If He Could Turn Back Time


"Maybe he likes it up the poo valley," jokes Cosmo, a restaurant worker downing midday beers on Sydney’s Oxford Street.

Cosmo, 24, couldn’t give a toss if Tony Abbott feels threatened. Same old, he says. "I honestly think he’s a dickhead. Period. He just wants attention."

Shoulder shrug, eye roll, nasty jibe. The gay cafe set is unflustered to learn that they challenge the "right order of things" (Abbott’s words). "The guy’s a tool," said one. Another: "Got other things to worry about, mate."

Off the street, Tony Abbott’s remarks hit home-sweet-home in the online comments to news articles. "Whether you agree with him or not, at least Tony Abbott says what he thinks," posted one Herald Sun reader. Another: "It is threatening. It always will be, as it goes against what is natural in procreation."

If elected, will a threatened Tony Abbott wind back gay rights? Gay activists don’t think so. In fact, according to one gay historian, Abbott would find it hard to battle the rising tide of acceptance — even if he did have an anti-gay plan.

It started on Sunday night with a profile piece for 60 Minutes. Asked about homosexuality by Liz Hayes, Abbott replied, "I feel a bit threatened … as so many people [do]".

The next day, Lateline anchor Leigh Sales asked a pink tie-clad Abbott to explain. "Well, there is no doubt that it challenges, if you like, orthodox notions of the right order of things, but as I also said on the program, it happens, it’s a fact of life and we have to treat people as we find them," Abbott said.

Gay alarm bells rang. "I’m very surprised", Corey Irlam from the Australian Coalition for Equality told me. "This is some of the strongest language we’ve heard from any major leader of a party in the last decade against homosexuality."

Another case of the hip-shooting honesty that pollsters say gives Abbott traction? "I take it on face value that the initial comment was off the cuff," says Irlam. "But the second time was atrocious and calculated."

"Wildly irresponsible, but not calculated," is the way Dr Graham Willett puts it. He’s Deputy Director of the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne. He published Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia in 2000.

"You can’t take on anything very seriously," he says. "He just seems to say stuff." But in this instance, Abbott probably "said something he really feels".

Irlam and Willett agree about the negative impact of comments like these. "For people who are vulnerable — young queer people — it says that, yes, there is something wrong with what you do … and that view is being endorsed by our leaders," says Willett.

"I’m worried about the validity his comments give to someone in the country who perhaps personally feels threatened, and that turns into actual discrimination," says Irlam.

But the more we learn about Abbott, the more we realise we know him already. We’ve heard this language before.

In 2000, as Employment Services Minister in the Howard government, Tony Abbott pledged to protect Christian agencies’ right to hire and fire those who lived "openly at variance with Church teaching," including gay and lesbian workers.

In September 2003, the Howard government voted against amendments to a bill allowing same-sex couples equal access to superannuation. "Look, I’m in favour of human rights, but I’m not in favour of putting gay relationships on the same pedestal that you put traditional Christian marriage," Abbott said at the time.

In 2004, a mix of perceived ABC political correctness and gay visibility inflamed Abbott once more. The ABC aired — twice — a 30 second clip of a group of girls heading to a fun fair on Play School. "My mums are taking me and my friend Meryn to an amusement park," said the narrator, Brenna. That single "s" in "mums" sparked an election-year storm. As Health Minister Abbott said, "I think that if I’d been watching it with my kids, I’d have been a bit shocked." (The then federal opposition leader, Mark Latham, also criticised the program, saying parents, not TV producers, should choose when to expose children to society’s diversity.)

In 2006, Abbott characterised the gay rights movement as an "adult hang up" and a burden to kids. The Tillman Park Children’s Centre in Sydney was using books that feature children with gay, lesbian and transgender parents. "I think it’s really pretty wacky stuff,"  Abbott told reporters. "Kids of that age just want to get on with being kids and why should we inflict all our adult hang-ups and angst on kids. Let children be children. Let them worry about all that stuff later. Let’s not force it on them."

Abbott certainly isn’t the only vocal opponent to some aspects of gay rights but, as Willett points out, it’s not solely the government of the day that determines the progress of gay and lesbian rights in the community. There are many stakeholders involved and it’s worth remembering, says Willett, that "[during]the Howard years we made enormous progress in terms of gay and lesbian rights, [which demonstrates that]the federal government is not the be all and end all." Willett doesn’t believe that an Abbott government would sound the death knell of the gay rights movement: "Even if he had a plan to stop gay and lesbian rights, I don’t think he could do it."

It was, in fact, the independent Australian Human Rights Commission that prompted Rudd’s 2008 omnibus review of laws relating to financial and workplace benefits and entitlements for gay people, says Willett. "You can see lots of ways in which the cabinet and the federal government don’t have a lot of power." It happened on their watch but it was the work of another government organisation.

Australia has been "swamped by a rising tide" of acceptance of gay and lesbian rights, says Willett. In a 2003 poll, just 34 per cent of Australians were in favour of legal recognition for same-sex couples. A poll a year later found 38 per cent of Australians in favour. By February 2006, 53 per cent of Australians thought the government should introduce laws recognising same-sex relationships. In 2007, that number had risen to 71 per cent. Most young people support equal partnership rights. The trend is clear.

Gabi Rosenstreich from the National LGBT Health Alliance agrees. "The majority of Australians are fairly sensible people and I doubt that many of them share his views of being threatened."

While Abbott’s comments are alarming, she says, they don’t change the focus of activism. The Liberal Party doesn’t have a history of being proactive, she says, "but people learn, and we’re happy to work with them on that. At the same time we shouldn’t become complacent about the rights we have achieved."

"The concern isn’t about Abbott’s comments rolling the clock back, its about not letting the ball roll forward," says Corey. But he too is willing to work with anyone in power. His organisation has invited Abbott to meet "ordinary gay and lesbian Australians and their families". No response, yet.

"We will work with anyone who is interested in the health and well being of all Australians," says Rosenstreich. "We are not a threat to society, we are society."

"We can’t go back," Willett says. "We have changed spectacularly. You can hold the line. But there’s no going back."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.