Robert Clarke, Victoria’s Attorney General, on homosexuality back in 95: ‘I believe homosexual practices form a destructive way of life, destructive to the individual and destructive also to other individuals who are brought into that way of life.’ Wonder if he maintains the same view today? I think of the 90s as a slightly more intolerant time for gays and lesbians, but maybe that’s because I was at a country high school then, which may have been an inherently intolerant context.
It was Robert Clarke who spearheaded recent changes to Victoria’s equal opportunity laws which removed the ‘inherent requirement’ test for religious schools and organisations seeking to discriminate against employees and job applicants. The laws now give religious schools and orgs almost complete freedom to discriminate against employees (even maths teachers, art teachers, cleaners, or gardeners who really don’t have any religious role) who are of a different faith, or gay and lesbian, pregnant and unmarried, single parents, divorced.
It’s customary for the Liberals and haters of equal opportunity laws to accuse anti-discrimination advocates of ‘social engineering,’ a term so nebulous as to be meaningless. But if you take social engineering to mean constructing society they way you want it, isn’t privileging religious sensitivities over diversity just another form of that?
There was a targeted campaign against the laws, and a protest on the steps of parliament, but they involved a relatively small amount of people. In general, there wasn’t a huge community backlash against the laws – most people didn’t know about them, I don’t think, or perhaps they thought it wouldn’t affect them. Victorian Labor arced up about it, which rightly they should have, given that the progressive reforms to equal opportunity laws in 2010 were their baby, and the product of an extensive consultation process. In contrast, the Liberals’ changes seemed to involve little consultation at all, except with right-wing religious groups like the Australian Christian Lobby.
Actually, a strange thing happened when the Liberals first tried to introduce the equal opportunity bill in the state lower house. One of their ministers, Mary Wooldridge, missed the vote, and then the speaker, following parliamentary convention, voted the bill down (the Liberals only hold the lower house 45:43). Wooldridge claimed that her absence was an accident and an embarrassment, but it seemed a little suspicious – she’s one of the more socially progressive of Liberal MPs and the bell they ring for a vote at Parliament is ear-splittingly shrill – but maybe she was stuck in the lift or something.
Defying parliamentary convention, the Liberals used their numbers the following sitting week to push the bill through the lower house, and Woolridge voted for it too. The Liberals also control the upper house, and after five hours of debate on June 15, the vote passed through there too. So that’s what you get when you vote for a government comprised of the likes of Clarke, Geoff Shaw (acknowledges God as the traditional owner of the land and compares being gay to drink driving), and the goblin-like Bernie Finn (who in the equal opportunity bill debate, talks about having friends that are gay and going out for drinks with them, and working with members of the media who are gay: ‘that did not disturb me’ – as if he deserves a pat on the back or something).
I’ve also been following the debate abpit the so-called ‘swear jar’, the $240 fines for indecent language, which has fired up the bunch of people to the extent that they have organised a fuckwalk next weekend. Swearing has actually been illegal for years, under the anachronistic Summary Offences Act, which incidentally, also makes it a crime to be drunk in public, sing obscene ballads, fly kites annoyingly and pursue homing pigeons (hey, wouldn’t it be fun to do all of these things at the same time?).
While the swear laws have been the focus of media attention, which is unsurprising given that they’re a colourful, easy-to-tell story which clearly relates to freedom of expression, it’s worth noting that the Baillieu government’s laws actually apply to a whole swag of offences. What they do with these particular offences is that they make them punishable by police (through fines), instead of the courts.
These infringement offences were introduced by Brumby as part of a trial in mid-2008. The following offences which formed part of the trial were made permanent by Baillieu in the latest bill: offensive behaviour, indecent language, range of liquor-related offences, unauthorised consumption of liquor on a party bus. The trials for wilful damage of up to $500, and shop theft of goods valued at up to $600 were extended.
When Brumby instigated the trial, an evaluation was set up to determine whether the infringements were actually working to unclog the courts and relieve resource pressure on police, as well as to monitor the impact on disadvantaged groups such as young people, mentally ill, indigenous people, and the homeless. Because these groups are more likely to be inhabiting public space and may have other behaviour issues closely linked to disadvantage, they are more vulnerable to getting the fines for public order offences, and also less likely to be able to tackle the arcane bureaucratic process of challenging them.
If they don’t or can’t pay the fine, they’ll have their matter heard in court and receive a criminal record for the offence. When an enforcement order is issued for the unpaid debt, the amount increases. And people who can’t afford legal representation may struggle to get free assistance to challenge the fine, given the pressure on already besieged community legal centres.
Here’s Robert Clarke explaining and justifying the laws, although he’s not expansive, so don’t expect to be enlightened. According to Clarke, a report evaluating the trial laws showed that they reduced pressure on the courts, freed up police resources, and ‘enabled [police] to more readily issue penalties against those offenders who deserve them.’ T The latter seems like a fairly insubstantive outcome in itself. Clarke doesn’t say anything about the impact on vulnerable groups, and the government has refused to make the evaluation report public. This is a goverment elected on promises of transparency and accountability.
Community legal groups such as PILCH and Federation of Community Legal Centres were on the ‘steering committee’ for the evaluation, but even they weren’t shown the final evaluation. It is telling that these groups, who deal with some of the most disadvantaged members of the community, expressed serious concerns about the infringement bill. Even the usually cautious Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission outlined possible discriminatory impacts.
With infringement offences, police, rather than courts, get to mete out punishment. Given what we’ve seen of the police force’s ability to deal with complex behaviour, including that of the mentally ill, the logic of giving them discretion to hand out fines for what are essentially very subjective offences (come on, what’s offensive language or behaviour these days? who decides?) seems questionable.
Other Baillieu government initiatives include mandatory jail sentences for teenagers, more jails, and semi-automatic toting security guards on trains. Will this law and order stuff make us safer? Is Victoria unsafe? I don’t feel unsafe, most of the time. Why is that? Is it because I’m a privileged middle-class inner-suburb citizen? Is it less safe in the suburbs?
Incidentally, public drunkenness, another public order offence, is still a crime under the Summary Offences Act (Victoria’s that hasn’t de-criminalised it), allowing a person to be arrested and put in a cell overnight, and the fine is about $950 dollars. I don’t know what the figures are now, but in 2007 The Age reported that 260 people a week were arrested for it.
Police might argue that public drunkenness laws are a means for them to get people off the streets, but it’s a crude way of administering justice if people haven’t actually committed a proper offence. It’s likely to exacerbate and heighten a violent situation, and completely fails to deal with the root of the problem, which is substantially about alcohol abuse, a public health issue.
Progressive former Attorney General Rob Hulls had promised to review the public drunkenness laws, but then in 2010 Brumby said he wasn’t going to do it. I think this was partly about pressure from the law-and-order lobby, but it’s also relevant that the parliamentary committee said public drunkenness should only be decriminalised if sufficient sobering-up centres could be established. This would, of course, cost money.
Again, community legal centres are against the laws because like other public order offences, they are very susceptible to being used against groups that are already disadvantaged. Public drunkenness is a ridiculous offence – I mean, I commit it almost every second weekend, although of course, for obvious reasons, I’d never be arrested.
With these public order offences, allowing police to ‘efficiently’ deal with problems by removing people from the streets, thus maintaining a semblance of order and control, and freeing up resources, has been valued more highly than a fair process and dealing with the source of problems.
Much, although not all, of this public order stuff is about late-night violence in the CBD and on public transport. What causes it? Alcohol, obviously, and law and order policies aren’t going to address that problem. There’s also the lack of public transport – people get stuck in the city and they can’t get home at night, so they deteriorate thier own situation – and a lack of people using transport – the futility of doing so, because of infrequent trains and poor connections, means that suburban train stations are scarily deserted at night. Perhaps better night-time transport would go some of the way to addressing the problem of night-time violence.
But there’s some other reason, too, for the violence – I mean, Japanese people might get blind drunk when they go out on the weekends, but from what I hear they’re more likely to fall in a gutter than start a fight. I could be wrong, but I think there’s something cultural/psychological behind male violence, a repressed anger and frustration that doesn’t have an outlet.
And let’s not forget about crime’s other heartland – the home (the Age gets a bit ‘bigger picture’ for once).