OVER the past two decades, Tasmania has won plaudits for transforming itself from being a nasty, reactionary backwater on sexual equality issues, to a liberal and tolerant society. But now that the Liberal Party is back in office after 16 years in opposition, that hard-won reputation is under threat.

New Premier Will Hodgman has chosen Michael Ferguson as his Health Minister. Ferguson, a former federal Liberal MP for the Launceston-based seat of Bass, is implacably opposed to same-sex marriage and is deeply conservative on questions relating to sex education. Ferguson is a Christian, but of the variety that seeks to impose an ideology of sexual inequality on the community at large.

Since 1997, when the Tasmanian Parliament finally abolished the notion that homosexuality was a criminal offence, the Island State has moved to reduce discrimination against the LGBTI community. Last year, the government of former Labor Premier Lara Giddings passed laws to allow same-sex couples to adopt children. Tasmania’s anti-discrimination laws are some of the most progressive in Australia in terms of protecting against inciting hatred against gay people. An initiative by Ms Giddings and the Greens to allow same-sex marriage in Tasmania was defeated only because the state’s upper house is home to some of the most conservative politicians in Australia.

Mr Ferguson was one MP who vehemently opposed same-sex marriage. This writer was informed that Ferguson pressured some Liberals who were inclined to support marriage equality to back down — a claim Ferguson denied emphatically.

Ferguson is a politician who appears to view heterosexuality as somehow superior. This view was borne out in some disturbing remarks he made in Tasmanian Parliament on October 17, 2012, when debating a government proposal to revamp sex education in schools so it rightly took greater account of the reality of sexual diversity in our community.

Ferguson was aghast that renowned gay rights campaigner Rodney Croome should be associated with reforms to sex education in Tasmania.

“The minister’s unwillingness or inability to provide any detail about his new sex education curriculum is causing the community concern, especially from parents. It was not the government but indeed campaigner Rodney Croome who provided the public with the first insight into the kindergarten to (year) 12 curriculum by a media release which welcomed, and I quote, ‘the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex issues’,” Ferguson said.

He then revealed his intolerant streak with this comment from the same speech: “The minister and Premier should not use schools as another avenue to push a social agenda that they failed to get through this parliament. There is a difference between teaching respect for other people, which we in the opposition support, and ‘celebrating sexual diversity’. Sex education should be engaging, it should be age-appropriate and it should thoroughly involve parents. It should not be the new battleground for the Labor-Greens government’s divisive social agenda. It should not be taught in isolation or in conflict with the values of families to which children belong. That is certainly not the role of public education.”

In other words, the man now responsible for ensuring that the LGBTI community has access to important programs in areas such as sexual health and mental health thinks that it is dangerous to teach school students about sexual equality and tolerance.

Two months prior to this disturbing speech, Ferguson was on his feet again in the wood-panelled House of Assembly frothing at the mouth about same-sex marriage. According to him, one of the major reasons for opposing same-sex marriage is that he believes “all other things being equal, children deserve a chance to the care and affection of both a mother and a father.”

This view is nothing more than prejudice. As the Australian Institute of Family Studies revealed earlier this year: “Lesbian co-parenting couples display a range of parenting strengths, for example, less authoritarian parenting styles, and report higher quality relationships with their children than matched samples of heterosexual parents.” This is a finding that is consistent with other international studies.

What is clear from Tasmania’s new Health Minister is that he has a troubling disposition towards the LGBTI community. He views this community as being outside of what he would no doubt term the “mainstream”. A group of people who belong to the Labor Party and the Greens.

If Ferguson takes his strongly and unambiguously-expressed views on the LGBTI community into his sensitive portfolio, Tasmanians who value equality, fairness and compassion should be very afraid. A return to the dark days of 20 years ago when the LGBTI community was seen as “radical” looms on the horizon.

Greg Barns writes a weekly column for the Hobart Mercury. You can follow him on Twitter via @BarnsGreg

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