Will Abbott Roll Back Equality?

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Is it fanciful to think there are people in Australia today who want to roll back the civil rights equality that lesbians and gays have achieved over the past quarter century?

Let us not forget the attacks on the gay community that have come from conservative politicians like former state National Party MP Peter Rowland-Smith, who wanted the Mardi Gras parade to be banned from Sydney streets; or Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, Howard’s bovver-boy, who made false accusations under Parliamentary privilege against High Court Justice Michael Kirby; or the National Party’s then Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, who wanted a book featuring two lesbians and their children to be banned from schools. Now we have Campbell Newman as Premier of Queensland, leading a Conservative government that is already on the path of rolling back equal rights so recently achieved.

But a government led by Tony Abbott would be an even greater threat to those Australians who believe in equality irrespective of sexual orientation, given his past public statements and behavior.

Tony Abbott was a senior member of the Howard government that in 2004 amended the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961 to redefine marriage as "the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life", and to confirm that "a union solemnised in a foreign country between: (a) a man and another man; or (b) a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia". The stated aim of the Bill was to "protect the institution of marriage".

But Abbott’s homophobic record goes back a long way before that. It was also in 2004 that Sun-Herald political reporters Kerry-Anne Walsh and Candace Sutton dug up some interesting information about Tony Abbott’s student days at Sydney University. In their 18 July 2004 article "Fellow students recall a champion of the right", they say that "Mr Abbott had burst like a snapping terrier into student politics…. He took on left-wing students in aggressive battles for positions on the student council and was a spear-carrier in a push to dissolve the powerful Australian Union of Students (AUS)".

"Mr Abbott’s controversial student days reveals that he spawned many more enemies than friends during those heady days," the article continued. Barbie Schaffer, a Sydney teacher who was at Sydney University with Abbott, claimed that "he was a very offensive, a particularly obnoxious sort of guy… He was very aggressive, particularly towards women and homosexuals".

Walsh and Sutton also quote lawyer David Patch, who recalls an Australian Union of Students conference in the mid-1970s which had initiated a special "women’s room" for females to discuss political issues. According to Patch, "Tony used to stand outside the women’s room with his right-wing mates and loudly tell sexist and homophobic jokes".

The article also claimed that published university reports show that after a narrow defeat in the university senate elections in 1976 —  Abbott’s first year of an economics-law degree — he kicked in a glass panel door. In the ensuing two years, he was repeatedly accused in the university paper Honi Soit of being a right-wing thug and bully who used sexist and racist tactics to intimidate his opponents.

The two journalists also interviewed social worker Barbara Ramjan, who defeated Abbott for the University of Sydney’s Student Representative Council [SRC] presidency in 1977. It was a particularly vicious battle, and one of the three Left candidates for SRC office, Gary Bennett, writing in the 20 August 1977 issue of Honi Soit, drew attention to some homophobic aspects of the "sidewalk chalkings" — the cheapest way of advertising each group’s policies. He noted that the Right team scrawled "poofters" all over the "Bennett, Marley, Vines" team, and pointed to one of the Right’s claims; "In the presidential campaign they chalked up that their candidate [Tony Abbott) would "piss on commie poofters’".

Barbara Ramjan remembers the night of 7 September that year, when officer elections were held. Two letters she wrote at the time to Honi Soit, the student newspaper, outlined her version of the evening. In one letter, she described how throughout the evening Abbott and his mates, including a dentistry student, harassed and insulted the women standing for election. Outside the meeting, one woman "was confronted by J [the dentistry student], who decided to ‘have a bit of fun’ and exposed his genitalia to her as well as urinating against a tree…He dropped his pants [perhaps for Abbott’s entertainment, he seemed highly amused]and bowed in Abbott’s direction, flashing his bum towards the woman."

While thuggish college-boy oafs showing their bum cracks to mates and others are an unfortunate fact of university life, in his letters of reply to Honi, Tony Abbott compared the accusations to Nazi propaganda and said that the "facts" presented were "bare-faced lies or gross distortions".

The following year, 1978, was a significant one in Sydney’s civil rights history; on 24 June of that year, the first Mardi Gras parade, a peaceful protest against the state’s anti-gay laws, started out on Oxford Street. It turned into a brutal confrontation with police, fought out in the streets of Kings Cross, and resulting in 52 arrests. When those arrested appeared at the city’s Central Court a few days later, entry for the public was blocked by the police, despite the magistrate’s decision to open the court. This civil rights outrage led to further clashes, with another seven people arrested, and massive publicity across Australia.

At the next SRC Executive Committee meeting, a few days later, there was a motion on the agenda "That the Executive Committee condemns the unprovoked and unnecessary police violence against those involved in the Mardi Gras on 24 June at Kings Cross. That this SRC actively supports and promotes equal rights for all lesbians and male homosexuals". When the vote was taken, Tony Abbott had left the room. His absence might have been accidental, but when the next motion, "That this motion be conveyed to the Premier and Attorney-general" was passed, Tony Abbott, who had returned, was the only dissenter.

While the past is the past, it was only a few years ago that, in an interview with current affairs program 60 Minutes, Tony Abbott revealed to the world that he felt "threatened" by homosexuality. He leads a party that will not allow a conscience vote on the same-sex marriage bill that will come before Parliament later this year. While the Labor Party now acknowledges that Australians are increasingly in favour of allowing same-sex marriage, and supports amendments to the Marriage Act to allow this, it will give its members a conscience vote on the issue, so that those implacably opposed can vote against the move without being expelled from the Party.

The concordance between public opinion on the matter and the growing number of members of the Liberal Party who are coming out in support of it should lead Tony Abbott to allow his colleagues in federal parliament a conscience vote. 

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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