Category Archives: Politics

“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.

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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.

The hate that dare not speak its name

AUSTRALIA is fighting a very old battle. It’s been Trojan-Horsed into every household in the form of the Turnbull Government’s postal survey on federal marriage law. Like all wars, the propaganda is rife.

“It would make for a better, fairer and more entertaining match if #TeamNo owned the label ‘homophobes’.”

We’re being asked to vote on altering the Marriage Act to allow equal access to couples of the same gender. Naturally enough for Aussies, we’re dealing with it by forming teams in a numbers game over the country’s oldest political football.

In one corner we have gay-friendly #TeamYes in bright, inclusive colours, although the commentators can’t avoid the war references, labelling them everything from rainbow authoritarians to the gay gestapo. 

In the other corner #TeamNo is pitching itself as the underdog, and while it’s still working out what colours to wear, #TeamYes has been chanting Ho-mo-phobe! Ho-mo-phobe! Ho-mo-phobe!

Understandably, it’s unsettling for them, but what label would #TeamNo prefer?

#TeamConservative

This would be apt had Western right-wing governments not led their nations to major marriage equality wins long ago. It was David Cameron, Tory prime minister of Great Britain who said that he supported equal marriage rights for the same sex-attracted because he is a conservative in a now famous speech that forever ruled out conservative as a more accurate label for a homophobe. 

#TeamOrthodox

Many of Australia’s faithful are sticking to their ancient creeds, led by the Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton; but this label fails on two counts. First, anyone upholding all the Abrahamic scriptures in the twenty-first century must broaden their definition of marriage beyond one man and one woman. The Old Testament allows a bloke more than one wife and a list of exceptions to consensual monogamy. Second, Australia is replete with people of faith who are publicly voting yes to marriage equality. 

#TeamFamily

Upholding the nuclear family is another excuse for refusing same-sex couples equal marital rights. Family First’s breakaway Senator Lucy Gichuhi is one champion in this hard-fought corner. But family values come undone as an excuse for disliking marriage equality when we have multiple generations of surrogate, adopted, biological and foster children that have no different outcomes as a result of being raised by same-sex parents. 

#TeamTraditionalist

Resisting change for change’s sake is a hybrid of orthodoxy, conservatism, and family values, practiced enthusiastically by the likes of Senator Cory Bernardi. However, when a minority group seeks access to a traditional legal institution such as the Marriage Act, Mr Bernardi’s objection to sharing traditional marriage with gays can only be homophobic. This might be why several sub-teams pop up in the traditionalist camp to diffuse the simple yes/no question in the marriage law survey – #TeamFreedomOfSpeech, #TeamReligiousFreedoms and #TeamRadicalGenderTheories, to name a few.

#TeamSorryNotSorry

Social media is replete with players enlisting themselves onto #TeamNo because they feel bullied by #TeamYes, led by the dummy spit of columnist Tom Switzer. They were going to vote for marriage equality, apparently, but their vote was dependent on same sex-attracted people playing nice in a respectful match. They usually profess “heaps of gay friends” yet preface lengthy anti-equality statements with the word “but” to discriminate against the same people. Exclusion on the basis of a rough game is not victimhood, it’s homophobic.  

#TeamAntiGayMarriageGays

Internalised homophobia is a thing. Anyone who was ever closeted will tell you how easy it is to catch a bout of it, even long after coming out.

#TeamHomophobiaIsNotAThing

If all the above players are to be believed, homophobia has never existed and same sex-attracted people are making up all the laws that saw us arrested, chemically castrated and executed across the centuries.

What didn’t exist for a long time were terms to describe the evolution of equality, but as same-sex attraction made space for itself in Western culture, phrases and words were added to the lexicon. It’s an evolving process and commentators need to keep up.

During Oscar Wilde’s trials in the 1890s, homosexuality was analysed around the euphemism ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, but by the middle of the twentieth century the fluid term ‘gay’ was in common use and doing little harm.

But pejorative words for homosexuality came into widespread public use as gay liberation got serious in the late 1960s. It’s hardly surprising that a blanket term ‘homophobic’ – coined by a psychologist – was swiftly owned by same sex-attracted subculture, replacing ‘wowser’ and ‘zealot’ in the gay pride push-back.

#NoWin

#TeamYes earned its stripes long ago and has plenty of skin in the long game to full equality.

It would make for a better, fairer and more entertaining match if #TeamNo owned the label ‘homophobes’. It sounds more easily curable than bigotry; there is no law against being inherently homophobic, and religious freedoms are already protected in the Marriage Act.

Their failure to self-identify is what proves any equivalence between #TeamYes and #TeamNo to be so false, and the whole match stacked against a clear win for anyone in Malcolm Turnbull’s survey.

We are right to suspect that is the aim of the game.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Divorced from reality: the Coalition’s marital problems

“The Coalition will just have to take care of itself, because the political wedge has finally hit its target.”

AFTER the Coalition’s narrow win, the plebiscite on Marriage Equality should be getting ready to kick off, yet the same election promise has been blamed for the major swing against Malcolm Turnbull.

And the paradox has all the hallmarks of failure. In one of his delayed post-victory interviews, Malcolm Turnbull conceded the plebiscite would have to be pushed ahead to 2017.

His reason: “My commitment to have it dealt with as soon as practicable is there, but we… have to obtain the support of the Senate,” Mr Turnbull told Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 program.

This rhetoric is in stark contrast to Mr Turnbull’s pre-election claim that a guaranteed ‘yes’ plebiscite result would “sail through the parliament” under his leadership. 

At the dawn of a more diverse Senate than the one Turnbull tried to shift with his double-dissolution election, another narrative swiftly emerged this week that throws even more doubt on the PM’s grasp of the reins.

A Galaxy poll commission by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) conducted after the election indicates less than half of voters want a marriage equality plebiscite.

So the promise Mr Turnbull campaigned on – majority community support for asking the people by the end of 2016 – has fallen flat.

This is not a surprise. Equality campaigners not only saw it coming, we made it happen.

Marital problems

In my electorate – the division of Bowman in South East Queensland – a small team of us started door-knocking the neighbours of our federal MP Andrew Laming in March.

It proved to be a confronting process – knocking on doors asking for your human rights is not always fun – but we were already angry at how the mainstream media had given the Coalition’s Mr Laming a free kick in 2015.

Screen shot 2016-07-22 at 10.59.10 AM
LAMING’S PROJECT Federal Member for Bowman, Andrew Laming, interviewed by Waleed Aly.

When he appeared on Network Ten’s The Project Mr Laming claimed to be conducting a “scientific survey” of his constituents on Marriage Equality, and committed to vote in Canberra based on the results. Waleed Aly, Carrie Bickmore and the program’s producers let his claims go live to air completely un-analysed.

Mr Laming’s annual information-gathering session in his electorate gave voters one say per household on issues like live export and sand mining in addition to “gay marriage”, as though LGBTI want something special, like gay supermarkets, or gay sports fields. It came back – unsurprisingly – with 58 per cent against “gay marriage”.

So we sorely needed data of our own. Working with national lobby group Australian Marriage Equality, a unique petition was devised in which we offered a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ option to anyone registered to vote in this electorate who had a firm view either way on altering the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couple equal access.

Instead of Mr Laming’s claim that Marriage Equality was a 50-50, “red-hot issue” across our community, what we found after months of cold-calling voters in their homes, at public transport hubs, shopping and at local markets, was more like the national trend in support for marriage equality: that is, overwhelming support.

Our petition proved to be an incredible experience. On several occasions we had people lining up to sign ‘yes’ to Marriage Equality, and locals engaged in many conversations about their LGBTI family members. If there was anything ‘red hot’ it was their anger that it was way past time for reform to be put in place by our elected representatives.

On social media threads we dealt with all the usual naysayers, accusing us of only petitioning at ‘gay discos’, but most people got the message – we were open to anyone with a firm view either way, and our percentage of ‘no’ signatures became strangely validating.

COULDN'T CARE Andrew Laming's initial response to a marriage equality petition.
COULDN’T CARE Andrew Laming’s initial response to a marriage equality petition.

Fairfax Media picked up our data and put it to Mr Laming, who said he: “Couldn’t care less”, which ran as a headline for 24 hours until the MP’s office hosed it down and reclaimed his first response as off the record. He subsequently apologised to petitioners and professed to be in support of our work.

But when we delivered the petition results to Mr Laming at a meet-the-candidates event run by the local chamber of commerce, his rhetoric changed again.

For the first time, the federal Member for Bowman indicated he’d vote with the majority of this electorate’s result at a national Marriage Equality plebiscite.

Nowhere in Turnbull’s plebiscite enthusiasm had there ever been a hint that the national result could be impacted by a rogue electorate. There had been talk from Senators and MPs about ignoring the nation and voting against Marriage Equality despite the plebiscite outcome, but that was written off as simply the hard-right rabble. We’d sprung a backbencher towing the same line.

On social media, other campaigners were reporting similar language at meet-the-candidates events across the country. The dots were connected and the Coalition’s new plan became clear: a marriage equality plebiscite would only pass a yes vote if it was carried by a majority of electorates.

Questions were put into the laps of journalists. A record number posed them, and Turnbull was forced to admit he had no control over how his MPs would vote on the issue.

The Coalition countered with its last-minute claim that there was majority support nationally for the plebiscite, but the media smelled a rat and hammered Turnbull and other MPs throughout the last week of the campaign.

If the PM was not being upfront about the plebiscite, what else was on the nose?

The stink nearly lost Turnbull the election.

Coalition in splitsville

So the timetable has altered and now there’s evidence that voters don’t like the idea, yet Turnbull is sticking to his plebiscite plan. 

“Marriage Equality activists are match fit and we’ve built an ongoing connection with Australian voters.”

But the election produced another result. The majority of federal MPs who support changing the Marriage Act to allow equal access to same-sex couples increased to a record majority.

If a parliamentary free vote was held now, it would easily pass. 

One of the best headlines of the election campaign described Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite deal with the National Party as a ‘Faustian pact’. Now the dust has settled, the Coalition’s betrothal on Marriage Equality will soon start to look more like the kind of stranglehold common in domestic violence.

If Turnbull approaches the Senate with the plebiscite, it’ll likely never pass. If he tries to seek refuge in a parliamentary free vote, he’s likely to be rolled by the man who foisted the plebiscite nonsense on the Coalition with his last captain’s pick: Tony Abbott.

The Coalition’s response is to lead people to think it’s a case of plebiscite or nothing, but despite some commentators suggesting campaigners just submit to the public vote for the Coalition’s sake – in case it breaks apart – we are capable of multi-tasking around any of the Coalition’s plans for our equality.

We’ve had plenty of practice. The Coalition will just have to take care of itself, because the political wedge hit its target regardless of the election result. Other parties and lobby groups have started driving it in.

For Malcolm Turnbull, there’s simply no more hiding from the albatross he voluntarily tied to his own neck; yet he expects to resolve the marital problems the Coalition has always had around LGBTI relationship equality with $160-million dollar pretty lies about ‘asking the people’.

Blaming campaigners is like pointing at your spouse’s best friend over your own divorce. Marriage Equality activists are match fit and we’ve built an ongoing connection with Australian voters by having the important conversations. Trigger a fairly posed, timely, compulsory, binding, public vote and we’ll be there.

QUESTIONABLE DEEDS PRMichael Burge’s book Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love traces marriage equality in Australia through one man’s battle to maintain his rights in the wake of his same-sex partner’s death. It’s available to buy in paperback and eBook.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears on NoFibs.