Every so often, political parties find themselves falling out on either side of a dividing line. Labor did it over Tampa. The Democrats did it over the GST. This past week has seen a number of parliamentary Liberals spectacularly out of step with the Rockette-like precision of their party over the Heffernan affair.
Apart from Alexander Downer and Tony Abbott, the upper echelons of the Liberal Party closed ranks in support of Senator Heffernan. Prime Minister John Howard stood by his mate, who he said still enjoyed his affection and friendship. Howard also added to the allegations against Justice Michael Kirby by reading to parliament the letter he had received from Senator Heffernan.
Attorney-General Daryl Williams refused to defend Justice Kirby’s reputation. When called upon to do so, a statement that there was no credible suggestion that the High Court as an institution is under challenge was all he would muster. The AG’s extraordinary meekness has seen him singled out for criticism from the legal profession.
Greens senator Bob Brown also noted the remarkable silence of treasurer Peter Costello during the Heffernan debacle.
It is very disappointing that the prime-minister-in-waiting has said nothing on the whole affair, Senator Brown told Sydney Star Observer. It was a test of his potential ascendancy after John Howard goes. He should have said something, as his colleagues did.
Silence can speak volumes.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor Anthony Schembri told the Star that there was a strong case for Liberal leadership silence to be read as homophobia.
It’s all well and good to have individual members of the government say that this kind of attack is unacceptable and not to be tolerated, Schembri said. Obviously we support those people who have done that, but at the end of the day we’re not hearing that from the government. We need the leadership to come out in that way. It has to come from the top.
The picture that has emerged of Senator Heffernan in the past week -“ that of an obsessional figure who has carried files on suspected homosexuals and paedophiles around with him for the past five years -“ reveals a Liberal Party openly tolerant of homophobic attitudes.
Why is it that this was allowed to go on for so long? Schembri asked. Other members of the government knew about this behaviour. It’s already on the public record that Howard knew about this. A year ago Mark Latham was raising people’s awareness about [Senator Heffernan’s] cowardly attacks. Why is it that this was allowed to continue for so long and in such a cowardly and unsubstantiated and unproductive way?
Schembri went on to argue that the prime minister’s statement this week that he was conservatively tolerant of homosexuals was further evidence of homophobia.
It begs belief that you have the prime minister standing up there in a public forum saying, -˜I’m only going to give you part attention, I’m only going to give you part tolerance.’ It’s completely outrageous, Schembri said.
Anti-gay feeling within the Liberal Party is not likely to be extinguished by the government’s sense of embarrassment over Heffernan. The resentment will linger.
Former senior Labor adviser Bill Bowtell told the Star that the small L liberals within the Liberal Party faced a test of mettle.
[Senator Payne] has basically thrown away her political career by indicating she would not go along with Heffernan’s allegations, Bowtell said. Being vindicated by events will only make her more unpopular.
Bowtell said the criticisms of Senator Heffernan that had come from respected Liberal figures such as Nick Greiner and Neil Brown had an impact on the party, but the onus must be on the MPs.
This is a defining moment for people who believe in a tolerant and progressive social order, he said.
Liberal Party sources who spoke to the Star this week said they understood that Marise Payne and Peter King had already come in for criticism from party colleagues over their stance on Heffernan.
Meanwhile, local Liberal councillor Shayne Mallard is spearheading an intra-party campaign to rid the party of Senator Heffernan. Motions calling upon Heffernan to resign from the Senate will be voted on at meetings of the Liberals’ East Sydney Branch and Bligh State Electoral Conference over the next week.
This issue has clearly done a lot of further damage to our standing in the gay and lesbian community, Mallard said. The only light in all of this has been the people like Marise Payne and Peter King -¦ who have had the guts to stand up.
Their credibility is greatly enhanced, and the cause of progressive liberals in the party has received new vigour and legitimacy, Mallard said. He suggested that Heffernan had been in a position to promulgate his views because he had the support of a very powerful patron -“ John Howard.
Former Liberal Party senator Chris Puplick told the Star that it was imperative for the prime minister to act against homophobia.
It is now incumbent for political leaders all round, from the prime minister down, to acknowledge the very considerable damage that is done to our society by issues such as homophobia and to undertake to be active in seeking its elimination wherever possible, Puplick said.
Everybody in this whole saga will be judged by the Australian electorate on the basis of how they have behaved, and I guess the real question will be how many of them have behaved with the exemplary level of behaviour, dignity and integrity that Michael Kirby did.
Puplick said the stands taken by Alexander Downer and Marise Payne were consistent with the values they had demonstrated throughout their parliamentary careers. Downer had shown no hesitation in appointing homosexual people to key diplomatic posts and had played a key role in international HIV/AIDS initiatives, he commented. However, he would not be drawn on the question of the prime minister’s performance during the Heffernan affair.
I think at the end of the day what you can say is that everybody has been shown in their true light, he said.
HOW THEY STOOD
The Minister for Foreign Affairs was one of the first to distance himself from Senator Heffernan’s allegations. When people -¦ use parliamentary privilege they should always remember that privileges bring with them responsibilities and if you are going to attack people who are out of the political sphere it’s very important to have evidence to back that up, Downer said.
Senator Marise Payne (NSW) made perhaps the strongest statement on the Heffernan affair of any Liberal MP -“ and did so without words at all. Senator Payne absented herself from the chamber during a vote calling for Senator Heffernan to apologise for his allegations against Justice Kirby. The vote was passed by 32 votes to 30.
The member for the South Australian seat of Sturt, who has been in parliament since 1993, told ABC’s Lateline program that Senator Heffernan would be accused, probably quite rightly of abusing parliamentary privilege if his allegations proved to be false.
The member for Wentworth, who entered parliament after last November’s election, told Sydney Star Observer last week that public officials and community leaders must ensure that discussion about the serious issue of child sex abuse is based on fact, not prejudice.
Media reports on the Heffernan allegations and aftermath have varied in tone from the supportive and reasoned to the wildly homophobic.
While many reports deserve analysis, the egregious diatribe from Sunday Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman in last Sunday’s edition deserves special mention.
Akerman claimed that within the past decade, the organisers of Sydney’s homosexual parade have accepted support from NAMBLA [North American Man Boy Love Association], the largest paedophile comfort group in the US.
The claim has enraged board members of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and many within Sydney’s lesbian and gay community.
Mardi Gras board member Jennifer Wilson said that it was not in Mardi Gras’ interests to support NAMBLA as the policies and aims of the two groups were incompatible.
The Mardi Gras board would be writing letters of complaint to the editor of the Sunday Telegraph and to the Press Council, Wilson said.
Someone who dances on the line of vilification is someone who is going to slip, Wilson said of Akerman. We have to be ready when he does slip.