Tag Archives: Questionable Deeds

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.

Australia’s marriage equality in chains

After many years trying to interest the Australian media in my story, particularly the LGBTI media, it was only in the wake of another tragedy that a European mainstream media source published this op-ed on Australia Day. 

AUSTRALIA has long traded on its relaxed ‘fair go’ approach when spinning friendly, down-to-earth slogans to sell our easy-going holiday locations to the world.

But for one pair of British newlyweds who recently honeymooned in South Australia, a crucial danger lay completely hidden.

Why would the same-sex legislation of South Australia be of any concern to David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi when they planned their romantic getaway?

“Between all the wine tasting and surfing, it’s easy to miss the inequality of this sun-soaked nation.”

We’re an enlightened, first-world society, aren’t we? Neighbours and Home and Away have their share of same-sex attracted characters; South Australia even has a proud record of LGBTI equality, being the first state in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality in 1975. It’s all good, right?

Wrong. Between all the wine tasting and surfing, it’s easy to miss the inequality of this sun-soaked nation.

Hearing about the South Australian legal system’s treatment of Marco Bulmer-Rizzi, who was subjected to the indignity of seeing his husband’s relationship status recorded as ‘never married’ in the wake of David’s accidental death in that state last week, I felt a familiar and frustrating pang of grief.

The international outrage was loud and justified. South Australia’s Premier Jay Weatherill quickly apologised, offering a guarantee that South Australian law would be changed to amend David’s death certificate. In an acute state of grief, Marco gave an interview, expressing his ardent hope that this kind of thing never happens again in Australia.

At that point I got very angry, because I have wanted exactly that ever since my partner Jono died in New South Wales more than a decade ago.

MIKEY:JONO
LIFE PARTNERS Michael Burge and Jonathan Rosten in 2002.

In 2004, despite NSW’s same-sex de-facto laws having been in place for five years, my deceased partner’s death certificate was issued to his blood relatives without my name on it or any reference to our relationship.

You read that right: Sydney’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages broke the state law to disenfranchise me.

The complicity of the funeral company I’d contracted meant the illegally-issued document took me two years to fix. Despite lobbying the NSW Attorney-General, no apology was issued by the state government, and no assurances were given that training would be put in place to prevent anything similar happening to others.

For 12 years, I’ve been communicating the dangers for LGBTI couples and death certification to anyone who would listen. In 2015, I wrote a book about my experience – Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love. My motivation was to increase our awareness about how vulnerable LGBTIs are in Australia, with inconsistent state and federal laws that allow surviving same-sex spouses to fall between the cracks.

But death is a hard sell. Same-sex death is even harder. Too many Australians are unwilling to believe such unfairness and homophobia in our organisations and government departments.

Even more difficult to communicate is the homophobia that leads some families to deny the existence of same-sex spouses. At least Marco Bulmer-Rizzi was spared discrimination at the hands of homophobic in-laws, who were the driving force behind my disenfranchisement.

Whatever the reason behind the silence about my story, right now, there are generations of LGBTI in Australia who remain completely invisible on their deceased partner’s death certificates and were thereby blocked from their spouses’ estates.

Who is to blame for this legal lottery that has been erasing LGBTI stories in Australia for decades?

Politicians, sure, but it has long been painful and depressing to me how slow Australia’s media and publishing industries have been to recognize and disseminate the message about this disconnect. It’s impossible to argue they’re reflecting audience sentiment, when all polling on marriage equality places community support at over 70 per cent.

The solution is staring Australians in the face: a free vote of federal ministers on the floor of the nation’s parliament could enact marriage equality here in less than a week.

Yet national legislation that would sweep aside state anomalies is considered so controversial it put us in a holding pattern on marriage equality years ago.

“There has just never been enough outrage about marriage equality in this country.”

We have a sitting prime minister – Malcolm Turnbull – who supports marriage equality, but the political deal-making when he ousted Tony Abbott saw him sign away the parliamentary vote he once publicly backed. Instead, he has a plan for a divisive referendum at a time and in a manner he’s reluctant to reveal.

In the fallout of the Bulmer-Rizzi case, South Australia’s highest-profile conservative politician, Christopher Pyne, was quick to call for overseas same-sex marriages to be recognized in Australian states and territories.

But his approach illustrates the problem in a nutshell. Although he is a supporter of marriage equality, Pyne would rather advocate for a piecemeal solution that would protect visiting international LGBTI couples long before Australians.

When our leaders start to campaign for the human rights of guests instead of residents, they have lost touch with exactly who they represent in parliament.

Pyne’s words also imply he thinks marriage equality in Australia is so far away we’d best jet off to countries that support our relationships and benefit from a legal loophole.

MARCO BULMER-RIZZI
DISENFRANCHISED SPOUSE British citizen Marco Bulmer-Rizzi.

This behavior is far from isolated in Australia. Our tendency to overlook our creatives in favour of international artists – our ‘cultural cringe’ – is cast into the shade by this even stronger legislative blind spot for all domestic human rights. It’s only ‘bad’ if it makes world news. It only warrants a state premier’s apology when it happens to a foreign national. Fix it by sorting out the laws that the world is watching.

We were caught out treating Marco Bulmer-Rizzi with the heartlessness of our penal-colony roots, and, putting his confidence aside, Jay Weatherill will come up against plenty of homophobic politicians and public servants in his journey to amend David Bulmer-Rizzi’s death certificate. I’m anticipating the British media will track this Australian story closest.

CREATING WAVESDespite all our ‘fair go’ slogans – or perhaps because of them – there has just never been enough outrage about marriage equality in this country to drive the issue from a statistic into a legal reality. That we got a kick along only as the result of the untimely death of a young gay tourist is shameful.

This op-ed was first published by Gay Star News.  

It also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Keeping Marriage Equality off the record

WHEN the South Australian government was caught out by the world’s media for its lax approach to recognising overseas same-sex marriages on death certificates, the justifiable outrage about Marco Bulmer-Rizzi being documented as “never married” to husband David resonated with many readers.

One small voice of disagreement came from Marriage Alliance, a grassroots anti-marriage equality movement with a presence in Australia, in the form of a tweet defining the Bulmer-Rizzi disenfranchisement as “unusual” and criticising Australian Marriage Equality for politicising the issue.

This was news to me. From where I sit, the negative treatment of same-sex spouses at the crucial and highly-sensitive time of death certification is so commonplace it’s time Australia admitted this kind of homophobia is the norm.

I should know, because it happened to me.

When my name was removed from my partner Jono’s death certificate in NSW in 2004, it was the result of illegal and underhand action by his blood relatives.

Long after his funeral, I was left to work out for myself what had taken place when Jono’s death certificate was not issued to me but to his mother. My name and any reference to our relationship was missing, and the offensive phrase “never married” inserted.

It hurt deeply to be coldly cut off from my own life. Legally it made wrapping up Jono’s affairs impossible. Meanwhile, his mother was busy collecting assets in her son’s name that were legally mine.

“It felt like a cold label for what was a beautiful love affair.”

Since my name was not on the document, I couldn’t apply for one independently. I sought help from a lawyer and she too was unable to extract the certificate from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.  The funeral company sided with Jono’s mother’s version of our relationship and challenged me to “do my worst” in fixing the miscarriage of justice.

But I was in shock and grief, the kind it takes years to recover from, the kind I still feel when I see the same thing happen to others.

I heard anecdotal evidence about incorrectly-created death certificates in NSW, from the pre-1999 era, before the state’s de-facto laws were amended to recognise same-sex spousal rights. The majority of these stories were about community warriors of the HIV-AIDS crisis, when deceased long-term spouses were routinely listed as “never married” on death certificates.

MIKEY:JONO
DISENFRANCHISED IN DEATH Michael Burge and Jonathan Rosten.

Almost two years after his death, I managed to get Jono’s death certificate re-issued and our relationship acknowledged. In order to ensure the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages ceased to operate in contravention of the state de-facto laws, I wrote to the NSW Attorney-General, the ALP’s Bob Debus, but I never received more than a staffer’s reply that the matter was being looked into.

That wall of political denial is what ultimately assisted me in making a submission to the Human Rights Commission in 2006 when it was investigating its Same Sex, Same Entitlements report.

Years later, when what happened to me eventually happened to someone else, I felt a terrible mix of validation and guilt. Having a potential ally was great, but for the worst of reasons.

Australian academic and LGBTI activist Dennis Altman’s partner Anthony died in 2012. The couple lived in Victoria at the time of death, and Altman wrote:“There was no provision on the death certificate to list Anthony as my de-facto partner.”

In his heartfelt account of life after his partner’s death, Altman outlined several of the challenges all surviving spouses face, although I didn’t realise at the time what an opponent of marriage equality Dennis Altman was, whereas since my disenfranchisement, access to our strongest, most legally-binding, irrefutable symbol of relationship became one of my driving forces.

By 2013, although five successive governments had enacted a range of laws since Jono’s death, recognising same-sex attracted relationships after the death of a spouse in everything from equal superannuation access to social security benefits, only Kevin Rudd had publicly acknowledged the need for marriage equality. His reason: to end “such unnecessary angst in the gay and lesbian community, it just shouldn’t be the case”.

I recognised that word, ‘angst’. It spoke loudly to the dreadful mix of apprehension and fear that I’d endured. Rudd never publicly named the LGBTI staffer who’d communicated so effectively to him the need for marriage equality, but if anyone else was feeling the angst of disenfranchisement, it wasn’t apparent.

DENNIS ALTMAN
FEELING THE ANGST Dennis Altman on the ABC’s QandA.

That was until Dennis Altman appeared on a special episode of the ABC’s Q&ABetween a frock and a hard place.

When the Reverend Fred Nile made the point that marriage equality was not necessary, he said: “All the laws were changed a couple of years ago to give de-facto, homosexual couples exactly the same rights as married couples in Australia.”

“But you are wrong,” Altman said. “You are wrong and I will tell you why you are wrong and it happens in a very important area. When my partner died, the death certificate could not record that he’d been in a relationship.”

“And I’m happy to change a death certificate arrangement if that’s what happened to you,” Nile casually replied.

Altman said: “Good. Go talk to the Government of Victoria.”

At that point I threw a tea towel at the television. Obviously, Altman knew the angst but had kept it under wraps. A month later, he begrudgingly declared a shift in his thinking and came out in support of marriage equality.

The issue of de-facto laws vs marriage equality came into sharp focus in the wake of another tragedy, the sudden death of Tasmanian Ben Jago’s partner Nathan in January, 2015.

Journalist Tracey Spicer reported on the case for Fairfax Media in November. “There’s a misconception that same-sex couples and married heterosexuals have equal legal rights,” she wrote. “It’s an urban myth.”

Removed from his position as Nathan’s next of kin almost instantly, and replaced by his partner’s mother, Ben’s story had strong resonance with mine, although he was made to endure the added indignity of having to sit at the back of the gathering at his partner’s funeral, with no public mention of the relationship during the service.

BEN JAGO
DEATH DISCRIMINATION Tasmania’s Ben Jago

Jago had trouble with the Tasmanian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, who gave him conflicting information about what he could do about his situation. His case will come before Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Tribunal this year.

I read that news with a sense of camaraderie for Ben. Good on him for having the courage to seek some kind of recourse.

Another Fairfax journalist, Monique Farmer, reported in December on the difficulty in creating a correct death certificate for her Aunt Julia, who’d lived for thirty years with her partner Annie, already dead by the time of Julia’s death.

“They were married, or at least they seemed that way to me. Their lives were as inter-mingled as my parents’ were, perhaps even more so,” Farmer wrote.

“Had they been de-factos for those 30 years? Well, legally yes – they lived together in a sexual relationship, their finances were combined, they owned property together. But it felt like a cold label for what was a beautiful love affair.”

Faced with what Farmer later described in a tweet to me as “a daze of grief”, she ultimately selected the descriptor ‘never married’.

And she felt the angst, also: “With a heavy heart I ticked that box. This meant that the next section of the death registration, asking for her partner’s name and other details, was left sadly blank. As if she’d never loved or been loved.”

I tweeted Farmer to let her know I’d been able to amend Jono’s death certificate some time after he died. She replied: “Since writing the story I’ve been thinking the same.”

The legal trap that David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi entered when they chose to honeymoon in Adelaide in January was set long before they arrived. Why would any Australian citizen assume their relationship – particularly a marriage – was not enshrined by every law of the land?

MARCO BULMER-RIZZI
SURVIVING SPOUSE British citizen Marco Bulmer-Rizzi.

In his grief-stricken interview, I got the sense that Marco Bulmer-Rizzi felt duped by a terrible system that compounded his shock with its inability to be real about what love between any two people means. That system has been supported by plenty of mixed messages and slow realisations within the LGBTI community, but it will take well-formulated, national marriage equality legislation to sweep away the mess our unequal state laws are currently creating.

Marco Bulmer-Rizzi left Australia hoping what happened to him would never happen again. What denial and obfuscation has this country indulged in that my case – twelve years prior – was not enough to change any laws or draw an apology from Bob Carr, NSW state premier at the time Jono and I were labelled “never married”?

Marriage Alliance is way off the mark. Australia has been caught out with homophobic anomalies in our relationship legislation at least five times. The Bulmer-Rizzi story is bringing more disenfranchised same-sex spouses out of the woodwork.

QUESTIONABLE DEEDS PRThe question Australian politicians need to ask themselves is how many more painful miscarriages of justice they require before allowing a marriage equality free vote on the floor of parliament?

Michael Burge’s book ‘Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love’ is out now.

This article was first published on No Fibs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

 

Keeping #MarriageEquality off the record: @burgewords comments on #NeverMarried

Michael Burge

Michael Burge

Journalist at No Fibs
Michael is a writer, editor and journalist who lives on the beautiful island of Coochiemudlo. He is passionate about LGBTI equality and emergent forms of online publishing, marketing and access for writers and artists.
Michael Burge
Michael Burge
Michael Burge

David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi on their wedding day.

David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi on their wedding day.

It felt like a cold label for what was a beautiful love affair.

WHEN the South Australian government was caught out by the world’s media for its lax approach to recognising overseas same-sex marriages on death certificates, the justifiable outrage about Marco Bulmer-Rizzi being documented as “never married” to husband David resonated with many readers.

One small voice of disagreement came from Marriage Alliance, a grassroots anti-marriage equality movement with a presence in Australia, in the form of a tweet defining the Bulmer-Rizzi disenfranchisement as “unusual” and criticising Australian Marriage Equality for politicising the issue.

This was news to me. From where I sit, the negative treatment of same-sex spouses at the crucial and highly-sensitive time of death certification is so commonplace it’s time Australia admitted this kind of homophobia is the norm.

I should know, because it happened to me.

When my name was removed from my partner Jono’s death certificate in NSW in 2004, it was the result of illegal and underhand action by his blood relatives.

MIKEY:JONO

Michael Burge and Jonathan Rosten.