John Brogden’s ascension to the state Liberal party leadership last year was greeted with some enthusiasm by lesbian and gay activists. Their enthusiasm was based largely (although not entirely) on the fact that he had gone on record in 2000 to declare his support for an equal age of consent. He reiterated this support in a Sydney Star Observer interview last year.

But as we head toward a state election on 22 March, it’s worth looking a bit closer at Brogden. Has his gay-friendliness been overstated, or is it accurate? Is he a champion for our causes, or just in sympathy with some of them?

Brogden revealed some of the lengths -“ as well as some of the limits -“ of his personal gay politics last week in an exclusive interview with the Star.

What soon became apparent during the interview was that he was not going to be dangling any political carrots for the lesbian and gay community. He still believes there should be an equal age of consent, but argues that it should be treated as a conscience issue; he believes current government support for Mardi Gras should be maintained, but rules out ever participating in the parade himself; he supports lesbian and gay law reform but argues for the retention of current Anti-Discrimination Act provisions which enable religious-based organisations to discriminate against homosexuals.

On this last matter he is unequivocal.

I’m sorry to be a discord on this matter, but we maintain a very strong commitment to allowing religious organisations, in particular religious schools, to discriminate on the basis of their active faith, he says. With respect to homosexuality, there’s no room to move for us; we remain extremely supportive of the position of non-government schools to discriminate on that approach. It’s in line with their teachings -¦ and it would be untenable for them if they weren’t able to actively recruit staff who had the same beliefs that they propagate.

Brogden will also not be further moved -“ at this stage -“ on the age of consent issue. He believes the age of consent should be equal, but will not be drawn when asked to declare that the age of consent should be set at 16. It comes back to conscience, he says.

The issues of law reform relating to gay and lesbian rights in the eight years of the Carr government have been approached mostly as conscience votes. That’s how we’d continue in government, he says. Age of consent, he argues, is an active debate, but it’s one where people have to be comfortable with their own view -“ and not just simply their own view, but reflecting their own community’s view.

One area of continuity between a Carr government and a Brogden government would be in terms of support for the Mardi Gras parade. Currently, Mardi Gras receives exemptions from user-pays fees for RTA and ambulance services -“ fees which would otherwise make the parade unviable.

We wouldn’t see any change to the arrangements that the Mardi Gras has had in recent years, Brogden says.

But when asked whether he would march in the parade, his answer is a swift no.

I’ve not done it before, so it’s not as though I’m not doing it now because I’m the leader, he says. And, he adds, I plead the John Fahey defence, which is that I have nothing to wear.

It’s a cop-out, of course, but a funny one. And, to be fair, neither the Liberal Party nor the gay and lesbian community are probably ready for a Liberal leader who marches in our parade just yet.

An Australian Council for Lesbian and Gay Rights survey from 2000 showed that around 12 percent of lesbians and gay men voted Liberal, but it’s probably also fair to say that the relationship between the gay and lesbian community and the Liberal Party continues to be characterised by suspicion and hostility. This has been the party, after all, that fostered the homophobic obsessions of Senator Bill Heffernan; the party that, on the federal level, stymied every attempt at gay law reform since 1996; the party that declared its supposed gay-friendly credentials in an advertisement in the Star in 1995 which featured none other than David Oldfield.

But other Liberals have made concerted attempts to woo the pink vote -“ a move which Brogden welcomes. (The party, he says, is a big tent.)

I think the hierarchy -“ maybe the organisers -“ within the gay and lesbian community have been traditionally quite left-wing, Brogden notes. But the suggestion that anything like the overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians are automatically Labor voters, or left-wing voters, has always been a complete furphy in my opinion.

I get the perception that a lot of the heat has gone out of the debate on gay and lesbian politics, and to that extent it sort of settles down to a mainstream vote, he says. I don’t think gay men or lesbian women go to the ballot box and survey the candidates purely on gay and lesbian issues. There are clearly many issues involved.

But gay and lesbian issues are clearly there in the mix for many of us -“ and in seats where we congregate, such as Bligh, that can make a difference.

Brogden is surprisingly candid about past Liberal Party attitudes to the seat of Bligh.

In the past we’ve often pre-selected candidates late in the piece and kept our fingers crossed, he reveals. This time around we’ve got someone [Shayne Mallard] who’s on the local council, who’s played a pivotal role on that council and has played a pivotal role in local politics as well as business. I think he represents everything that we would want in a candidate for Bligh.

So how does Brogden rate the Liberal Party’s chances in Bligh?

I would say that Shayne has got a real battle, but Clover is by no means a dead certainty for that seat.

Brogden is slightly more upbeat about his own chances of success come 22 March.

I’ve always said that this will be a very close election, much closer than people think, he says. We’re coming from behind. Carr’s government is very complacent. The whole modus operandi of the government is to go along and wait for something to go wrong and then fix it. We saw that with the rail system, we saw that with asbestos in schools, we saw that with the bushfires -“ they don’t do hazard reduction. That’s the whole style of this government.

Brogden likens the election to a David and Goliath battle.

There’s a big challenge ahead of us but it’s a winnable election, he says. We will come into the election as underdogs and we will surprise people.

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