f) Lots of other LGBT issues
Human rights and national pride
Address by Rodney Croome to the New Matilda National Human Rights Bill launch, Hobart Town Hall, 11.2.06
What a wonderful Tasmanian irony that the very week we sit down to discuss a National Human Rights Bill, and the State Government announces its plan to investigate a Tasmanian equivalent, our Shadow Attorney-General, Michael Hodgman, has reminded us why human rights guarantees are so important.
He thinks an art work featuring Jesus surrounded by pictures of gay men should be censored because of the offence it might cause some Christians.
Somehow I canít see him adopting the same stance on the Danish cartoons that have made some Muslims so angry.
Dissent, controversial ideas, free speech, and human rights generally, are easy to support when the fuss is far away.
Contemporary Tasmanian is well acquainted with the violation, in its own backyard, of the human rights of sexual and gender minorities.
The biggest act of gay rights civil disobedience in Australian history occurred in Hobartís Salamanca Market in 1988, when the Tasmania Police, at the behest of the Hobart City Council, detained 130 people over seven consecutive Saturday mornings, for staffing and supporting a gay law reform stall the Council had banned.
For many of the people who defended that stall the issue was clearly one of freedom of speech and assembly.
If the stallís petitions, earnest literature and fundraising tins could so easily fall foul of petty prejudice, which controversial cause or social minority would be next?
Four times I was arrested during the Salamanca Incident. I was young naÔve fellow just out of the closet, who was gaoled for being gay before Iíd even danced with another man.
But in the absence of any guarantees of our human rights nothing could be done but return each week to the Market and hope our defiance would gather support and win the day, which eventually it did.
The defiance my colleagues and I learnt at Salamanca served us well over coming years as we campaigned to decriminalise gay sex in the last State to penalise it.
Here too a national or local guarantee of basic human rights would have made an important difference.
Instead we were left with two much less certain avenues of appeal, one to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, and the other directly to the hearts and minds of our fellow Tasmanians.
It took almost a decade, but both appeals eventually coalesced into an irresistible local and national movement for reform.
At times the response of the local authorities to this movement was even more repression: book bans, film bans, threats, intimidation Ė all of which are case studies in the need for human rights guarantees.
But when change finally occurred in Tasmania it was if a dam burst.
Out flowed some of the best anti-discrimination and relationship laws in the world, laws which, ironically, highlight how backward the nation has grown in the same areas.
Australian national law offers fewer protections from unfair treatment on the grounds of sexual orientation, and gives fewer spousal rights to same-sex couples, than the national law of any other western country except the United States.
Clearly a national Human Rights Bill would make a difference here.
Am I saying that a Human Rights Bill would lead inevitably to same-sex marriage?
Thatís what the opponents of this Bill will say, but Iím not so sure theyíre right.
The international experience shows that sometimes Bills of Rights can be crucial to achieving marriage equality, and sometimes they can be next-to-useless.
The US Bill of Rights is a paradigm for human rights charters the world over, but, like Iíve said, that nationís record in this area is appalling.
What we can be sure of, is that a Human Rights Bill will foster mature and rational debate on equality in areas like marriage, and place that debate firmly in the context in which it belongs, the honouring of human dignity.
So far today Iíve said what most of you expected me to say; that our current system of laws does not adequately protect the basic human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and that the abuses we have suffered, and continue to suffer, demand human rights guarantees.
Well, for next few moments, Iíd like you to forget all that.
What I want you to leave here today with is a sense of pride in our human rights achievements as an island community and as a nation.
Australians are much more likely to support a Human Rights Bill if that Bill is presented as the logical outcome and ultimate guarantor of our sense of fair play.
Shake it in our faces as the antidote to our apathy and ignorance, as the cloudburst that will make the Australian human rights desert bloom, and youíll guarantee it will be resented and spurned.
Iím not saying ignore past and current abuses. Our most shameful, inhuman acts as a nation often come from the same point in our conflicted hearts as our greatest achievements. To ignore the former is to diminish the latter.
What Iím saying is that we need to be reminded that our forebears were some of the first people in the world to fight for and grant women the vote, that we have a tradition of guaranteeing human rights beginning with the freedom of conscience and religion entrenched in the Tasmanian Constitution, that as well as the racism that marred Federation there was a profound commitment from architects of the National Constitution, like Tasmaniaís Andrew Inglis Clark, to comprehensive human rights guarantees.
We need to be reminded that Clarkís dream eventually came true when Australia voted as resoundingly as any free nation has ever voted to endorse racial legal equality in 1967, that we are still one of only a handful of countries that allows individuals to appeal against human rights abuses on the international stage, and that at least one of these appeals, against Tasmaniaís former anti-gay laws, lead to ground-breaking national laws guaranteeing the right to sexual privacy.
Itís not hard to imagine a Human Rights Bill simply saying to Australians, be ashamed of your transgressions and backwardness.
I believe it should go beyond this to say, be proud that when we open our hearts to others, and dedicate ourselves to mutual respect, we can build a great and good society.
Where it might demand, this is what Australia should be, I believe it should declare this is what Australia has been, in many ways remains, and inevitably will be again.
Where it might be the hole into which we pour our despair and anger, I believe it should become a beacon of optimism and hope.
If I have one key constructive criticism of the New Matilda Human Rights Bill, itís that it speaks too softly of the achievements upon which it draws.
Those who read it need to know that the freedom of conscience and right to privacy it protects are amplifications of existing protections, not strange new visitors from another legal world.
If Australians feel revitalised and emboldened by this Bill, build up rather than torn down by it, support for its passage, observance of its provisions, and fealty to its spirit, will be the inevitably result.
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