Federal Parliament 1973: baby steps on Australian gay law reform

australian gay law reform

On 18 October 1973, the Australian House of Representatives passed a motion calling for the repeal of anti-gay laws. That motion was the first significant vote on Australian gay law reform in the country’s history.

The vote served no immediate practical purpose because such laws were generally a state responsibility. However, it paved the way for the proposed Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly to repeal anti-gay laws. The ACT inherited those laws from New South Wales on the creation of the national capital.

The vote also ensured the issue of gay law reform remained on the legislative ‘to do’ list of Australian state parliaments.

Before the Bill

The push for decriminalisation in Australia began at the end of the 1960s with the establishment of the first organisations dedicated to gay liberation.

In 1970 Tom Hughes, Attorney-General in the Gorton Liberal government, floated the idea of decriminalisation. However, he backed off after protests outside his office and opposition from within his party.

Despite that, prominent Labor figures continued to push for reform. Future Governor-General Bill Hayden and future minister Dr. Moss Cass took the lead. Labor leader Gough Whitlam lent support, agreeing that ‘the courts have no place in the bedrooms of the nation’.

However, opposition also existed within Labor – notably from the NSW Right of the party.

Frank Stewart was a prominent Catholic member of that faction. On the evening of Tuesday 9 November 1971, he came across Whitlam, Cass and other Labor members in King’s Hall, the foyer of Old Parliament House. They were there to meet with a delegation from the Homosexual Law Reform Society. Invited to join the meeting, the drunk Stewart turned red-faced. He told them he would not sit in the same room as ‘bum-fuckers’ and threatened to punch one of the members of the delegation.

The motion

Dr. Moss Cass, Whitlam’s minister for Conservation and Environment agitated all year for a vote to defend the rights of homosexuals. Gough Whitlam, now Prime Minister, agreed to a vote on two conditions. Firstly, he wanted the motion moved as a private member’s bill, not as a government proposal. Secondly, he wanted a prominent Liberal involved to ensure the issue remained non-partisan.

Former Liberal Prime Minister, the notoriously heterosexual, John Gorton agreed to move the motion.

Little lobbying took place ahead of the vote because few believed it stood a chance of succeeding. Between the pronounced social conservativism of the Liberal and Country (National) parties and the virulent homophobia of the NSW Labor Right, the bill would face inevitable defeat.

Labor scheduled the vote for the morning of 18 October. That day the Queen was in town. She dropped in during a visit to Australia to open the Sydney Opera House. The members of the house were due to have lunch with her and Prince Philip after their morning deliberations. That left less than an hour for debate on the motion, a fact which enraged some of those opposed.

Poofter-bashing virtually a recognised team-sport

In moving the motion, John Gorton described the laws against homosexuality as ‘unjust and wrong’.

He said homosexuals “lived a life of desperation and pain, and sometimes committed suicide because of it.”

Dr. Cass said that homosexuals experienced ‘active discrimination’.

“At a particularly barbaric level, poofter-bashing is virtually a recognised civilian team-sport.”

In a surprising result, the vote passed 64 to 40 with support from unexpected quarters.

Who voted for that first Australian gay law reform?

Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam voted for decriminalisation as did Bill Hayden, and of course, Dr. Moss Cass.

Simon Crean’s father Frank Crean voted for decriminalisation despite his stated belief that Labor should focus more on issues like jobs and housing and less on social issues.

Both Doug Anthony, the leader of the Country Party and his deputy Ian Sinclair voted for reform.

Sinclair, like Gorton was a ‘notorious’ heterosexual (code for reputed womaniser). Despite his positive vote on that occasion, in 1984 he created controversy by blaming the Hawke government for AIDS because it allegedly ‘condoned’ homosexuality.

Doug Anthony’s vote in favour surprised many, but he later reminded an opponent that rural members were not necessarily ignorant hicks.

“You Labor boys think you’re so trendy. But what you don’t realise is that a lot of us have been to boarding school!”

Sadly, the party’s attitude toward human rights went backward under later leaders like Tim Fischer and Barnaby ‘Adultery — good, Gay — bad’ Joyce.

Fischer’s lifelong antipathy to gays contrasted with the staunch Catholic’s otherwise exemplary record on human rights. It perhaps originated in slurs aimed at him early in his political career. As a bachelor during his years as a state politician his Labor opponents spread rumours he was homosexual. When he switched to federal politics, a letter in the Albury-Wodonga Border Morning Mail pointedly called on candidates to declare their sexuality. Fischer eventually married in his late 40s.

Philip Ruddock

Philip Ruddock, who decades later chaired the review of Religious Freedoms in Australia, voted for the motion. Ruddock, originally a progressive ‘small l liberal’, moved to the right later as a minister in the Howard Liberal government. As Howard’s Attorney-General he introduced 2004’s Marriage Amendment Bill to stop same-sex marriage and civil unions. He later denied a spousal pension to a gay veteran’s partner of 38 years. He also blocked a gay Australian from marrying overseas with his refusal to allow the issuance of ‘No Impediment to Marriage’ certificates to gay and lesbian Australians.

Legendary Labor figure Tom Uren voted for decriminalisation. A veteran, Tom Uren served in World War II and worked on the Burma Railway after his capture by the Japanese. It’s surprising how many veterans voted in favour of decriminalisation considering the antagonism toward gays and lesbians in later years from bigots like Bruce Ruxton and Alf Garland as presidents of the Victorian and National RSL respectively.

Gough Whitlam served in the RAAF during WWII as did John Gorton, first injured in a crash landing and then surviving the sinking by Japanese torpedo of the ship that evacuated him.

John Gorton perhaps understood all too well, from first-hand experience, the sting of discrimination. While most will agree quite a few bastards served as Australian Prime Minister, Gorton was an actual bastard — an illegitimate child — at a time when that meant great disgrace.

Who voted against gay law reform?

Deputy Prime Minister Lance Barnard, a Methodist, voted against the motion despite as Defence Minister directing that his department allow outed homosexuals an honourable discharge and a sympathetic and discreet hearing.

Both the Liberal Party leader, Billy Sneddon and his deputy Phillip Lynch voted against.

Lynch’s vote against is a surprise given his otherwise stellar record on human rights. He campaigned against the White Australia policy from a young age. He also opposed Australia’s restrictive immigration policy. Significantly, he was the first Australian politician to agitate for the appointment of a Commonwealth ombudsman to protect the rights of the individual against the government. However, in common with many of those who voted against the motion, Lynch was a Catholic.

Sir Billy Sneddon

Billy Sneddon was not a Catholic. Whatever the basis of his decision to oppose homosexuality, one hopes it wasn’t moral. The well known ‘ladies man’ left his wife the moment he resigned from parliament.

He died of a heart attack while fucking his son’s ex-girlfriend at a Sydney motel. The Melbourne Truth reported ‘Sneddon died on the job’, while the Sydney Morning Herald reported on a police investigator’s comments that he was wearing a condom and “it was loaded.”

Labor’s Transport Minister Charlie Jones voted against. Bigotry from Charlie comes as no surprise. He once told Papua New Guinea’s  Chief Minister Michael Somare, “You can talk until you are black in the face…”

Bigotry from Australia’s elected representatives was not unusual at the time. In an era when minorities saw no light at the end of the tunnel — little or no chance of equal rights — many never bothered voting. Therefore, politicians saw no need to pretend to care or to restrain their bigotry publicly.

When William McMahon appointed Peter Howson Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts in the previous government, Howson made his disappointment with his allotted ministries plain.

“The little bastard gave me trees, b****s and pooftas.”

Sir William McMahon

Speaking of McMahon, he voted neither for not against. He scampered before the vote. McMahon perhaps knew as well as any present in the house that day the discrimination homosexuals suffered. Because whether homosexual or not, he suffered for his reputation as a homosexual.

He never married until late in life after Sir Robert Menzies told him he would never be elected Prime Minister without a wife and kids. Even once married, when Harold Holt went missing, presumed drowned, Country Party leader Jack McEwan refused to countenance Holt’s deputy, McMahon, as the next PM. McEwan privately told colleagues he had a problem with McMahon’s homosexuality.

In the 1972 election, openly gay David Widdup stood against McMahon with the slogan, ‘Vote for the acknowledged homosexual candidate!’

In April 1973, McMahon told students at Canberra’s ANU that Gough Whitlam called him a ‘notorious homosexual from Kings Cross’ and a ‘c*nt’. “I can’t be both,” said McMahon. Asked his opinion of homosexuality he said, “I don’t know much about it… I have been accused of many things…”

Malcolm Fraser, a future Liberal Prime Minister also chose not to vote. Unlike McMahon, he stayed for the debate and abstained from the vote. In his later life, Malcolm Fraser advocated for marriage equality.

Paul Keating

The young backbencher Paul Keating voted against the motion. Later as Prime Minister, Keating overruled the objections of both his Defence Minister and service chiefs and overturned the ban on gays serving in the military.

But then in 1996, he reputedly said that “two blokes and a cocker spaniel do not a family make.” Marriage Equality opponents seized on that quote 20 years later, taking it out of context, according to some.

Tom Uren described Keating in a 1996 interview as a very complex person who’d matured from a “very narrow-minded young man.”

John Howard was not yet in parliament in 1973. We can probably surmise from his track record that he would have voted against. Anne Summers claimed in a 1997 speech that such was Howard’s antipathy to homosexuals that he told Qantas he did not wish to be served by male flight attendants on his first-class flight to London the week before her speech.

However, Sir John Cramer, the member for Bennelong, Howard’s future seat, did him proud. Cramer rabbited on about moral pollution etc etc and talked of the drift to a permissive society. He warned homosexuals would not stop at mere recognition — they would want more — the dreaded slippery slope blah blah blah.

There’s no need to detail any more of his speech here. You’ve heard it all before. Opponents are still using the same arguments against the LGBTIQ communities all these decades later.


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