Conscience, said Hamlet, ultimately makes cowards of us all. But the conscience vote in the New South Wales parliament on the age of consent issue has flushed out more than just cowardice: it has revealed bravery, compassion, insight and intelligence on one side, and ignorance, prejudice and bigotry on the other.
One of the most remarkable speeches delivered during the parliamentary debates on the age of consent issue came from the National MP for Orange, Russell Turner.
Turner told the Legislative Assembly -“ and the state -“ that his son’s homosexuality had given him a better understanding of discrimination faced by gay people.
The arguments against equalising the age of consent are generally based on hatred of homosexuals, but are often advanced by the very people who should be most interested in the welfare of both their heterosexual and homosexual children, namely parents, religious institutions and schools, Turner claimed.
I hope that by supporting this legislation and voting in favour of the bill, slowly some of the ignorance and fear that exist within the community will dissipate so that homosexuals will be accepted as part of the community and as people who deserve to be treated equally, he said.
Malcolm Jones from the Outdoor Recreation Party also told parliament that he had a gay son -“ but this swayed his vote in the opposite direction to Turner.
I am not prepared to sign off on a deal that will assist in any way the Dolly Dunns or Philip Bells of this world, Jones told the Legislative Council. I am sure that lowering the age of consent will in any number of ways assist the abhorrent lifestyles of the legion of pedophiles who every night seek to entice young men in the areas around Central Station or along the Darlinghurst wall.
I considered voting for the bill as a gesture of solidarity with my son. However, the prevention of pedophilia must take priority, Jones concluded.
An interesting observation to be made of the voting patterns of our MPs is that, in general, female MPs were more supportive of the equal age of consent. Three female MPs voted against the bill in the lower house and only one female MP voted against it in the upper house.
New Liberal MLC Catherine Cusack was one of the first MPs to remark on this gender split.
It intrigues me that women have, on balance, a more dispassionate view on this issue, she said. This, I hope, will make the difference. There can be no doubt that if women had equality in this parliament the bill would easily pass -“ and I find this ironic on a large number of levels. This conscience vote is an opportunity to stand by our principles and serve our fellow citizens, whose worth and dignity are no less than our own.
Labor MLC Jan Burnswoods -“ who championed the age of consent issue for many years -“ suggested in her speech that women simply have fewer problems accepting their own and others’ sexuality.
Burnswoods also told parliament age of consent had ceased to be a controversial issue in the community -“ but other politicians milked the issue for all the controversy it was worth.
National Leader Andrew Stoner said the move to equalise the age of consent was part of the Carr government’s radical social agenda -“ while One Nation’s David Oldfield gave a dark warning that sexual predators were not waiting for the bill to pass [because] they are already active.
As expected, the most hostile opposition to the bill came from the Christian Democratic Party. Gordon Moyes told the Legislative Council about his experiences as a much slimmer and fairer and more athletic young man, when he became aware of older men who preyed upon younger boys for sexual exploitation. (It apparently happened at school, in the choir and at a gymnasium -“ where I lifted weights and did body building, Moyes said.)
Lowering the age of consent will increase feelings of confusion, uncertainty and guilt -“ which are the major causes of suicide -“ among those who have not yet emotionally matured, Moyes argued. It will simply push those feelings back not to 16 years of age but 14 years of age. It is true that heterosexual youth are 300 percent less likely to suicide.
Obviously, no member of this House wants to see a lowering of the age of suicide, he continued. Yet, that will be one of the unintended outcomes of lowering the age of consent. If an age of consent of 16 creates confusion, guilt and uncertainty in 16-year-olds, imagine what it will do in 14-year-olds! We do not believe in lowering the age of suicide.
Although Moyes was not alone in spouting such rubbish, many Christian MPs were supportive of the bill. Some, such as Paul McLeay and John Ryan of the Labor Party, told Parliament how they arrived at their decision after -“ as McLeay put it -“ wrestling with their conscience.
Others, such as Labor MLC Carmel Tebbutt and MLA Linda Burney, asserted that although the issue was subject to a conscience vote, the dictate of conscience was clear.
By accepting the bill in its entirety we will bring New South Wales out of the dark ages, Burney said. The bill should be supported for the following reasons, if on no other basis: first, it is about equality; second, it is about protecting the rights of all young people; third, it is about decency; and, fourth, we might even save a few lives.