Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Statement from ACT Chief Minister John Stanhope


The Prime Minister appeared to have failed at the first hurdle in his attempt to prove that he was interested in removing discrimination against same-sex couples, with reports that federal departments and agencies had been instructed not to make submissions into an inquiry by the federal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Chief Minister Jon Stanhope said today.

“Earlier this month, when the Federal Government made shameful history by overturning the ACT’s Civil Unions legislation, senior Government figures were keen to have Australians believe that they were not motivated by anti-homosexual sentiment,” Mr Stanhope said today. “And the Prime Minister himself has said on more than one occasion that he is in favour of removing discrimination on a case-by-case basis.

“Yet when his own statutory body charged with inquiring into discrimination decides to examine residual areas of financial discrimination against same-sex couples in this country, it seems the Federal Government is not even interested in knowing what the facts are, or whether the Federal Government itself might be a part of the problem, rather than a part of the solution.

“It is curious, to say the least, for any government to issue a blanket instruction to its departments and agencies not to make a submission to any HREOC inquiry at all, but most particularly to an inquiry looking at an issue upon which the Prime Minister wants Australians to believe he is active.

“It is interesting that the Federal Government has not been so reticent in the past in making submissions to HREOC inquiries. The Department of Workplace Relations, for example, was happy to make a submission to the ‘Striking the Balance’ inquiry into work-life balance and the Commonwealth Government made a submission into the ‘Stolen Generations’ inquiry, just to name two.

“I wonder if there has been any previous occasion upon which departments and agencies have received a blanket instruction not to cooperate with a HREOC investigation?”

Mr Stanhope said that in light of these reports, the ACT Government, which had so recently been witness to the Federal Government’s true and deepest feelings on the rights and entitlements of gay and lesbian Australians, was entitled to question the Prime Minister’s repeated assertions that he was committed to non-discrimination.

“Actions, not rhetoric, are what counts in this debate, and the Federal Government’s actions tell the true story,” Mr Stanhope said.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Civil Unions Issue - see below

I've posted my interviews on this topic with Senators Milne and Stott-Despoya here in full for those who are interested - the highlights I've already published in Melbourne Star.

They were done just after the Senate decided to let the government's disallowance of the ACT Civil Unions Act to stand.

I've also posted the news about the Howard government's attempt to nobble the Human Rights Commission enquiry into same-sex couple discrimination: it should be borne in mind that governments usually co-operate with these sorts of enquiries automatically.

And there's also a rundown of what Howard mught do against us next.

Although parliament has now risen for a six week recess this issue isn't going to go away, especially if Howard thinks he's on a roll with anti-gay manoeuvres.

An Interview with Senator Natasha Stott Despoya

DP: Why bring forward a Private Members bill to try to change the Marriage Act – we’ve got away from the marriage issue onto civil unions, and that seems to be playing very well for us, so what’s the reason for resurrecting the marriage issue?

NS-D: Simply as a last ditch attempt to override the changes the government made in 2004 that said that marriage, or civil unions, in way, are not available to same sex couples, so it’s making a very strong symbolic point.

Will it go any further than that

It’s up to the will of the parliament as to whether the bill is ever debated or voted on, but having said that, I’ve had private members bills that have been debated and voted on, but it’s a long process

I don’t suggest that marriage is necessarily the priority of same sex couples in Australia, what I object to is the debate and the amendments that were passed in 2004 that said that marriage is resolutely only between a man and a woman, and it suddenly defined marriage in a way that previously had not been defined in such a restrictive way.

So where do you think things go next – I was talking to Simon Corbell [ACT Attorney General] and he was very fired up with the idea of either brining the same bill back again with a few changes or bringing in a whole new bill. What will happen if he does that?

Well I thought the ACT Bill was a commonsense, unprovocative (to use the word that’s been bandied around), good piece of legislation that deserved to stand, and that’s why I was a co-sponsor of the disallowance motion. I hope that the debate is reinvigorated and obviously civil unions is an easy – relatively, we thought – way of dealing with this issue, so there’s no reason why the ACT or any other government shouldn’t pursue this, but its clear now that the government will stomp on this, and I think they need to be challenged every time they try to do this.

Do you think they’ll eventually stomp on Warren Entsch’s bill as well?

Obviously the Entsch legislation is good news. Obviously the Democrats are a bit ho hum about this, because this is something we’ve been on about for an extraordinarily long time, and received minimal if any support from other parties, let alone the Liberal party or backbenchers, on the issue of removing discrimination. And obviously that’s something we will vote for, but whether or not the government wants to proceed with something that is holus bolus a GENUINE removal of the prohibitions and the discrimination that exists, then that will be a sight to see.

I’ve yet to see legislation penned by the government and supported by the government that would do that, unlike the Democrats bill, which was introduced back in 1995 – that could have been passed a decade ago and this could all have been old hat if we’d dealt with it back in the 90’s, but I’ve yet to be convinced the government is genuinely going to allow something to go through.

One of the objections I’m told Howard might have is that he doesn’t like the big bang approach where you change a whole lot of laws at once to remove discrimination against gay couples, he’s said to prefer a piecemeal approach.

Piecemeal serves a very clear political purpose. That is “let’s not do too much too soon and not really effect change at all”, and I guess that’s why in some respects Senator Bartlett and I are making a big point with the marriage act.

Which is, “we’re sick and tired of you telling the world, telling Australians, that your marriage, a heterosexual marriage, is more valid than anyone else’s union,” and so in that respect I think this government has a homophobic element that is absolutely alive and kicking, and piecemeal reform is just an excuse for getting the issue off the agenda as opposed to realistically and genuinely confronting some age old prejudices and discrimination that exist in law throughout the land.

It’s also a very handy way of keeping the issue on hand: each time another piece comes up from discussion you can object if you need to distract people from another issue, and shore up your conservative base.

And wedge politics had worked a treat for the government this week but that doesn’t make it right, there’s a blatant discrimination that still exists against gay and lesbian partners in a relationship, and yes some of that will be addressed (we hope) by the Entsch bill, but its not enough. You’ve got to have absolute blanket removal of discrimination and I believe that’s got to be done by broad based legislation that makes a difference across the whole of government.

What about the HREOC Enquiry? The PM has said he’s committed to removing discrimination, won’t he look rather foolish if he’s given a list of what the discrimination is and he then refuses to enact the changes?

This is one the great ways of pressuring the government when you have an organization like that which will do a comprehensive enquiry, and I’ve looked at a couple of the submissions, and if the government's generally committed to removing discrimination it’ll have to pay attention to the findings of that report. I’ll wait and see – I feel a little cynical on this topic this week.

Victorian Libs leader and candidates say they’re in favour of civil unions. VGLRL say memberships are up. There was a surprisingly good turnout at the rally outside Melbourne Liberal HQ on Friday. Do you think here’s a groundswell happening here?

I suspect here is and I’ve got no reason to doubt it. Certainly the emails, the phone calls, the faxes I’ve received from a range of people all over Australia, different geographical areas and electorates, who are very committed to this issue, and this is the point.

It’s not up to me as a legislator to determine whether civil unions are appropriate or not, or marriage, it’s not up to me to determine how people want to live their lives and run their relationships. That, I guess, is my fundamental objection at the moment, the governments extraordinary restrictive, very conservative and very religious take on what constitutes a relationship, and I think that most Australians are offended by that regardless of our sexuality. I don’t think sexuality even enters into it, because I think most Australians just see this as an issue of fairness.

That in a sense is a classic liberal position, isn’t it? That the government should get out of peoples lives and allow them to organize them as they see fit, so long as they do no harm to anyone else.

Indeed. And I’m staggered by the shrinking number of small-l liberals that seem to be in the Australian parliament, especially in the Liberal party. I find this new censorious, restrictive, legislative approach extraordinary. That is not representative of what you would presume is their brand of Liberalism. Clearly there’s a religious influence here that can’t be underestimated.

Sen Milne said groundswell across a range of issues – nuclear, refugees etc. seems to be a sea change happening – including, as I understand it, many members of the Liberal party. They’re getting a little tired of all this.

Well I hope there’s a sea change, I’ve been in the parliament for more than a decade, a year of that now under a coalition controlled senate, and I’m incredibly concerned about the direction the country – and the federal parliament in particular - is heading.

So when I get to talk to people and go to functions and rallies like the one I’ve been at today for David Hicks, for example, I do get a sense of a groundswell of support for perhaps progressive views in some senses - environmental, or human rights, or a range of civil and political rights. I also worry too because the direction in the parliament is quite contrary to that. But we may see some cracks, some conscience voting, but there needs to be a lot more pressure applied, and maybe Civil Unions is the issue that’s started the ball rolling a little.

The trouble is if we get a conscience vote on civil unions we’re going to start seeing cracks in the Labour party too.

That’s the other aspect of the debate that people were concerned about. Had it been an even closer vote, you would have seen dissent on the labour side. A number of labour people were being heavily influenced by other factions, other political and religious considerations.

That’s inevitable in a parliament its about diversity and difference, but I would hate to see another debate in which even more conservative views were expressed. Civil Unions, to me, it just seems a no-brainer. I think the community gets that – I just don’t think the community is reflected appropriately in the parliament.

I don’t particularly want Senator Fielding telling me that “Marriages Bloom with a Bride and a Groom” - I guess I’m just not really a blooming bride – didn’t work for me, that one – it just goes to show you’re going to get all kinds of personal reflections that perhaps we shouldn’t open the parliamentary door to!

So what do you plan to do next.

To keep the pressure on the government, to keep them aware that the senate is still watching them on civil unions, that their decision to legislate against civil unions and marriage is something that is out of step with the majority of the population. I think it’s really important for legislators to be in there saying “your view of what constitutes a marriage or a relationship is not the only view, it is not the valid view.”

And that’s my role in introducing changes to the Marriage AC, not necessarily that I’m suggesting same sex marriage is the answer, that’s not my role, its up to other people to decide if they want to get married or not, not my decision. But it certainly is my role as a legislator to make clear to government that we cannot legislate for one form of a relationship that is more valid than another.

At the moment, according to our laws, heterosexual relationships are the only ones that count, and to me, that’s abominable.

Edited highlights from this interview appeared in Melbourne Star June 22nd

An Interview with Senator Christine Milne

CM: I’ve just made yet another speech about Inequality exclusiveness and unfairness with their new electoral laws

DP: Their electoral laws, their immigration laws, their same sex laws

CM: Exactly – that’s what I’m trying to argue here, to get the rest of the opposition parties to stop talking always as if they were different things and just say these are the values of the Howard government, which are unfairness, inequality and exclusivity – they argue that they are good old Australian values, what I’m trying to argue that this is at the heart of everything they do, inequality, cutting people out and unfairness.

DP: You said when you introduced the decriminalisation in Tasmania that was a very unpleasant experience

CM: It was absolutely horrendous. I’ve been in the Tasmanian parliament since 1989 and since 1989 the greens had repeatedly introduced gay law reform, and it wasn’t until we got balance of power when I was the leader in 1996 that we had the opportunity to actually achieve it. Now by that time R Croome and Nick Turnen had taken the matter to the UN but still here was nothing happening to force the issue in Tasmania.

But at that time I had Michael Hodgemen who is still in the Liberal party in the Tasmanian parliament, a former federal member going on the ABC News saying I was the mother of teenage sodomy – MTS – pretty good isn’t it (laughs).

I had the Attorney General of the day saying that if this legislation went through then Tasmania would be overrun with pedophiles.

I anticipated it would make a huge difference in Tasmania because the culture was just so repressive and the meanness the meanness was awful and I knew it would be better but I had no idea the shift would be as profound as it was. It was like the windows and doors were opened, the sunshine as let in here was a level of inclusiveness and happiness and tolerance I was even overwhelmed by – it has a had profound impact on Tasmanian society in that we went from having the worst gay laws to having the best in the country at that time. And I’m really proud of that.

But I have to say that I got the most vile letters and phone calls I was abused in supermarkets and on the streets it just demonstrates the point that you have to stand up for what you believe in spite of it all and ultimately you’ll be proved to be right, and that’s what should have happened here on civil unions and it didn’t

DP: Here in Victoria the new leader of the Liberals, Ted Baillieu, has reportedly received death threats since he said he was in favour of civil unions.

CM: Yeah that’s right, Bob [Brown] and I have had any number of death threats over the years in relation to this, I’ve had church groups ringing up praying for me people telling me I’m going to burn in the fires of hell and goodness knows what else – and that’s why I made that point yesterday – that the people who call themselves Christians are frequently the people who write the nastiest most vindictive most un-christian things to people who are actually trying to seek – as I said yesterday, do you believe in discrimination, do you believe in equality before the law, fundamentally that’s what this is about and I just cant see how people who claim to be Christians cannot recognise that.

That’s what they can’t argue against. They always invoke a whole range of things from the Old Testament but the you know the Old Testament also, if you want to be literal, has people cutting off hands and tuning women into pillars of salt, and there a few odd inconsistencies there I’ve noted.

DP: What next? There’s a great deal happening on CUs: Warren Entsch is bringing in his private members bill, Senator Natasha Stott-Despoya has brought in one to reverse the changes to the Marriage Act, and there seems to be potential for minor backbench revolt in Liberals

CM: I think that it going to take time and I don’t think you should underestimate the conservative rump in the Labor Party as well, they are certainly there, yesterday I noted that Penny Wong if you like paid tribute to her colleagues in the Labor party who hold different views and I just couldn’t understand why she pandered to an element in the Labor Party that apparently support discrimination.

DP: She’s declined to comment on that because its ‘off her portfolio’

CM: Well what nonsense the fact is that what was being proposed was discriminatory, the labor party is supposed to stand for anti discrimination and that’s the whole thing about it and I understand that’s why the Labor Party didn’t have a conscience vote on it, because it was a principle of discrimination, but look at what happened when we moved for women’s reproductive rights and the support of the millennium goal in regard to the education and empowerment of women, that the labor party folded on that, when the national party stood up and said they were going to oppose it, the labor party folded on it as well, and that was because of this conservative group in the labor party, so we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that they’re there.

Nevertheless I think there is . . ….I’ve been despondent for some years about the lack of activism in the Australian community in the face of what Howard has done to Australia, and you know it’s unthinkable ten years ago that you could have had a situation where you could excise the whole country from refugee laws and you wouldn’t have people marching all over the place, or you introduce the idea of becoming part of Bush’s nuclear club, and that’s just happened. Then they change the electoral laws to stop young people enrolling, you know, to cut them out of the process. Wherever you look it happens every day and I think that’s because – one of the reasons we’re not seeing protest is because people are exhausted by the aggressiveness of the radical change to Australian society that Howard has brought about..

But what I’m seeing in this last couple of months is a resurgence, there’s a growing movement in the universities around the nuclear issue, and the refugee campaign, and civil unions is part of the same sort of resurgence, or people saying we have had enough we’re not going to stomach this any more, and its going to the heart of everything we believe in and that’s why I’m trying to make people see that these things ought not to be seen as individual sorts of ‘silo’ issues, but they are the same issue, whether we’re talking about the West Papuans or we’re talking about civil unions, we are talking about a government which is not inclusive and is trying to exclude people from being part of Australian society, and which is unfair and discriminatory.

DP: Isn’t that part of salami tactics, splitting people up so they’re easier to pick off one by on?

CM: Yes, but at least there’s starting to be a resurgence and I take great heart from that and I’m certainly … my whole focus now is to try to get the community to see that whatever happens after the next federal election in terms of the lower house, that the government loses its majority in the Senate and the greens will certainly be campaigning to try to get control of the Senate, and this is where Victoria is critical because at the last federal election it was the labor party in Victoria that preferences family first ahead of the greens, and had not happened, we’d have had David Ristrom there yesterday instead of Steve Fielding.

Labor Party people in Victoria must vote below the line if labor does it again.

DP: The Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby say they’ve had the greatest surge in interest they’ve seen for years.

CM: That’s happening around the refugee issue, the anti-nuclear campaigns, I’m sensing it everywhere I go. There are always tipping points, and you can never know when you’ve actually reached them , you just campaign and campaign and then suddenly something happens and the community galvanizes and I can see that happening all around Australia, and that gives me great hope for next year.

DP: I was in England when Thatcher fell, and I’m starting to catch a whiff of the same thing here. I’m starting to see cracks in the façade, Howard’s own party getting fractious with their own leadership, discontent with people within the party being silenced….as well as external dislike of the government beginning to boil up. It feels like the end days of Thatcher.

CM: We shall see and I hope you’re right, I do sense there’s a change on and I do hope its as profound as that.

Australians are beginning to sense that Howards relationship with Bush, and his attempt to activate the Christian conservatives to keep Bush in the White House and the conservatives in power here, the pandering to Indonesia – people are getting really sick of him selling out the country, selling out what we believe in.

An edited version of this interview appeared in the Melbourne Star 22nd June

Travelling In Reverse

Not content with overriding the ACT Civil Unions Act, John Howard is rumoured to be planning more moves against the gay and lesbian community.

Sources in the Liberal Party say the government thinks that the override has given them the momentum to take matters further.

Senator Guy Barnett, who was also behind the push to amend the Federal Marriage to exclude same-sex couples, is pressing Howard to go further, arguing that unless the government introduces further amendments, there is nothing to stop state from legalizing civil unions.

Liberal MHR Michael Johnson agrees, saying, “There is a lot of concern that with the ACT and the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth has the power to disallow their laws, but with the state governments it doesn’t have the same legislative authority.”

Other backbenchers want Howard to go further. They think he should follow George W Bush’s lead and amend the Australian Constitution to ban same-sex marriages and civil unions, claiming that civil unions are just marriages in disguise.

They also want to stop the Immigration ministry from granting visas to the same-sex partners of skilled migrants, due to come into effect July 1.

But Attorney General Philip Ruddock denies the government plans any further legal changes.

He said, “The Government believes that the definition of marriage is quite clear and enshrined in common-law.”

(As published Melbourne Star 22nd June)

Friday, June 23, 2006

Federal ban on aiding same - sex rights inquiry

You won't find his on the net unless you have a subscription to the AFR, so it hasn't had wide publicity.


Federal ban on aiding same - sex rights inquiry

Laura Tingle
Chief political correspondent

Howard government ministers have instructed federal departments and agencies not to make submissions to a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into discrimination against same-sex couples in accessing financial and work-related entitlements.
The inquiry, set up early this year, is seeking to audit commonwealth, state and territory laws to develop a full list of circumstances in which same-sex couples and their children may be denied financial and/or work-related benefits and entitlements worth tens of thousands of dollars that are available to heterosexual couples.

But a spokesman for Attorney-General Philip Ruddock told The Australian Financial Review that ministers had discussed the inquiry and collectively agreed to instruct their departments not to make submissions to it, arguing that since it was HREOC’s inquiry it should be left to HREOC to do the work, rather than their departments

The instruction to the public service appears to fly in the face of the stated position of Prime Minister John Howard who, despite the federal government’s move last week to overturn ACT same-sex union laws, has in the past insisted his government was keen to address any financial discrimination same- sex couples might face.

Submissions to the inquiry already published document discrimination on issues such as public service superannuation, housing loans, war veterans pensions, workers’ compensation and Medicare benefits, which can cost couples thousands of dollars.

The superannuation industry has made a submission to the inquiry highlighting the problems of same- sex couples in super, such as being unable to split their contributions, leaving them exposed to tax payments of 15 per cent on amounts of more than $129,751 which heterosexual couples have not had to pay.

When Mr Howard announced amendments to the Marriage Act in May 2004, he also announced the government would be legislating in the area of superannuation to intro- duce the concept of financial interdependency.

This meant same-sex couples could access the same concessional tax treatment for superannuation death benefits available to heterosexuals instead of facing a 30 per cent tax bill.
But a pressing concern among the federal government’s own public servants is that the legislation did not apply the law to its own public sector funds.

This month, Mr Howard was asked if he had a problem with same-sex couples having the same entitlements as married couples.

‘ ‘I am in favour of removing areas of discrimination and we have, and I’m quite happy on a case- by-case basis to look at other areas where people believe there’s genuine discrimination but I think they should be looked at on a case-by- case basis,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that can be done in an across the board fashion.

‘ ‘We made some changes in relation to entitlements a couple of years ago and if there are other areas of genuine discrimination, then I’m in favour of getting rid of them.

“But that doesn’t mean that you equate those relationships with marriage. I think that is a step that the Australian community doesn’t want to occur, whilst at the same time there are many genuine areas of discrimination.”

Last night on The Rainbow Report on Joy 94.9, Liberal MP Warren Entsch told me he agreed with the Attorney-General’s position, but Shadow Attorney General Nicola Roxon said it was unprecedented for government departments not to make submission to enquiries when requested to do so.

I also understand that HREOC may still ask departments for information, but they may have to pay for it. And of course, it all depends on knowing exactly the right questions to ask in the first place!!

Doug Pollard