From the end of this week, John Howard’s Liberal/ National coalition will for the first time control both houses of parliament.
Given that it’s such a long time since any act of federal parliament has done anything positive for lesbians or gay men, you could be forgiven for thinking that that doesn’t matter. That would be a very dangerous assumption.
The Australian Senate has long played a crucial role in the advancement of gay and lesbian rights -“ mainly because it has been free from government control.
Under the Howard government, the opposition and minor parties have used their joint majority to block legislation -“ such as the attempted ban on lesbian access to IVF -“ and to instigate parliamentary inquiries on issues the government was seeking to ignore. From 1 July this will no longer be possible.
John Howard has made it clear in the past week that he sees his control of the Senate as a historic opportunity to push through the sorts of changes that other Liberal prime ministers could only have dreamed about.
In the area of industrial relations, this will leave many lesbians and gay men vulnerable to being sacked by homophobic employers, with no right of appeal to an independent umpire.
Currently, most workers are protected by unfair dismissal laws, which mean that they can only be sacked for a valid reason, and through a fair process.
Once the government’s new laws take effect, any employer with less than 100 employees -“ which means the vast majority of employers -“ will be able to sack any worker for any reason, with no requirement for due process and no right of appeal for the victim.
It won’t matter if the reason for sacking is blatant homophobic discrimination, because there is no sexuality discrimination legislation at a federal level.
The government is also likely to use its majority to prevent parliamentary inquiries on issues affecting lesbians and gay men. Parliamentary inquiries have been one of the easiest ways for disadvantaged groups to access the political process.
When the Senate establishes an inquiry, this allows any individual or group to put their views on the public record through submissions and, where invited, appearances at public hearings.
Because the opposition and minor parties have had a majority on most Senate committees, they have often used the process to publish facts that the government has sought to hide and recommend changes to unjust laws.
During the life of the Howard government, Senate committees have recommended changes to superannuation laws to recognise gay and lesbian relationships and the introduction of sexuality discrimination legislation.
While the government has ignored these recommendations, committee reports have formally indicated the need for law reform. This will no longer be the case in a Senate dominated by coalition senators.
Government control of the Senate will also remove one of the few opportunities we have to instigate parliamentary debate of positive legislation. Superannuation rights are a good example.
Although since 1996 NSW MP Anthony Albanese has repeatedly moved a private member’s bill to recognise same-sex relationships in superannuation laws, the government has consistently refused to allow this to be debated in the House of Representatives.
It is only in the Senate -“ where the government has until now lacked control -“ that the bill has had a chance to be debated, with the support of Labor, Democrat and Green senators.
These examples demonstrate why gay and lesbian rights organisations must resist calls to focus solely on the issue of same-sex marriage.
In the next few years, our communities are likely to face the greatest attacks on our rights ever launched by an Australian government, across a very broad front.
Think politics doesn’t matter? Think again. Now, if ever, is the time to join the fight for equal rights, because we’re going to need every bit of help we can get just to defend what we currently have, let alone achieve any positive reform at a national level.
Julie McConnell and David Scamell are co-convenors of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.