New South Wales came a step closer to an equal age of consent last night when the Legislative Assembly voted in favour of attorney-general Bob Debus’s Crimes (Sexual Offences) Amendment Bill.

The Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby welcomed the 54-32 vote in favour of the bill, but urged community members to maintain the pressure on MPs in the Legislative Council -“ where the bill is expected to be introduced today.

The debate in the Legislative Assembly has only reconfirmed to us that homophobia is alive and well in the NSW parliament, Lobby co-convenor Somali Cerise told Sydney Star Observer. But what we’ve seen is that people have been able to make a difference to members of the lower house.

The bill, which was branded a conscience issue by both major political parties, made strange bedfellows of some traditional adversaries.

Judy Hopwood, Gladys Berejiklian, Peta Seaton, Jillian Skinner, Brad Hazzard and opposition leader John Brogden voted in favour of the bill, against the majority of their Liberal colleagues. They were joined by the member for Orange, Russell Turner, who was the only National Party MP to vote in support.

While most ALP members were firmly in favour Joe Tripodi, Grant McBride, Richard Amery, Paul Gibson, Tony Stuart and Kevin Greene voted against the bill.

After the vote was taken, an amendment was moved by National leader Andrew Stoner to remove the age of consent clauses of the bill, arguing that undue pressure had been placed on Members to support the bill in toto. The amendment was also defeated by 54 votes to 32.

Another amendment was then moved by attorney-general Bob Debus to remove a clause of the bill governing its retrospective applicability. Earlier, Debus argued that the provision had no relevant effect anyway, as the Department of Public Prosecutions has a policy not to prosecute past activities that have since become legal.

But Bligh MP Clover Moore disagreed, stating that the removal of the retrospective clause meant that there remained a risk that individuals could be tried for sexual activities that were consensual. All other MPs voted in favour of the amendment.

The vote on the retrospective amendment brought an end to a tumultuous two days of debate in the Legislative Assembly on the age of consent bill: a period that has seen MPs deliver tirades, fire off misguided salvos and even -“ in one case -“ offer some heartfelt personal experience.

One of the more colourful speeches came from Labor MP Paul Gibson, who accused the attorney-general of trying to blackmail people into supporting the bill by linking the age of consent issue with tough new child protection measures.

Gibson was one of the Members who voiced concerns about the retrospective clause of the bill (clause 49), which was later removed from the legislation. He described the provision as the Dolly Dunn clause.

This bill is a protection of pedophiles that are out there now, Gibson said. I’ve never seen more vile legislation than part 49 of this bill. The pedophiles out there must be rejoicing.

More reasoned argument came from National Party MP Russell Turner, who told parliament about his own experience as the father of a gay son.

I would hope -¦ other parents would have as much understanding as we have, Turner said. We have to treat these people as normal human beings. I would hope in supporting this bill today that slowly some of the ignorance and fear we have in our community will dissipate and we will accept these people as a section of the community that deserve to be treated equally, he said.

Other opponents of the bill, such as Labor’s Richard Amery and Michael Richardson of the Liberals, argued that females come to sexual maturity faster than males, and this justified the present unequal age of consent.
Debus said this argument was inherently inconsistent as the age of consent for heterosexual males was already the same as for all females.

And Labor’s Paul Lynch reminded the chamber that the current unequal age of consent resulted from vagaries of political reality two decades ago rather than any scientific reasoning.

To suggest that it [an age of consent for gay men fixed at 18] has strength other than that is absurd, he said.

Bligh MP Clover Moore concurred, saying that Neville Wran’s government accepted an unequal age of consent as a trade-off for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1984. Wran’s reasoning at the time, Moore said, was that half a loaf is better than none.

Moore described the current law as a recipe for confusion, misery and fear.

As a parliament, we have a choice to continue a law rooted in prejudice and homophobia, which has no positive benefits and is damaging to young people; or support this bill for equality, human rights and social justice, she said.

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