Tag Archives: Rodney Croome

The killing of the plebiscite

“For the first time we are seen not as an issue but as people.”

THERE has been no progress on marriage equality in Australia since long before former Prime Minister Tony Abbott tricked his moderate frontbenchers into a marathon joint party room meeting with the hard-right National Party in August 2015 and gave Australia a new word to debate at dinner parties.

Abbott got the idea about a public vote on same-sex marriage from his independent nemeses Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshott, who first uttered the P-Word during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership.

“It would lower the temperature of the political debate and would provide some back-up support to any politician who takes this thing on in future,” Oakshott said.

Despite voting against marriage for same-sex couples in parliament, Windsor started wavering in favour of relationship equality after attending a same-sex civil union. “If it came down to my vote [in Parliament] I’d have to have a really hard think about it. But that ceremony had an impact on me. I’d probably vote for it,” he said.

Yet he plumped for a public vote instead of just wielding his parliamentary power, a move which has set the tone for the conservative approach to marriage equality in this country ever since: why deal with the pesky issue of allowing gays to marry when it can be handed over to the people?

Even the Greens were up for a referendum in 2013, with Christine Milne wanting to take the debate away from former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then opposition leader Abbott, labelling them both “on the wrong side of history”.

But what happened to the marriage equality plebiscite in the Senate late on November 7, 2016, is a ‘David and Goliath’ tale of how Australian LGBTI found our voice.

Ask the people

Abbott and the hard right must have rubbed their hands together on the night of August 11, 2015. With this strange-sounding, hard-to-spell latin word – plebiscite – they’d well and truly snookered marriage equality advocates and lobbyists with a matching slogan that would appeal to the lowest common denominator: “Ask the people,” usually thrown with a nifty kicker: “What are you afraid of?”.

Australia hadn’t experienced a plebiscite in more than a generation. The last came in 1974 under Gough Whitlam, and it asked Australian voters about our preferred national anthem. We selected ‘Advance Australia Fair’ over ‘God Save The Queen’, but Malcolm Fraser ignored what the people said and reinstated the old song. It wasn’t until Bob Hawke altered the song sheet for good in 1984 that our voice was respected by parliament.

But Abbott was pleased enough about his plan that he took his eye off key supporters, including Christopher Pyne, whose rage at being tied to the homophobic hard-right of the National Party was the last straw, and saw them oust the Prime Minister by September that year.

The cheers within many LGBTI households were loud the night Abbott was dumped, but just as many warned about the chance of betrayal. We’d been duped before by Julia Gillard, who’d presented as progressive but soon adopted an anti-equality mantra, and Turnbull disappointingly followed suit. His mantra was intoned differently, dictated by the National Party from the moment the new PM signed the nation’s most secret power pact – the Liberal Party-Coalition agreement. Clearly, a plebiscite was to be the only way forward under this regime.

What are you afraid of?

The question was so powerful it spread its tendrils throughout the Australian LGBTI community. A public vote sounded good. It sounded fair. Objections were hard to come up with once it had been embedded in the Liberal Party’s suite of election promises.

Only marriage equality lobbyists, it seemed, witnessed the way the rhetoric changed throughout the lengthy election campaign. In the final week, marriage equality barely left the news cycle, the plebiscite positioned as some progressive torch lit by true believers. But many of us asked how on earth a policy championed by Tony Abbott, dreamed up in rural heartlands by conservative thinkers, could be in any way beneficial to LGBTI?

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Rodney Croome.

The problem was there was very little detail about how a plebiscite would be managed, and the Coalition was painfully shy about giving it, which generated credible reports that the Coalition might well make the outcome non-binding and require a majority of electorates to pass. The pressure was enough for Turnbull to come clean before the ballot: Coalition MPs could snub their noses at any plebiscite outcomes.

After the election, the diverse Senate and the return of Pauline Hanson captured most of the media’s attention. During the fallout, one of the highest-profile marriage equality activists in the county resigned from the organisation he’d created in 2004.

Rodney Croome’s move away from Australian Marriage Equality (AME) called to mind Ivan Hinton-Teoh’s in April. Croome’s explicitly anti-plebiscite stance sounded an alarm bell. Hinton-Teoh (who with his husband Chris was one of the first same-sex couples to wed in the ACT before the High Court quashed the law that allowed it) had started a new group just.equal.

Over its first decade, AME had become the peak marriage equality advocacy group in the country, so there was some explaining to do. Doug Pollard at The Stirrer managed to get AME’s Alex Greenwich (Independent NSW MP), on the record answering serious questions about why the group had not campaigned harder against Turnbull’s plebiscite during the election; but the marriage equality waters were muddied, and there weren’t too many clear answers to be found anywhere.

Plebiscite or nothing

The mantra from within the Coalition quickly evolved. It was now ‘accept the plebiscite or wait indefinitely’. On a sunny Sunday afternoon working the Brisbane Markets with my husband, Richard and I talked through what was at stake and agreed: if it came to a choice, we were prepared to wait for our New Zealand civil union to be recognised in our home country.

We also knew what it was to knock on doors asking for our human rights, having petitioned our region to gauge the mood. Our results showed the electorate of Bowman in South East Queensland was overwhelmingly behind marriage equality, but the process was painful. The question brought out the first homophobia either of us had been exposed to in more than a decade.

As we shared our story, friends in the lobby networks started to come out on the same page: the plebiscite was a great risk to mental health, and there was a sense that had AME campaigned harder against it during the election, Turnbull may not have won. We all reminded ourselves that Doug Pollard had called on AME to change its ways within a week of the election, even as Turnbull’s victory hung in the balance and everyone was speculating about the formation of the new Senate, which would stand as the last line of defence against the plebiscite.

Suddenly, things came into much sharper focus.

Just.equal was already match fit and spearheaded the push against plebiscite-or-nothing thinking, with Shelley Argent, national spokesperson for PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Croome. A poll was commissioned showing the true picture of support for a plebiscite, which had dropped to less than half of Australians when respondents were informed of the $160-million cost and the non-binding nature of the outcome. Another showed the overwhelming majority of Australian LGBTI would be prepared to wait for a parliamentary vote, not a public one.

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Shelley Argent.

Several Coalition MPs relied on the positive outcome of the Irish marriage equality referendum, using mantras like ‘dancing in the streets’ and ‘bringing the nation together’. This was quickly countered by a study showing a different picture of the negative Irish experience.

The message was clear: the majority of people who would be impacted by marriage equality in Australia – that is, the LGBTI community – were prepared to wait for a parliamentary free vote on our human rights. We demanded the Parliament ditch the plebiscite.

Under any circumstances

AME and its new arm Australians For Equality (A4E) adopted strong anti-plebiscite language in response, and called for the nation’s LGBTI activist and advocacy groups to unite, but the devil was in the detail.

Once again it was Doug Pollard who covered the story: even though the majority of Australian LGBTI activist and advocacy groups were opposed to the plebiscite with AME and A4E, a smaller collective – just.equal, Shelley Argent, Rodney Croome and Rainbow Families (Victoria) – wanted to add three simple words to the anti-plebiscite declaration.

“Our position, and the position the LGBTI community wants us to advocate, is very simple: no plebiscite under any circumstances, just a free vote,” a statement issued by just.equal revealed.

Shove it

Miranda Devine can always be relied on to capture the moment. She went out early and hard and told the LGBTI community to take the “olive branch” offered by conservatives and “shove it where the sun don’t shine”. Classy dame, Miranda, but her vitriol, and where it was specifically aimed, showed savvy pundits knew the plebiscite was in its death throes, attacked not by Bill Shorten and Labor (the preferred chief suspects of the Coalition), but by us, the majority of the nation’s LGBTI community.

Rodney Croome recaptured the moment from Ms Devine: “For the first time at a federal level the voice of the LGBTI community has been the leading voice on an issue that affects us more than anyone else. For the first time our mental health in the face of prejudice and hate has been a primary consideration for many law makers. For the first time we are seen not as an issue but as people.”

The Liberals tried reviving the plebiscite with a compromise deal offered by Warren Entsch – an electronic online poll with a lower price tag. But while he remains a great supporter of marriage equality and has done much to raise awareness about the issue in the Liberal Party, Entsch still struggles with the reality that any vote that is not binding on Parliament is a dodo.

Turnbull and his team bravely flew the rainbow flag all the way from the House of Representatives to the Senate vote, repeating every old myth and mantra on the way; but after a short life, this unnecessary, expensive, divisive shit of a policy has been slain.

The Prime Minister can hardly be disappointed, since he was opposed to a public vote on human rights before he shoved Tony Abbott out of the top job, and today’s Senate vote rids the Upper House of even more residual Abbott stink.

CREATING WAVESPlan B

Ignore the naysayers, there is one. Head over to just.equal and get up to speed… they’re the ones who’ve really got plebiscite blood on their hands.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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

On the same page about marriage equality

26785881IN every writer’s life there comes a time when a piece written by someone else renders our own contribution unnecessary. After exploring the issue of marriage equality in my country for more than a decade, Rodney Croome’s new book has finally done this for me.

From This Day Forward: Marriage Equality in Australia is an aggregation of Croome’s major writing on the marriage equality debate to date, including updates on his 2010 contribution to Why Vs. Why: Bill Muehlenberg and Rodney Croome debate Gay Marriage (Pantera Press).

But Croome’s collection is much more that; it’s the best document Australia has to move the debate – finally – into legislation.

The only possible rebuttal to From This Day Forward is religious ranting or political belligerence, because, as Croome puts it: “The critics of marriage equality are trapped in an intellectual cul-de-sac.”

I had a particular interest in reading this book: I was keen to fact-check my own publication Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love against a more comprehensive document covering the story of Australia’s legislative failure, but I was unaware of Croome’s book until it was launched in Brisbane last week.

“A well-articulated exploration of the total lack of arguments left for opposing marriage equality. It stands like a boundary, behind which the debate will retreat no longer.”

It’s a great year for books by same-sex attracted writers. With Magda Szubanski’s memoir Reckoning, and the rerelease of Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man off the back of the movie release, gay and lesbian writing is getting a great run.

Although like my title, From This Day Forward does not have a huge marketing machine behind it. This makes for a hard sell at a time when readers and audiences are at marriage equality saturation point, there’s an overbearing unwillingness to just get it done, and the mainstream media seems incapable of selling a story of what it sees as a dead horse, slaughtered by both sides of parliament.

Croome’s book is a well-articulated exploration of the total lack of arguments left for opposing marriage equality. It stands like a boundary, behind which the debate will retreat no longer. For someone who has heard and endured all the classic approaches (he was confronted by one at his launch – the old ‘why call it marriage?’ chestnut), in person and in his book, Croome – the national convenor of Australian Marriage Equality – maintains the neutrality of an activist prepared to go on calmly answering loaded questions forever.

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EQUALITY CAMPAIGNER Rodney Croome.

I admire such public strength. My own book reveals my inability to be as dispassionate. Driven by grief, fear and pain, I wrote the awful truth about the depth of my disenfranchisement in Questionable Deeds, revealing how prejudice and lax laws robbed me of self determination as a surviving spouse.

Although I was relieved my research stood up without the benefit of reading Croome’s book, what encouraged me more was his call to action from the LGBTI community to share our experiences.

“Whatever lies behind the power of personal stories, they are immensely effective in showing how marriage inequality affects ordinary people day-to-day. They tap into our desire to understand the ideas and feeling of others,” Croome writes.

Our stories are most effective for the cause when we manage to bend the ear of our federal MPs, Croome writes. Mine is Andrew Laming, federal member for the Queensland electorate of Bowman, a regular flip-flopper on marriage equality.

At his launch, Croome paid tribute to Queensland’s major contribution to the legislative push. It’s here that Warren Entsch (Liberal federal member for Leichhardt), and Teresa Gambaro (Liberal federal member for Brisbane, who launched Croome’s book last week), joined forces with Terri Butler (Labor federal member for Griffith) to co-sponsor a cross-party bill on marriage equality.

Since the entire house of representatives owned the bill, this was a unique moment in the journey, and a shining example of politicians getting their heads around the positive impact of equality on the mental health and wellbeing of their constituents. Andrew Laming would do well to watch and learn, and he could start by buying Croome’s book, and mine. He was invited to my book launch, but did not respond.

Croome also gets to the heart of the current plan for a marriage equality referendum or plebiscite.

“Human rights defenders are rightly concerned about putting inalienable rights to equality and personal autonomy to a show of hands,” he writes, underlining how there’s no constitutional requirement to ask the people on marriage when it was parliament that autonomously altered its definition in the first place.

I support Croome’s view that a national vote on marriage equality would pass the law. Even if the regular polls are significantly wrong, the majority of Australians would say yes.

“My concern is with the process, not the outcome,” Croome writes, referring to the high price that would be paid by the LGBTI community in terms of our mental health.

It’s in this zone that Croome’s book and mine intersect. Croome quotes statistics gathered in the wake of the banning of marriage equality in 2004 – the year my partner died – which showed a sudden increase in mental health challenges for LGBTI.

Of the 2004 ban, I wrote: “It would have passed through my consciousness in my deepest grief and registered only as another reason to feel dreadfully unsafe about being same-sex attracted in my own country.”

I recall the sadness that went into writing that sentence, and nearly deleting it from subsequent drafts because I’d kept such deep-seated emotions in check while remembering the daily struggle of grief and depression in that terrible year. Croome’s book has finally put my struggle to process my disenfranchisement in context.

A major new element of From This Day Forward is an essay ‘Flight from the gilded cage: addressing criticism of marriage equality from the left’.

It’s an area of great interest, not just for those of us who are shocked at how the marginalised seek to marginalise others, but also for anyone wanting to advance their knowledge on the last bastions of objection.

QUESTIONABLE DEEDS PRAt my own book launch, in conversation with No Fibs’ editor Margo Kingston, she expressed a wish that I’d written more on marriage equality opposition that didn’t stem from homophobia.

I touched on it in my afterword, but Croome’s essay is the most comprehensive and timely argument taken up to several high-profile commentators who have provided great fodder for the religious right over the years.

Croome confronts them all – from former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her feminist arguments, to author Robert Dessaix and historian Dennis Altman, who have long argued that same-sex attracted people should not need such a heteronormative institution as marriage (although Altman began shifting his stance this year).

This essay validated all the times I’d thrown stuff at the television seeing these commentators failing the entire LGBTI community with their frivolous, often under-researched naysaying.

If you’ve endured the years of debate, From This Day Forward is worth reading for this boost alone.

From This Day Forward: Marriage Equality in Australia (Walleah Press) and Questionable Deeds: Making stand for equal love are out now.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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