Last February’s WA state elections heralded a new era for progressive politics in the state, with a convincing victory for Labor after eight years of Liberal reign under premier Richard Court.
For the first time in the state’s history, the progressives won a majority in both the upper and lower houses of parliament.
One of the first items on the reform agenda for Labor has been the introduction of sweeping changes to state legislation on gay and lesbian rights. Currently WA has the highest age of consent for gay males of any Australian state, and not only is there an absence of IVF and adoption rights for same-sex couples, there is almost a total lack of recognition for same-sex couples under the law.
In December, after two marathon 16-hour parliamentary sittings, WA’s gay and lesbian community received its first tangible sign that equal treatment under the law was inevitable. The Acts Amendment (Lesbian and Gay Law Reform) Bill passed through the state’s Lower House, promising sweeping changes to the way same-sex couples are viewed under WA law.
Among those overseeing the proceedings in parliament were newly elected and openly gay Legislative Assembly member John Hyde and ALP MLC Louise Pratt.
In Sydney this month visiting friends and seeking inspiration from Sydney’s community groups, Pratt took some time out to describe the political climate in the WA parliament during last month’s debates.
There were a large number of people that stayed in parliament all night and when it was over there was a resounding applause from the gay and lesbian people in the public gallery when the legislation finally passed at seven or eight in the morning, Pratt told Sydney Star Observer.
There has been a lot of support from the gay and lesbian community in WA for the Labor members who were debating the legislation and I guess the atmosphere during and since those sittings has ranged from buoyant over the success of the reform package in the lower house, to dismay at some of the ridiculous and misleading things said by the conservatives during debate.
Not surprisingly, the reforms have raised the hackles of conservative groups such as the Australian Family Association. But their propaganda war was not without benefits, Pratt explains.
A lot of their claims were so off the ball and outrageous that it actually did our cause some good, Pratt says. I think they are probably having a bit of a rest for the new year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they make another comeback in the WA press.
That comeback could occur when the legislation arrives before the Legislative Council at the end of February.
There was some disappointment that the Legislative Council did not have the legislation before Christmas, as initially anticipated, Pratt says. It is a piece of legislation that will take some considerable debate in the council because the Liberals are demanding that they have the capacity to do that. There was no way the amount of sitting that we had before the end of the year, three days, was sufficient to debate the legislation.
We do have the numbers in the upper house, but it is still extremely finely balanced because we only really have the numbers by one vote, she continues. This means there needs to be incredible discipline and we have to ensure that we keep all the Greens on side with us to have this legislation passed. I am confident that we do have that support.
Mention of the Greens brings up the subject of Greens MLC Giz Watson, the first openly declared lesbian to be elected to any Australian Parliament. How do Watson and Pratt get along?
We have a bond, but there is still that aspect of joking around where we say to each other, -˜Let me give you a membership form -“ this is the party where you belong,’ laughs Pratt.
A former activist and spokesperson for GALE (Gay and Lesbian Equality), Pratt seems justifiably proud of her role in helping to bring about lesbian and gay law reform in WA.
WA will have the most comprehensive set of rights and equality legislation for gay and lesbian people in the country, she says. She acknowledges that she would like to see the Labor Party take a more pro-active stance on gay and lesbian law reform issues at the Federal level, but argues that some of the criticism that has been flung at the party has been misdirected.
I think that there is not a huge amount of political awareness in the gay and lesbian community generally. A lot of people think they have rights where they have none and a lot think they don’t have rights in areas where they do, so there still needs to be further education, she says.
Although Pratt will be celebrating heartily when the gay and lesbian law reform package passes the upper house in February, she stresses that she is no single issue politician.
Obviously there are a lot of areas of reform that I am interested in as a politician, she says. But gay and lesbian law reform is so important for this state that it was an issue that I was driven to become involved in.
Additional material by David Mills.