Western Australian pols have their backs to the wall as next year’s election looms ever closer

Here at Crikey, we have always loved a good euphemism – which is why we were so taken by the West Australian Parliamentary Handbook’s description for the close personal relationship of Labor’s openly gay MP for Perth, John Hyde.

He is described as being in an “inter-dependent relationship”.

Far too politically correct for us here at Crikey. But perhaps it is just the way some bureaucrat in Parliament has implemented a system to recognise that people fit into more marital status categories than back in the 1950s.

Personally it sounds like one of those great Australianisms, where a word has been borrowed from an act of parliament and ended up in the vernacular. You know, like “home unit”, though we very much doubt “inter-dependent relationship” will ever catch on in the same way.

But gay themes do seem to have come to the fore in the run-up to next year’s state election.

Just last week, little known Liberal Leader Colin Barnett announced he intended to roll back a series of Gallop government initiatives on gay law reform.

As The West Australian reported it, “The Liberal Party plans to roll back key sections of WA’s gay law reforms if it wins the State election – raising the age of consent for gay men to 18 and barring same-sex couples from adopting. Gay couples would be banned from settling property disputes in the Family Court and access to the court by de facto heterosexual couples would also be reviewed.”

Now a word of explanation is needed here. For reasons that go back to Charlie Court’s refusal to accept any laws imposed from Canberra, Western Australia has its own Family Court which hears cases that in other states are heard in the Federal Family Court. It must keep its rules on marriage in line with Commonwealth law (marriage is a Federal power under the constitution), but a state based court has a huge advantage for de-facto relationships, compared to the more expensive options in other states.

So there are obvious reasons why the whole “gay marriage” issue might raise more interest in Western Australia compared to other states. But the fascinating aspect is the lifting of the gay age of consent.

Gay groups have pointed out that it will move Western Australia into the position of being the only state with an unequal age of consent. They also point out that Western Australia would also be the first jurisdiction in the world to wind back gay rights since the military coup in Nicaragua in 1990.

Of course, if Barnett wins the election and rolls back the laws, it may all be the fault of the Greens. Labor’s chances of re-election would be easier if the Greens had agreed to change to voting rights of the President of the Legislative Council to bring them in line with the President of the Senate. Had the Greens agreed to this, Labor could have got rid of the outrageous rural bias built into the West Australian electoral system. Instead, the Greens have done nobody on the left any favours by protecting the power of the Legislative Council President while not giving a bugger about helping a government of the left win a second term.

But back to buggery. For lawyers, winding back gay law reform would be interesting in requiring a legal definition of “homosexual intercourse”. Like most state crimes acts, there is already a definition of sexual intercourse involving every possible combination of orifices, dangly bits, digits and implements that could conceivably be classified as sexual.

Sexual intercourse would still apply for all offences under 16, and all acts over 18, but an unequal age of consent creates a special category of acts that need to criminalised for males engaging in certain types of sexual acts with males between the age of 16 and 18. One wonders whether some of these same sexual acts will be criminalised between males and females, or whether Mr Barnett believes anal sex and fellatio is ok for 17 year girls but not for boys.

However, all this is the sort of quibbling that Barnett was not actually after. Let’s face it, this was a cheap publicity stunt. It was a great front page gimme for Barnett, and The West Australian still owes him big times for swallowing Richard Court’s attempt to bring in Julie Bishop as Liberal Leader after the 2001 election.

What Barnett was doing was cosying up to Family First, who despite their poor showing in the west at the Federal election, still seem to be gaining some credibility as a party with a future. Family First’s vision is derided as a rose-tinted stare back to the 1950s, but heck, that’s what Paul Keating used to say about John Howard, and who’s been Prime Minister for the past nine years?

Family First had been all set to make a big splash on state politics by announcing the recruitment of current state Liberal MP for Ningaloo Rod Sweetman as its state leader. Left without a seat by the internecine warfare of the Liberal Party, it looked a great career move for Sweetman. Unfortunately, those pesky leftists from the ABC looked up his voting record and were going to ask Sweetman’s new party why they were endorsing a candidate who voted for liberalised abortion laws a couple of years back. Not even people prepared to overlook Ross Cameron’s indiscretions could answer that question, and Family First missed its first high profile recruit.

But there are other people who Barnett was trying to appeal to. There is the great question of where the One Nation vote will go. It was the 10 per cent One Nation vote and the drift of preferences to Labor that was largely responsible for the election of the Gallop government. There is no doubt Barnett was also trying to woo this disaffected conservative vote.

One Nation elected three MLCs in 2001, all of whom have, as usual, left the party. Two of them, Frank Hough and Paddy Embry, are part of a newly formed party, the New Country Party, whose main interest in life seems to be killing off the National Party.

Those over east who always associate the National Party with rednecks don’t understand the strange history of the West Australian National Party. The old Country Party amalgamated with the DLP in 1974 and contested that year’s state election under the ominous name of the National Alliance. Wilson Tuckey was one of its candidates.

Under relentless pressure from the Liberals (Charlie Court hated the Nationals almost as much as he hated Canberra), the party split into two competing parties in the late 1970s (one of which bizarrely went bankrupt after investing in a supermarket chain!) before re-uniting under the Narembeen Mawler, Hendy Cowan, in the mid 1980s.

The WA National Party is far to the left of similar parties in other states. It is distinctly green, concerned about water quality and land salinity, and even pushed the Court government to save the state’s old growth forests. Hendy Cowan also stared down attempts by Court to have a referendum on bringing back the death penalty, and also had some small-l liberal views on gay issues.

It appears that the New Country Party seems to think the National Party is still soft of poofs. Let us quite in full the wonderfully rabid press release released by Frank Hough.

New Country Party MLC, Frank Hough believes Max Trenorden’s public confirmation of the National’s support for the gay agenda is another betrayal of the rural mainstream that elect them.

‘I can assure the Nationals that rural people, just like most Australian’s, do not support the gay agenda to lower the age of homosexual consent or to allow homosexuals to marry and adopt children’ said Mr Hough.

‘I have been continually approached by concerned and outraged constituents since the Bill was introduced and subsequently passed through Parliament. I suggest the reason Max’s phone has not rung is that rural communities know it’s a waste of time to ask the Nationals to stand up for mainstream values.

‘In 2001, when Labor’s change to the Family Court Act were put to the Parliament as part of their gay agenda, the Nationals Terry Waldron crossed the floor to vote with Labor while Max Trenorden, Ross Ainsworth and Monty House failed to show up for the vote. ’

‘That action by National MP’s followed the infamous maiden speech by Brendon Grylls, in which he effectively called his constituents ignorant, narrow minded, heartless, red necked, homophobic and racist bigots who needed to ‘open their minds and their hearts’.

The National’s support for the attack on our mainstream values, the foundation or our successful society, is further proof why rural Western Australia needs a new voice to represent and defend them, not denigrate their values and traditions.

‘Max Trenorden and the National’s use by date has expired’.

We guess that Hough thinks Barnett’s idea is a good one, which along with Family First’s preferences, might be important in the Liberals winning some of this election’s numerous three cornered contests the Liberals and Nationals.

One of those contests will be Merredin, the former seat of Hendy Cowan and now held by the Nationals great white hope, Brendan Grylls. As Frank Hough fumed, Grylls did acknowledge the gay community in his maiden speech. To quote:

As a new member of Parliament I open my heart and mind to the gay and lesbian members of our community who have fought long and hard for the legislation that has been passed by this House. I applaud their fortitude and belief that one day they would achieve the equality they thought they deserved.

Fighting words on the conservative side of politics. Grylls had just won the Merredin by-election, defeating a Liberal attempt to win the seat. One Nation’s candidate Jamie Falls had seen the party’s vote halve at the by-election. Interestingly given the running gay debate, Falls has now been endorsed as the Liberal candidate for Merredin, an announcement snuck in just after the Federal election, the first One Nation candidate to return to the Liberal fold.

So with all this gay sex swirling round Brendan Grylls, wasn’t it interesting to see the Sunday Times pop up with this story on 28 November. Coincidently or maybe conveniently, The Sunday Times splashed a story on 28 November claiming a paedophile ring existed in Merredin. There does seem to have been a distressing number of child sex abuse cases, but the Sunday Times tied the whole issue into the wave of arrests for possessing child pornography, one of whom just happened to live in Merredin.

The local Merredin-Wheatbelt Mercury hit back with a report where police denied the existence of a child pornography ring in Merredin. Unfortunately, the police also expressed concern at the number of local underage sex case.

So gay sex could be on the political agenda of the west for a while yet, even if it disappears of the radar in Perth itself. Expect the issue to run and run in three-cornered rural contests, and in the Legislative Council contest.

However, I cannot let this story pass without my own little addition to the issue of gay couples in the wheatbelt of Western Australia.

Brendan Grylls hails from Corrigin in the wheatbelt, where his family wheat farm has gone heavily into value adding, including marron farming (yabbies to the people from the rest of the country). He also set up a café, bakery and art gallery in Corrigin that caters to bus tours heading out to Wave Rock at Hyden.

I well remember taking that trip several years ago, having escaped a particularly fractious political soirée. We remember Corrigin not for any café, but for the rather obscure stop just outside of town.

Perhaps Mr Grylls knows the true story behind the following intriguing headstone in the famous Corrigin dog cemetery: