BILL Shorten introducing a federal ministerial portfolio for LGBTI equality could serve as aspirational encouragement for LGBTI people to enter politics, according to a leading community rights advocate.
Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor Corey Irlam called on Labor’s federal opposition leader to create the portfolio in response to the low number of LGBTI people elected to parliament at the last state election in Victoria.
“I think this sort of aspirational position, for people to visualise themselves in that sort of ministerial portfolio, fighting for their own basic human rights, will encourage people to step forward, to encourage people to become part of the process as an elected official.”
The election of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ Labor government last November made Albert Park state Labor MP Martin Foley Australia’s first-ever cabinet minister to hold an LGBTI portfolio.
The Minister for Equality received the portfolio last January while in opposition, and the Coalition followed suit after the election by giving the shadow equivalent to former-Health Minister David Davis.
With the Greens giving its Prahran MP Sam Hibbins the role of party spokesperson for LGBTI issues, the major parties have attracted some criticism for giving responsibility for LGBTI issues to a group of straight men.
Victorian AIDS Council (VAC) chief executive Simon Ruth compared Foley, Davis and Hibbins being spokespeople for LGBTI issues to Prime Minister Tony Abbott appointing himself Minister for Women.
“Similar to the Prime Minister speaking on women’s issues, we think that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people should be speaking on our own issues as well,” he told the Star Observer.
Ruth welcomed Victorian Labor’s creation of the portfolio and the Coalition for following suit, but said the VAC as a community-based organisation believes in communities controlling their own futures.
“We do have a strong belief that it’s important that LGBTI people control their destiny, and we would hope that in future, all parties would seek to promote LGBTI people into the position of spokespeople,” he said.
While Irlam said he encouraged greater LGBTI representation in parliament, he didn’t think it was a necessity for an LGBTI person to hold that portfolio.
“Achieving equality means people of all shapes, sizes, colours, race, sexuality working together to ensure all people are treated equal,” he told the Star Observer.
“If you subscribe to that position it would be hypocritical to say that a particular portfolio must be held by a person of that community.”
Irlam also said LGBTI people are already heavily involved in shaping in the major parties’ positions on LGBTI issues, and in the Victorian ministerial portfolio.
“We’ve seen evidence of Rainbow Labor changing the state party platform of the ALP, resulting in the government’s equality document during the election that has framed the work this minister will do,” he said.
“That’s an example of LGBTI people actively influencing the outcomes that will be achieved by this portfolio.”
Ruth compared the NSW state parliament, which has at least five openly-gay members, to the situation in Victoria — last year Labor’s Harriet Shing was elected to the upper house, becoming Victoria’s only MP from a major party public about being a member of the LGBTI community.
“We know that Labor has elected a lesbian to the state parliament, and it’s been a long time since we’ve actually had a queer person elected to parliament,” Ruth said.
“We would hope that she’s given the opportunity to at least be a spokesperson on those issues, if not promoted eventually into that role.”
Victoria’s Minister for Equality told the Star Observer that Shing would be “absolutely” involved in the LGBTI portfolio, and both of them were looking forward to that working relationship.
“Straight white males who are allies of the LGBTI community is a good thing, but are straight white males as representative of, particularly old, grey-haired ones like me, they’re obviously not members of the LGBTI community,” Foley said.
“That’s why I’ve been particularly proud that we’ve got Harriet Shing as the first out lesbian in the upper house, and I’m confident that the role that she’s going to play will be very positive in directly involving the diversity of Victoria’s LGBTI community in how the government operates in this area.”
Concerns over a lack of diversity in Australian parliaments were a motivating factor for the community members who established the Australian Equality Party (AEP) 12 months ago at the 2014 Pride March in Melbourne.
Hoping to ensure LGBTI voices in parliament with policy positions come from and are informed by the community, the AEP will place party leader Jason Tuazon-McCheyne as a candidate for the Australian Senate in the 2016 federal election.
Tuazon-McCheyne told the Star Observer it was a positive step for the major parties in Victoria to create LGBTI portfolios, but it wasn’t the same as community members advocating for themselves.
“I thank anyone who wants to actually advocate for us, but there’s still a need for us to not hang off the coattails of other parties, and speak for ourselves,” he said.
“I think our hate and stuff that we’ve had to deal with — and there’s a lot of damaged, hurt people, including myself — gives us the energy and the source to lead in these human rights, and to lead in these areas of diversity.”
A year after its launch, the party will unveil a comprehensive LGBTI policy platform at this weekend’s Midsumma Pride March.
“I want our policy platform to be a gold standard around what needs to happen — there can be nobody who can promote our community better than we will be able to,” Tuazon-McCheyne said.
Speaking to the Star Observer at this year’s Midsumma Carnival, Victorian upper house MP and leader of the Sex Party Fiona Patten said she believes her party is playing a role in encouraging greater LGBTI participation.
“We’re a party that has run as many candidates from the LGBTIQ community as we possibly can, and I certainly think it’s very good to see straight, middle-aged men feeling almost comfortable at Midsumma — almost, I say — and that is a wonderful thing,” she said.
“But we need to see greater diversity in the parliament itself and I’m just actually really happy that we’re going to start playing a part in that.”