A plea to Penny… don’t vote for Stronger Futures


Labor Senator Penny Wong.

THERE are two ‘big ticket’ items bouncing around federal parliament at the moment – same-sex marriage, and the Stronger Futures legislation.

One seeks to extend rights, and one seeks to deny them, but I’m taking a strong personal interest in both.
Why?

Because my sister Rachel – one of the loveliest, most gentle people on the face of the earth – is gay. And she’s black. Which makes her, in Australian terms, a very special kind of minority.

As a proud gay woman, she doesn’t enjoy the same rights as other Australians to marry the person she loves.

And as a proud Aboriginal woman, she doesn’t enjoy the same rights as other Australians to her land and to her own law.
Which explains, in part, why she now lives in New Zealand.

Rach, like many Aboriginal people, sometimes feels like a refugee in her own country. That said, she makes it home at least once a year, so for Christmas 2012 I’m lobbying her to arrive by boat, thus completing the trifecta of ‘Great Australian Human Rights Abuses’ as a gay, black, boat person.

I’ll come back to Rach in a minute, because the laws in Australia which deny her basic human rights require some examination.

As I mentioned, the same-sex marriage legislation seeks to EXTEND rights to one group of Australians that all other Australians already enjoy. It’s received enormous media coverage, despite the fact the bills haven’t even been debated on the floor of the Lower House yet.

By contrast, the Stronger Futures legislation seeks to DENY rights to one group of Australians that all other Australians already enjoy. It’s already been debated and passed by the Lower House (despite the fact a Senate inquiry into the legislation hadn’t even finished reporting) and yet it’s received scant media attention.

For me, that speaks volumes about not just the priorities of our nation, but of the flaws of the Australian political system.
Stronger Futures will likely pass the Upper House late this evening. While the Greens will oppose it, it will have the bi-partisan support of the two major parties.

And of course, there will be the deafening silence of the Fourth Estate. This evening, as politicians vote through laws that have been – and will once again be – condemned by the United Nations, our Press Gallery will be getting sh*tfaced at their annual Mid-Winter Ball. Quelle surprise.

So in the absence of the gallery actually doing their job, here’s some of what the Stronger Futures legislation actually seeks to do.

• Continue to prohibit judges taking into account customary law during the sentencing of an Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory. This has been described by the Chief Justice of the NT Supreme Court, Terry Riley as a “backward step” which discriminates against Aboriginal people, and forces judges to pass sentence in a “partial factual vacuum”. No other Australian has been – or would ever be – targeted this way.

• Expand Income Management in the Northern Territory, and link welfare provision with school attendance. This is despite the fact Income Management caused widespread starvation among Aboriginal people when it was introduced, saw a massive spike in anaemia rates in children, and coincided with a drop in school attendance rates across intervention communities.

• Increase penalties for possession of alcohol, and give governments greater control over alcohol sales. This is despite the fact alcohol related violence – has increased under the NT intervention.

All of this, of course, is being done without proper consultation with the people affected by it. But our parliament hasn’t just ignored the views of the people who will have to live their laws. There were 454 submissions on the Stronger Futures Bills. That’s an exceptional number by any measure, but even more striking when you consider that almost every single one of them opposed the legislation.

Doctors, lawyers, Aboriginal leaders, health workers – the list goes on – have all warned about the dangers of Stronger Futures.
They’ve been ignored too.

Meanwhile, the NT intervention soaks up more than $2 billion of taxpayer’s funds, sees a more than doubling of suicide and self-harm rates in intervention communities, and does nothing to reduce overcrowding in Aboriginal homes.

And so what is the response of our elected leaders? They extend the legislation for another 10 years.

I can’t think of any other segment of Australian life where such massive government policy failure would be tolerated by media or the general public, with barely a whimper.

Which brings me back to gay marriage, and family.

Stronger Futures will go through on the nod. But same-sex marriage – when it is debated in August – I suspect, will not. I don’t believe that at the moment our Australian Parliament has strong enough leadership to do the right thing, and pass the gay marriage bills.

That said, I do believe it will happen in my and my sister’s lifetime – at least half of Rachel‘s human rights, I’m confident, will be respected before she dies.

Not only do the overwhelming majority of Australians want same-sex marriage laws (about 70 percent), but the arguments against it are clearly ridiculous.

That is perhaps best highlighted by this exchange between Labor Senator Penny Wong and Liberal MP Joe Hockey, during a recent episode of ABC’s Q&A program.

The question which prefaced it, one of the best of the political year, came from audience member Ross Scheepers:

“My question is for Joe Hockey. Joe, I’m a little confused because earlier you said you think all Australians are equal but on Friday you said you wouldn’t vote for marriage equality because you said really believe children deserve a mother and a father. So I’m wondering if you could tell us and Senator Wong why you think you and Melissa make better parents than her and Sophie?”

Hockey’s reply is a gold mine for those trying to expose the breath-taking banality of the arguments against same-sex marriage:

“Ah, well, I, I, I don’t believe we necessarily make better parents because we’re a male and a female. I must confess my view has changed since I had children…. I think in this life we’ve got to aspire to give our children what I believe to be the very best circumstances and that’s to have a mother and father. And I’m not saying that gay parents are any less a parent but I’m being asked to legislate in favour of something that I don’t believe to be the best outcome for a child.”

Senator Wong’s reply is one of the most moving and dignified I’ve seen from a politician, on any issue, ever:

“Well there’s almost nothing I can say. The first logical point is marriage has generally not been a pre-requisite for children so I don’t think the logical position holds. But just from a values perspective, it is sad, I think, that some families have to feel they have to justify who they are. Because when you say those things Joe, what you’re saying to not just me but to people like me, is that the most important thing in our lives, which is the people we love, is somehow less good, less valued. And if you believe that, you believe that, but I have a different view.”

Which brings me back, one last time before it becomes law, to the Stronger Futures Bills. Because this evening Penny, you’re being asked to exercise your considerable power as a legislator, and vote in favour of it.

And on that front Penny, there’s almost nothing I can say either.

The first logical point is that being black is not a prerequisite for being helpless and hopeless. So I don’t think the logical position holds.

But just from a values perspective, it is sad, I think, that all black families feel they have to justify who they are. Because when you pass legislation like Stronger Futures, Penny, what you’re doing, not just to my sister, but people like her, is telling them that they’re less good, less valued.

And if you believe that, you believe that, but you have no right as a parliamentarian to pass legislation which enshrines that in law.

So later today, when you come to vote on Stronger Futures, I hope you keep in the front of your mind how it feels to be discriminated against on something as ridiculous as your sexual orientation. Or your heritage.

And above all else, I hope you remember your final words on Q&A when, finishing your statement, Tony Jones asked you, “Is it hurtful?”

You said, “Oh, of course it is, but I know what my family is worth.”

So do I, Penny.

* Chris Graham is an Australian journalist specialising in Aboriginal Affairs. He has twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting, and is a Walkley Award and a Walkley High Commendation winner. He lives in Glebe, Sydney.

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