UPDATED: See below for the Australian Sex Party’s response to Guy Rundle’s story.

Not long after the squeaker of a loss for the Greens in Melbourne, there was a lot of barracking from two unlikely, erm, bedfellows. One was the ALP cheer squad on the #melbvotes twitfeed — which was like being in the Dubbo Institute of Technology student bar after a Labor stooge won the services officer position from the queer-anarchist candidate by shouting the engineering faculty — and the other was the Australian Sex Party.

Both crowed that the ASP had won it for Labor — which is a pretty sad boast for Labor. “The Greens didn’t even phone them,” they said. Fiona Patten, the ubiquitous ASP candidate, said that ASP had steered away from the Greens because of concerns about “anti-sex” feminists in the Greens, and the pro-internet filter position of one-off Greens candidate Clive Hamilton.

The reality was a little less dazzling. ASP’s vote share tripled — from 2% to 6.6%, but only because the turnout was so low. In reality, it only increased by 80%, from 1000 to 1800, and the preference flow to Labor was only 55%, according to the Mayne Report analysis. So 90 votes of the 700 2PP victory. Far more decisive was independent Liberal David Nolte — there’s your “anti-Sex Party” — and his 1280 votes, which went 80% Labor’s way, and made the difference.

Nevertheless, if ASP is going to position itself as an anti-Green force, and challenge the party on libertarian grounds, it is worth applying a little scrutiny. There are many people — and I’m one of them — who while supporting the Greens in the last analysis on economic/environmental/political grounds, have a suspicion of some currents within them, wondering if a certain statism on matters of behaviour, consumption, etc, and especially a certain statist feminism, might not come into play.

A genuine libertarian party, one thinks, might keep them on their toes, and since Australia’s self-styled libertarians are a bunch of comb-overs with a Laffer curve obsession, the Sex Party might be the one to do it.

Except, of course, it isn’t really that libertarian at all. And it’s barely a party. It’s an outgrowth of the Eros Foundation, the sex industry lobby group, and it is less keen on the pure expression of human freedom than it is in pushing for a particular regulatory regime that benefits the legal sex industry. It has a bunch of policies about drug decriminalisation, internet non-censorship, etc, but its main game is to enforce a strict line between the legal and non-legal sex trade, to the benefit of the former.

That may or may not be a good thing, but it’s hardly libertarian. Thus ASP frequently finds itself at loggerheads with sex-worker rep groups such as the Scarlet Alliance, which opposes the strict enforcement of a legal/non-legal distinction on the grounds that it punishes women, men, and intersex people, who for whatever reason find themselves working the wild side. Furthermore, it enforces a simple and false opposition — that legal is safe. Given the hair-raising nature of some of the people who acquire a legal brothel licence, the lack of firewalling between front-owners and crims and a whole lot of other things, that is a fiction, and has been for quite a while.

But here’s what’s really interesting: when you compare policies, most of ASP’s match up better with the Greens than they do with Labor, no matter what it feels about some of its blue-stocking reps. ASP believes in drug decriminalisation (actually complete legalisation), opposition to blanket internet censorship, and a jiggling with the regs concerning illegal brothels and street workers, inter alia. The Greens, as their website makes clear, believe in drug decriminalisation (though not the full legalisation ASP favour), they ran the strongest possible campaign against Senator Stephen Conroy’s internet firewall (despite Hamilton’s some-time membership), and as their “sexuality” policy page explicitly states, they believe in the full decriminalisation of the sale of sexual services, across the country.

The Greens, contrary to image, are thus by far the most socially libertarian party on offer. The ALP by contrast toes the tabloid line on drugs as scourge of our youth, etc. It is sluggish in decriminalising prostitution (in places where there has been no genuine reformer, a la John Cain, to do so), is opposed to same-sex marriage, and it is the author of the internet firewall. The Victorian party is dominated by the Catholic Right, and the Catholic Right is dominated by the Shoppies, whose hereditary leadership believe Pius XII to be a dangerous radical.

This is the party, after all, that in the first year of Steve Bracks’ premiership, banned a cinema screening of The Exorcist on Good Friday, just to see what it could get away with. Yes, champion of liberation. Nor is it deficient of blue stockings themselves (many of them excellent people): think Candy Broad, Lily D’Ambrosio, and Jill “Brandi” Hennessy.

So, why did ASP go with the ALP? What might it have got in return for the preference flow it couldn’t actually deliver? Here’s one thing it might be, buried in the wilds of 2010, and that is the results of a forthright inquiry into human trafficking, completed under the chairpersonship of Judy Maddigan, the former ALP member for Essendon. The inquiry recognised a new reality in the sex industry: that when brothels were legalised in Melbourne in the 1980s, the place was still a global backwater, and global flows of people were comparatively small.

Some 25 years later, the world has not only been supercharged into incessant global motion, but the opening of formerly closed societies has created a commodity that is surplus in the poor world, scarce in the rich: women willing to have sex for money. Indeed a trafficked woman, by her mere transfer, reverses her value — another mouth to feed at home, is a source of capital when sold abroad.That also changes the value of a legal brothel because it suddenly becomes that miraculous thing — a brothel disguised as a br-thel. As Madigan’s inquiry discovered, a legal br-thel then can become a licensed, and thus undisturbed, depot for the transfer of trafficked women. This is essentially what has happened to many legal sex regimes around the world, such as Amsterdam.

Madigan’s solution was practical and simple: a specific force, with arrest powers, but not identified with the police, to have raiding powers on legal brothels for the purpose of nabbing “sets” of trafficked women, before they were simply moved to another city, after a corrupt police tip-off. As Madigan noted, many trafficked women came from places where the police were the criminals, so the likelihood they would crawl out a window and seek out a friendly copper was small (she forgot to add that those places include Melbourne).

Who was the main objector to this suggested policy for the next Labor government — it was ta-da, the Australian Sex Party. It insisted, rightly, that notions of trafficking had been extended by some, such as Caroline Norma, to all mobile sex workers, via the weasel-word phrase “prostituted women” (academics are subjects, hookers are objects, apparently) — but their claim that trafficking was not a major problem was bullshit. It served one purpose — the desire to keep legal brothels raid-free, and with a public image of consent.

What is the bet that part of the deal between the ALP and the ASP was that the notion of raids on legal brothels had been quietly dropped from any consideration by a future ALP government? What a proud thing that would be for Jennifer Kanis to ride to victory on. What a sterling addition to EMILY’S List. Early money is like yeast — and so is $1200 for a half-hour, so the leadership of the Amalgamated Frittlers Union can party hard in Terrigal, on the union Mastercard.

Meanwhile, of course, the Sex Party, as an industry lobby group, has something else to worry about, for the fashion in sex work regulation has changed, on the centre-left. Legalisation is out, and the Swedish model is in (yes, yes). The Swedish idea is elegantly simple, and desperately puritan — selling sex is taken off the statute books, and buying sex is criminalised. The clients are arrested, the hookers go free (it gets better — Swedish pr-stitutes are now claiming compensation as victims of crime, when their johns are arrested).

The Swedish model has taken off across Scandinavia. In Britain, it has been championed by Labour, especially prominent Labour women, though with little success (meanwhile Britain continues to ban large br-thels, but legalise single operators, by far the most dangerous set-up for s-x workers — but one that allows the issue to be ignored in polite society). And it was inevitable that it would find champions here, among those anti-sex inner-city blue-stockings of the … Tasmanian Labor Party.

Perhaps the industry should take a long hard look at the Robbie Swan-Fiona Patten and ask, in industry jargon, if they’re getting a bang for their buck, or just being taken for a ride.

In response to this article, Rob Ruminski, Australian Sex Party volunteer, on behalf of Fiona Patten, Robbie Swan, Christian Vega and The Australian Sex Party, has issued this statement.

The following is a refutation of claims and representations made in Guy Rundle’s article.

Rundle wrote:

“[The Sex Party is] an outgrowth of the Eros Foundation, the sex industry lobby group, and it is less keen on the pure expression of human freedom than it is in pushing for a particular regulatory regime that benefits the legal sex industry. It has a bunch of policies about drug decriminalisation, internet non-censorship, etc, but its main game is to enforce a strict line between the legal and non-legal sex trade, to the benefit of the former.”

The Victorian branch of the Australian Sex Party’s policy on sex work is very clear. The ASP advocates for decriminalisation of sex work, and does not support the current legal/regulatory regime. The policy can be found here.

While the Victorian Party’s policy has not yet been ratified federally (an administrative oversight), it has been ratified in NSW as well. This is the approach that has been advocated at every level of the party in every instance. This is also the only policy on sex work that exists at any level of the party. We would challenge Rundle to produce evidence to the contrary.

As to the claims regarding associations between Eros and the brothel industry, this is patently untrue. According to Robbie Swan:

“The Eros Association stopped taking brothel owners as members over a decade ago when it became the adult ‘retail’ association. As a result we now only have one brothel in Victoria as an associate member on a fee of $590 per year. The only other brothel to have supported the Sex Party with a donation of $500 was The Boardroom of Melbourne, a couple of years ago. Mr. Rundle’s suggestion that the Victorian brothel owners are big supporters of the Eros Association is demonstrably untrue. Rundle appears ignorant of the fact that the legal Victorian brothels have their own industry association anyway. The annual returns of both the Eros Association (an incorporated not for profit adult industry association) and The Sex Party (a registered political party) are on the public record.”

Rundle wrote:

“Thus ASP frequently finds itself at loggerheads with sex-worker rep groups such as the Scarlet Alliance, which opposes the strict enforcement of a legal/non-legal distinction on the grounds that it punishes women, men, and intersex people, who for whatever reason find themselves working the wild side. Furthermore, it enforces a simple and false opposition – that legal is safe.”

Also false. Rundle again misrepresents ASP sex work policy, as well as our relationship with Scarlet Alliance and other sex worker advocacy groups. This isn’t surprising as he didn’t contact us, nor to our knowledge did he contact anyone from SA.

The ASP and Scarlet Alliance have a strong history of working together. Up to half a dozen of our candidates nationally have also been Scarlet Committee members and representatives. These affiliations have generally been publicised in each instance that these candidates have run for the ASP. It’s also worth noting that Christian Vega — who in addition to being an ASP candidate is also a sex worker and has worked with a multitude of sex worker organisations including Scarlet, RhED and Vixen — wrote the ASP policy on sex work.

Rundle wrote:

“The Greens, as their website makes clear, believe in drug decriminalisation (though not the full legalisation ASP favour).”

Rundle seems to have had enough time to check the Greens website, but not the ASP site. Sex Party policy has always called for the decriminalisation of drugs. Bizarrely, this statement also contradicts Rundle’s correct representation earlier in the article that the ASP has a decriminalisation policy.

Rundle wrote:

“Who was the main objector to this suggested policy for the next Labor government – it was ta-da, the Australian Sex Party.”

Also untrue. The Victorian Recommendations into Trafficking and for Sex Work were actively and vocally opposed by a broad coalition of organisations, including Scarlet Alliance, Respect Inc. Queensland, Sex Workers Outreach Project, Sex Industry Network (SIN) South Australia, and over 10 international groups, most based in Asia. They were also opposed by the Sex Party. We cosigned the response penned by Scarlet Alliance, the organisation that Rundle contends we’re at loggerheads with.

In an interesting side note, at the time of the inquiry Ms Maddigan was on the board of Project Respect, a vociferously anti-sex work organisation founded by former Greens candidate Kathleen Maltzahn. One of the aims of Project Respect is to introduce the Swedish Model into Australia (as advocated by Rundle in his article). This approach is ubiquitously opposed by sex worker organisations both in Australia and worldwide — another basic fact that Rundle could have discovered with a minimum of research.

Rundle wrote:

“What is the bet that part of the deal between the ALP and the ASP was that the notion of raids on legal brothels had been quietly dropped from any consideration by a future ALP government?”

Had Rundle bothered to ask, we could have disabused him of this particularly nasty accusation. I have personally been involved with all preference negotiations since the Federal election and can categorically say that no such deal has ever been made — not at Federal, not at State and not in Melbourne.

In fact, there was no quid pro quo at all in the arrangement beyond a straight preference swap for this by election. The Sex Party have never sought or been offered any policy concessions or future promises as part of any preference arrangement. We would challenge anyone with evidence to the contrary to come forward.

Rundle’s entire piece is a distortion, full of blatant untruths and gross misrepresentations. He offers no evidence to back up his wild speculations and conspiracy theories. Every falsehood as outlined above could have been addressed with an hour or two of basic research and a couple of phone calls.

As a true free speech party, we won’t be setting our lawyers Rundle any time soon. For the record, however, he has seriously impugned the good name of the Sex Party. Without even speaking to us or presenting any evidence, Rundle — and by extension Crikey — has accused us of entering into a criminal conspiracy to undermine both electoral law and police enforcement of existing laws relating to sex work. We would urge Rundle to make a minimum effort to get his facts straight next time, and would urge Crikey to seriously examine the editorial process that lead to the publication of this piece.

Peter Fray

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