Category Archives: Politics

There is no grey area in Marriage Equality

PINK AS Same-sex marriage is long overdue in Australia.
PINK AS Same-sex marriage is long overdue in Australia.

A Writer ramps-up the politics.

TO increase writing output I can thoroughly recommend writers move to an island.

With the mainland and its issues left far behind, and only the sound of birds in the nearby wetlands, my writer’s voice has blossomed since arriving on Coochiemudlo, in Queensland’s Moreton Bay.

A healthy dose of political writing has formed a key part of my work, and, thanks to the number of websites seeking original content, it’s been great to have work published to hungry audiences.

Top-of-mind for this writer is always LGBTQI equality – an issue which is not going away.

It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come – there was a time when even Senator Penny Wong was not a marriage equality advocate, and Tanya Plibersek MP wrote against it while backing her leader, Kevin Rudd, in opposition. Time for a little reminder in where we were just over twelve months ago.

This opinion piece originally appeared in LGBTicons in February 2013.

“The aftermath of his death revealed the rotten core of Australia’s attitude to same-sex equality.”

Michael Burge’s fight for equality Down Under.

I CAME to terms with the fact that I am gay whilst living in a converted barn on the edge of a frozen field in the grip of a Suffolk winter in early 1998. Loneliness, and the creeping realisation that I was wasting my swiftly disappearing youth were the motivating factors, plus the knowledge that I’d tried playing it straight for far too long.

In desperation, while on a day trip to Cambridge – city of so much stifled sexuality – I purchased a book called How to be a Happy Homosexual.

Yes, the shop assistant gave me ‘that’ look, as she turned it over, clocked the title, and promptly buried it in a paper bag for me.

In an early chapter, author Terry Sanderson suggests an exercise which struck me as weird, but I rolled my eyes, went to the bathroom mirror, and told myself that I am gay.

The self-acceptance I received in that moment changed my life forever.

Within months I left England for home. I felt sure that Australia would provide me with all the answers I needed to make this desperately important transition.

It took me another 18 months to break the closet door open. In preparation, I parachuted from an airplane to help a friend celebrate her 50th birthday, thinking that if I could manage that, coming out would be a cinch.

Then I took another leap and came out to everyone.

A year later I manifested a relationship with Jono, a beautiful, generous, funny man with similar showbiz aspirations. We shared our lives for four irreplaceable years before he died suddenly one night at the age of 44.

As the reality of his motionless body sank in, lying in the emergency department, I realised I was in for years of grief. I ran my hand across his forehead and told Jono he was worth every tear. I had no inkling at that stage how magnified my grief would be by other forces.

Jono and I never discussed the legalities of our relationship. We were married in every sense of the word, but we were blissfully ignorant of how precarious our legal status was. The aftermath of his death revealed the rotten core of Australia’s attitude to same-sex equality.

I could write at great length about the number of ways my human rights (and his) were trampled on by Jono’s family, some of his friends, and various government agencies and businesses in their service.

Thankfully, the state laws of New South Wales had enshrined same-sex de-facto relationships into law the year Jono and I met. Given time, I was able to reverse the criminally fraudulent acts perpetrated to ensure my name was not on Jono’s death certificate, and that I had no access to it.

But the battle to achieve ownership of this crucial piece of paper, which eventually allowed me to reclaim our joint financial affairs, turned me into an overnight marriage equality advocate, simply because marriage would have saved me from the deepest disenfranchisement I ever wish to experience.

So I began talking about same-sex marriage to anyone who would listen, warning gay friends in de-facto relationships in particular about the risks they faced if something went wrong – death, separation or incapacitation.

Surprisingly, I was met with off-handedness from couples who blindly trusted their families would respect their relationships, and those who couldn’t see that same-sex co-habitation is still very much a political act in Australia.

Thankfully, the marriage equality movement swiftly took a foothold in the gay community.

Right in the middle of my grief, two Australian same-sex couples who were married in Canada noticed the Australian federal Marriage Act did not explicitly state marriage had to be between people of the opposite gender, so they applied to marry under Australian law to ensure their overseas nuptials were legally recognised on home soil.

Federal Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock went into a panic about this obvious oversight, and worked his hardest to add six words – “between a man and a woman” – to the legislation. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard saw the addition of gender into Australia’s Marriage Act as a much-needed law reform, and the law was swiftly amended under his personal leadership in 2004.

When Kevin Rudd led the Labor party to victory in 2007, sweeping away 11 years of conservative government, he did so on the promise of removing legislation that financially discriminated against same-sex de-facto couples.

These were welcome reforms, but despite having a majority in the Senate, Rudd stopped short of any kind of leadership around marriage equality. Most commentators put his reticence down to religious convictions.

So it was a great relief when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010. As a self-declared atheist, she brought the possibility that faith-based lobby groups would be firmly reminded that we live in a secular nation. As a woman living in a de-facto relationship, she seemed equipped to understand why the full spectrum of coupling choices should be available to all citizens.

In 2012, months after the Australian Labor Party adopted gay marriage as a policy platform, Julia Gillard ensured her senators a conscience vote on a bill designed to consider that over 60 per cent of all respondents in the Australian community now supported same-sex marriage.

Sounds good, right?

NOT HAPPY, JULIA The shock in the same-sex attracted community was palpable.
NOT HAPPY, JULIA The shock in the same-sex attracted community was palpable.

Well no, actually, because Gillard’s leadership on the issue was limited to crossing the floor (followed by most of her frontbench) to express her atheist conscience by sitting with the conservative Opposition and voting against allowing same-sex couples in Australia our equal human rights.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott forced his colleagues to tow the line in a bloc of ‘no’ votes, flying in the face of the Liberal Party’s claim to have invented the repercussion-free conscience vote.

The Australian gay community witnessed this with jaws dropped. We had hoped our leaders would see things in a more 21st century light.

Thanks to all this political dissembling, same-sex marriage in Australia was defeated by an enormous margin, and remains dead in the water.

The news about the progress of marriage equality in the United Kingdom is heartening, but we are paddling in denial about how far back Gillard and Abbott have put the issue in this country. Neither leader has the conviction of Barack Obama, or David Cameron’s understanding of equality.

If only I’d looked at my country’s record for dragging its feet on gay law reform before I left the United Kingdom!

Australia lagged 30 years behind Britain on completely decriminalising homosexuality – which started in 1967 in Britain, but arrived as late as 1997 in Tasmania.

We do not yet have the right to create civil unions, which were legalised in Britain in 2005. The best we have are relationship registers, a process which feels rather like registering your dog with the local council.

Despite feeling like I’d lost my ability to love someone else, I was lucky enough to find love again, and by 2008 my partner Richard and I decided we’d like to formalise our relationship. The closest place we could be ‘civilly-unioned’ (it sounds weird, but let’s call it what it is), is New Zealand.

Our civil union certificate has legal status in very few places in Australia, but certainly not where we currently live and own a house together.

Despite our wills, powers of attorney and guardianship, we still have no single piece of binding evidence if the validity of our relationship were to be challenged.

So how long will we remain in this parlous state?

Julia Gillard refuses to give a cogent explanation as to why she believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman. She remains the greatest anti-gay-marriage leader this country has ever seen.

But there is a link between this refusal and her inability to form a secure, united cabinet since the first day she held office. Within the ALP ranks a progressive core keeps dragging the deeply divided party towards an understanding of equality.

Tony Abbott believes that being a conservative politician comes with automatic opposition to same-sex marriage, despite British Prime Minister David Cameron’s assertion that he supports same-sex marriage because he is a conservative.

So Australians for marriage equality are left with a choice between two staunch same-sex marriage opponents at our next election.

I used to think equality was a tenet of the Australian way of life, but to my surprise the word does not even appear in our constitution. Our politicians are under no obligation to stand up for something which isn’t mentioned in our supreme legal document.

BRISBANE PRIDE My partner Richard brings up the rear with the other trash at the loud 2013 event.
BRISBANE PRIDE My husband Richard brings up the rear with the trash at the raucous 2013 event.

But thanks to lobby groups, same-sex marriage has become our politician’s first real struggle with equality since the removal of the White Australia Policy in the 1970s, and the granting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights under the Mabo ruling in the 1990s.

While it chooses to use terms like ‘a fair go’ and ‘closing the gap’, our Parliament avoids the truth – that equality can never be a partial state. Equality either exists or it doesn’t, there is no grey area.

The removal of six words – “between a man and a woman” from the federal Marriage Act will cost this secular nation nothing.

But it will finally end my journey home from that lonely Suffolk barn, and make me a very Happy Homosexual indeed.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Try stopping the bleeding hearts

HEARTA Writer takes to the airwaves.

I am arts columnist for No Fibs, and I probably should be writing about the Arts. However, like many artists in Australia at the moment, I am experiencing plenty of distractions of the political kind.

I find it difficult to focus on creative expression while we have thousands of innocent people locked up in Australian detention centres, their images and stories used very creatively as propaganda to prevent others following in boats from Indonesia.

When I come up for air from my writing schedule, I see a nation in a state of fear. Fear about money, the fundamental mainstream issue Australians have made out of immigration, the environment and climate change.

“‘Stop The Boats’ has worked, and 60 per cent of Australians are happy about it.”

A fortnight ago, I interviewed an asylum seeker advocate in an article which was picked up by Radio New Zealand, who booked me for an interview on the Saturday Morning programme with broadcaster Kim Hill.

The producers had not been totally clear about what we’d be talking about – asylum seekers, freedom of speech, or both. I answered Hill’s questions as best I could, but, as we wrapped-up, what I realised I hadn’t done was get in touch with how I genuinely feel about the reasons Australia has lost its way on human rights.

Perhaps it’s wise I didn’t, because what I would have become, live, on New Zealand’s national radio broadcaster, was an unstoppable and very media-unfriendly bleeding heart.

There’s no use beating around the bush: The Abbott Government has stopped the boats. The odd vessel is still setting out for Australia’s shores, but there is no arguing with the statistics, and the right-wing media has started celebrating.

Well done, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison, Operation Sovereign Borders and its three-word parent ‘Stop The Boats’ has worked, and 60 per cent of Australians are happy about it. Well done Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd of the ALP for giving the Coalition plenty of ideas, avenues and deals to ensure its success.

We who are unhappy about it can do very little in the face of this bipartisan disaster for human rights – right now, Australians have no opposition representation against mandatory detention. Those who visit detainees are doing their best to ameliorate refugees’ suffering, but even that is being wound-back, with new restrictions on what sustenance or succour visitors to detention centres are allowed to bring to detainees.

Nothing is standing in the way of the dehumanising of people in Australia’s care. Nothing.

Whether Abbott and Morrison will now ‘Start the Processing’ of those in detention on Manus Island and Nauru, and in mainland detention centres, remains to be seen. History will judge these men by this moment.

All I really needed to prepare for my interview was to acknowledge their success, achieved whether I felt it was done in my name or not, and start the search for ways to counter the message of economic fear which has reared its ugly head in our country, again. That lives depend on the successful delivery of this message is to my shame. After all, another nation was listening.

The opposite message of economic fear is sharing, but sharing is a very hard sell indeed in Western economies.

Australians are known for voting through our bank balances – nothing like 60 per cent support could be found for Mr Abbott and Treasurer Mr Hockey’s Commission of Audit ideas today, including working until we’re 70, cutting social welfare, paying more for visits to the doctor, and a new (apparently temporary) debt ‘levy’ on those earning more than $80k to help get the nation back to black.

An attack on the human rights of people in need, and we cheer the government. An attack on our household bottom line, and we want to vote them out.

No wonder ‘Stop the Boats’ was the first, and to date, only one of Abbott’s big three items to get ticked off his Great Big Election Promises List.

On Saturday I told Kim Hill that what many need in this country is an end to the myth-making about asylum seekers. That was an awkward attempt at saying that what we seek is the truth, that which Operation Sovereign Borders does not trade in.

Under Howard, it was the ‘children overboard’ lies which got my goat enough to protest in 2002, and here we are again, marching, hoping for swinging voters to come to their senses about the lies of government.
Well, Australia’s lies have bolted, borne up by their three-word ease of motion.

And I suspect the elusive message of sharing is the silent score over images of the blood of the men who tried to hide from their attackers during the Manus Island riot. The undeniable red flow from hearts still beating.
This silence can really only be filled with waiting, simply waiting, for the truth to emerge.

You’ve stopped the boats, Mr Abbott, but just you try stopping my bleeding heart.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Janet Mays – forging Independence

INDEPENDENT THINKER Former Blue Mountains City Councillor, Janet Mays.
INDEPENDENT THINKER Former Blue Mountains City Councillor, Janet Mays.

A Writer’s encounter with politics.

THE first political piece I ever wrote was also the first scoop I ever got.

I was a resident of the Blue Mountains for thirty years, give or take my years at university and a six-year stint in the United Kingdom.

By the time Blue Mountains City Councillor Janet Mays stood for the NSW State elections in 2011, I was on the bandwagon of change for an area I loved deeply.

It was time for us to cease being a political football, an electorate that churned-out state and federal backbenchers who shored-up the numbers in parliament but stood for very little locally.

Janet burst onto the region’s political scene with a compassionate assertiveness that started to wake people up, the same way voters seem to have become aware of the two-party power shenanigans in the Victorian federal division of Indi, where Independent Cathy McGowan toppled the sitting member for the LNP, Sophie Mirabella, at the federal election in 2013.

She took a fifth of the primary vote from the major parties, and lost the seat in a State intent on nothing but ridding itself of the ALP, but Janet Mays used orange for her Independent campaign colours when Voice for Indi was just a whisper of frustration. It’s a fitting symbol of her link to the groundswell of Independent thinking rising across Australian electorates.

This feature was published in the October-November 2010 edition of Blue Mountains Life.

ORANGE MOUNTAINS For one Summer, the Blue Mountains toyed with changing colour.
ORANGE MOUNTAINS For one Summer, the Blue Mountains toyed with changing colour.

The Long Walk to Independence

From cafés and cars to the footwork of politics, meet Janet Mays.  

Janet Mays knows her way across the Blue Mountains better than most. In November 2009, she led the Health, Equity & Access Lobby (‘HEAL’) on a walk covering the fifty kilometres between Katoomba and Nepean Hospitals. The ‘It’s a Bl**dy Long Way to Nepean Hospital’ walk was designed to throw light on declining hospital services at Katoomba, and HEAL ignited a movement which is taking more than footsteps in the region.

“We were frustrated at the way nothing was shifting. We’d gathered a lot of support around bringing primary health services back to Katoomba, but there was very little action,” Janet says. “No-one is demanding the government provide open heart surgery at Katoomba, but it’s not too much to expect basic surgery at your local hospital, like an appendectomy.”

In 2007, Janet experienced first hand a hospital system which was simply not functioning. “As someone who’d lived in the Mountains for a few years, I just assumed I could have my appendix removed locally,” she says. “At Nepean I had to wait twenty-seven hours for primary care on two occasions before they diagnosed the problem was simply appendicitis. It was so traumatising at some level, having to come home and then go back again, like Groundhog Day”.

“I knew intuitively that the removal of my appendix could have been done locally, if the will was there.”

Janet’s search for that will saw her take out a full-page letter in the local newspaper, gathering support from a number of groups and individuals concerned about similar issues. From this, HEAL was born.

“I also spent two years visiting council meetings. I listened to the debates and gained an understanding of how it all worked. This cemented a desire to eventually get onto the Blue Mountains City Council, in order to understand and represent the views of the community.”

In 2008, Janet was elected as an Independent Blue Mountains City Councillor. When asked about her first time in the chamber, she recalls: “It was like being let off a leash as a resident, but also very daunting. I knew I had it in me. I’d been involved in plenty of drama and music as I grew up. Part of being a politician is articulating a message in the same manner as a performer does”.

“It is hard as an independent to get support. You have to be very eloquent in prosecuting your case to the other councillors. When I am going to debate, I research the facts so that I gain an understanding of both sides of an issue.

MOUNTAIN VIEWS Janet Mays awoke an Independent movement in the Blue Mountains.
MOUNTAIN VIEWS Janet Mays awoke an Independent movement in the Blue Mountains.

“Ward One might be my patch,” Janet says, “but I am required to vote on issues across our entire region, so I need to get out there and familiarise myself with the issues. As a true independent I don’t believe I have any choice. I don’t have the luxury of party colleagues informing me of anything, so I need to listen to people up and down the Mountains”.

“I sometimes change my mind on issues when I do the research or consult an expert. Being an independent can get lonely sometimes, but it’s also very exciting.”

Born in Melbourne, Janet was raised and schooled in Canberra.

“It does heighten your political interest,” she says, “at least it did then. My Dad was in the public service, and so were friends’ parents. Politics were discussed around the dinner table every night. That was part of the Canberra culture.”

After running her own café for many years, Janet, “stumbled into a career in and around the automotive industry, spanning twenty-four years.”

Like many other Mountain residents, she and partner Jocelyn Street purchased a Mountains weekender which soon became their permanent home in 2003.

“After a very short time we both realised that Sydney is not that far away, so we said ‘bugger the commute’ and settled here. Commuting is tiring,” Janet adds. “We do it for economic reasons, but it can separate you from your community. I work four days a week in the city and I travel up and down every day, which allows me time for my council work.”

The death of her father a short time before the move seems to have been more of a defining moment than Janet is prepared to reveal. “It left me unsettled as a person,” she says of a period when she and Jocelyn also committed to their de-facto relationship. “We have very similar family backgrounds, with many siblings,” Janet outlines. “We’re both from stable homes, with parents who worked hard”.

“I came out in my late thirties,” Janet adds. “I’d been through a marriage, and I suppose the world had shifted since my strong Catholic upbringing. My parents’ reaction to my sexuality was to say ‘as long as you’re happy’.

“With the support of my partner, I have really come into my own as a human being, and I’ve been able to achieve a lot in many different ways.”

As a Blue Mountains City Councillor, Janet has championed Indigenous access by helping set up the First People’s Advisory Committee. “I am particularly proud of that,” she says. “Council now has a way to be advised by Indigenous people on matters directly relating to them.”

Janet’s support of the creation of an Economic Development Working Party aims to broaden the employment base in the Blue Mountains Government Area. “Fifty-eight percent of working adults are forced to commute,” Janet outlines. “This working party aims to create new industries here, and broaden existing ones.”

And the local health system remains high on Janet’s agenda.

LONG WALK Clr Janet Mays and HEAL Vice President Claire Cook cross the Nepean River at Penrith (Photo: Jocelyn Street).
LONG WALK Clr Janet Mays and HEAL Vice President Claire Cook cross the Nepean River at Penrith (Photo: Jocelyn Street).

“Day one was a very hot day,” she recalls of the Bl**dy Long Way to Nepean walk. “We were very blessed with a large gathering of people at the start, and more joined us along the way for one or two legs. We ended the day at the Ori in Springwood … it was the best tasting beer,” she smiles.

“On day two the seven core walkers sped up considerably,” Jocelyn (walk support team leader) remembers. “There was an incredible energy on the day, not just from the walkers, but also passing motorists, who seemed to really love the fact that people were getting out there and doing something for the community.”

“Once we crossed the Nepean River our signs really told our story. There was a recognition from Penrith residents that Nepean is their hospital, and they were saying ‘good on you’ because our aim is to take the pressure off Nepean,” Janet says.

“We know HEAL raised an important issue that day,” Janet underlines, “because we brought Phil Koperberg (ALP State Member for Macquarie at the time) and Jillian Skinner (Opposition Health Spokeswoman) together at one moment to demand a shared response on Katoomba Hospital. It’s the first time that has ever happened. The more we do, even though it annoys the Sydney Western Area Health Service, we are representing community views”.

“It’s an ongoing process to bring further change,” Janet says. “Katoomba is blessed with a dedicated hospital staff, operating at their best in a system which does not value them. They are not permitted to deliver services as they are trained to, yet they remain dedicated. Our hospital staff deserve greater support from all levels of government”.

“The Blue Mountains have not been well served in recent years,” Janet adds, before revealing her intention to run as an independent candidate for the Blue Mountains at the March 2011 state election. “The Blue Mountains is a unique area with its own identity and a fragile environment under pressure from all sides,” Janet says. “How do we ensure our voice is heard?” she asks. “It is time for this community to have a member absolutely focussed on local interests, and not party interests”.

PLUCK COVER copy“It takes courage,” Janet adds. “Independents are not in opposition. Our role is to work collaboratively with the government of the day, to beat the drum and bang the table for our communities. That is the essence of what it is to be independent.”

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s ebook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.