 11 years since Turnbull entered Parliament, he is now the fifth Prime Minister (with one of those, Kevin Rudd, even having two non-consecutive turns).

 

Based on the above, six months is likely to represent at least 10% of Turnbull’s entire term in office, and probably more.

 

In fact, there are reasons to believe Turnbull’s stay in the Lodge might be shorter than the average. For example, he is third oldest person to ever be first sworn in as Prime Minister (and the two who were older[iii] served for a combined period of less than two years).

 

It is also reasonable to describe Turnbull’s support inside the Parliamentary Liberal Party as somewhat tenuous. His first stint as Leader, while in Opposition, lasted less than 15 months. And, even after two years of the worst Prime Minister in living memory, he only defeated Tony Abbott by 54 votes to 44 last September (and which was only moderately better than the 39 votes cast for an ‘empty chair’[iv] in the February 2015 spill motion against Abbott).

 

With a switch of just six votes needed to reverse that result (whether to Abbott, who clearly remains interested in returning, or another candidate from the conservative wing of the Liberals) it should be noted that a sizeable majority of Liberal MPs in marginal seats voted for Turnbull[v], meaning that any loss of seats at the upcoming 2016 election would leave him more vulnerable to a challenge from inside the Government.

 

Of course, if the current level of in-fighting and disorganisation within the Coalition continues, there is also the small but real chance of the Government being voted out, cutting Turnbull’s term short at 12 months or less.

 

This thought – that, after just six months, it is time to start seriously considering his legacy – might be confronting for Turnbull, but he should console himself with the knowledge that, for most of his contemporaries, substantial elements of their legacies were built during their first year in office.

 

Kevin Rudd gave the apology to the Stolen Generations after less than three months in the role. He is also most commonly remembered for his response to the Global Financial Crisis, which reached its peak in September and October 2008 – again, less than 12 months from his election win on November 24 2007.

 

In Julia Gillard’s case, the announcement of the ‘carbon pricing mechanism’ (forever dubbed the carbon tax) was made on February 24 2011, exactly eight months after she ousted Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

 

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is also seen as a key part of her legacy – and, while the legislation that gave it effect was not introduced until late 2012, the Productivity Commission report which preceded it was already two months into its work before Gillard even became PM[vi].

 

Tony Abbott continues to assert that his first Budget – the ‘horror’ 2014-15 Budget, more widely known for its unfairness– is a key part of his legacy[vii], and that was handed down just eight months into his term. His more trivial – but just as infamous – ‘captain’s call’ to reintroduce knights and dames happened two months earlier.

 

Even in the case of John Howard, who, given he served as Prime Minister for more than 11 years and therefore has a long and highly-contested ‘legacy’, there is probably only one key positive achievement about which almost all parts of the political spectrum agree[viii] – his gun law reforms following the Port Arthur Massacre[ix], which itself occurred less than two months after he swept to power.

 

Six months into his own term as Prime Minister, it is hard to pin down exactly what Malcolm Turnbull’s key achievement or achievements have been (other than the initial, widespread feeling of ‘relief’ which many Australians experienced after he deposed Abbott). Different language has been used, including much talk of ‘agility’ and ‘innovation’ and ‘excitement’, but new ideas or policies? Not so much.

 

That situation will change, to some extent, over the coming months, as Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison put together their first Budget – to be delivered in early May (either May 10th, or 3rd if, as is now widely expected, they head to a double dissolution poll on July 2). There is obviously intense pressure on them both to set out their platform for the campaign ahead in that document.

 

But there is an even earlier opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to establish his legacy as Prime Minister. Two closely-linked opportunities, in fact: the decision on what to do with the Safe Schools program, and the choice whether or not to proceed with a plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Both of these issues will come to a head in the coming week. The independent review of the Safe Schools program, instigated following the internal revolt by the likes of Cory Bernardi in the Coalition Party room meeting on 23 February, was expected to be handed to the Commonwealth Department of Education on Friday 11 March[x].

 

While it may be another week or two before the Government announces its response to that review, you can guarantee they will be discussing it internally during the week ahead (it’s also highly likely to be debated again in the Coalition Party room meeting on Tuesday, the second-last such meeting before a potential ‘double D’-election).

 

Lenore Taylor has also reported that the proposal for a plebiscite on marriage equality will be considered in detail by the Turnbull Cabinet this week[xi].

 

While the plebiscite was first adopted as Coalition policy under then Prime Minister Abbott on 11 August last year, this will be the main, Cabinet-level discussion of the process required to hold one – the question to be asked, expected timing (which, depending on who you listen to, may or may not be before the end of 2016), the estimated cost (likely upwards of $160 million[xii]), public funding of the yes and no cases, compulsory or voluntary voting and the supporting legislation.

 

Again, it is possible that the marriage equality plebiscite proposal will also be discussed at the Coalition Party room meeting on Tuesday morning (it will be interesting to see whether this one also takes six hours, especially given how much Liberal and National Party MPs appear to enjoy discussing LGBTI issues).

 

Obviously, the approaches that Turnbull, and his Liberal-National Government, adopts on these two issues this week will be a key part of his personal legacy for LGBTI Australians. Both decisions will have direct, and long-lasting, impacts on literally hundreds of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, their children, and their families and friends.

 

On Safe Schools, Turnbull will choose between defending a program developed to combat homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic bullying of LGBTI students, thereby reducing the all-too-frequent tragedy of LGBTI youth suicide – or giving in to bullies, like the Australian Christian Lobby, and The Australian newspaper, who it seems would much prefer enforced silence about LGBTI issues in the classroom, and the schoolyard, to the detriment of children with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex characteristics.

 

The consequences of this choice – whether a school is genuinely inclusive, or a vacuum allowing intolerance and discrimination to fester – can and will have lifelong impacts on the students who receive, or miss out on, programs like Safe Schools as a result.

 

On marriage equality, too, the impacts of Turnbull’s imminent decision will be profoundly felt, not only by LGBTI Australians, but also by the children of rainbow families.

 

As has been made clear by Australian Marriage Equality[xiii], if Malcolm Turnbull implemented the policy position that he held before becoming Prime Minister – of supporting a ‘free’ or conscience vote – then we could have marriage equality legislation passed by the end of this week.

 

But, if he persists with what was originally Tony Abbott’s plebiscite – but which is now most definitely his – not only will he be wasting at least $160 million on something which is completely unnecessary and inappropriate, he will also be causing real harm to LGBTI Australians, and our kids, by ensuring that there will be a protracted, bitter, and downright nasty campaign leading up to the vote.

 

The Australian Christian Lobby, both with its past actions (including repeated suggestions that gay and lesbian parenting creates another Stolen Generation[xiv]), and its recent call for state and territory anti-discrimination laws to be suspended for the duration of the campaign[xv], have effectively guaranteed it.

 

And, even if the marriage equality plebiscite is successful, it will still be at least another 12 – and possibly up to 18 or even 24 – months before Australian couples will finally be able to wed in their own country, with some elderly couples sadly, but inevitably, passing away before they can tie the knot.

 

However, while the impact of these decisions will be most keenly felt by LGBTI people, young and old, and their children, I would argue they will define Malcolm Turnbull’s legacy much more broadly. This is because his approach to Safe Schools, and the plebiscite, will tell us a lot about who he is as a Prime Minister, what type of Government he leads, and ultimately about his vision for Australia.

 

In terms of who Malcolm Turnbull is as Prime Minister, he would like most people, and especially the ‘persuadables’ in the electorate, to believe he is still the leather jacket-clad QandA panellist, with views that are more moderate than most of the members of his party – believing in climate change, supporting a republic, and wanting to be the leader who finally introduces marriage equality.

 

Deep down, I’m sure Turnbull would love to be the ‘cool’ Prime Minister who attends the 2017 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, claiming credit for removing discrimination from the Marriage Act 1961, receiving the passionate support, even adulation, from sections of the crowd in return.

 

But, if he caves in to the deeply homophobic and transphobic campaign against Safe Schools, led by the vitriolic and hateful scare-mongering of the Australian Christian Lobby and others, and if he continues to support an unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive marriage equality plebiscite, then not only will Malcolm Turnbull fail to be the Leader that he thinks he is (or at least wants to be) – he will become exactly the same type of Leader as the one he replaced.

 

By endorsing the attack on Safe Schools, and persisting with the plebiscite, Turnbull would show that there is no core belief that he will not jettison, no principle he is not prepared to compromise, in his quest to remain Prime Minister of Australia for as long as possible. The Opposition critique of him – that he is just Tony Abbott in a more expensive suit – will be more than justified.

 

And, by ensuring that it will be the public’s vote that finally achieves equality in relationship recognition in Commonwealth law, and not his own vote in Parliament, he will simply become another politician whom we had to win marriage equality in spite of, and not because of[xvi].

 

How Turnbull handles the decisions on Safe Schools, and the plebiscite, will also reveal a great deal about the type of Government he leads.

 

Is it a Government that represents, and serves the interests of, all Australians? Does it believe that the real and urgent needs of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are worthy of attention, and above all action? Does it think that people should not be legally discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity of intersex status?

 

Or is it a Government that represents, and serves the interests of, cisgender heterosexual Australians only? Does it believe that the pressing needs of young LGBTI people can simply be ignored? Does it think that the relationships of LGBTI Australians are genuinely lesser than those of other people, and therefore should be treated as such?

 

Turnbull has so far studiously avoided having to address this deep divide inside the Liberal-National Coalition. On Safe Schools, rather than reject the campaign against the program outright, he simply passed the buck to an independent review – thereby encouraging the attack to continue.

 

And, instead of directly reprimanding MPs like George Christensen and Andrew Hastie, who have compared Safe Schools to ‘grooming’[xvii] and George Orwell’s Big Brother[xviii] respectively, Turnbull offered a meek, generic statement saying “I encourage everybody who is discussing these issues to do so in very measured language… and to consider very carefully the impact of the words they use on young people and on their families.”[xix]

 

On marriage equality, he has again chosen not to upset the applecart, instead leaving in place Tony Abbott’s preferred option – a plebiscite – despite the insistence of multiple members of his own Government that they will not be bound by any ‘yes’ vote[xx], thus rendering the entire exercise pointless.

 

Well, on both of these issues, he can no longer kick those proverbial cans any further down the road. This week, in Cabinet and most likely in the Party room too, Malcolm Turnbull will need to decide what type of Government he wants to lead – and then he will need to argue for it, in the face of likely fierce criticism from Liberal and National MPs who do not now, and likely will not ever, support LGBTI equality, possibly at the cost of their ongoing support for his leadership.

 

Ultimately, how Malcolm Turnbull approaches the Safe Schools debate, and the marriage equality plebiscite, in the next few weeks will tell us whether he has what Keating would describe as ‘the vision thing’.

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull have a vision of a better Australia, where young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people can grow up happy and healthy, attending schools where they are free to be who they are, respected and accepted?

 

Does he see a future where all relationships are treated equally irrespective of the sexual orientations, gender identities or intersex statuses of the people involved, and is he prepared to actually do something to make that future a reality?

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull show, in who he is and how he governs, that he has the interests of all of us, including LGBTI Australians, at heart?

 

Or does his vision only extend as far as what is required to keep him in the Prime Ministership, the role that he has clearly coveted for so long?

 

That might sound harsh, and to some even potentially unfair, but that is what I believe is at stake in the next few weeks as Turnbull decides what to do on the Safe Schools program, and on the marriage equality plebiscite.

 

One final comment – some might argue that, given it is not Malcolm Turnbull who is leading the attacks on Safe Schools, and it was not his proposal to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, assessing his ‘legacy’ on how he approaches these issues is unjustified.

 

To which I would respond with two observations. First, he is the Prime Minister, and the campaign against Safe Schools is happening on his watch, including by members of his own Government, which makes his response to this issue extremely relevant to how we assess his performance.

 

And, while the marriage equality plebiscite might not have originally been his idea, if he chooses to proceed with it, at enormous cost, both financially, and psychologically in the harm it will cause to LGBTI Australians and their children, it will very much be his responsibility.

 

Second, John Howard did not ‘choose’ gun control to be his legacy, nor did Kevin Rudd ‘choose’ for the GFC to dominate his first term agenda, and Julia Gillard certainly did not ‘choose’ for her stint as Prime Minister to include such a large focus on climate change.

 

They were responding to events that were not of their own making – Port Arthur, global markets, and even the hung parliament. But how they responded to these things is what made them Leaders – and that is why we remember these achievements as part of their legacies.

 

Malcolm Turnbull did not choose for the attack on Safe Schools, nor did he choose Tony Abbott’s plebiscite. But, how the Government approaches these issues is now within his control as Prime Minister – and it is up to him how he chooses to exercise that power.

 

Does Malcolm Turnbull choose to support Safe Schools or does he side with those who have campaigned against it? Does he proceed with a plebiscite on marriage equality, even when he knows it is unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive? In short, what does Malcolm Turnbull want his legacy to be?

 

151222 Turnbull

For Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it’s time to turn his mind to how he will want to be remembered.

 

[i] Although this also includes the three-week term of John McEwen.

[ii] Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard.

[iii] John McEwen and William McMahon.

[iv] The Australian, Last Post, February 10 2015.

[v] The New Daily, “Why Turnbull could win the election – and still lose”, March 8 2016.

[vi] The Productivity Commission started its work in April 2010, and released the Disability Care & Support Final Report in August 2011.

[vii] The Australian, “Tony Abbott: My legacy the key to victory at next election”, September 26, 2015. Quote from Mr Abbott: “You can always dispute the marketing… but the 2014 Budget was a very serious structural attempt to tackle our long-term spending problems.”

[viii] Outside of ‘gun nuts’, and the accidental Liberal Democrat Senator, David Leyonhjelm.

[ix] Howard’s gun law reforms, and gun ‘buyback’, even has international admirers, as demonstrated by the 2013 segment by John Oliver on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (as reported here: Sydney Morning Herald, “US Show Uses Howard to Embarrass Gun Lobby”, April 22, 2013).

[x] Gay News Network, “Government Comment on Safe Schools Report Not Expected for 1-2 Weeks”, 11 March 2016.

[xi] Guardian Australia, “Coalition to finalise marriage equality plebiscite details as July election looms”, March 8 2016.

[xii] See “7 Better Ways to Spend $158.4 million”.

[xiii] Sydney Morning Herald, “Majority of MPs would back marriage equality”, January 30, 2016.

[xiv] Guardian Australia, “Q&A Recap: Lyle Shelton locks horns with panel on marriage equality”, 1 March 2016.

[xv] ABC News, “Same-sex marriage plebiscite: Christian lobby group wants ‘override’ of anti-discrimination laws during campaign”, 16 February 2016.

[xvi] For more, see: “Letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the Marriage Equality Plebiscite”.

[xvii] Buzzfeed Australia, This MP Just Compared the Safe Schools Coalition to ‘Grooming’”, 25 February 2016.

[xviii] From Mr Hastie, the Member for Canning’s, Facebook page: “George Orwell foresaw where the abandonment of reason can lead society: to a world devoid of compassion and empathy for those who disagree with us. All that is left is raw power. As Orwell wrote, without reason and charity in our public debate there will be nothing left but “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

[xix] ABC News, “Safe schools: Turnbull warns MPs over language used in debate”, February 26 2016.

[xx] Guardian Australia, “Eric Abetz: Coalition MPs will not be bound by plebiscite on marriage equality”, January 27 2016.

Will Christine Forster Apologise for her Pre-Election Column?

Ms Christine Forster

cforster@cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au

Monday 24 August 2015

Dear Ms Forster,

I am writing to you concerning an opinion piece you wrote before the 2013 Federal Election for the Star Observer called “Vote Liberal for Real Change”.[i]

Specifically, you began by writing:

“You only have one vote on September 7 and this election is the most important in a generation.

“For many of us in the GLBTI community marriage equality is a key political issue at a federal level and the positions of the two major parties on this important question are virtually the same. Both are leaving it up to their new members of parliament to decide, after the election” [emphasis added].

It was abundantly clear at the time that this description was inaccurate – that in no way, shape or form could the positions of Labor and the Coalition be described as “virtually the same”.

Indeed, as I commented on your opinion piece at the time:

“The second paragraph in this op-ed is rubbish. No, Ms Forster, the positions of the two major parties on this important question are NOT virtually the same.

“One major party has a party platform in favour of marriage equality, rules which guarantee its MPs a conscience vote, a majority of sitting MPs who voted in favour of marriage equality just last year, a Prime Minister who supports it, and a commitment to reintroduce a Bill within 100 days.

“The other – your brother’s Coalition – has left it up to whoever is elected at this election to decide whether to even have a conscience vote (with the possibility that there is not a conscience vote/all its MPs are forced to vote against), a Leader who continues to oppose marriage equality, and who does not expect a Bill to even arise in the next parliament, and not a single sitting MP who voted for marriage equality in 2012 (despite Liberals always saying that backbenchers can vote freely on every Bill).

“I don’t know what your definition of ‘virtually the same’ is, but it is in no dictionary that I can find.”

Unfortunately, the description that you used then has turned out to be even more inaccurate now, almost two years later.

The Labor Opposition today is led by a supporter of marriage equality, who has made a similar commitment to his predecessor (to introduce a Bill within 100 days, if elected), with the vast majority of ALP MPs and Senators indicating they will vote in favour of marriage equality when it next comes to a vote.

Meanwhile, the Liberal-National Government remains led by a Prime Minister who is strongly opposed to the full legal equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and a Coalition party room that spoke two to one against even allowing a conscience vote on the subject, meaning only a small handful of Coalition MPs will be able to vote in favour of reform.

To make matters worse, the Abbott Liberal-National Government is apparently intent on denying a House of Representatives vote on this matter during the current term of parliament (by using its numbers on the Selection of Bills Committee), instead concentrating on finding ways to defer the issue for yet another term, even considering the option of an inappropriate and unnecessary constitutional referendum to help ‘stack the decks’ against marriage equality.

Given all of the above, I have two simple questions for you:

  1. Do you now concede that your pre-election opinion piece was inaccurate?
  2. Will you apologise to anyone who was silly enough to actually believe what you wrote?

I look forward to receiving your correspondence addressing the above questions.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[i] 4 September 2013: http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/election-opinion-vote-liberal-for-real-change/108960

Christine Forster (source: ABC).

Christine Forster (source: ABC).