Monday, May 02, 2005

Love and (State) Marriage Showdown

Last night I went along to the state same-sex marriage forum held at the Newtown Hotel. To say there were "fireworks" is like saying there was a minor ruckus on the Titanic.

For clarity, I will identify and (attempt to) summarise the opposing positions of both teams (and if you think likening the opposing camps to sports teams is tacky, you really should have been there last night. It was like I was an 8-year-old in the middle of a footy crowd all over again).

Team 1: Rodney Croome (very red-eyed from his 3:30am start), Luke Gahan from Australian Marriage Equality, Nick McKim, the Tasmanian Green MP who introduced the same-sex marriage Bill(s) into the state's parliament last week (and further to the Green people, NSW LC Lee Rhiannon and Ray Goodlass moderating) and Farida Iqbal from Community Action Against Homophobia.

Team 2: David Scamell from the GLRL, Stevie Clayton from ACON plus various board members of ACON and Rainbow Labor/ALP members.

Team 1 - the bulk of the forum panel speakers - were arguing in favour of state same-sex marriage to be pushed in NSW as it is in Tasmania, pursuant to the advice of Sydney Uni constitutional law expert Prof George Williams, who believes that since the Coalition's amendment to the federal Marriage Act in 2004 defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman, state laws for same-sex marriage could operate parallel to the federal laws without conflict.

Team 1 argues that state s-s marriage is a viable strategy as, federally, neither the Coalition or ALP are seriously listening to lobby or community groups and federal queer law reform is likely to remain stagnant for years to come.

Team 1 highlights the nature of a "positive" versus "negative" debate relating to same-sex marriage. When Rodney Croome went onto Stan Zemanek's radio show last year to oppose the Coalition's gay marriage ban, Zemanek went on the offensive and verbally assaulted him. This time, when Croome came on to support the Greens state gay marriage Bill, Zemanek was more receptive and interested in finding out about the Bill rather than automatically condemning it. This Bill keeps debate on gay marriage alive - the debate Howard effectively quashed last year - and is part of a longer-term strategy to keep people thinking and talking about this issue, ideally until everyone is so bored and over it they allow passage of the Bill just to shut the silly queers up.

Team 2 opposes state same-sex marriage. They argue that, were a state law to be in operation in NSW/Tasmania/wherever, but then overturned by the federal government, our movement as a whole would actually be more damaged in the long term than if state s-s marriage had never been introduced to begin with. Team 2 also argues that such a law confuses existing legislative reform lobbying that the GLRL is currently focused on, such as parenting. Connecting parenting rights to marriage rights could potentially alienate queer couples who wish to adopt/raise their children without wanting to be married.

At last night's forum T2 also raised difficulties with the wording of the Tasmanian legislation and questioned Prof Williams' assertion that the state law could operate without threat from the federal government. The bulk of their ire was saved for the fact, however, that only that afternoon had a press conference had been held at which several of this forum's speakers outlined plans to introduce into NSW parliament a s-s marriage Bill, following in Tasmania's footsteps. Team 2 concluded that the entire evening's forum was pointless as no debate was going to occur on whether or not the Greens' strategy should be adopted in NSW. Lots of cries of "Green grandstanding" and "waste of time" were heard.

This is when the evening got unpleasant. Good points from both teams were drowned out by the shouting, sledging and vitriol spat across from both sides of the room. I was, unfortunately, positioned quite unintentionally in the middle of T2. The fact that I wasn't cheering along with Clayton, Scott Carn or any of Team 2's other speakers earned me more than one death glare from my neighbours.

So what is the Queer Penguin take on this debate?

I do appreciate the frustration of T2. They presumably came along with a view to debate whether or not we as a community should proceed with state same-sex marriage and were effectively usurped by that afternoon's press conference. The point they raised about the potential for the law to be overturned by a federal government is a valid one. They did it in Tasmania back in 1994 to decriminalise homosexuality (a good thing) and they also did it in 1997 to overturn the Northern Territory's euthanasia laws (a bad thing).

I don't profess to be a legal expert, but it seems to me that a constitutional law expert is unlikely to get it so wrong here. The federal government could introduce law to make same-sex marriages illegal, but would that be constituional? If not, would the Australian people have to go to a referendum on it? If so, I think spending millions for a referendum on this relatively insignificant issue (compared to, say, Australia becoming a republic) would be quite unpopular with the general voters, even those opposed to gay marriage.

I also appreciate the perspective that the Tasmanian and NSW Bills are little more than Green legislative grandstanding. The Greens would know the Bill has little chance of success (although Tasmanian A.G. Judy Jackson has at least hinted at a parliamentary inquiry), particularly in NSW where our beloved El Premiero has made crystal clear he would not support state s-s marriage legislation.

And here is where the fundamental problem lies: the belligerence and intransigence of both Labor and Liberal, state and federal, towards gay marriage. Rainbow Labor may like to market its party as that which offers "real", pragmatic reforms rather than impractical dreams like gay marriage, but really, what is federal Labor doing that could potentially be threatened by agitation at a state level? Anthony Albanese keeps trying to introduce a private member's Bill that would give superannuation equality to same-sex couples, but the last time he did so was to highlight the hypocrisy of the Coalition who were claiming to soften the blow of the gay marriage ban by offering super reform as a consolation prize (the Coalition voted against even debating his Bill). This to me also smacks of grandstanding - Albanese would have known his Bill had no chance of success and was introducing the Bill not as part of a positive Labor reform but to score points with his electorate by showing how full of shit is the Coalition (which, PS, most of us already realised). Otherwise, apart from Tanya Plibersek's failed amendment attempts to the Marriage Legislation Amendment Act last year to enshrine equal same-sex de facto rights, I'm not entirely sure what federal Labor is doing for same-sex couples right now (the previous achievements of the Hawke/Keating governments notwithstanding) that would be put in jeopardy by the actions of the NSW Greens.

The reality is that federal Labor and Liberal are listening to the rising RRR, not us. Our lobby groups are so fragmented and oppositional - and our community on the whole so apathetic to legislative reform - that there's little political mileage (ie votes) to be won by Labor being actively pro-queer. Maybe if Labor were in power and had the numbers, they would carry out their promised audit of discriminatory legislation, reform everything except (I would imagine) parenting and adoption laws and even - very optimistic - introduce a federal civil union scheme similar to those in the UK and New Zealand. But until such time as they're in a position to even consider such reforms - and I'm doubtful they would happen immediately anyway - why is Labor so threatened by the Greens trying their luck with state law reform instead? As Croome said quite simply, "federal Labor and Liberal aren't listening". We can either keep yelling and screaming at a brick wall, or we can try a different approach.

Returning from the forum slightly shaken, I tuned into Compass, which was documenting the rise of Family First at the 2004 election. With the voices of abuse still ringing in my ear and images of people giving each other the finger still on my mind, I began to wonder if such abuse and contempt goes on at Family First meetings. Do they argue so strongly and aggressively among themselves when plotting how best to sneak Jesus into parliament? Would they have berated an ally trying to help their cause the way Stevie Clayton did with Nick McKim (who, yes, perhaps could have chosen his words better when speaking of "gay" rather than same-sex marriage, but he's obviously learning as he goes)? I wouldn't blame him if he concluded from last night's circus show that queer people were a bunch of whinging, unappreciative ingrates who aren't worth helping out. And then we'd have one less MP on our side. Is that what we need right now?

The Compass documentary reminded me that the enemy was not within the walls of the Newtown Hotel last night. The enemy is Family First, Steve Fielding, Assemblies of God, John Howard, Tony Abbott, the National Party, Nicola Roxon, the ALP Catholic Right, George Pell and Philip Jensen, Catch the Fire ministries, Salt Shakers, the Australian Christian Lobby, Fred Nile and the Christian Democrats, Hillsong...I could go on, but the point is if any one of these groups had seen queer people implode as we did last night, they would be praising the Lord and grinning with sanctimonious glee. I'm sure they have their disagreements, but their unity when it matters cannot be faulted. Last year all of them assembled at the "National Marriage Forum" to discuss "Why Marriage Matters", and their clear, single agenda - to deny queer people the choice of marriage - was uncompromising. I realise queer lobbying is different - we will never be able to pin-point one single issue on which all queer people agree and offer their support. But it does us no favours to beat up on people who only want to help and contribute as best they can, especially when we consider how many other people and groups outside our community are just waiting to beat us up (literally and figuratively).

If the Greens' Bill does nothing else than re-ignite debate in Australia on same-sex marriage, then it has achieved a positive goal. We should save our aggression for more worthy targets.


At 2/5/05 3:14 pm, Blogger no name said...

A fantastic summary of the nights events. You make a great reporter.

I too went home last night. Having been one of the speakers, lets say from team 1 :-) i was rather shell shocked. I did expect this kind of abuse as i personally have been receiving similar abuse over the phone in the past week from the same people in Team 2.

Matt and I both felt very flat. We too turned on ABC and watched compas and thought the same as you. They are a well oiled machine that has become a united powerful front against LGBT equality. We could learn alot from them.

As for Nick McKim and using the term 'Gay Marriage', before the talk as he got ready he repeated the 'LGBTI' marriage over and over again and was trying very hard not to slip up. For a straight interstate member of parliament sliped up very slightly and got abused for it. Nick did not gain anything politically coming to NSW to talk on equality for us. He did it out of his own beliefs.

I personaly have emailed him today and thanked him for coming last night.

QP it was great getting to meet you finally! Even when it was at such a foot ball event!!

(must point out here that my AFL team Richmond Tigers beat Port Adelaide, yay!)

At 2/5/05 4:02 pm, Blogger Sam said...

I think you, Nick, Rodney and David all did really well Luke. I might drop Nick a line later to tell him not to stress too much about the "slip" - in the grand scheme of things it's really so very irrelevant.

I'm not a Power fan btw, was brought up on the other side of town to demonise Port Adelaide as the team of cheating thugs whose supporters abandon their team the second they start losing. Hooray for AFL team parochialism! :-)

At 2/5/05 4:33 pm, Blogger sjusju said...

Sam - fabulous post!

I was there too and I was really shocked at the savagery. Fair enough for people to have a different point of view on the best tactics to take, but the hostility amongst people who are *on our side* was breathtaking. The warring football team mentality is going to get us nowhere.

Much of the GLRL arguments seemed to be based on a legal misconception of state-based marriage law as inherently inferior to federal-based marriage. They seem to be unaware that until 1959, all marriages were state-based, and marital status created at state level was recognised in Federal legislation. Similarly, there are current legal relationships created under State law - such as adoptions - which are recognised under Federal law.

Whether marriages are created at State or Federal level, there is still a swathe of Federal law which contains its own relationship definitions which would need to be amended for full marriage equality. If we did win the battle for State-based LGBTI marriage, we would still need to campaign for Federal recognition, but in the meantime, we would have legal LGBTI marriages with all the benefits that entails at State level. Winning the State battle would further highlight the Federal discrimination, and would increase pressure on the Federal Parliament to amend its recognition provisions in Federal laws.

Of course the Federal govt could overturn state marriage law - but you could say the same for many of the State-level reforms. To say we won't try because we might fail is a gutless approach which leads you nowhere.

T1 are right in that constitutional law is difficult and subjective, and no matter what the academics say, the current high court has been handpicked to be "Conservative with a capital C" and would be likely to side with Howard. But again, you don't know until you try. And in the meantime, you get vital community debate and discussion which helps break down community prejudice.

I remember when Rodney Croome started his fight to decriminalise homosexuality in Tasmania. I was in about year 7 or 8 and it was the first time I'd heard news items which actually talked about such things as gay and lesbian people. Even if his goal was impossible at that time, the fact that he went public with it, and got on the news, made a difference.

I joined the GLRL a while ago, but haven't heard about any meetings, or any chances to contribute. For a group who bang on a lot about "community consultation" they seem to be a pretty closed shop. I'd really like to go to some of their meetings and see how decisions are made, but I'm scared that, as a greens member, I'd be eaten alive.

At 2/5/05 4:53 pm, Blogger Sam said...

Hey Sju-Sju,

Thanks muchly and what a shame I didn't get to meet you! Hopefully next time. You've raised some very important points here and I totally agree that it doesn't always hurt to be a little fearless, if we're not we'll never really get anywhere etc.

For me that's always been the distinguishing point between the Greens and Labor Left, that Greens aren't afraid to dream and be visionary. The Labor machine drains good people of their dreams and ideals and reproduces "pragmatists" in their place who seem to have such contempt for those not so jaded and cynical as they are. I get that in our current climate only Labor is the party a/that has the numbers and b/ has any interest to implement queer law reform, but I don't think either of these things need be impediments to the Greens championing a more utopian vision.

And if that's a bunch of tree-hugging, hippee crap, then light me up a herbs-marshmallow cigarette and put me behind the wheel of an electric car coz I don't care :-)

At 2/5/05 5:50 pm, Blogger sjusju said...

Sam: Would have been good to meet you too! Shame you weren't wearing your penguin suit so I could pick you out.

I feel like kamal here, but why are people so unkind? you know - we're all supposed to be on the same side. I really don't get the Labor->Green hostility. And I still hang onto the nanna-ish view point that even if you disagree with someone, you don't have to be mean or rude about it.

To take a really hippy analogy, the two parties really should have a symbiotic relationship - they do the pragmatism, we do the vision thing - and in reality, we do need each other.

But the ALP (especially in NSW, to a lesser extent in Vic) seem to cultivate a real territorial mentality and attack the greens with greater savagery than they do the coalition.

If we took a leaf from the conservatives' book, we could actually work together to get a strong majority and make lots of beautiful rainbow babies together. I've got a couple of victorian ALP friends who think similarly, but the ALP hierarchy is such that you don't seem to get very far with those kind of hippy collaborationist leanings...

At 2/5/05 8:15 pm, Blogger Nic White said...

Excellent post, Sam. Lets hope something can be worked out in the near future. We will live to see full equality, dont you worry about that. But you guys shouldnt have to wait for it.

Did a big rant last night that I havent blogged but its on my LJ. I think you will appreciate it.

At 3/5/05 9:05 am, Blogger Sam said...

Thanks Nik, and a great livejournal posting too.

I'm fairly confident, despite my cynical facade, that gay marriage in Australia will become a reality, and possibly a reality in my lifetime. Even this big dumb island at the arse end of the world can only resist the tide of change across the world for so long.

At 3/5/05 11:02 am, Anonymous bazza said...

From the postings it sounds as though the debate, was more like a CROWS v port power Showdown match.

At 3/5/05 12:50 pm, Blogger Sam said...

Yes...If by "CROWS" you mean the recently-formed "Concerned Residents of Woollahra" lobby group. You can read more about this exciting new force in local politics in an upcoming QP posting. Stay tuned.

At 4/5/05 2:06 pm, Anonymous Bazza said...

Now then Sam, don't be coming the Burnside attitude here. The Adelaide Crows mate. (Ralph Lauren trackies??? OH! so passe and unbutch!)

At 5/5/05 9:23 am, Blogger Sam said...

Ahh the Burnside attitude. Sometimes I do miss the gold lame pumps, sky blue parachute track suits, purple rinses and the odd small child being mowed down by those myopic Range Rover drivers.

At 6/5/05 11:34 pm, Blogger Mal said...

A very fair and comprehensive account, Sam. It was a very interesting night. As I have repeatedly said in my own blog, the religious right are well organised and well funded. We have no chance if we continue to fight among ourselves.

At 6/5/05 11:42 pm, Anonymous Daniel said...

Hey Sam,

Brilliant post. Interesting to see it from Team 2 perspective. Even if it does make me realise how 'trivial' some of their arguments are.

I am only aware of this whole debate because I am friends with Luke, having known him since way back in Prep (the year before grade one in Victoria).

Almost two years ago after spending most of my life in Melbourne, and a bit in Sydney, I moved to regional Victoria.

Here we have a small, but vibrant gay community. Like in any community sector/group there is infighting, however all that seems to be kept behind closed doors, so that when we aim to achieve something, it's done as on a united front (if anyone doesn't support something, they hang back, and let those that want it do their thing).

Members of our community got together and set up the only 24 hour phone line in the state, the only Queer Film Festival in regional Australia, and a gay night once a month at one of the local clubs (possibly one of the more difficult tasks). Those that wanted it did what was necessary to do it, and those that didn't want it didn't try and stop it.

The Film Festival was even opened jointly by Rodney Croome, and our local mayor.

We save our energy to fight for things which are beneficial to us. We don't fight between ourselves, and perhaps most importantly are not seen to fight between ourselves.

We have a very small community and a daily local paper to fill (on the plus side we had a front page article on a lesbian couple writing to the Governor General to allow same sex marriage, and another front-page article on a lesbian couple who are parents), and don't want to give then anything negative to write about.

From the perspective of someone living in the country, I would love to see any form of same-sex marriage legislation legislated. I always used to think that attitudes were so much more important than the law, but since moving here, I've come to realise how much the law can change attitutes.

At 7/5/05 12:14 am, Anonymous Aaron Hewett said...

This seems to be a real life example of the term "divide and conquer".

Do you think we're being held back as a community by this issue taking such pride of place in recent debates?

At 21/6/05 12:43 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's massively unfair to characterise the hostility as Labor > Greens only. There were many people in the room who were displaying Green > Labor hostility. Supposedly progressive men calling women whores isn't really the ideal now, is it?


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