This week, leaders of Australia’s religious right have positioned themselves to influence a future Labor Government on key issues including gay rights. On Tuesday, Jim Wallace from the Australian Christian Lobby launched the ACL’s new election website with an attack on Labor’s commitment to legal equality for same-s-x de facto couples.

Wallace says de facto recognition is tantamount to same-s-x marriage even though the ALP has ruled out changes to the Marriage Act, and all the states currently recognise de facto couples without any changes to the definition of matrimony. But Wallace was careful not to attack Kevin Rudd. Rather, he wants to drive a wedge between the Labor leader and “libertarians” within his party.

He is doing this by highlighting Rudd’s Christian credentials, noting Rudd’s weak defence of his party’s pro-gay policies, and directing Christian constituents to vote for candidates rather than parties.

Clearly Wallace wants to demonstrate to Labor strategists that the ACL can breach the partisan divide and has influence over potential Labor voters. Cardinal George Pell is also waking up to the possibility of Labor in power. He used the launch of his new book to attack the idea that s-xuality anti-discrimination laws should cover religious institutions, and, of course, same-s-x marriage. He wouldn’t bother preaching so loudly on either issue if Howard was sure to win.

Attempts by religious conservatives to increase their influence over Labor’s gay rights policy raises the question of whether there is a countervailing gay constituency, and whether Labor will suffer at the hands of this constituency over its stance against same-s-x marriage, or, in the event it retreats from the more positive same-s-x commitments it has made.

For all their cant about knowing the electorate, party election strategists have a very poor understanding of gay voters, where they live, what motivates them, and what broader social influence they have. There is still a strong perception, re-inforced by the media, that the overwhelming majority of gay voters are young, footloose and individualistic residents of inner-city seats like Wentworth and Melbourne Ports with little concern for politics or connection to their communities. A spate of recent demographic studies has exploded this myth.

According to reports of the latest US research, “l-sbians and gays are more likely to be older, ‘responsible’ suburbanites sharing a mortgage payment and listening to country music than young turks partying in the Castro or Chelsea.”

As notable as the emergence of the pink suburban mortgage belt is the population shift from urban to rural and regional areas, due both to an exodus of urban dwellers and the decision of those who grow up in the regions to stay there.

According to UCLA demographer, Gary Gates, quoted in the New York Times:

…you are seeing same-sex couples becoming less urban, even as the population become slightly more urban. Twenty years ago, if you were gay and lived in rural Kansas, you went to San Francisco or New York.

Now you can just go to Kansas City.

There’s every reason to believe the trend in Australia is similar. The 2006 Census revealed a dramatic increase in the number of same-s-x couples in Tasmania and regional Queensland, far in excess of the more modest increases in Sydney and Melbourne. Like their US and European counterparts, Australia’s inner city gay community institutions, most notably Mardi Gras, have suffered a corresponding downturn.

To understand exactly how dramatic this shift is, and what it means for the 2007 election, let’s turn to an electorate I know reasonably well, the marginal, Labor-held seat of Franklin in southern Tasmania.

Since 2001 several thousand new voters have registered in Franklin, many of them sea and tree changers. Of these, a remarkable proportion are gay. A local gay social group, the ironically-named League of Gentlemen, has a membership of 600. This is only a slice of Franklin’s overall gay population but it’s a slice worth examining.

Many of LOG’s members are recent refugees from inner city gay ghettos and soaring housing prices on the mainland. Many are small business people – shop, farm and B&B owners – whose economic interests do not necessarily lie with left-of-centre parties.

Most were attracted to Tasmania by a regime of equal legal rights which has leapfrogged the rest of the nation and remain deeply concerned about the discrimination and financial disadvantages they still face under federal law. The light thrown onto this disadvantage by a recent Human Rights Commission report, and news reports of reform in other western countries, have galvanised levels of support for change that I’ve never before seen amongst these and other gay Australians.

Perhaps most crucially of all, many of Franklin’s gay immigrants have been quickly accepted and taken on leadership roles in their community. Some have become spokespeople for change. Others have been “adopted” by long-term, older residents whose own children left many years ago and rarely return. Many are employers who, in an area of traditionally high unemployment and low-skilled jobs, inspire great loyalty in their employees and their employees’ families.

Whatever key social and economic roles they assume, the tight-knit nature of Tasmanian towns means the ideas and needs of Franklin’s new gay residents have rapidly and profoundly influenced those around them.

Country mayors, sporting champions and regional news editors who were vocally homophobic just a few years ago, are now passionate advocates against gay discrimination. Local pubs that once advertised anti-gay meetings now fly rainbow flags. Yes, there is still discrimination, some of it quite overt. But such prejudice is not the norm it once was. It is a reaction to irreversible change and elicits condemnation that would have been unimaginable ten years ago.

In short, Franklin’s gay immigrants are not only just a new, colourful thread in the electorate’s social fabric. They are barometers and agents of its changing aspirations. They are the new “doctors’ wives”. Canny local politicians are aware of this profound transformation.

Even before she was endorsed as the Liberal candidate in Franklin, Vanessa Goodwin, was inviting gay, l-sbian, bis-xual and transgender (GLBT) community representatives to address her local party branch. Two weeks ago she happily subjected herself to questioning at a GLBT election forum in Hobart, and was prepared to sign a pledge against election gay-hate until her party stopped her. Goodwin’s position is based on her small “l” liberal values. But it also makes good sense electorally.

As a new-comer she is relatively untainted by the Howard Government’s poor record on same-s-x couples. In the eyes of those gay constituents whose economic interests lie on the right, she holds out the hope of a rejuvenated, progressive Liberal Party. This means every time Kevin Rudd spruiks his opposition to same-s-x marriage, or worse, if he falls back from his party’s commitment to same-s-x de facto recognition, Liberal candidates like Goodwin become a viable option for gay constituents, and benefit in terms of both pink votes and dollars.

Jim Wallace might intervene at this point of my argument by highlighting the fact that Franklin contains the very religious dormitory town of Kingston with at least one mega-church. My response is where else will their votes end up but with the Liberals?

Wallace’s attempt to spread the impact of the Christian vote is too little too late. After 11 years or moral crusading the Howard Government has successfully corralled fundamentalists and evangelicals congregations. Of course, there are religious voters who Kevin Rudd has successfully shaken from Howard’s electoral tree over issues like IR, global warming and Iraq.

But they are too few in number, too disparate in their outlook and have too little influence beyond their churches, to compare with the numbers, the sense of purpose and the broader social influence amongst family, friends, neighbours, employees and the general community of the gay voters I’ve described. As a result, in electorates like Franklin, tolerance and fair treatment are replacing “traditional family values” as standards by which the community judges its progress and from which its identity is formed.

2007 will be the first federal election in which Australia’s gay demographic shift will have an impact. Electoral strategists may be slow to pick up on this impact. We may continue to see Kevin Rudd make the mistake of shadowing Howard on gay rights. But local politicians like Vanessa Goodwin are not so hidebound. They are translating the demographic shift into an electoral one.

We can only hope that this translates, in turn, into national policy-making which truly reflects the values of diversity, equality and a fair-go.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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