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Tuesday 09 November 2010


The Tasman Gulf?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 10th May 2010

Australia is currently the only advanced western society to have legislative prohibitions in place against same-sex marriage proper. Why has the Rudd ALP federal government proven such a disappointment?

In a word, "Queensland." It is unfortunate that Kevin Rudd is from rural Queensland stock and that Queensland's ALP is amongst the more conservative elements within the byzantine and highly factionalised Australian Labor Party. Part of that is due to Queensland's rural demographic skew, rendering it an oddity amongst most of Australia's highly urbanised states and territories. Because of this, Rudd tends toward social conservatism on issues like same-sex marriage proper and euthanasia and assisted suicide reform, as well as (more recently) the issue of harsh, punitive measures against "illegal" refugees and asylum seekers.

Why is the Australian Labor Party so different from its more pluralist and inclusive counterparts in Britain, Canada and New Zealand? That may be attributable to the conservative Catholic working-class bloc that temporarily deserted the party in the fifties and sixties, making that two decades of Liberal hegemony, under the influence of a once-powerful Catholic Right anti-communist group, the National Civic Council, and its puppet 'Democratic Labor Party.' The DLP had become electorally insignificant by the early seventies, and conservative Catholics returned to the ALP. This was too late to affect changes like liberalisation of abortion laws, but not LGBT rights, which were retarded considerably in strongly Catholic states like New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland, compared to Victoria and South Australia (initially). However, it contaminated the ALP, rendering it more difficult to reach constituencies like feminists, environmentalists and LGBT rights groups.

In the eighties and nineties, this was offset by ALP corporatism under Hawke and Keating, but the Howard era dragged Australia backward, rendering it a blinkered, paranoid and fearful society. It is unfortunate that when incumbency fatigue finally finished off Howard in 2007, Kevin Rudd was the one who benefited. Rudd comes from a highly centralised and unaccountable political culture as a Queensland technocrat. Moreover, apart from a thriving Brisbane Chinese community, it isn't as ethnicaly diverse and metropolitan as the rest of Australia. Because of this, Rudd tends to be too conservative for many Australian social liberal voters outside his Queensland powerbase.

It also explains his relative backwardness when it comes to LGBT rights and euthanasia reform. This isn't to deny that Rudd isn't progressive when it comes to indigenous rights and some environmental policies (especially compared to the Key administration's prehensile whaling policies over here, and conservation estate mining). It can also be credited with repeal of harsh anti-union laws ("WorkChoice") and insuring substantive federal substantive relationship equality for LGBT couples.

However, it took three attempts before it accepted that civil unions were there to stay in the progressive Australian Capital Territory, and it still maintains federal prohibitions against same-sex marriage proper. The Howard administration launched its federal legislative ban against same-sex marriage proper in 2004, which proved too extreme even for the United States in the context of its ill-fated and equally radical "Federal Marriage Amendment." It is also out of step with Britain and New Zealand, which have had national civil union frameworks for the last five years, and Canada, which has legislated for same-sex marriage proper after a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge from Canada's LGBT communities.

Granted, it's not a completely bleak picture at the state and territory level. Unlike New Zealand still, all Australian states and territories (even Queensland) include gender identity under their respective antidiscrimination laws, while Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have fully inclusive adoption laws, and Tasmania and Victoria have coparent adoption for LGBT couples.

However, the same-sex marriage ban stands as a blot on Australia's LGBT human rights record. Moreover, when the Australian Senate had the opportunity to repeal this objectionable piece of legislation recently, it failed to support a federal Australian Greens private members bill that would have done so.

To be honest, the Rudd administration is starting to look like a (barely) "kinder, gentler' version of its Howard predecessor. Social democratic parties are supposed to be inclusive, pluralist and centred on the enablement of citizenship and social participation. Unfortunately, it seems that we will have to wait until Rudd's Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, succeeds her boss to become Australia's first federal female Prime Minister (which again, should say something about our glacial transtasman neighbour).

Craig Young - 10th May 2010

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