Former Greens leader Christine Milne has been a vocal gay rights advocate from day one. Matthew Wade caught up with her to chat about marriage equality, her son, and why both major political parties are failing LGBTI Australians.
Coming out can be an anxiety-ridden and daunting experience, but for former Greens leader Christine Milne’s son, it was simple.
“It was a part of our normal life in terms of who we met and what we did, so it was a non-issue.”
A longtime advocate for sexual and gender diverse communities, Milne was part of the driving force behind achieving the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tasmania, the last jurisdiction to do so.
She was also the first leader of a federal political party to march in Mardi Gras, and championed gay law reform throughout her tenure with the Greens.
While her son coming out didn’t change her views on gay rights, she says it did amplify her motivation to fight for them.
“I was already totally committed to it because it was the right thing to do, but having someone in your family that’s gay gives you that extra push,” she says.
“I’d seen people wind down their car windows and shout homophobic abuse in Tasmania, and you think for goodness’ sake. But when it’s your own child facing it, you need to step up.”
Milne has just recently published a memoir, An Activist Life, which chronicles her story as a high-school English teacher from north west Tasmania who became a fiery environmental warrior and social justice advocate.
In the book, she covers her experience donning a pride t-shirt and marching in Mardi Gras with her son, which she describes as “a wonderful occasion with political bite”, after years of fighting for gay law reform. She also criticises both major political parties for their lack of action on LGBTI rights.
Milne says the Labor and Liberal parties have for a long time reflected the attitudes of both their donors and mainstream churches, as opposed to standing with the LGBTI community from the beginning.
“Labor have always reflected the shopper’s union, an anti-communist Catholic union,” she says.
“Joe de Bruyn kept Labor in check right up until the time he resigned as head of the union, and it was the union the completely undermined any shift in Labor, that’s why Julia Gillard wouldn’t legislate for marriage equality.
“Both Kevin Rudd and Gillard knew they wouldn’t hold leadership if they got offside with the shopper’s union. They all voted against marriage equality regardless of what they actually thought.
“When the union changed a few years ago all of a sudden these MPs have changed their minds.”
When it comes to the Liberal party, Milne believes the right-wing conservatives have a ‘broad church’ dominated by the far right.
“Lyle Shelton used to work for Barnaby Joyce before we went to the Australian Christian Lobby, and Tony Abbott was associated with George Pell and conservative catholics in NSW,” she says.
“The extreme right of the Liberal party have Malcolm Turnbull over a barrel on the issue of marriage equality.
“And Turnbull’s choosing prime ministership rather than standing up, making him a footnote in history rather than a leader.”
When it comes to Turnbull in particular, Milne doesn’t hold back.
“You can hardly say he’s been a prominent part of the Yes campaign,” she says.
“I’m appalled by his decision to go with this postal survey, he’s done it because he thinks that’s the way to hold onto his prime ministership.”
Milne says she hopes telling her story, particularly around fighting for gay law reform and supporting gay rights, can help to let young people around the country know that there are prominent older people in politics who support them.
She also wants to make sure the Greens aren’t written out of historical moments.
“I was really keen to set the record straight on a number of issues,” she says.
“Victors tend to write history and write things out, and the Greens have played a crucial role in issues like gay law reform, and the apology to the stolen generation.
“None of that is recorded anywhere, so we need to honour the work of Greens in parliament. On every vote of any kind, the Greens have always stood up for an end to discrimination, and it’s been critical you’ve had Greens in parliament prepared to do that.”