During the past 10 years we’ve seen sweeping legal reform in favour of lesbian and gay rights in every Australian state and territory except South Australia. Even in traditionally conservative states such as Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, the statute books have been rewritten.
No decade in our history has seen greater progress in lesbian and gay rights, but at our highest level of government -“ the federal level -“ very little has changed.
There has, however, been a marked shift in the way in which the federal government deals with our community.
In the early years of the Howard government, we were largely ignored. While Senate committees held inquiries into Labor and Democrat proposals for superannuation reform and sexuality discrimination legislation, these inquiries were largely ignored by the government.
Ministers avoided public comment, leaving the dirty work of fighting reform to coalition senators involved in the committee process.
In the House of Representatives, the prime minister repeatedly refused to allow Anthony Albanese’s private member’s bill on superannuation reform even to be debated, yet the PM kept these machinations in the back room, avoiding any public debate on the issues.
Of course, there were supporters of reform within parliament from across the political spectrum, including liberal senator Marise Payne, but the government’s strategy gave them few opportunities to enter the debate.
In the past 18 months, however, the government’s approach has totally changed.
On the one hand we’ve seen the prime minister leap in to the centre of the debate on same-sex marriage, while on the other hand the government has for the first time pretended to offer us something, portrayed as reform of superannuation laws.
Of course, what the government has delivered does very little to extend lesbian and gay rights. It does not give same-sex relationships the same status as heterosexual relationships and it maintains outrageously discriminatory rates of taxation on superannuation benefits paid to same-sex partners.
Undoubtedly there are many lesbians and gay men who don’t realise this. If a corporation engaged in this level of deception, it would be prosecuted for misleading and deceptive conduct but, luckily for the PM, corporate offences don’t apply to the government.
At the same time, we have seen the emergence of a small group of Liberal backbenchers such as Warren Entsch MP, who have been increasingly willing to advocate in the party room for recognition of same-sex relationships.
But don’t be fooled -“ our issues may be more hotly debated but that does not point to greater chances of legal reform.
If anything, we’ve entered a very dangerous period, with the prime minister leading a new coalition of homophobic forces, while seeking to soften opposition from lesbian and gay voters by offering hollow legal reform.
Given this bleak analysis of the political landscape, is there any hope for the future? If we look to the broader community, the answer is yes.
During the life of the Howard government, opinion polls have shown a slow but consistent increase in community support for lesbian and gay rights.
A Newspoll commissioned by the Secular Party of Australia a few weeks ago showed that the majority of respondents supported same-sex relationship recognition under federal law.
It is tough to achieve a shift in community opinion when you have the prime minister leading the charge against you.
The fact that this shift is occurring in these circumstances suggests that the Australian community ultimately believes in a fair go, even for poofs and dykes. If so, this belief will ultimately prove too strong for our federal government to resist.