THE Australian House of Representatives could have its first openly-gay MP if the Labor Party’s new candidate for the Brisbane electorate Pat O’Neill is successful in the next Federal Election.
Late last month O’Neill, who is a serving army major, defeated former Brisbane City Council candidate Philip Anthony in a preselection battle for the seat currently held by Liberal-National MP Teresa Gambaro with a margin of 1.13 per cent.
[showads ad=MREC]While the Senate already welcomed its first openly-gay member decades ago, that milestone is yet to be achieved in Federal Parliament’s lower house. 34-year-old O’Neill believes the societal views and personal politics that can dominate elections for lower house MPs have all contributed towards this.
“I think it’s a reflection of society. We’ve seen support for marriage equality, which hasn’t always had popular support and now is overwhelmingly supported. So I think running as someone who is openly gay in the past would have had an impact on people’s [voting] decision,” O’Neill told the Star Observer.
“As a society we’ve come so far just in recognising that everybody should have the same opportunities and that people from all different backgrounds and experiences can contribute to Australian life and its politics.
“In terms of the lower house maybe it’s been something that LGBTI people have felt that they couldn’t do or were excluded from.”
A difference in voting styles, preferences and systems has also had an impact on that difference between openly-gay politicians in the lower and upper houses.
“A whole state is voting for a senator whilst a much more nuanced group of voters elect their local members,” O’Neill said.
“People tend to vote for parties in the Senate as opposed to individuals in the lower house, at least that’s what I’ve found.”
Growing up in the northern Queensland town of Baralaba, which is “halfway between Banana and Dingo” – a combination of words O’Neill seemingly delights in repeating – awareness of his sexuality was something that dawned on the Labor candidate at a young age.
“I worked things out extremely early and there was never a time and I don’t have a particular story about when I first realised,” O’Neill said.
“I just knew and I have very distinct memories of being very aware of the language that people used about gay people.”
That derogatory language used around him, including from his father, influenced O’Neill early on to keep his sexuality a secret. It was only until the age of 27 and the start of a new relationship when being open about what he really was became a reality. By that stage, family and friends had become more open-minded and supportive.
“Those things do stick with you and I think they have an effect on people coming out, whether you’re gay or you’re a woman, there’s sometimes an audible bias that people don’t realise the power of the words that they say,” O’Neill said.
“They mightn’t have meaning for the people saying them but for the people that are listening it definitely has an impact.
“But you do kind of forget the thoughts that you have as a kid that [being gay] is something you can’t be open about with your friends or your family that must be inherently bad for people to use that language they did.”
Although he stated he was not a “one-issue person”, O’Neill is an advocate for marriage equality and believes the significant lack of action on the issue for years has been the fault of politicians on both sides.
“I respect that people do have different beliefs but I think there’s something more important that we be a country that treats people fairly,” O’Neill said.
“Equality is the bedrock issue of the [Labor] party whether it’s income inequality, gender discrimination or marriage equality. Equality is what defines us and it shouldn’t matter what the specific issue is.
“I’m disappointed that previous leaders and Prime Ministers haven’t had that belief that I have in equality being at the core of the Labor party and of Australia and Australians.”
O’Neill expressed disappointment that Labor was unable to bind its members to a vote in favour of marriage equality until 2019 at last weekend’s national conference, but hopes Prime Minister Tony Abbott “does the right thing” to bring about marriage equality before Christmas.
“I’d like both Labor and Liberal parties to bind on marriage equality but obviously one is more likely than the other. But if the Liberal party was actually serious about representing all Australians and having them treated with equality and respect, they would bind in support of marriage equality. It’s just not a conscience issue for any party,” O’Neill said.
“I hope the issue is brought to a head before Christmas as the longer we leave it and don’t bring about marriage equality, the more harm it does to the LGBTI community and negatively impacts on their wellbeing.
“But I can’t control Tony Abbott, I just hope he does the right thing.”[showads ad=FOOT]