Last Friday night former Greens leader Bob Brown spoke to a crowd on Oxford St about the changes he had seen in the landscape for LGBTI people over his decades of involvement in Australian politics. Brown came out in 1976 – before the first Mardi Gras, before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this state in 1984, and even later in Tasmania in 1997 (even then, the reform only passed the Tasmanian upper house by one vote).
Brown has now retired (to spend more time on bridge and crosswords, as Greens Senate candidate Cate Faehrmann quipped), but his legacy of championing human rights, not just for LGBTI people but for all who are marginalised, lives on. Marriage equality should have happened in the last Parliament, he said, but it will happen in the next.
That is a confident claim, but it may be correct.
There are two ways for the law to change. Either the Coalition could be granted a free vote on the issue and enough members from both sides vote in favour, or Labor could make its party policy in support of marriage equality binding on its members. The second of these is unlikely – and even if it happened, Labor may not have sufficient numbers in the next Parliament to effect change.
As Brown said, if our politicians are going to make this change then they actually need to believe in it, and for this reason he feels a conscience vote is appropriate.
There is no doubt that concerted effort by citizens can change our politicians’ minds. The distribution of 70 000 leaflets by Australian Marriage Equality in the electorate of sitting Brisbane LNP Member of Parliament Teresa Gambaro, as well as a large rally, prompted an announcement from Gambaro that she would support the reform, and would pressure Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to grant his party a free vote on the issue. Similar campaigns will target further key electorates, including those of sitting Coalition members Christopher Pyne, Julie Bishop and Joe Hockey, and Labor MP Kelvin Thompson.
With pressure mounting on the Opposition Leader to grant his party a free vote - internationally (the conservative governments in the UK and New Zealand passed marriage equality legislation this year), within the party (Sue Boyce, Malcolm Turnbull, Kelly O’Dwyer, and Malcolm Turnbull have all supported the change, in addition to Gambaro) and within his own family (sister and City of Sydney Councillor Christine Forster is in a lesbian relationship), Brown may well be right.
At the end of the day, this reform will pass when politicians from all sides get together and work collaboratively on the issue. In NSW, the cross-party working group consisting of Penny Sharpe (Lab), Bruce Notley-Smith (Lib). Mehreen Faruqi (Gre), Alex Greenwich (Ind) and Trevor Khan (Nat) has provided a model for their federal colleagues to follow. The formation of a similar federal group is vital.
Of course, marriage equality is far from the only issue on which we need to keep pressure on our politicians, and which would benefit from cross party support.
We need out politicians to commit to including LGBTI and HIV issues in the national PDHPE curriculum. We need them to confirm their support for federal anti-discrimination laws and further limit the exemptions given to religious organisations. We need them to commit to LGBTI rights as a core foreign policy priority.
We need them to recognise LGBTI people as full and equal citizens – something Bob Brown could only have dreamed of in 1976, and now ever closer to becoming a reality.
Justin Koonin is a co-convenor of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.