Greens Senator Robert Simms has told the Victorian Local Government Association's Rainbow Working Group that local government should make the most of its potential to positively change lives and has an important role to play in promoting LGBTI rights.
"Building more diverse and inclusive communities is fundamental to creating happier and healthier places to live and work. Council is uniquely placed to show leadership on these issues. The remit of local Councils is so much broader than rates, roads and rubbish. Councils are in the business of supporting communities, they create the character and identity of a local area. Through local action, Councils can support the movement for equality and fight to remove discrimination against LGBTI people at a state and federal level," the Greens' Sexuality Spokesperson, Senator Robert Simms told the group in Melbourne yesterday.
Senator Simms also talked about his journey from Adelaide City to the Senate and encouraged local Councillors who identify as LGBTI to speak out:
"You can't be what you can't see. Certainly for me as a young man, I didn't feel like I had many gay role models, so talking about sexual difference is a powerful thing and an important thing. I would encourage elected officials at all levels of government to talk openly about differences in sexuality and gender identity."
Full text of Senator Simms' speech is below.
Speech to the Victorian Local Government Association
Rainbow Working Group
Senator Robert Simms - 14 April 2016
Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to speak to you today and it's great to see the local government sector in Victoria placing such a strong emphasis on inclusion. It's a really important part of creating happy and healthy communities.
I've been asked to talk about my journey from Council to Parliament. I have to say, in many ways this journey has been quite a rollercoaster. This time last year, I was an Adelaide City Councillor and now I'm a Senator for South Australia - having been elected by members of the SA Greens to fill the casual vacancy created by Penny Wright's resignation mid last year. It's been an intense but very rewarding time.
One of the things that has always inspired me as a political activist is the power of politics to change lives for the better. And Council is the level of government that most directly impacts on people lives. The work that local Councillors do, the work that is done by Council administrations really does change lives in a very tangible way.
You only need to talk to someone about the impact of noise on the street or the impact of an enormous development on their amenity, to know that Council rules and regulations have a big impact.
I ran for Council in 2014 at a time of transition in our city. Anyone who has been to Adelaide will know it's a beautiful city. I happen to think the best city in the nation but I'm perhaps a bit biased in that regard. But it's a city that's at a crossroads. Traditionally Adelaide has had a reputation as the City of Churches. Indeed, I've often joked when I was a kid growing up the idea of a big night was a marathon of ‘The Bill' so we've come a long way. In 2010 we saw the election of a progressive Lord Mayor and we saw the Council working with the state government on an agenda to activate the CBD through a thriving small bar culture and a bigger arts scene. In 2014 I was concerned that that was coming under threat by some quite conservative, reactionary forces, and so I wanted to join the Council to fight for us to maintain that momentum towards progress.
Interestingly, in SA we don't run under party banners. So while I was a member of The Greens and had run as a candidate for the party - I didn't run as a badged Green candidate. That said, it's interesting to note that the areas where I performed most strongly in the Council elections were traditionally strong areas for the Greens.
My main platform was city greening and modernisation but I also focussed on inclusion and I mentioned wanting to create a more inclusive environment for the LGBTI community in particular within my council election material. I saw this as a key platform for me, because while there had been out gay men on the Council before, I thought there was an opportunity for Council to provide more leadership on those issues. Adelaide does have a big LGBTI community - certainly the biggest of any geographical area in SA.
Adelaide Council has 4 Area Councillors that represent the city as a whole and 7 Ward Councillors that cover various geographical pockets, I ran for Area Councillor because I wanted to focus on some of the issues relating to the broader strategic direction of the city. Once elected:
- I initiated the development of a Council policy for green rooves and walls. This led to the $1 million Greener Streets initiative in the Council budget. That's being rolled out at the moment, with an emphasis on tree planting.
- I also pushed for Council to divest from fossil fuels and develop a procurement policy that favoured local production and less carbon intensive, sustainable material.
- I initiated a policy to provide increased support to the homeless during extreme heat (modelled on what Melbourne City Council has been doing).
Some of these issues were quite contentious but my most controversial move as a Councillor came when I proposed a rainbow crossing for the CBD. In early January I initiated an inquiry into painting a rainbow crossing in the CBD to celebrate 40 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Initially, the idea got a little bit of media commentary but was well received. Council agreed to investigate options.
The Council's Traffic Department advised that in order to construct a crossing we would need special permission from the state government and that this was unlikely to be granted due perceived safety concerns.
As a result, Council admin considered options for a Rainbow Walk - a pride symbol in a public walkway. Light Square in the West End of the City was identified as a potential site. It took 6 months for this option to be presented to Council but this finally happened in August. That was when the controversy came!
The Religious Right in Adelaide got highly organised and began bombarding local Councillors with hate mail. Basically warning that all hell would break loose if the project went ahead. We also saw local Councils around the state being targeted for raising the rainbow flag in support of the state's LGBTI festival, Feast.
Council had deputations from conservative organisations suggesting that the project posed a safety risk as children would be distracted by the rainbow and run into traffic. A laughable proposition! We had others suggesting the project was unjust as the LGBTI community had made no contribution to Adelaide and didn't deserve the recognition. The local media went into overdrive accusing me of pursuing some kind of radical fringe agenda. Why wasn't Council talking about rates, roads and rubbish?
In the end Council committed to the project and it's being costed now - it's due for delivery by the end of the year. And I must pay tribute to my former Council colleagues for the leadership they showed on that issue. One Councillor who had previously opposed the project remarked that she hadn't been convinced the rainbow walk was necessary but after seeing these hateful emails, was now strongly in support. So the advocacy of the Christian Right certainly failed there!
But there have been suggestions from some Councillors that the project be crowd funded. Suggestions that I found frustrating given the size of Council's budget and the expenditure on things like Christmas decorations in the CBD.
There was certainly a consistent theme running through most of the opposition to the rainbow walk project - it's not core business and the experiences of LGBTI people are somehow not legitimate or worthy of recognition. These are not key priorities for government.
And reflecting on my journey from Council to the Senate, this is certainly a theme that runs through national politics in terms of the way LGBTI rights are so often dealt with.
Let's consider for instance, the debate about marriage equality. For years the narrative has been that this is not a key focus for the government or that it's some kind of distraction. There seems to be this misconception that if we legislate for marriage equality, that this will prevent government from doing things like a budget. I've heard things like, ‘the government is focussed on the economy, this is a second order issue."
Well, how can the recognition of love be a second order issue and surely we can deal with this alongside a range of other issues? Parliament can deal with a diverse range of issues, simultaneously. That's the great thing about our parliamentary democracy.
The fact that this issue has been made so unduly complex is really just testament to the lengths opponents of marriage equality will go to.
The latest roadblock is the plebiscite plan. The brain child of Tony Abbott that's been seized on by Malcolm Turnbull. Apparently, the rights of LGBTI people are a secondary consideration, some kind of an opt in item contingent on public opinion. We have never used plebiscites as a way of resolving fundamental questions of human rights. And this does set an alarming precedent for our democracy. It also reveals something about the way LGBTI issues are so often dealt with.
More broadly, we are seeing an unhealthy movement in our democracy that elevates freedom of speech above all other rights. In fact we've even seen the Attorney General defend the right to be a bigot, well what about the right to feel safe, the right to be free from vilification and persecution?
The appalling attacks on the Safe Schools program are further evidence of this -we've seen deplorable and offensive comments made by people in the Coalition and rather than standing up against this, the Prime Minister has caved in the face of this bigotry. Rather than stare down these bullies, the government has chosen to placate them. And so the rights of LGBTI young people have been treated as a second order issue.
Indeed, the right to free speech must be balanced against the right of others to be free from persecution and vilification. This kind of balance is fundamental to any liberal democracy.
Another issue I've confronted as a gay man both on Council and now in the Senate, is the way in which I talk about my own identity and personal story. When I was elected to Council I made the decision that I would talk openly about being gay. It earned me the tag of ‘openly gay Councillor,' in a lot of the media. And as a Senator, I decided similarly to continue to talk about it. Indeed, in my first speech I spoke about my experience coming out.
A lot of friends, gay and straight, have often asked me whether I'm concerned about being typecast. Surely you don't like being defined by your sexuality? They ask. I fundamentally believe that one of the best ways to combat homophobia and prejudice is visibility. Indeed, one of the best tools we have as activists is LGBTI pride and visibility. The very act of talking about differences in sexuality and gender identity challenges hetero-normative assumptions and can break down prejudice. Indeed, that's' one of the big factors in bringing about social change. As a result of this visibility we've seen sexuality become less taboo and more fluid approaches to sexuality and that's a great thing.
I also think that it's a powerful thing for people who are undergoing their own journey with sexuality and gender identity. You can't be what you can't see. Certainly for me as a young man, I didn't feel like I had many gay role models, so talking about sexual difference is a powerful thing and important thing. I would encourage elected officials at all levels of government to talk openly about differences in sexuality and gender identity.
I want to conclude by impressing on you the importance of addressing LGBTI rights across all level of government. Building more diverse and inclusive communities is fundamental to creating happier and healthier places to live and work. Council is uniquely placed to show leadership on these issues. I know as you do, that the remit of local Councils is so much broader than rates, roads and rubbish. Councils are in the business of supporting communities, they create the character and identity of a local area. Certainly through diversity of elected members, policy frameworks and then of course, positive symbols, Councils can promote equality. All of these things matter and make a big difference. By promoting these kinds of things Council is also supporting the broader fight for LGBTI rights and the elimination of discrimination at a state and federal government level.
Councils can have a life changing impact and I do encourage you to make the most of that potential.