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John Howard's love and disappointment

John Howard may be the doyen of the aspirational middle class, but if you’re gay and aspire to marry and adopt children, then forget it. John Howard would surely balk at being termed homophobic, yet his record on the subject is grim, to say the least.

Imagine the following hypothetical scenario. The Prime Minister’s only daughter, Melanie, skips in the door one day and announces she’s in love and wants to marry. John and Janette are thrilled. Then suddenly a dark cloud emerges. John and Janette discover Melanie’s beau is Chinese-Australian. They grimace, gulp, and try to put a brave face on things.

John says openly to his daughter, who seeks his approval, ‘I don’t love you any less, but I am disappointed.’

The above was his response when Ray Martin asked what if one of his sons turned out to be gay. If such a comment had slipped out with regards to interracial marriage, he would have recanted quicker than you could say Bob Menzies. Yet it is acceptable to make such comments about gay and lesbian people.

The Prime Minister elaborated on the matter in a Triple J interview conducted by a group of students in August 2001. Asked where he placed himself on a scale of acceptance of homosexuality, one end being total acceptance and the other total rejection, he replied, ‘Oh I’d place myself somewhere in the middle. I certainly don’t think you should give the same status to homosexual liaisons as you give to marriage, I don’t.’

Not only did he disapprove of gay marriage, but refused to even give relationship status to gay and lesbian couples, preferring the tawdry term ‘liaisons’. It’s as if he’d never heard of famous couples like Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris, or Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

The Howard attitude to homosexuality became darker the following year in 2002, when the Prime Minister was all but accused by former comcar driver Wayne Patterson of plotting, in league with Senator Bill Heffernan, Justice Michael Kirby’s downfall. The details seem like something out of an ancien regime court intrigue, not the workings of a democratic polity.

On March 12 of 2002 Senator Heffernan delivered a speech in the Senate he’d been brooding on for over a year. In lurid language he accused Justice Kirby of hiring underage prostitutes and illegally using a commonwealth car. Justice Kirby, Heffernan informed the Senate, ‘…regularly trawled for rough trade at the Darlinghurst Wall...’ The Judge also, ‘...played out his fantasies in a fee-for-service arrangement.’

The Senator produced a Comcar document claiming to prove Kirby’s movements through notorious pickup spots for young male prostitutes, or ‘rent boys’. On March 18 the seven-day wonder came to an end when Labor MP Laurie Brereton blew the whole fiasco out of the water. His name had appeared on the Comcar document produced as evidence. A quick check through his diary brought the whole circus crashing down around Heffernan’s ears. Brereton had actually been on holidays with his family in Queensland on the day in question, April 2, 1994, not where the Comcar document claimed him to be. The document was proved a fake.

One of the murkier aspects of the affair was, how much did Howard know? On channel nine’s Sunday program the Comcar driver who fabricated the document, Wayne Patterson, spilled his guts. ‘Senator Heffernan related to me, yes,’ Patterson told the program, ‘that he had shown the Prime Minister and Mr [Darryl] Williams the document, which I was quite surprised at.’

Howard said he had discussed the matter in a general way previously with the Senator, but would not elaborate further. Did the two hatch the plot together, in secrecy, with the over eager Heffernan ready to cop the worst of it should their plan go belly up?

According to Patterson, Heffernan assured him he had a lot of backers. ‘He mentioned to me that he had a lot of very, very high people, you know, all backing him.’

The truth we may never know, but in public Howard was determined to turn the screws as tight as he possibly could without seeming partisan. In parliament he said the allegations needed to be further assessed. When then Opposition leader Simon Crean called for Heffernan’s sacking, Howard replied, ‘The Senator in question enjoys both my affection and friendship’.

In an interview with John Laws, the Prime Minister shoveled as much coal on the issue as possible, stating that proven misbehavior would be enough to remove a High Court judge. ‘... your listeners will know that any kind of misbehavior involving people under age would disqualify people from a whole [lot] of positions, not just being a High Court judge.’

In the end, Howard refused to apologise. He had had nothing to do with it. Skillfully, he turned the morality of the affair on its head, pleading Christian compassion for a beleaguered man. ‘Look, I have always been a friend of his, and I don’t even in their difficulty ... I don’t abandon friends.’

But what kind of friends? At the height of the affair, in a truly bizarre episode, when the media were trying to question Heffernan on the allegations he had made, the Senator ran off like a naughty child, trying to evade trouble. This is one of Howard’s ‘mates’?

No one should be surprised at the most recent move by the Howard Government to change the marriage act, in effect an attempt to ambush ‘activist’ judges before they find in favour of gay marriage test cases. With George W. Bush moving to ban gay marriage, it was only a matter of time before Howard would launch his own pre-emptive strike. What is surprising – or maybe not – is the prime minister’s desperation in trying to create a gay wedge. So far the public don’t seem to be running for the hills.

Senator Brian Greig, the Democrats Attorney General and Justice spokesperson and a long time gay activist, thinks that anti-gay politics doesn’t have the power it once had. ‘Every coalition MP would now know lesbian and gay people in their wider families, circles of friends and supporters, and in their electorates,’ he says. ‘We are no longer the bogey men, we are voters.’

The Senator sees the Prime Minister’s current move as lowest common denominator politics. ‘The motive is simple,’ he says. ‘Howard is reaching, once again, for the lowest common denominator in an election year - popular prejudice. And, perhaps more importantly, he is looking for a divisive wedge with which to target Labor to try and create disunity between its left faction and its Catholic right faction, in this, an election year.’

Indeed, Labor appears to know very well what Howard is up to. In a statement Labor’s Shadow Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, aired the Party’s suspicions:

‘While Labor questions the PM’s motives and reasons for bringing on this debate now, and questions whether it is necessary – Labor does not oppose these parts of the Bill which merely confirm existing laws...’

‘Disgracefully gutless,’ is how Senator Greig sees Labor’s position on the issue. "Confirming existing laws" suggests there is unquestionable merit in allowing existing laws to continue. I mean, there was a time when women were denied the vote. Would Ms. Roxon have argued in 1901 that the ALP would “confirm existing laws”, just because most people’s understanding of voting franchise excluded women?’

Labor, under Latham, is determined not to suffer another Tampa. Howard may have lobbed what he thought was a political hand grenade, but Latham, Third Way Jedi Knight, has moved quickly to defuse it. You can imagine all the hair raising scenarios that the Howard Government would have outlined in parliament, trying to paint Labor as hostile to normal, happy Australian families. Rather than get bogged down in a gay quagmire, Latham is going with the conservative flow.

The Latham position is hard to pin down, as he sends out his positive messages, then sides with the government. On same-sex and different sex relationships, he has said, ‘I don’t draw a distinction.’ However, when the Playschool two mums segment caused outrage amongst coalition MPs, he did draw a distinction, siding with the Government.

Although Labor has sent out all the signals that it will move with the Government to pass legislation banning gay marriage outright (leaving gay adoption to the states), it has at least agreed to put the Bill to a Senate Committee, which will report its findings in October.

Asked of his hopes for Senate Committee, Senator Greig says, ‘I would hope and expect that the Committee, when it reports, will at the very least, argue for partnership recognition for same-sex couples to address all current areas of discrimination under Commonwealth law – in the event that civil marriage is banned to same sex couples.’

Despite what appears a setback for the gay rights agenda, Senator Greig remains positive. Asked how hard it may be to get our laws changed in future to recognise gay marriage, the Senator responded: ‘Not as hard as you may think. I can imagine a future ALP Government moving to recognise gay marriage, as more and more countries around the world recognise gay relationships, and as Australia looks more and more isolated. The recent SBS poll of 1,200 people showed that the greatest support for gay marriage was with those under 35 years of age. This means that, over the next decade, as older Australians die off – taking their conservative attitudes to the grave with them – the younger generation, those under 45, will be supportive of gay marriage, and the balance on the scales will be tipped.’

Going by the SBS poll, Senator Greig believes the two major parties have misread the electorate, perceiving more anti-gay sentiment in the community than actually exists. ‘The SBS poll showed that 44% opposed gay marriage (note that this is under half the population), 38% supported it, and 18% were undecided. I think these results shocked both parties, neither of whom would have felt that gay marriage had such low opposition or high support.’

Howard’s most successful wedge, the Tampa, produced the famous declaration that none of those on the boat seeking asylum would set foot on Australian soil. That didn't happen. In fact, some have now been recongnised as genuine refugees and now reside in Australia. The PM’s gay wedge seems to have fizzled so far. Australian culture may be beyond his powers to mould.

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