I had a personal reason to be glad when I heard Brendan Nelson had taken the Liberal leadership. A close friend of mine living in Nelson’s north shore electorate of Bradfield wrote to him in August this year urging him to implement the recommendations of HREOC.
Brendan wrote back restating the Government’s position of the time, but in a handwritten note added, “I could not agree with you more strongly on this. Whilst not a supporter of gay marriage I strongly support addressing issues of economic injustice in relation to same-sex couples and always have.”
Yes, this is the same Nelson who not so long ago suggested intelligent design be taught alongside evolution in classrooms, and in 1998 said, “Mardi Gras stands alongside gambling, drug use, escalating suicide rates, and debates about euthanasia and race, as further evidence of a society that is seriously failing.”
Yet in the very same speech he also said, “Homosexual people are our brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles, our sons and daughters, and some are even parents, and they should be able to live in a society that is free of intolerance, persecution and hatred.”
After nearly 12 years of stagnation on gay issues, moving forward is exactly what the Liberals need to do.
Taking up gay rights has worked for other international conservative parties trying to revamp themselves – supporting civil unions was a major factor in both the British Conservatives and New Zealand Nationals reinventing themselves and, while neither has taken power since, both have made electoral gains in subsequent polls.
It appears the Liberals under Nelson would allow most of HREOC through – though some areas relating to parenting could be sticking points.
But what will be most telling is where the party stands on anti-discrimination laws. Labor’s proposed legislation will retain big loopholes for religious groups so the Liberals won’t take too much flak for supporting them, and if they move to do so during this term the Government would have no excuse to ask us to re-elect them again before passing them.
Once all Labor’s current promises on gay rights are exhausted, the ALP will be forced to pull out something more radical or risk losing gay and lesbian voters and their heterosexual supporters to the Liberals and Greens.
Playing devil’s advocate, forcing Labor’s gay reform agenda forward could also help the Liberals pull back some of the anti-gay working class social conservatives it lost over WorkChoices.
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