Australia faces a federal election on 7 September, and the rise of the right wing is troubling I don’t mean to predict a win by the right wing Liberal Party over the centre-left Labor Party, which is currently in power. Nor do I point to how both parties’ refugee policies have undergone a rightward shift that has prompted an outcry from the United Nations. The disconcerting thing is the rise of minor right wing parties. If this sounds a strange thing to be concerned about under a two party system, kindly sit for your Australian civics lesson. I do not promise a pleasant ride.
Sometimes, living in a relatively safe country like Australia, one becomes complacent in expecting one’s government to be out to, you know, do justly by its citizens. (If not its non-citizens; hi, asylum seeker debate!) In March, something rather unexpected happened in the north-eastern state of Queensland, and that illusion of justice could no longer stand.
It was in March that the Labor Party, led by Anna Bligh, who had been rather popular, was defeated by the Liberal National Party, led by Campbell Newman. It wasn’t just a victory, it was a landslide of almost unprecedented proportions, with the LNP gaining the largest majority of parliament seats ever seen in Queensland. The rest of the country was vaguely confused, but we moved on.
It’s been something of a historic week in the fight for same-sex marriage in Australia. And it’s been a significant year for LGBT rights more generally (not so much, arguably, for Q* or I or any of the other letters that might otherwise go on the end of that acronym). Unfortunately, the hyperfocus on marriage has obscured the leaps, bounds, and deficiencies in some of the areas in more urgent need of attention. Here’s your guide to where Australia’s at, and where the lucky country, as we call it, has to go in order to spread that luck around more evenly.
In an important victory for transgender and intersex activists, Australian passports will now be issued in three sexes – male, female, and an indeterminate X. The Australian passport office Thursday issued new regulations concerning the sex and gender diverse community, which have caught the eye of the world with the new “X” marker. Though much of the international media coverage has confused the two, the new regime is made up of two separate options, with two different justifications.
The first is for transgender men and women who have undergone hormone therapy but not surgery. The previous regime had required genital surgery in order to access the correct sex marker, a procedure that is not always medically possible, and can involve a years-long wait on Australia’s Medicare system or expensive out-of-country travel to medical tourist destinations like Thailand. Transgender people will now be able to have the correct sex marker matching the sex they live in (ie an M for a transgender man, an F for a transgender woman) with a letter from their doctors certifying they are undergoing “appropriate medical treatment” for their preferred gender.
A year ago, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had won her first election, silencing grumbles from some corners that she hadn’t properly won the leadership of the Australian Labor Party from previous leader Kevin Rudd. The ALP win was a close thing. Gillard had to scramble to negotiate with three independents and the Australian Greens in order to form a coalition – in part because her party lost a lot of votes on its left flank to the increasingly popular Greens. Not only was Gillard remarkable for the close shave, or for being Australia’s first female Prime Minister, but she was also an unmarried atheist without children and with a reputation for progressive thinking. In Australia’s fairly conservative political landscape, in which it seemed unlikely that we’d have a Prime Minister who wasn’t a very wealthy married Christian father any time soon, this was unbelievable.
A year on, the left is just slightly confused about Gillard’s swing to the right – see for instance, our esteemed editor on the “Malaysian solution.” One might then wonder why, just a year out from the election in which they backed Gillard, Rupert Murdoch’s conservative media is baying for her blood.
What’s going on exactly? The big news story in Australia over the last few months has been a proposed carbon tax. Should it go ahead, only 0.02 per cent of Australian businesses will be taxed under this scheme, and 90 per cent of households will receive compensation for the increase in expenses they will undergo as we change over to clean energy. So far, so good – except barely anyone in the country knows those facts. Whoever is running the media show over at the ALP is floundering. Pushed hard by opposition leader Tony Abbott and Murdoch’s News Limited, the only message that is getting through is that the carbon tax is outrageous. Given that News Limited has control of about three quarters of metropolitan daily newspaper circulation in Australia, that’s quite a push. Make no mistake: Murdoch’s press is waging class war on behalf of the extremely rich, and it’s being done in the name of a phoney popularism. It takes quite some nerve to push a distortion of this magnitude down the throats of the people on whose behalf you’re supposedly speaking. More to the point, it takes power and money.
While over the weekend New York’s GLBT community celebrated its recent gay marriage bill, ten thousand miles to the south a new marriage fight is only just beginning. Gay marriage has long been a political football in the United States, but for most of that time it has been a largely dead issue in Australia. In 2004, John Howard’s conservative Liberal party passed a bill banning gay marriage with the full support of the then-opposition Labor party, and when Labor’s Kevin Rudd took power in 2007, both gay marriage and civil unions remained off the table politically. Sadly, his successor Julia Gillard has been no different.
Recently however there have been signs of a grassroots opposition to this Federal political consensus. Over the weekend, the annual West Australian Labor conference endorsed gay marriage, becoming the third such state Labor party to do so recently following South Australia and Queensland. The issue will become even more pressing for Prime Minister Gillard, in a debate at Labor’s national party conference in Sydney in December. Gay and lesbian activists plan to rally at the conference, placing even greater pressure on the embattled centre-Left PM to attempt to pass a national law.
The gay marriage debate in Australia is quite unlike that of the U.S. Australia is unlikely to go down the “state’s rights” path of a patchwork of marriages rights varying from state to state. Marriage is considered a Federal law in Australia, which leaves the fight for same-sex marriage something of an all or nothing proposition (though some activists have suggested the High Court might allow a loophole in the event a state did pass a same-sex marriage).
Lee-Ann Monk, Attending Madness: at work in the Australian colonial asylum, Rudopi, 2008.
In Attending Madness (Rodopi, 2008), Lee-Ann Monk explores the lives and identities of asylum attendants working in Australia in the 1870s, placing their role within a larger international context as well as delving into the daily lives of attendants in Victoria. Monk’s book highlights an area of deficiency in this particular area of scholarship; the narrative about 19th century asylum attendants as simplistic, brutish people with limited qualifications has been widely accepted by students of this era. Attending Madness paints a very different picture, showing how their roles as professionals evolved within the shifting asylum movement of the late 19th century. Far from simply being precursors to psychiatric nurses, asylum attendants had a very specific place.
Popular perception of 19th century asylums often consists of holding facilities where people were stored away from society, for lack of a better place to put them. As Monk points out, a radical shift started to occur in the late 19th century, with a transition from asylums as facilities to lock up people with mental illness to more curative and therapeutic institutions. Monk unfortunately doesn’t devote very much analysis to exploring how and why people were classified with mental illness, as this is not the subject of her work - her focus on attendants means that readers miss some important contextual discussions, like the use of institutionalisation to silence and isolate women who went against their families.
Floods are rampant worldwide just at the present. There has been one disaster after another between the flooding in the northern Australian state of Queensland, South Africa, Brazil and the Philippines. The spectre of the 2010 Pakistani floods in everyone’s minds. One wonders how much more flooding the world can take, and at the extent of our collective capacity for endurance.
Actually, it isn’t the collective the world is concerned with here precisely. I’ve barely heard a televisual or newsprint word about the situations in South Africa, Brazil or the Philippines, but a lot about Queensland. The thing is, while things are terrible in Queensland, the state is getting a lot more attention in the international media than are those three nations.
So after seventeen days of chaos into which Australia degenerated into a Mad Max style apocalyptic hell-world, finally we have a government. Sadly, unfortunately, it is a Communist “rainbow coalition” between the centre-Left Labor, the Greens and three independents. You can hear it, can’t you? The march of soldiers through Circular Quay in Sydney, Federation Square in Melbourne, the raising of statues of Lenin on Perth’s Murray Street mall?
Oh, you can’t? Then clearly you haven’t been reading the hysterical over-reactions of the Australian media’s response to the election, the hung parliament and its highly predictable horsetrading aftermath. Taking its cue from the not-bitter-at-all Liberal-National coalition opposition, Australia’s media appears to have dropped their collective Cornetto in the sand over the mere prospect of a slightly progressive, negotiated accountable government. Continue reading
Last week in Australia, Julia Gillard became the first female Prime Minister in the country’s history. Three or four months out from an election, Gillard went to (now former) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and suggested he “spill the leadership.”
Rudd’s fall from grace was, as the ABC reports, precipitous. After sweeping to power in 2007, Rudd was enormously popular for his first two years; however, this year he quickly slid into disfavour—most notably, his proposed heavy taxation of the influential mining industry saw him widely pilloried in the press. With his ousting fairly well assured amongst his Labor party, Rudd took the graceful way out and handed over the leadership and thus the Prime Ministership to his deputy.
Gillard now faces the daunting task of gearing up immediately for the election, an election which perhaps more than usual features a stark contrast between the two party leaders. One the one side, we have Gillard. She has a background working as a lawyer for unions and lives unmarried in Melbourne with her partner, real estate agent Tim Mathieson. The Prime Minister has been criticised for her personal life and decision not to have children, having been described by Liberal senator Bill Heffernon as “deliberately barren” in 2007. Continue reading