Did They Or Didn’t They?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/sidelong/4110738292/in/photolist-7gfBh9-B5vRCL-aLX6rD-aaBsGs-fbw164-ecsSLR-zmd7G-ctCzem-9zqG3A-t2kwR-dNZZG2-bEaUqK-ecw3es-bEaUiX-7ukj6u-yMyUM-qf1wYX-akTZhN-uT5S5v-rjhTYV-uQyaU6-4vNirN-akRbfp-5b44Kj-4Lumi2-brfYNG-e9oZ7X-8uvAMj-JW4gZ-et3upe-e9uEU3-8Gmtuq-aNfQb4-GkkqPu-k48khX-HAr5k-e9uEZS-dKi1VT-6v5pK-mXpXpL-e4xgfB-dsG44T-7HKmY-9F6XeD-3JcmL-9F6X7F-U5bWu-e4xhBe-e4xhwR-e4CTkh

Janus, the god who looks both ways. pic by Dave Bleasdale

Oddly enough, I seem to have been both right, and wrong, at the same time, when I wrote about the latest AME statement yesterday

Confusion – including my own – ensued after my post yesterday. I initially wrote that AME/A4E were shopping around a new statement which a) left the door open for a marriage equality plebiscite and b) did not call for a free vote in parliament. I had not, at that stage, seen the document in question, and was relying on information from people I trust who had. That was perhaps a bit reckless of me.

The statement itself then swiftly appeared on the AME website, and at first sight it appeared that I might have been misled, and had in turn, misled my readers. So I substantially rewrote the post to reflect this new version of reality.

AME supporters went on the attack on Facebook anyway, challenging my initial interpretation of the document, and also my assertions that AME had a) lost a lot of support in the community and b) harboured ambitions to be the peak LGBTI body in Australia.

Since then, new information has come to light which tends to support my initial interpretation of the document and the level of community support for it.

WRIGGLE ROOM

The media statement is headlined LGBTI groups and leaders call for parliament to block the plebiscite and provide a parliamentary pathway. So far, so good. But, as with all these things (especially in politics) the devil is in the detail. The statement itself is not quite so unequivocal, despite protests to the contrary. Regarding the plebiscite, it says:

The plebiscite bill proposed by government does not have the required numbers to pass the Senate, and appears certain to be rejected by the Senate. We are calling on Parliament to vote down the plebiscite machinery legislation.

You’ll see that it calls on parliament to reject “the plebiscite bill proposed by the government.” It does not, however, reject outright the principle of holding a plebiscite at all. A narrow difference, it’s true, but it does leave a gap through which some adroit politicians would be able to wriggle.

During the drafting process, AME were asked to change this segment to a more definitive and watertight one rejecting any plebiscite, at any time, on any terms. They did not.

The statement continues:

We once again call on the parliamentary representatives and leaders who support reform to come together and deliver a parliamentary path to reform in this term, so that every Australian is able to marry the person they love, in the country they cherish, on equal terms…

… Therefore we urge Parliament to establish a cross party marriage equality working group now to ensure that the next bill delivered has cross party support, and provides a process and strategy to ensure that the majority of Parliamentarians who support marriage equality will be able to vote in favour of the legislation.

At first sight, all well and good. However, it does not specifically call for a free vote. Once again, AME were asked during drafting to amend the statement to do so. And once again, they refused.

Former Senator Brian Grieg explained to me that in politics, language matters, and if you leave politicians what he called “wriggle room”, they will use it. He and other advocates agreed that this did not unequivocally kill off the plebiscite, or call for a free vote. Characterising the statement as weak, open to being misused by politicians, they refused to sign it.

HAPPY TO SIGN

But, countered AME, 86 organisations did sign it. How can you say our support is declining when we have even more signatories now than we had before?

Well that may have something to do with the covering letter AME issued along with the statement, requesting organisations to sign. It stated that any organization that did not sign would henceforth be excluded from the regular roundtable meetings which AME uses to ‘consult’ with community organisations (or as one person put it, ‘to let us know what the party line is now’). You can read the email with its delicately worded statement of exclusion here. 

You may remember a recent occasion when AME cut someone out of the loop: after Cat Rose of Community Action Against Homophobia revealed details of what went on at the round table with George Brandis, she was dropped from subsequent roundtables. This will undoubtedly have been in the minds of those pondering whether they should sign up to this statement or not.

This coercion has succeeded in splitting some organisations, such as PFLAG, where some branches signed the statement, while national headquarters refused. AME is counting each branch as one organisation, thus inflating the numbers.

BOTH RIGHT & WRONG

So yesterday, I was both right and wrong. AME have taken this plebiscite off life support, but only this one. They have left the door open for the introduction of a plebiscite by other means. For example, the Prime Minister could use his executive powers to set up a plebiscite, although voting could not be compulsory using this mechanism.

And AME did not call specifically for a free vote in this parliament, despite being asked to use those exact words, instead preferring the wordy and obscure phrase, “a process and strategy to ensure that the majority of Parliamentarians who support marriage equality will be able to vote in favour of the legislation”. If you mean a free vote, why not say so?

And yes, more organisations did sign this latest statement: after they were threatened with being cut out of the loop if they did not. Not quite the shining triumph they would like to portray.

AND THE REST

Oh, and my observation that the organization harbours ambitions to be the LGBTI peak body? Nonsense, said supporters. We have attended many AME meetings and the issue has never even been mentioned, let alone discussed. As one wise old hand commented, “Well that may be because it was discussed at meetings above their level.”

And finally: I was criticised for relying on anonymous sources, off the record conversations, and background briefings. This is standard journalistic practice to protect sources who might otherwise suffer retaliation, and to keep channels of communication with them open.

I have also been criticised for not putting my piece to AME for their input before publication. Please note, this is not a newspaper, or a radio show. It’s a blog. My site: my viewpoints. I’m happy to publish pieces by other people with different viewpoints, and let my readers decide, but that’s their job, not mine. AME are welcome to write a rebuttal if they wish.

ONE MORE THING: NOT WEAKNESS BUT STRENGTH

PS Tim Wilson and others have scoffed at the LGBTI community for being ‘weak’ and walking away from a fight, because we continue to refuse a plebiscite.

To decline to participate in a demeaning and degrading circus in order to possibly, maybe, if enough MPs are in the right mood on the day, get a chance at what should be ours by right isn’t weakness, it’s strength. It takes guts and pride to stand up to these bullies and say, no, we will not jump through your flaming hoops, even if it means we are kept in subjection longer.

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About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years.

“Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe.” (Daniel Witthaus, “Beyond Priscilla”, Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)