Human rights of reply

FIGHTING DISCRIMINATION Andreas Ohm and Jim Woulfe, Michelle McCormack and Lynne Martin with son Tom, Michael Burge, Maria Vidal and Susan Everingham with daughter Antonia, and Jiro Takamisawa. (Photo: Sahlan Hayes).
FIGHTING DISCRIMINATION Andreas Ohm and Jim Woulfe, Michelle McCormack and Lynne Martin with son Tom, Michael Burge, Maria Vidal and Susan Everingham with daughter Antonia, and Jiro Takamisawa.
(Photo: Sahlan Hayes).

A Writer discovers his voice.

SOMEONE once said: “Don’t get mad, get even”, which must have been on my counsellor’s mind when he suggested something towards the end of my two years of grief counselling after the death of my partner, Jono.

The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), now the Human Rights Commission, were looking for people to make submissions to illustrate various aspects of their Same Sex: Same Entitlements investigation into financial discrimination against same-sex couples in Australia.

“Why not think about writing your experiences?” he put to me.

I said I’d think about it, although my first thought was that my experiences were somehow not relevant. Then I thought deeper.

The death of my partner, with whom I cohabited, ran a business, and had joint financial affairs, had cost me dearly emotionally, but it had also cost me economically.

Unlike straight people in my situation, Centrelink did not recognise the validity of my relationship in any way. I was unable to claim any kind of support linked to my grief or my monetary losses when I had to move house three times in one year, and take time off work.

Centrelink staff had been quite defensive about their organisation’s shortcomings, and told me to apply for Newstart (Newspeak for ‘the dole’) which came with the requirement to be seen to be seeking work and attending mind-numbing ‘how to write a resume’ courses.

I’d taken things into my own hands and gotten a part-time job in aged care, which I happily did for a few months until my car blew a gasket, and needed thousands of dollars for a new engine. I sold it as scrap, had to quit my job (for which I needed a car), and proceeded to hunker down in my cheap accommodation, a granny flat, until I had to move because the property was sold.

I headed back to Sydney and city rent, and tried to speed up my application for Jono’s superannuation, which was slowed by the machinations of his family. They threatened to apply for it in its entirety, then didn’t apply for it at all. None of them were in any way financially dependent on Jono when he died, so none of them were eligible.

I was, but, thanks to all the unwelcome nonsense, it was months before Jono’s super fund could simply do what the law required of them and send me a cheque.

I endured financial discrimination because my country had nothing for me by way of support. What was slightly galling was that certain demographics – straight divorcees over the age of 50, for example – were allowed to access the ‘widow’s pension’ automatically. No job-seeking or resume classes for them.

Me, a genuine widow, could get nothing.

ACTU-Worksite-Australian-Human-Rights-CommissionI didn’t feel like entering into a sob story, but when I contacted HREOC, they encouraged me to submit a written document on these experiences, because they had not received any accounts of people in my particular position, and many of the unequal laws applied to the circumstances of being widowed.

Like my affidavit to the Supreme Court of NSW, my submission to HREOC was easy to put together. They have strict guidelines, I couldn’t just cry: “It wasn’t fair!” and let them sort it out, I had to show where I fell between the cracks because I had lived in a same-sex de-facto relationship.

Part of the deal was the delivery of a live submission to the Commission, and a willingness to submit to media interviews afterwards. I agreed without thinking, because, when the day came, I had a plan to follow the contents of my written submission, but completely overlooked the possibility that emotions would take over.

I watched as other gay and lesbian people expressed their experiences, and, when my turn came, I forced my story out from beneath an aching heart.

Expressing the inexpressible about death is one thing. Defining negative behaviour by other people around that death is another. I struggled my way through my submission, masking hurt with the kind of plosives that hit the microphone with the cut-glass anger that is entirely suitable for such occasions.

As I exited the hearing I forgot about the media, and had more microphones shoved in my face to elaborate further. The interviews went live at midday, and many of my family and friends, and my counsellor, heard me explain the disenfranchisement to a State that finally seemed to be listening.

report_coverAdele Horin, formerly of Fairfax Media, interviewed me at length on the phone after my HREOC submission, for an article which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

It took her a few attempts to fully understand my position, and with hindsight I understood her difficulty was the same obstacle that many people encountered when coming to terms with my experience, because they simply could not understand why Jono’s mother and brother would do what they did, it was such an aberration.

In the end, I suggested she ask them directly for their reasons, to secure the ultimate right of reply, although I suggested she’d need to be tactful – their son and brother had died, after all, and the illegal actions they’d taken made them vulnerable to heavy fines and/or jail terms, had anyone really wanted to “get even”.

Somewhere in her research, Horin came to realise that my experience went way beyond financial discrimination and spoke to one of the final frontiers of same-sex equality in this country: marriage.

The last twelve months of the Howard government needed to pass before anyone in power was willing to read the Same Sex: Same Entitlements report.

So it was with great delight that many in the LGBTI community watched 11 years of conservative government swept away by KevinO7 and the ALP, who’d made the implementation of the Same Sex: Same Entitlements recommendations an election promise, and finally altered almost 100 pieces of discriminatory federal legislation in 2009.

The fight for full equality continues.

Michael’s story is published as Questionable Deeds.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

 

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