A letter to Dr Dennis Jensen, MP for Tangney

Apr 27, 2014

April 27 2014

Dear Dr Jensen,

I wish to convey a concern of mine that affects the residents of Tangney.

First, allow me to reflect on some themes from your first speech to Parliament, nearly a decade ago, in November 2004.

You spoke of your past, growing up in a harsh Apartheid South Africa, and how it influenced your perspectives:

Having spent my youth in an authoritarian nation, I have long cherished the notion of the rights of the individual, freedom of choice and expression, and the right of people to succeed in their business, unencumbered by government red tape and restrictions.

I hear the utter despair in your voice as you relate the neglect that erodes the happiness and welfare of so many children of failed marriages.  You point the finger at those parents whose relationships, married or otherwise, crumble:

There are many issues that, on a family by family basis, completely overshadow policies relating to global geopolitics. One of these issues relates to family breakdown. The particularly high rate of breakdown in marriages today means that one out of two marriages will end in divorce. This is painful enough for the adult parties concerned but it is worse for the children of these adults. Where the break-up is acrimonious, things are far worse. Far too frequently the children are used as weapons. Custodial parents all too often blatantly ignore access provisions to punish the non-custodial parent, ignoring the pain that this causes the children. We must not allow these acrimonious break-ups to cause any more pain than is absolutely necessary for children and non-custodial parents.

As a fellow science graduate from RMIT, I am rewarded to see your displeasure at those who challenge our long-standing institutions yet fail to substantiate their claims with hard, reproducible evidence:

Being an analytical person, I tend to take a dim view of sacred cows that are not backed up by verifiable facts.

I note your appreciation for those who put their faith in your ability to represent them fairly and further, your strong desire to increase their well-being:

This leads me to conclude that during this term of the Howard government we should be focusing on positive solutions to the many challenges which we face. I wish to sincerely thank the people of Tangney for voting for me and thereby bestowing this significant honour upon me. I do not take this honour lightly and I assure the people of Tangney that I will do my utmost to see to their best interests.

I trust that the sincerity of your message to Parliament, to the people of Tangney and to all Australians that day in 2004 has not only persisted, but has increased year on year.

With this background on the table I wish to address my concern about a number of claims I’ve seen in the media, attributed to you, that bother me deeply.  Essentially they are about marriage, but also about families.

In 2011 you authorised a letter from your office indicating your opposition to supporting marriage equality on the basis of “overwhelming” opposition from voters in Tangney.

Whilst there may be some opposition to marriage equality in your electorate, I challenge you to substantiate the degree that “overwhelming” actually reflects any form of majority.

The basis of my challenge is the hard evidence that in 2010 News Ltd conducted a poll of voters in Tangney on “same-sex marriage” and found that 41% were in favour, 39% were against and 20% didn’t care.

What this means is that 61% are not opposed to “same-sex marriage”.  Conversely it also means that 59% are not in favour of it.  Whichever way you look at the numbers, there is no simple way to interpret the 39% against as being an “overwhelming” opposition, when on the day of the poll it was closer to a minority view.

Anecdotally I understand, via your then staffer Anna Ogilvie, that you had not actually polled the voters in Tangney on this matter and so you have no actual scientific evidence for the level of support or otherwise for marriage equality in your electorate.

In this letter from your office you state of the amended legal definition of marriage that it “simply recognises marriage as one of the bedrock institutions of society, which is the basis for forming families and which is underpinned by tradition.”

To me that sounds very much like a person talking about a sacred cow.  You refer to marriage as a “bedrock institution”.  As of 2007, using figures from the ABS, about one-third of Australian children were born outside traditional marriage and at that time around one-third of marriages ended in divorce.  To a lay person who does not have your substantial expertise as a PhD materials scientist this “bedrock” looks more to me like “quicksand” if not “clay”.

It would be helpful to understand exactly which verifiable facts helped you form this assertion about marriage.

Last year the media reported you as having said gay marriage was a “social experiment” and would lead to the “dismantling of society as we know it.”

You proudly claim you have “the highest scientific qualifications of all MPs and Senators”.  Indeed, a notable fact.  I therefore ask of you, Dr Jensen, to explain in detail this “social experiment” to me, and supply those verifiable facts you demand that lead you to claim so forcefully that “gay marriage” will be just so calamitous.

I return to your concern about those crumbling marriages that harm so many children.  At present if a person is to get married in Australia, the only option they have is to marry a person of a sex that is a biological binary (male/female) opposite.  Intersex people are not even able to marry a person not of their choice.

Now, you’ll appreciate that in many cultures marriage is valued very highly, which means that for a multitude of reasons, including the happiness of their parents and any subsequent inheritance, people will get married, more so if they plan or are expected to have children.  Can you see where I’m going here?

Because a same-sex option or a non-biological binary option is unavailable, people who need to get married for the aforementioned factors will marry irrespective of whether it is what they would do if they had other options open to them.  Let’s call this “for reasons of convenience”.

So to your concern that you wish to reduce the harm to children who find themselves at the fractious end of a marriage (or other type of expected relationship), allow me to suggest that if the parents are married for convenience due to a lack of alternative and socially acceptable marriage coupling options, perhaps offering the parents a gender-neutral Marriage Act might go a long way to mitigating this harm that deeply troubles you.  It’s a no brainer.

A standard line against marriage equality is that non-heterosexual marriages don’t produce children, or that those that do don’t offer their children double biological parentage and all associated happinesses, etc (“all things being equal”).   Increasingly there is evidence that not only do the children, biological or otherwise, of these same-sex parents not suffer because of the gender of their parents (although they may suffer due to intolerance from others due to it…) but that sometimes these children actually do better.  I know this because I have read the research (and met the children).  I talk of credible, respected research.  Unlike that heavily discredited Regnerus “study” that others who share your views rely on.

In May last year you addressed Parliament on the topic of marriage equality.  You were not kind to the topic to say the least.  You spoke of outcomes and even of “all things being equal”.  In an ideal world, where all things are equal, perhaps we will have perfect outcomes.  But as a scientist and a person reasonably well versed on human conflict, you will know that we don’t live in a perfect world where all things are equal.  In fact, we live in a world that is far from it.

I ask of you, Dr Jensen, how you can ask the people of Tangney to take you seriously, when you repeatedly say one thing on one hand, and something opposite on the other hand.

Things like wanting to reduce the harm to children in broken marriages, but wish to deny those who need to marry the right to marry the person of their genuine choice; or as a scientist asking for verifiable facts, yet peddling tired bigotry solely designed to fear-monger.

You are a scientist who stakes your professional reputation on your academic credentials.  Yet you lower yourself to the level of the ignorant and uneducated when you make those ill-informed assertions about same-sex marriages, same-sex parents, children of same-sex parents and anything that challenges this “sacred cow” “bedrock institution” you romanticise about as if it were a reality.

I implore you Dr Jensen to undertake a rigorous unbiased scientific poll of your electorate on the topic of marriage equality, and publish these results transparently.  Do this in the name of science and of “freedom of choice”.  Do this for the welfare of the families and children of Tangney.  Do this for your children.  Do this for yourself, your career and even for your reputation.

Lastly, I ask you do it for me, so I can marry my husband Gregory, here in Australia.  We married in New Zealand in January because he asked me last September to marry him and he was impatient, mostly because he loves me so much.  All that, plus my parents want to celebrate our marriage (again), this time on home turf.

I should add that Gregory has two adult children, both financially and residentially dependent on him (and emotionally dependent on him and their mother).  I should also add that his children were victims of a marriage breakdown that was a result of a marriage that occurred due in part to family and cultural expectations, and a lack of options.

Gregory and I are not going to be starting a family, so please bear this in mind when you consider telling me that the children of our marriage will suffer because of the gender of their parents.

Most sincerely,
Michael Barnett.
Ashwood, Victoria.


A letter to John Alexander

Aug 24, 2013

Dear Mr Alexander,

Almost three years ago you gave your first speech to the Parliament and people of Australia as the Member for Bennelong.  Allow me to reflect on a few sections of your address.

Fittingly, you gave thanks to the people of your electorate and promised to serve them fairly:

It is an honour to be in this position, and I am truly grateful to the people of Bennelong for the trust and faith that they have placed in me. However, that honour is immediately replaced with a deep sense of responsibility to do my best, with integrity, honesty and fairness.

Later, in relating your tennis travels through Europe you reflected on a particularly poignant moment:

We played in Poland and were taken to Auschwitz by Harry’s friend from before the war. He cried and we cried.

and in Africa, you tell of discrimination:

I learnt of discrimination travelling to South Africa with Arthur Ashe. He had been granted a visa declaring him an ‘honorary white’. In Arthur’s home town I practised on the adjoining court at the Richmond Country Club; he was the first African-American allowed to play there.

You paint a picture of how your travels around the world as a sportsman have guided you to understand diversity and how this dovetails with the vibrant diversity of Bennelong:

It is these experiences that have provided me with the opportunity for a real life education and has served as preparation for my role as a representative of one of Australia’s most diverse and multicultural electorates. Bennelong boasts nearly every language and culture, attained through a strong history of migration dating back to the English settlers. People have come from every part of the world to make Australia their home. In many ways, Bennelong is modern Australia.

Bennelong perfectly reflects the diversity and harmony we are so proud of in this country. Why do people leave all that is familiar to go half way around the world to start over again? They bring their dreams for a better life for themselves and their families. They bring their courage to ‘have a go’, with the odds stacked against them, playing so far from home.  Our new Australians bring energy, effort, innovation and, most of all, their hopes. Every soul who comes to our country enriches us and continues the constant redefining of what it is to be Australian.

You share the wisdom of your mentor Harry Hopman and of your friend Alan Jones and how this relates not only to how you play in tennis but also in politics:

Playing safe may achieve a short-term goal against inferior opposition, but the ultimate goal would be lost. As Alan Jones says, ‘To win without risk is victory without glory.’

You spoke of opportunities and of being our best:

To realise our country’s full potential, every Australian must have the opportunity to compete and earn just reward for their effort and success.

and you spoke of having visions:

Let us debate in this chamber a contest of ideas, a contest of visions. As with any endeavour in life, true and honest competition unfettered by political bias will produce, in this case, the best plan and the best result for our nation’s future. We need the courage to attack this challenge. It has been ignored for too long. To shirk this responsibility, to say it is too tough, would be an affront to those who fought to make Australia what it is today—our forefathers, who had a plan, an optimistic vision, and who made the most of their opportunity to have a go.

In summing up, you spoke of your children, and of the children of Australia, of their dreams, of opportunities and of wanting the best for them:

What do I want for my children? What I want for every Australian: opportunity—the opportunity to pursue their dreams, whatever they are, and not be restrained by their age, their sex or their colour. Opportunity is to be able to have a go. Opportunity without discrimination is to be given a fair go. We here have much work to do.

Thank you for an ace of a speech Mr Alexander.

I grew up and live in Melbourne, the first Australian-born in my family, of immigrant parents.  My mum and dad settled in Australia in 1973 for a better life, with hopes and aspirations for themselves and their children.  They came via Rhodesia, a country that had an unstable political horizon and felt it was not the place to raise a family.  My Australian birth some four years earlier helped them make the decision to return here.

In my household sport was a life-blood.  My parents adopted North Melbourne as their football team and of many sports at their disposal to support they adopted tennis with an amazing passion.  I was not a sporting child, that was my brother, but I grew up knowing the names of many tennis greats, watching with them many tennis tournaments and sharing with them many highs, and lows, of the game.  It was one of the more enjoyable parts of my teen years, a troubled part of my life.

Mr Alexander, your speech, your visions, your hopes and your aspirations are great.  You have learned much through your life’s journey, and you bring that with you to public office.  Yet you leave me confused, as the great sportsman that you are, where you learned to play fair and where fairness features in your values, why you do not feel compelled to want to treat all Australians equally.

I talk of the right for any Australian to be able to legally marry the one person of their choice, without regard to gender, under civil law.

It would seem you have tried to avoid this issue at best, at worst you’ve joined the ranks of those who don’t speak out for equality, rather, preferring to call for an inferior form of relationship recognition for non-heterosexual relationships.

In 2010, News Ltd surveyed the people of Bennelong and found 39% were in favour of same-sex marriage and 21% were indifferent to it.  That’s a whopping 60% of your electorate you won’t be disappointing if you support same-sex marriage.  Clearly a majority.

What of your lessons from touring Auschwitz and South Africa Mr Alexander?  Members of my extended family burned in the ovens of Auschwitz.  I don’t need to tell you of the reality of that particular time of persecution in human history but it might help spark a moment of reflection and compassion if I do.

You write of honorary whites.  Not only did the buses in South Africa have a back, but they also had a slightly back, mostly back, nearly at the back, and a “so far back you could think you were in the bus when you weren’t actually in it at all” back as well, depending on just how much your skin wasn’t shiny white.  You may have even heard of how the government decided at one point it wasn’t going to persecute citizens on whether their skin was white or not, so it labelled everyone green, then decided some were dark green and others light green.

Mr Alexander, what of vision, of hopes, of a fairer Australia where personal attributes are not a limiting factor, where children can have dreams and one day realise them?  What of the dreams for your children and for theirs?

What of the dream my parents had, and still have, that one day I might meet someone I want to marry.  At 44 I now have that special person in my life, his name is Gregory, and I want the right to be able to ask him to marry me.  But I can’t.  I don’t have that freedom, that opportunity, that right, because apparently I’m not worthy of it, for some inexplicable reason.  I am not looking to have children or start a family and Gregory has two grown-up children he parented mostly as a single dad.

Mr Alexander, you are playing a safe game in not supporting marriage equality.  You are not taking a risk and chancing a greater victory for all Australians.  Federal Politics is now your tennis court and sadly you are not scoring the points that will bring a win for, in your words, opportunity without discrimination, to the people of Bennelong and to our nation.

You are sitting on a 3.1% margin in your seat.  You are far from guaranteed a return.  With 39% of your electorate in support of marriage equality and with marriage equality being increasingly shown to be a vote winner around the nation, it would bode you well to show unreserved support for a change to the federal Marriage Act that removes all forms of discrimination.

I will finish up by mentioning that in the darkest of moments during my teenage years, the one candle of brightness for me, my role model of greatness, was tennis champion Martina Navratilova.  I could identify with her, as I struggled to come to terms with my sexual orientation.  It wasn’t her sporting prowess that inspired me the most though, it was her honesty and integrity.  I would like to add the name John Alexander alongside Martina Navratilova.  Please, show me your honesty and your integrity.

Sincerely,

Michael Barnett.
Ashwood, VIC.


The Sacred and the Secular: The Same Sex Marriages Case – An Evening with Albie Sachs

Sep 22, 2010

On Monday night I had the privilege of hearing Albie Sachs talk about his involvement in legalising same-sex marriage in South Africa.  An amazing person, someone we can all learn something from.

See below for details on the event and some background on Albie Sachs.

Albie Sachs, Gabi Crafti, Michael Barnett & Gregory Storer (photo by Gaby Jung); Sep 20 2010

Albie Sachs, Gabi Crafti, Michael Barnett & Gregory Storer; Sep 20 2010 (Photo by Gaby Jung)

The Sacred and the Secular: The Same Sex Marriages Case – An Evening with Albie Sachs

Organisation The Human Rights Law Resource Centre
Date 20 September 2010
Description The Human Rights Law Resource Centre (HRLRC) invites you to an evening with Albie Sachs, Former Judge of the South African Constitutional Court, on the topic of ‘The Sacred and the Secular: The Same Sex Marriages Case’.Sachs was appointed by Nelson Mandela as an inaugural judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He was a member of the National Executive of the ANC and played a crucial role in South Africa’s transition to democracy, including by contributing towards the drafting the South African Bill of Rights. Whilst in exile in Mozambique in 1988, Sachs was badly injured by a car bomb placed by South African security agents. He lost an arm and the sight of one eye as a result.

As a judge of the Constitutional Court, Sachs was responsible for many landmark human rights judgments, including in relation to equality, non-discrimination and social and economic rights. In 1991, Sachs won the Alan Paton Award for his book ‘Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter’. He is also the author of ‘Justice in South Africa’ (1974); ‘The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs’ (1966); ‘Sexism and the Law’ (1979); and ‘The Free Diary of Albie Sachs’ (2004). Sachs’ latest book, ‘The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law’, will be launched in Melbourne at this seminar.

Sachs is visiting Australia to deliver the University of New South Wales Law Faculty Annual Hal Wootten Lecture.

Time: 5.45 pm for 6.00 pm to 7.30 pm.

Venue DLA Phillips Fox, Level 21, 140 William Street, Melbourne
Cost $30 ordinary; $15 concession
Contact admin@pilch.org.au

The Sacred and the Secular:

The Same-Sex Marriages Case

with

Albie Sachs

Former Judge of the South African
Constitutional Court

Albie Sachs was appointed by Nelson Mandela as an
inaugural judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa,
from which he retired in 2009. He was a member of the
National Executive of the ANC and played a crucial role in
South Africa’s transition to democracy, including through
the drafting of the South African Bill of Rights. In 1988,
while in exile in Mozambique, he was badly injured by a car
bomb placed by South African security agents, losing an
arm and the sight of an eye.
As a judge of the Constitutional Court, Justice Sachs was
responsible for many landmark human rights judgments,
including in relation to equality, non-discrimination and
social and economic rights.
In 1991, Albie Sachs won the Alan Paton Award for his
book Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter. He is also the
author of Justice in South Africa (1974), The Jail Diary of
Albie Sachs (1966), Sexism and the Law (1979) and The
Free Diary of Albie Sachs (2004). His most recent book,
The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law, will be launched in
Melbourne at this seminar.
Albie Sachs is visiting Australia to deliver the University of
New South Wales Law Faculty Annual Hal Wootten
Lecture.


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