On Tuesday of this week Independent MP Andrew Wilkie rose to his feet during question time with a query directly to the prime minister. He needled her about the government’s cruel policy of refusing Certificates of No Impediment (CNI’s) to same sex couples seeking to lawfully marry overseas.
It’s not a question she wanted. Labor strategists (oxymoron?) don’t want this damn pesky gay marriage issue anywhere near the PM. They want it out of the media, off the agenda and silent in the electorate. This issue is a thorn in the side of this limping government, and Gillard is personally torn over her private support for gay marriage (despite what she says publicly), and her loyalty to the Catholic Right in the party whose numbers hold her in the Lodge.
Gillard has repeatedly refused to meet with same-sex marriage lobby groups or parents of gay children seeking reform. The issue has become awkward and embarrassing and won’t go away.
The big problem for Labor is not that community support for same-sex marriage is now clearly in favour, but that it has no control or influence over the lobby group which has so successfully driven this campaign. Australian Marriage Equality is articulate, media savvy, organised, well resourced and has the largest database of gay and lesbian rights supporters in the country.
Historically, the ALP has either covertly had the numbers in gay lobby groups around the country to control them, or, when it couldn’t do that, it has set up front groups claiming to speak on gay rights. In this way the ALP always has a reliable group to tell it what it wants to hear.
Not so with AME. This group takes no prisoners. It drops leaflets in Labor electorates, asks difficult questions, motivates the general community, publishes credible polling, runs TV adverts and frightens the hell out of Labor members in marginal seats and inner city electorates. None of the key players in AME are members of political parties but all have exceptional political skills. It’s a nightmare for Labor, a party not used to losing control over gay lobby groups.
To date, Labor strategists have determined that the best way to neutralise this issue in the electorate is to quarantine it to its national conference. But the issue is so volatile, the national conference itself has been brought forward to this December to try and cauterise the issue before it haemorrhages. This kind of “shut-down politics” is designed to stop community activists (and AME) from continuing to embarrass the government on the issue under the illusion that it will all be resolved in December. And it means that Labor MP’s have a convenient excuse not to comment on the matter, by saying simply that it will be discussed in December.
The problem for Labor here is that the strategy isn’t working. No-one is shutting up until December and there’s a good chance December will produce a meaningless result. Labor right-wingers have scuttled two previous attempts to change Labor policy on this issue on conference floors and it’s quite likely December’s conference will run the same way. Latest intelligence from Labor’s bunker is that a weak compromise on civil unions is in the offing.
But yesterday was the last straw for Gillard. It was bad having that lovely Shelley Argent (parent of a gay son) all over the Sunrise TV program last week calling for equal marriage and waving polling results showing 75% acceptance within the community. It was worse having Wilkie raising the issue in question time. But it was humiliating when AME and GetUp! won the online charity auction to have dinner with the PM. A suspicious, hefty, last-minute bid aimed at spoiling AME’s chances failed. Gillard now gets to play Katherine Hepburn in a 2011 remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, as three same sex couples get a chance to ask her why she opposes their rights to legal marriage in the full glare of the national media.
So, the gloves are off. If anyone thinks Gillard’s office will put up with this any longer they’re dreaming. Her office will inevitably set about creating a new gay marriage group. A nicer one. A tame one. One that will be quiet. One that won’t annoy her. One that can spin a poor conference outcome Labor’s way. One that can be corralled into impotency.
It will urge recruits to work with the ALP’s strategy. It will have maps, polling and arguments designed to show well meaning but naive campaigners that the best chance of success lies in making the campaign go quiet. No more activism. No more embarrassing Gillard. Just lots of fruitless, time-consuming meetings away from media and public attention.
The uninitiated will be told that conservative voters in outer urban seats don’t like the issue being raised, but will begrudgingly support it if it goes through quietly. If you keep banging on about it, they’ll say, you’ll lose support. So, everybody, shush!
This may already be happening. In recent weeks I’ve been contacted by gay Labor figures interested in forming some kind of umbrella “alliance”. But whether it’s this “alliance” or something else, it will happen.
Sadly, in 22 years of gay rights activism I’ve seen all this before. It’s fake, fraudulent and self serving. The challenge to true supporters of equality is to remain aloof from it and to continue to confront a government that is pandering to prejudice.
*Brian Greig was awarded an OAM in Queen’s Birthday Honours this week for his work in social justice for the gay and lesbian community