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).

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Is there a moral obligation on athletes to come out?

Following my post in January (“In search of the elusive gay or bisexual male tennis player”) I was asked by the Star Observer to write about lesbian, gay and bisexual sportspeople and whether they should be out or not. I took that to mean whether there is a moral obligation on LGB athletes to come out – and my piece discussing that topic can be found at the following link: <http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/soapbox-opinion/to-be-out-or-not-out-in-sport/118055

Coincidentally, it was written on the weekend before Mike Sam came out, making the topic of lesbian, gay and bisexual involvement in sport quite topical.

Of course, I really wish I could have written that yes, they do have a moral obligation, in particular to other members of the LGB community – but that would ignore both the individual behind the ‘athlete’, including their personal story (and struggles that we may not be aware of), and the many reasons why they may choose not to be out in their chosen sport, including homophobia and biphobia. In any event, I hope that I have done the topic justice, and would love to know your thoughts about what I wrote.

Two final notes: firstly, I deliberately chose not to cover the issues of trans* and intersex involvement in sports, because I didn’t feel that I had the necessary expertise to write about those subjects. Besides, I am confident there are many people better placed to write about trans* and sport, and intersex and sport, respectively.

Second, I was a little surprised that my references to ‘outing’, specifically that I believe there might be some circumstances in which outing a virulently or malevolently homophobic politician might be acceptable, didn’t attract any critical responses. Perhaps that position is a little less controversial than I thought? In any event, I might write more on the topic of outing at a later date.

13 Highs & Lows of 2013: No 13 (Alleged) Police Brutality at Sydney Mardi Gras

As I did last year, I am going to end the year by writing about the highlights – and lowlights – of the last 12 months. As always, choosing the best and worst of the year is a subjective process, and reflects my own experiences as a cis-gender gay man, who engages in LGBTI advocacy, in Sydney. But I hope that the list I have selected is reflective of some of the major issues of 2013, at least in Australia anyway. If not, please feel free to tell me why I’m wrong in the comments section below.

No 13. (Alleged) Police Brutality at Sydney Mardi Gras

Let’s begin by remembering one of the true low-points of this year – the (alleged) actions of NSW Police officers which marred Australia’s, and one of the world’s, premier LGBTI events, the Sydney Mardi Gras, in February and March.

As we approach the end of the year, almost 2 million people, from right around the world, have watched the Youtube clip of the way Police officers treated Jamie Jackson on Oxford St on the night of the Mardi Gras Parade. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxtFtVfAeeE)

Jamie Jackson Mardi Gras

Others have read about the way long-term LGBTI activist Bryn Hutchinson was (allegedly) treated by NSW Police officers, also on Oxford St after the parade had finished. Now that all charges against Mr Hutchinson, and his sister Kate, have been dismissed by the courts, he has written about his experiences in the Star Observer. (http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/soapbox-opinion/my-terror-of-crossing-oxford-street-at-mardi-gras/113785)

But it is important to remember that it was not just these two isolated incidents that left a sour taste in the mouths of many after what is supposed to be a celebration of pride and diversity. Nor were instances of alleged Police brutality confined to the night of the Parade and Party, but instead occurred throughout the Mardi Gras Festival.

In fact, Sydney Mardi Gras and ACON received at least 58 complaints about the way people had been treated by NSW Police over the entire Mardi Gras season. These complaints included allegations of intimidation and aggression by Police on Oxford St after the Parade had finished, reports of homophobic language and behaviour at the main Party, of intimidation, violence, excessive physical force and coercion during drug operations at both the Harbour Party and main Party, and other aggressive and intimidating behaviour in LGBTI venues along Oxford St during the Festival.

Since March, Sydney Mardi Gras, ACON, the Inner City Legal Centre (ICLC) and the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) have been attempting to work through these issues in consultation with the LGBTI community. They recently released an advocacy document outlining 12 recommendations to the NSW government, although, with just 2 months left til the 2014 season gets underway, it is currently unclear how many will be accepted by Premier Barry O’Farrell, Police Minister Michael Gallacher and others. (http://glrl.org.au/images/stories/Publications/20131115_policing_at_lgbti_events_and_venues.pdf)

What is likely is that NSW Police will be much better behaved – at least for the 2014 Mardi Gras Festival, Parade and Party. They will be told by their superiors that to repeat what happened this year would reflect badly on the Government (in the media), as well as potentially jeopardising the money that is brought into the NSW economy by Mardi Gras and associated events. They will also be keenly aware that all eyes will be on them come February and March 2014, to see if their poor behaviour is repeated (on camera).

Nevertheless, the real test will come in 2015, 2016 and beyond, when the immediate controversy has died down, media interest has waned, and the temptation will emerge for some elements of the Police (because it should always be remembered that not all Police act poorly) to slip back into the (alleged) intimidation and outright aggression of 2013.

If the majority of the Mardi Gras, ACON, ICLC and GLRL recommendations are adopted (especially recommendations 1-3), then we may see some positive long-term cultural changes within NSW Police, meaning that future Mardi Gras patrons may not suffer in the same way that Jamie, Bryn and others did this year.

But, in my opinion, the two best recommendations for helping to ensure that NSW Police are ‘well-behaved’ at future Mardi Gras events are perhaps the two that are least likely to be adopted by the NSW Government.

The first, recommendation 7, calls for an end to drug detection dog operations. The evidence against the use of sniffer dogs has piled up since legislation was first passed authorising their use, without warrants, in NSW public places in 2001. The 2006 Ombudsman’s Report was damning in terms of their lack of effectiveness, as well as the risks, including health risks, of their ongoing use. In 2011, just 20% of drug dog indications resulted in Police actually finding drugs on the person searched.

The 2013 Mardi Gras experience, especially for attendees of the Harbour Party, simply confirmed the vagueness of what constitutes ‘reasonable grounds’, as well as the gross invasion of civil liberties and indeed bodily integrity involved in a subsequent drug search.

The use of drug detection dogs should end, end of story. And yet, with both the current Coalition, and previous Labor, Governments seemingly addicted to ‘law & order’, that outcome seems incredibly unlikely.

Something which is slightly more feasible is the subject of the other key recommendation (11), which calls for the establishment of a “transparent, representative civilian-led police complaints and investigatory body with the appropriate resources, capabilities and knowledge” to oversee NSW Police. Obviously, such a body would help remedy issues experienced, not just by the LGBTI community, but also by other vulnerable groups across NSW, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, young people and people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds.

It should be acknowledged that the NSW Government has taken a small step down this path, by appointing the former Commonwealth Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, to review the investigation and oversight of police critical incidents (those where police actions have resulted in the death or serious injury of a member of the community). But this represents just a small sub-set of police actions which should be subject to independent review, and it is undeniably a long, and hard, road from this narrow review to the introduction of a broad-based, independent complaints body. We’ll see what happens on this in coming months (and, I suspect, years).

There is one final comment which I feel compelled to make. In the aftermath of the incidents during this year’s Mardi Gras, some members of Sydney’s LGBTI community focused on the possible involvement of Police officers from outside the Surry Hills Local Area Command. Specifically, they argued that if we could somehow return to a (simpler) time when Surry Hills Police were sufficient to patrol the Mardi Gras, supplemented by others from around Sydney who volunteered to be on duty, then the problems of 2013 would somehow disappear.

To me, that ignores a much deeper problem. If a Police officer is going to behave in an allegedly homophobic and aggressive way on the busiest gay night of the year, on Oxford St, in front of thousands of people, then how are they going to treat an individual LGBTI person, when nobody is looking, in other parts of Sydney, or indeed elsewhere in the state?

I am not interested in just having an LGBTI-friendly Police force serving the inner-city enclaves of Surry Hills and Newtown, while simultaneously ignoring the potential for homophobia outside those supposedly safe borders. Any officer, from any part of the State, should be able to be called up for duty around Mardi Gras and behave in a responsible and respectful manner.

Above all, every single officer, in every single station across NSW, must be able to deal with, and respond appropriately to, the concerns of LGBTI people. If they can’t, they should have their badges taken off them, because they’re not fit to be a Police officer.

2nd Anniversary of Election of O’Farrell Government

So, last week I wrote a column on behalf of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) for the Star Observer, looking at the 2 year anniversary of the election of the O’Farrell Liberal-National Government in NSW. It has been published today, and can be found at the following link: http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/2013/04/03/speaking-out-6/101597 . I will publish the full text of the article here next week (ie after the current edition).

Basically, NSW has not gone backwards on LGBTI law reform over the past 2 years, unlike our neighbours North of the Tweed under Premier Campbell Newman (who continues to wage war against the rights of and services for the Queensland LGBTI community). It is unclear which model the likely incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott will follow (although one has to suspect he will be more like Newman than O’Farrell).

But just because O’Farrell and his Government have not gone backwards doesn’t mean there has been any great progress either. The next 12 months will be key, in particular seeing whether he and his Government support state-based marriage equality, abolish the homosexual advance or gay panic defence and continue, and hopefully expand, the Proud Schools program.

Full text:

As always, there has been a lot going on over the past month, including the community’s response to police (mis)conduct during the Mardi Gras Festival, as well as the Legislative Council’s hearings into State-based marriage equality laws.

One event which almost went unnoticed was the 2nd anniversary of the election of the O’Farrell Government, which happened last week. This officially marked the halfway point of this term of Parliament.

Many people in the LGBTI community probably greeted the election of a Liberal/National Government back in March 2011 with a degree of trepidation, not knowing exactly what to expect on gay and lesbian issues. The good news is that there have not been any major backwards steps on gay and lesbian law reform in NSW.

In fact, there have been some small wins, with the continuation of the Proud Schools pilot, and the passage of a symbolic motion in favour of marriage equality by the Legislative Council in mid-2012. However, there have been no major advances on gay and lesbian rights under the O’Farrell Government so far either.

As the Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, we believe that over the next 12 months it is time for the Liberal/National Government, and the Parliament more broadly, to demonstrate its commitment to treating the LGBTI people of NSW equally.

There are three major legislative and policy issues which are already on the agenda for the coming year. The first is the Upper House Inquiry into the partial defence of provocation, which is due to report by 2 May. We will be looking for the O’Farrell Government to abolish the homosexual advance or ‘gay panic’ defence, because non-violent sexual advances should never be a justification to downgrade a murder conviction to manslaughter.

The second issue is the State-based marriage equality Bill, which should be voted on later in 2013. The GLRL wants parliamentarians of all political persuasions to support the legal recognition of the equality of same-sex relationships.

The third issue which is already on the agenda is a decision on the long-term future of Proud Schools. At the Lobby, we believe that all LGBTI students deserve to have an education free from bullying, prejudice and discrimination. Consequently, we want to see Proud Schools continued and indeed expanded across NSW.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list, and the Lobby will be campaigning on other issues, including removing religious exceptions in anti-discrimination law and calling for a review of the criminalisation of commercial surrogacy arrangements, during the ‘second half’ of this term.

But, by acting on the three issues identified above, the O’Farrell Government, and the NSW Parliament generally, would demonstrate that they genuinely believe LGBTI people should be treated equally. Time will tell.

OFarrell hand

Premier O’Farrell – We won’t let you put these issues to one side this year…