Category Archives: Politics

From this day backwards: the long journey to Australia’s first lesbian marriage

WHEN Australian same-sex couples were finally granted equal access to the Marriage Act in December 2017, the widespread expression of relief was tempered by a growing awareness of a legal minefield.

“Here we were on the other side of the world not being able to have clarified which of our relationships was valid.”

Brisbane couple Elaine Crump and Sharon Dane let the emotions in, but the status of their long-term relationship remained in limbo. Like many same-sex couples seeking legal documentation during the interminable wait for Australia to pass marriage equality, Elaine and Sharon had already taken their chances in countries where equality was accessible.

The pair first solemnised their relationship with a civil partnership at the British Consulate in Brisbane during 2006 in fact they were the first lesbian couple to do so in this country — but neither could have predicted that was merely the start of an arduous legal journey.

“It gave us some credibility among our family and peers,” Elaine, a tradesperson, remembers.

“We were no longer just a couple living together but had some form of formal recognition, albeit in another country; and both our families are British.

“There was a level of excitement about it, as it was something we were finally sharing together that others were able to take for granted.”

IN THE SPOTLIGHT Sharon Dane and Elaine Crump.

Sharon, a psychology researcher, agrees: “There was no other way back then of us formalising our relationship”.

“The only thing we had to show we were a couple prior to that was a ‘stamp duty free’ declaration form from the Department of Transport.

“As we were British citizens, we felt that at least we were being legally recognised in a country that was part of our identity,” she adds.

According to Sharon, just before the couple were civilly-partnered, staff at the consulate required them to officially acknowledge that they understood the ceremony was not a marriage.

“That was hard to swallow,” she says.

“We were well aware of that, but to have it emphasised on our special day was upsetting.”

The ‘Best Wedding’

The ceremony attracted significant media attention during the Beaconsfield Mine collapse in Tasmania. Elaine and Sharon recall the sudden scrutiny brought on by the media’s need for alternate content during the lengthy wait before the trapped miners were brought to the surface.

“We allowed the media into that occasion and there was a sense of politics about it which somewhat detracted from the very personal nature of what we were doing,” Elaine says.

“For this reason, I drew the line in not allowing the media at our reception.”

Sharon believes the spotlight came as a result of being one of the first same-sex couples to enter into a UK civil partnership in Australia.

“Interestingly, we weren’t allowed many people to attend the ceremony at the consulate, only immediate family and our witnesses,” she says.

“So there wasn’t that sense of celebration you would normally experience at a wedding.

“Instead, the media filled the room taking photographs.

“While this took away from some of the personal nature of it, it also gave it some sense of celebration, with it being acknowledged as something historic and special.”

According to Elaine, the bulk of the ceremony was at home with close friends and family: “I do remember my mum saying it was the best wedding she had ever been to.”

Time Capsule

By 2008, overseas civil partnerships between same-sex couples were still not recognised in Queensland. That process would not begin until 2011 or be settled into law until 2016.

Elaine and Sharon’s relationship recognition had therefore reached an impasse, but they saw an opportunity in another country.

“Part of it was opportunism, as Sharon had to go to Rhode Island for a conference and I decided to go with her for a holiday,” Elaine recalls.

“We decided we would use the opportunity to drive up to Canada to marry, as it was another step in our journey.

“Marriage felt far more normalising. It would allow us to say we are married couple now, not civilly-partnered.

“We could come home and say that at least somewhere in the world we are a married couple.”

Sharon remembers her critical concern was about she or Elaine dying before they had the opportunity to marry or have a civil partnership recognised at home.

“If that happened, you couldn’t turn back the clock,” she says.

“There would be no way of the surviving partner showing we were ever married. 

“I felt it was like putting it in a time capsule, ready to pull out once the laws had changed.

“It was also because people got it when you said you were married, they didn’t get it when you said you were civilly-partnered.”

Marriage Activists
SPEAKING OUT Dr Sharon Dane speaking at a PFLAG Brisbane event in 2014.

By the time of Elaine and Sharon’s 2008 marriage in Toronto, Canada, the couple had become involved in marriage equality activism, although both remember how entering into their second relationship certification was not in any way political.

“We were doing it for us,” Sharon says.

“However, letting the media tell our story was politically motivated, as we wanted to get the message out there that we were a normal couple that just wanted to be treated like everyone else.”

Elaine agrees: “From a political perspective it was great that our ceremonies helped highlight the issues in the press.”

Sharon’s role as a psychology researcher working on the relationships and wellbeing of LGBTIQ Australians was extended into her activism, which strengthened her views on why having the choice to marry was so important.

“As the research strongly indicated, it was simply about being respected and included in society,” she says.

“The desire to marry was a personal one, but to have the choice was critical in terms of feeling treated as an equal.”

Spare Bunk

Elaine and Sharon met through the Brisbane entity of the social group Older Wiser Lesbians (OWLS).

“I was away in Darwin on a work trip and when I came back Sharon was a new member and we became friends,” Elaine says.

“Eventually, and when I was no longer in a relationship, we found a mutual attraction to each other.”

Sharon recalls the pivotal weekend the relationship began: “A group of us women went camping at a lake. Elaine had a small sailing boat which you could sleep in. Everyone was deciding what tent they were going to sleep in and Elaine said ‘I’ve got a spare bunk in my boat’.

“Well I quickly put my hand up for that offer, and just as well, as it was in that boat where we expressed a mutual attraction,” she adds.

“That was almost 17 years ago. We no longer have that boat but a picture of her hangs proudly in our house as a reminder.”

It’s Complicated

After their 2008 Canadian marriage, Sharon and Elaine continued to campaign for marriage equality in Australia, including staunch opposition to the Turnbull Government’s planned plebiscite on the human rights issue throughout 2016.

According to Sharon, their interest in laws regarding civil unions and same-sex marriages across the world made the couple aware that it wouldn’t be possible to have two formal relationships — even if to each other — recognised in the same country.

“As the UK later changed its laws in 2014 to recognise overseas same-sex marriages, we started to wonder which of our two relationships — the civil partnership or the Canadian marriage — it would recognise,” she recalls.

“To complicate matters further, Canada changed its laws in 2014 to recognise an overseas civil partnership as equivalent to a marriage, with a Canadian lawyer advising us that our civil partnership would be viewed as the true marriage because it happened in 2006, two years prior to our 2008 Canadian marriage.”

The couple quickly realised they were in the same position as countless other same-sex partners in Australia: in need of legal and/or consular advice about the status of their relationships. 

“We first contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK government,” Sharon says.

“They told us that it was complicated because we didn’t live in England and therefore they weren’t sure which of our relationships was valid.

“This meant we were not allowed to have our civil partnership converted to a marriage in case the Canadian marriage had rendered the civil partnership void in the UK.”

The couple corresponded with the United Kingdom Government for over three years while remaining in what they describe as “legal limbo”.

“Finally, they agreed that if we could seek the expert opinion of specialists in English family law, they would consider our case,” Sharon recalls.

“This was a costly exercise that we feel we should not have had to go through.

“We felt we had no choice but to pay for the services of a London lawyer specialising in same-sex marriage law.”

Sharon did an internet search for “Family Law, England, LGBT”.

“Luckily we found A City Law Firm, a wonderfully supportive and knowledgeable legal firm in London,” she remembers.

“They, with counsel on the matter from a barrister, made it clear to the UK government that it was our Canadian marriage that was void under English law, not our civil partnership.”

Reality Check

“The reality set in: Were we really legally married?”

In late 2017, the Turnbull Government conducted a compulsory postal survey to gauge public sentiment on allowing same-sex couples equal access to the Marriage Act.

Sharon was present in the House of Representatives at Parliament House, Canberra, when marriage equality was voted on and passed on December 7 that year.

“I remember calling Elaine right after and us crying over the phone, and that we were ecstatic this had happened,” she says. 

“I think the passing of the law at that time was when I experienced the huge emotional outpouring.

“But then within a week of that, the reality set in: Were we really legally married?

“That put a real damper on things.”

According to Sharon, words can’t adequately describe the frustration and powerlessness that she and Elaine went through while they waited on a response from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

“Here we were on the other side of the world not being able to have clarified which of our relationships was valid,” she says.

“This meant we couldn’t confirm if we were already married, nor could we get married in Australia in case the Canadian marriage was deemed valid.

“I couldn’t help but feel bitter, as if we had the right to marry in Australia in the first place we would not have had to have gone through this unnecessary stress and expense, which was of no fault of ours but as a consequence of same-sex marriage laws changing around the world.”

When the news finally came through from the UK government in February, 2018, that the couple could convert their civil partnership to a marriage, Sharon and Elaine recall being overwhelmed with joy and relief, particularly because the certification was back-dated to take into account the total number of years of their marriage.

“This was the relationship we entered into first, 12 years ago, and the one that involved all our friends and family in Australia,” Sharon says.

“It was the one with a wedding album, flowers, a cake and our loved ones.”

Sense of Peace
AT LAST Elaine Crump and Sharon Dane with their marriage certificate after converting their UK civil partnership to a marriage, at the British Consulate in Brisbane, February 2018.

This year, Elaine and Sharon returned to the British Consulate in Brisbane to have their 2006 civil partnership converted to a marriage that was automatically recognised in Australia.

The certification was likely to have recorded theirs as the first lesbian marriage in this country.

For Elaine, the overriding feeling was relief: “It’s been such a battle for so long,” she says.

“We finally know it’s legally binding and recognised in the place we call home.

“When we go out now and introduce each other as ‘this is my wife’, I don’t get that feeling that people think ‘oh yeah that’s nice, but they are not really married’.

“After all these years of exclusion, I’m able to say ‘yes I’m part of this, I am legally married, you are my wife’.”

Sharon recalls the conversion as an experience of happiness on two fronts, the “huge relief” of ending a drawn out legal battle, and that having the marriage recognised in Australia gave the couple “closure and a sense of peace”.

“All the boxes are now ticked,” she says.

“There is no more fighting on an Australia level, no more fighting on a British level, or any other level.

“We are now like any other couple who can say ‘okay we are married’ and that’s the end of it.”

Photos/Video: Alison Pike and Stephen Pike.

Barnaby Joyce does not own New England

AS I approached the polling station at the Tenterfield Memorial Hall on by-election day in December 2017, I suspected Barnaby Joyce would put in an early appearance.

If Mr Joyce was going to cover New England glad-handing and holding babies, finishing in triumph at Tamworth, he’d have to start early in this town at the far reaches of the electorate that had recently been stripped of its sitting member.

Despite being a local boy, Mr Joyce had been found by the High Court to be a dual citizen of New Zealand and dumped from parliament under the clear terms of our Constitution.

I was at Tenterfield to hand out how-to-vote cards for CountryMinded candidate Peter Mailler, and as I tied a couple of Pete’s signs onto the picket fence, Mr Joyce arrived to greet his ‘Barney Army’ in their yellow National Party shirts.

He settled his nerves by introducing himself to the competition. As he approached me, I was struck by his height. On television he never seems to carry his 1.85 metres, but he stood on eye level with me. I saw his elbow draw back and his hand flatten into a shape akin to an axe, signalling in a manly show that a handshake was expected.

“I’m Barnaby,” he announced.

I’ve long believed in the importance of meeting politicians, particularly those who represent us. Having recently moved from the South East Queensland electorate of Bowman, I’d spent years challenging sitting Liberal MP Andrew Laming about his inexplicable fence-sitting on marriage equality.

Barnaby Joyce and I have more in common that he realises. I’m slightly taller, he’s a bit older. We were both born in the New England region, me at Inverell and he at Tamworth. Our fathers were both graziers. We were both dual citizens of New Zealand by birth, until he revoked his in order to stand for election again.

The similarities seemed enough for him to feel safe with me, until I opened my mouth.

“If you win the seat today, and you’re back in parliament in time, how will you vote on marriage equality?” I asked, since the opportunity was unlikely to come again, and the people of New England had recently returned a result of 52 per cent in favour of allowing same-sex couples equal access to the Marriage Act.

Barnaby looked at his feet (I realised then why he often appears shorter), rolled his eyes, winced, and proceed to huff and puff.

“Look, I always said I’d never vote against the will of the people,” he said, scuffing his feet together like a schoolboy.

“That’s good to know,” I said. “Thanks,” I added. Then, the clincher: “What about religious exemptions?”

I didn’t see Barnaby signal to his security guard. All of a sudden a blob of a boy stood in my face, but I kept addressing Barnaby, who’d moved out of the brief common ground we’d created.

“I’m your constituent, Mr Joyce,” I said, even though technically at that point he wasn’t our MP. “I’m allowed to ask you questions, I believe?”

With a distinct look of fear, Barnaby retreated up the pathway to stand with the yellow T-shirts, before he and his crew swept south across the electorate he’d go on to win back that day.

New England voters were almost universally slammed on social media for backing Joyce, but we were acutely aware that progressives expected us to topple the Turnbull Government. The voters of Bennelong had the same experience just one week later.

Not all of us voted for Barnaby, of course. Just shy of 40,000 voters picked someone else or voted informally.

He might have won in a landslide, but in running away from scrutiny, Barnaby Joyce was heading inevitably towards defeat.

Sooky Chook

As it turned out, Barnaby abstained from the final vote that brought about marriage equality in Australia’s House of Representatives on December 7.

I should have noticed him telegraph his intention to betray LGBTIQ. Despite being a major architect of the divisive public vote on human rights, Barnaby Joyce, ‘family man’ was never going to get his fingerprints on a policy that made his marriage equal to ours. His immature blather to me had been code for abstention.

Yet the rumour about his extramarital affair and the pregnancy of his new partner had done the rounds at the polling station and the district on the ubiquitous Bush Telegraph. I witnessed the fallout when comments deemed defamatory were removed from Facebook threads under stories published by my former employer, Fairfax Regional Media. Commenters were unafraid to detail what they’d heard about Barnaby’s trashing of his own family values, and angry the local media was inexplicably protecting him. One comment labelled Barnaby a “sooky chook” if he needed such protection.

What was more concerning about the local pre-election vibe was the struggle other candidates had getting cut-through for their messaging. Sixteen alternatives threw their hats in the ring and despite being a more natural Greens voter, I decided to back the grain farmer from Boggabilla who was clear about his support for marriage equality. In places where the Greens don’t usually register high numbers of primary votes on election day, I have often voted strategically this way.

I’d met Pete years before while sub-editing his columns for FarmOnline, and knew him to be a progressive thinker. I also knew he stood for holding the Nationals to account after years of taking the country vote for granted. After Tony Windsor endorsed him, I took it on myself to contact several national political journalists in case they were writing stories about Barnaby’s competition. The trouble is, most of them weren’t.

And Barnaby was thumbing his nose at all of us by avoiding public forums, a decision that provided fertile ground for gossip.

A pub fracas with another local posing questions to him at Graman was reported. Mr Joyce had not been in the mood for providing answers, not even to his constituents when delivered in person. Instead, he claimed he was being stalked.

A sooky chook indeed.

Out of place

Barnaby had expert social media support during the by-election campaign. One of the most intriguing examples was the video of his visit to Bingara cemetery where his great-grandfather is buried.

Here, in the heart of Kamilaroi Country, he whined about being called into question for possible allegiance to a foreign nation, using a relative he’d never known as evidence. Clearly, he exuded, he was a hard-done-by Aussie to his bootstraps and all this talk about dual citizenship was bull-dust.

What really struck me in that clip was how very out of place Barnaby Joyce appears in this electorate.

Held for eight decades by the Nationals (many of those under their old Country Party permutation), New England could be considered their heartland and not the Kamilaroi’s, if only it weren’t so very different on the ground for those of us looking closely.

After forty years living in other regions both in Australia and overseas, in October 2017 I returned to live at Deepwater, a stone’s throw from the place of my birth and the region my parents farmed outside Delungra, on the way to Bingara.

My ancestors have lived in and around Inverell for as long as Barnaby’s, and I have a different take on the experience.

Ever since I was a child I have known of my mother’s connection to New Zealand. I’ll never forget seeing her cry as she revisited for the first time since she was a baby, on descent into Christchurch as we passed over the west coast of the South Island.

She told me when I was a child about the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, which took place just a few kilometres from our farm. The crimes of settlers against Kamilaroi rang strongly throughout Bingara and Delungra families, and led to one of the country’s most enduring reconciliation projects, the annual Myall Creek Massacre memorial.

The day Richard and I moved into our new home, I drove the hire truck back to Glen Innes at dusk and saw the hundreds of wind turbines on the ridges. Since then, we’ve seen them in all directions, often situated with solar farms in upland valleys and ranges. Employment in renewables often tops the search engine results for jobs in the New England region, and plenty of farmers and greenies are allied in their desire to lock the gate against CSG exploration and mining.

In 2001, for the first time since 1922, the seat was won by independent candidate Tony Windsor, who was re-elected three times. Windsor’s incumbency broke the notion that the seat needs to be held by a deeply conservative National Party pollie in order for locals to be happy.

At the regional Farmers and Producers Market started at Tenterfield in late 2017, we’ve enjoyed working alongside African immigrants, also commonly sighted on the streets of Armidale. The resettlement program at nearby Mingoola has been an example of how refugee assistance can be mutually beneficial for remote Australian communities.

It seems out of character, but Barnaby has led the way.

Clearly, he is capable of being progressive when it suits him. It’s just one of many paradoxes about the man who once had a home base at Tamworth, but now seems to belong nowhere.

Border Country

Lately, I’ve encountered a few people who are shocked to hear that Barnaby Joyce comes from the New England region and not Queensland, where he entered politics as a senator in 2005.

Politically, he seems a more natural fit for the state that produced Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It’s not surprising, since the NSW New England region and Queensland’s Darling Downs are often blended into a kind of “border country”.

As kids at Delungra Public School we knew enough of Sir Joh to make up songs about this amusing old politician with a lyrical name. We used Queensland vernacular (“port” instead of “school bag” being just one example) and Brisbane was geographically closer than Sydney.

Queensland Nationals certainly claim New England. At Tenterfield polling station on by-election day Senator Matt Canavan and Toowoomba MP Trevor Watts put in hours handing out for Barnaby and posing for selfies with fans.

But where the pro-mining, ‘family values’ man who won’t countenance the Uluru Statement sits in the community of his birth, which is getting on with renewables investment, reconciliation and social progression regardless of him, is the question.

It’s firmly rural, New England, but it’s definitely not Sir Joh country. Quirindi-born Tony Windsor knows it. Pete Mailler knows it too. The Kamilaroi know it and I suspect even Sir Joh came to realise it. I doubt Barnaby Joyce has ever given it any thought whatsoever.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

“I noticed your profession, so I know you’re scum”

“I was privy to the final gasp of the great newsmakers.”

A Writer introduces his latest book.

AFTER a career in publishing, marketing and other creative dalliances that was more like the verb (‘move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way’), I arrived relatively late to journalism.

A decade in, I received the comment in the title of this foreword from one of my social media readers. It was posted in reply to an appeal from me for the commenter to take in the whole of my 800-word piece before dissing the point I was trying to make.

The import was brutal. I was expected to step away from the debate about my own work. I was nothing more than the journalist who wrote it, not to be trusted on that basis alone. Had I persisted, the grab-bag of insults would surely have included ‘fake news’.

What on earth was I thinking, becoming a journalist in my forties?

Most of my journalism has taken place in the shadow of the social media’s rise at a time of enormous upheavals and fractures in the journalistic landscape. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to earn a living as a reporter and editor for almost ten years, usually taking positions that no-one else wanted because the pay was terrible and the prospects of advancement zero.

My first full-time journalism contract was inexplicably based on the template for engaging a builder. A year-and-a-half later, the boss tried to dump me because advertising sales were gently drifting downwards and he thought it better to install an unskilled family member as the writer.

I held my nerve, cited my tradesman’s agreement in an assertive conversation, and tried to imbue my employer with courage when he cried and begged me not to make him honour it.

This strangest of arrangements lasted until the office locks were changed on me before my final pay arrived in the bank account, and the first gap in my journalism career opened wide.

I did what so many of us do: I started a blog and learned to publish online. The lure of the Publish Button was strong but it hadn’t quite found the sweet spot to kill the media just yet, because soon enough I was asked to interview for a position at Fairfax Media.

As one of the company’s last sub-editors I was privy to the final gasp of the great newsmakers, working with subs capable of taking the shoddiest copy and transforming it into double-page spreads with multiple lead stories, down-pages and briefs, all spell-checked and “legalled” in under 15 minutes.

It was an education like no other in a newsroom environment swiftly replaced by a landscape where news-making means almost nothing.

Along the way, my writing output increased to the point where I was often heard to confess that there’s no off switch.

This is undoubtedly due to the rise of digital and independent publishing tools which allow writers to reach a wider audience than ever before. Finding a readership is still the challenge it always was for wordsmiths, but securing our place in the flow of digital media is as easy as a username and password.

So it was a defining moment for me when seasoned journalist Margo Kingston, also formerly of the Fairfax stable, offered me the chance to write for NoFibs.com.au. The gig: a regular column. The subject: the Arts.

“The articles in this collection walk the indefinite line between politics, art, culture, identity and equality.”

Getting an encouraging green light from a respected commentator is rare. Doing the work for free, yet having editorial control, presented the perfect antidote to hours spent shaping the work of other journalists while still on deck as a paid, casual sub-editor at a Fairfax newsroom in Queensland.

The resulting output forms most of the articles in this volume, written over a four-year period (2013-2017) during which Tony Abbott’s brief prime ministership was played out then snuffed out, leaving Australians to endure the fallout.

The articles in this collection walk the indefinite line between politics, art, culture, identity and equality, traversing the period when journalism as we knew it went into its death throes and started to slide behind pay walls.

They also document the final, frustrating years of Australia’s journey to marriage equality; the belligerent delays, missteps and guesswork in delivering marriage equality to a community in which 60 per cent of voters continually told our representatives that we wanted a change to the law.

Here lies the key to understanding every long-form title I wrote across the same period, and why I often crossed over into activism in addition to journalism.

Any ‘scum’ still writing articles for general readership these days are either overstretched under a masthead, or still plugging away independently for very little return, more likely nothing. This book is dedicated to every one of them.

eBook | BUY NOW

If you’re still reading this, just 800 words in with no digital bells and whistles to amuse you, your attention span is fit and you’ll probably make it to the end. If any of it leaves an impression, please take that incredibly rare action that is a gift to independent writers and a necessity if we want journalism to survive: share it.

An extract from Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.