Marriage equality – have you got the energy for this? South East locals hope you do.

'Love Makes a Family' as seen at the 2016 Sydney Mardi Gras
‘Love Makes a Family’ as seen at the 2017 Sydney Mardi Gras. Source: C and N

The disappointment around the postal plebiscite on marriage equality is real and bitter for many, but it seems it is the only course of action available to bury this boring issue once and for all.

Boring because for so long the vast majority of Australian’s have understood that ‘Love is Love’ yet the months/years of political scratching around has disillusioned and disengaged the community.

There are those challenging this process in the High Court of Australia, describing it as unlawful; the full bench of the court will decide  on September 5 and 6.

The wheels of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who will run this show, will continue to spin regradless – getting ready for the survey which is due to start just a week after the High Court decision.

While those in our community at the sharp end of this cheer on the High Court challenge, in the back of their mind they are also laying the ground work for the campaign ahead – mobilising as many people as possible to vote ‘yes’ in this non-compulsory process.

Bega Valley LGBTIQ advocate, Tas Fitzer says it took him a couple of days of reflection to work out the way ahead.

“I really understand the temptation for supporters of marriage equality to say ‘I am not voting, I am boycotting this process’, because it’s not a process we’d like to legitimise,” Tas says.

“We are giving a platform to debate that is going to be harmful to children of same sex couples, for young LGBTIQ people, and for people struggling with their identity.

“We don’t want to be here but we are here, this is something we have to deal with and the best way to deal with it is to take it head on,” he reasons.

Tas Fitzer. Source: Facebook
Tas Fitzer. Source: Facebook

Tas says he’ll be voting ‘yes’ and will be actively campaigning for others to do the same.

“Disagree with the process – absolutely, disagree with how it’s being done – absolutely, but let’s accept the fact we are here and make the most of it,” Tas says.

C and N are women who live on the Sapphire Coast and have been together for over two decades, they have a teenage son and are active members of a range of community and sporting organisations.

They have asked me not to use their names, mindful of the impact any publicity might have on their boy.

“For the first time in a very long time, I feel different and vulnerable, and that I have to somehow show evidence of how healthy, normal, and loving my relationship is with both my partner and son,” C says.

“How I live my life day to day and how I parent our child is under the microscope for those who don’t know us.

“And, I’m embarrassed for Australia – friends, colleagues, clients, people I know, across the age span, those with faith and those without, really don’t understand what the problem is, there is this sense of – really, we are still talking about marriage equality?,” C says.

Reflecting on the weeks ahead C and N believe there will be a relatively small but vocal group of people who will feel the postie poll gives them permission to voice their bigotry, to judge, attack, and say dreadful, hurtful, untrue and damaging things about the LGBTIQ community.

If it goes ahead, the result of the poll will be known on November 15 but it will be parliamentarians that ultimately decide if the Mariage Act can include same sex couples.

Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has said he’ll be encouraging a ‘yes’ vote and if ‘yes’ wins his Liberal MP’s will be free to vote according to their conscience.

ABC South East reported this week that Anne Sudmalis, the Liberal Member for Gilmore which covers the northern end of the Eurobodalla, won’t reveal her personal view on same sex marriage.

The ABC said that Ms Sudmalis would stand up for what her electorate decides.

A survey on the issue conducted by Ms Sudmalis in October 2015 pointed to 62 percent approval for marriage equality in Gilmore, 36 percent were opposed, while the rest undecided – the ABC reported.

Colourful tutus with a clear message
Colourful Bega Valley tutus with a clear message at the 2017 Sydney Mardi Gras. Source: C and N

Labor’s Mike Kelly, the Federal Member for the neighbouring seat of Eden – Monaro told About Regional, “The fastest and cheapest way to deliver marriage equality is through a free vote in the Parliament, not a $122 million survey.”

“If we are going to be forced to take part in this farce then I think the best thing we can do is send the Turnbull Government a message they can’t ignore – vote yes for marriage equality,” Dr Kelly says.

Dr Kelly is urging eligible voters to enroll or update their details with the Australian Electoral Commission before August 24 so that they can take part in the marriage law survey.

The former Army colonel is hopeful the campaign ahead will be respectful and tolerant.

“I plead with everyone in our community to exercise the utmost civility and join with me in urging that we all refrain from engaging in misinformation or hurtful comments,” Dr Kelly says.

Twenty-one-year old Tas Fitzer is of a similar mindset.

“The mental health of some of our young LGBTIQ people is of real concern to me,” he says.

“That’s why I have decided to get out there and campaign for a ‘yes’ vote so that they can see there are people out there to support them.”

Click play to hear more from Tas…


Speaking with C and N in fading light this afternoon, both fear some in the community who would vote ‘yes’ are now unmotivated to take part given the level of discussion the issue has had over an extended period of time.

“Many people honestly don’t understand what the fuss is about and are exhausted by this debate,” N says.

“Because same sex marriage seems a no brainer to them, I’d implore people to realise that unfortunately for some Australians the idea is frightening and abhorrent.

“Giving free reign to people to say whatever they like, to judge us simply for not living our lives like them is scary, scary for us now and for the next generations,” N explains.

Both are hopeful people will push past the grubby, lengthy politics of the issue and find the energy and motivation to say ‘yes’.

Writing for About Regional almost 12 months ago on this issue, Iain Dawson the convener of Bega Valley for Marriage Equality asked people to walk in his shoes…

“John Howard’s change [to the Marriage Act] in 2004 defined marriage as ‘a union between a man and woman only’.

“I am incredulous that Australia still judges my relationship with the man I love, ‘to the exclusion of all others’ as less than equal to my peers, friends, and family.

“For those not yet convinced; put yourself in that equitation and see how it feels, what it says to your soul.

“80% of Australians want our leaders to change the Marriage Act.

“The majority of my countrymen see my relationship as equal; that gives me and the LGBTIQ community strength and hope,” Iain wrote.

Whatever happens in the High Court on September 5 and 6 this issue will remain unresolved, work still needs to be done to finish this, energy needs to be mustered.

As a heterosexual father of three, with friends and family seeking equality that I take for granted, I will find that energy, despite the shit sandwich we are being served, I ask you to do the same.

Thanks to About Regional members – Tim HoltAmanda StroudDeborah Dixon, and Nastasia Campanella for supporting local story telling.

Declaration: Tas Fitzer is a part-time Electorate Officer for Mike Kelly and former Country Labor candidate.


Calling candidates for Snowy Monaro Regional Council

Dean Lynch, Administrator of Snowy Monaro Regional Council
Dean Lynch, Administrator of Snowy Monaro Regional Council. Source: SMRC

The wheels of democracy are starting to spin again across the High Country with nominations now open for candidates at the September 9 Local Council Election.

Eleven councilors will sit in the chamber of the merged Snowy Monaro Regional Council, which has been run for the past 15 months by former Cooma Mayor, Dean Lynch.

In his role as Administrator, Mr Lynch called on the advice and input of Local Representative Committees covering the former shires of Snowy River, Cooma-Monaro, and Bombala.

Ultimately though final decisions fell to Mr Lynch, an arrangement put in place by the NSW Government and one many have described as undemocratic.

Mr Lynch, who says he won’t be standing on September 9 says he understands the criticism but has enjoyed the opportunity despite feeling burnt out.

He says the whole merger process has got people thinking more about local government and perhaps has inspired some locals to stand for election.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of new faces,” Mr Lynch says.

Nominations opened on Monday and will close at Midday on Wednesday, August 9 through the Electoral Commission on NSW.

In the lead-up, Snowy Monaro Regional Council held candidate info sessions in Jindabyne, Berridale, Cooma, and Bombala.

Leanne Atkinson sat on Snowy River Shire Council between 1999 and 2003 and has stood as a Labor candidate for the NSW Parliament in the seat of Bega a number of times since, she says it can feel like a ‘leap of faith’ when you first put your name forward for election.

“You really aren’t sure what you are doing at the beginning,” Ms Atkinson told About Regional.

“You need to get the message out about yourself and what differentiates you from other people.”

Ms Atkinson says she went into her first campaign with issues she felt connected to and could speak on.

“I was a young mum, and was very aware of the constraints there were for families in the area and what services were available for them,” she says.

“That was how I went into that first campaign, looking at services for families, for young people, ” she says.

Ms Atkinson says she never considered standing for council until a couple of people suggested it to her.

“I said I can’t see myself doing this, there are all those people sitting around that table, all that procedure, I couldn’t do that.

“The funny thing is that once you are elected you realise that you absolutely can be at that table,” Ms Atkinson says.

And once you are elected what is the job of a new councilor on Snowy Monaro Regional Council?

Ms Atkinson believes the role goes beyond the popular catchphrase of ‘roads, rubbish, and rates’.

“There are a lot of demands on Council, and the role a Councilor is to have a strategic view, to set the tone, and to set the direction,” she says.

“It’s really important to engage effectively with the community.”

Election Day is Sept 9. Source: AEC
Election Day is Sept 9. Source: AEC

The merger process, taking three council areas into one has left smaller communities concerned that they will be over looked by the big new entity shaped by the Baird – Berejiklian Government.

Leanne Atkinson believes it’s incumbent on the eleven new councilors to think beyond their own home town.

“Don’t focus just on the big towns, there are little communities where those people matter and are just as important as the people in the bigger towns,” she says.

“You have to be aware that you are there for the whole community.”

But there is some strategic advice from this Labor stalwart for smaller centres keen to see one of their own elected.

“I have a view that the amalgamations shouldn’t have been forced, but the fact is it’s amalgamated,” Ms Atkinson says.

“The community needs people who are going to move the shire forward in it’s new form.

“Maybe some smaller communities should get together and ask, who is the one person who could represent us well?” she says.

Find a candidate and get the community behind them seems to be the advice.

“I lived in Berridale for a while, and if it was me in a community like that, I’d be pulling people together and saying, okay we want representation on this council, who can we advocate for and increase our chances of getting someone elected,” Ms Atkinson suggests.

Reflecting on her council time, Ms Atkinson says it was one of the best experiences of her life, she is keen to see a diverse range of candidates stand for election on September 9.

“There were lots of little things that I would look at and think, we can do better than that.”

“If you are willing to work you’d be surprised at how much you can achieve,” Ms Atkinson says.

Thanks to About Regional Members, Simon Marnie, Alison Oakley, Linda Albertson, and Kiah Wilderness Tours for supporting local story telling.

‘Ghettos’ would be formed and ‘property values would be affected’ – Bega, May 1967

Prime Minister Harold Holt. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Prime Minister Harold Holt. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Weather throughout the Division was fine,” on May 27, 1967, according to the Electoral Commission’s man in Eden-Monaro, Divisional Returning Officer, J.B Oehm.

Mr Oehm’s pedestrian wrap up of this landmark referendum gives no hint of the local debate and discussion of the time, historian Mark McKenna suggests these were challenging times in a town like Bega.

Much is being made of the anniversary of this vote, which some (me included) thought gave Aboriginal people the vote. That happened five years earlier, although Queensland took its time only signing on in 1965.

Two questions were posed to the people of Australia on May 27 1967, which came just six months after the general election that made Harold Holt prime minister. Holt beat Labor’s Arthur Caldwell in a landslide, 82 seats to 41.

Just seven months later Holt disappeared from Victoria’s Cheviot Beach, but the mark of his Prime Ministership and the bipartisanship of the time is still being celebrated 50 years on.

The first question was an attempt to increase the number of seats in the House of Representative without increasing the number of Senators in the Upper House, voters rejected the change 60% to 40%.

The second question and the one being remembered this week was to determine whether two references in the Australian Constitution, which discriminated against Aboriginal people, should be removed.

Fact Sheet 150 from The National Archives of Australia explains:

The sections of the Constitution under scrutiny were:

51. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:-
(xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal people in any State, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.

127. In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted.

The removal of the words ‘… other than the aboriginal people in any State…‘ in section 51(xxvi) and the whole of section 127 were considered by many to be representative of the prevailing movement for political change within Indigenous affairs. As a result of the political climate, this referendum saw the highest YES vote ever recorded in a Federal referendum, with 90.77 per cent voting for change.

The majority of parliamentarians supported the proposed amendment, Prime Minister, Robert Menzies and his cabinet first floated the change in April 1965, but Labor Opposition Leader Arthur Caldwell spoke of his parties support for such a change in 1964.

As such the National Archives say, “a  ‘No’ case was never formulated for presentation as part of the referendum campaign.”

Hearing that history in the last few days reminded me of a story I had been told on a number of occasions over the years; that Bega had voted ‘No’ in this famous referendum.

Almost 91% of Australians had voted ‘Yes’ how was it that Bega voted No? And how had other towns in South East NSW voted?

Rolling election night TV coverage was a while off, Kerry O’Brien was just 12. Records have been a challenge to find.

In their 1997 book, ‘The 1967 Referendum‘ Monash University historians, Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus lament that, “No results survive from individual polling booths except for some incomplete figures published in newspapers.”

They go on to say, “These show there was a majority ‘No’ vote in a very small number of booths”

Georgetown (63%)  and Charters Towers (39%) in Queensland, and Streaky Bay (39%) in South Australia are some of the dishonorable mentions.

The only local records I’ve been able to find in the National Archives are for the entire electorate of Eden-Monaro, a total of all the towns and villages in South East NSW, where there was a clear majority for the ‘Yes’ vote, in fact 28 152 more votes than ‘No’.

The Eden-Monaro results from the 1967 Referendum, a resounding 'Yes'. Source: National Archives of Australia
The Eden-Monaro results from the 1967 Referendum, a resounding ‘Yes’. Source: National Archives of Australia.

Eden based historian Mark McKenna got closer to a number on the Bega vote in his acclaimed book, ‘Looking for Blackfellas’ Point’.

McKenna writes, “Twenty-two percent of people in Bega voted ‘No’ on 27 May 1967, compared with the national average of 9.03%.”

So not a majority ‘No’ vote but still significant at double the national average. Why?

Just one month before the polling day The Aborigines Welfare Board announced that they had purchased land in Bega township and planned to build fourteen homes for Aboriginal families.

Up until this time as McKenna points out in his book, Aboriginal families were living on the fringes of town, he quotes a Canberra Times article of the day that describes the reaction of journalists who had visited the settlement at Stoney Creek, north of Bega.

McKenna writes, “They [Canberra Times] had been ‘disgusted’ by the ‘squalid and primitive’ conditions under which fifty Aborigines were living.”

Djiringanj and Ngarigo Elder, Aunty Glenda Dixon was a child at the time, living at that very site, an old tip with her parents and large family.

She told the ABC, “We were treated like animals.”

“At that time they didn’t want the blacks too close to town,” she said.

In giving context to the large ‘No’ vote in Bega in 1967, McKenna draws on another newspaper, the town’s very own.

He writes, “The first editorial in the Bega District News the day after the [new housing] announcement betrayed the shock of many in the town.”

“The editor claimed that Bega was ‘not large enough’ to accept the move without ‘grave concern’.”

Bega. Source Sapphire Coast Tourism
Bega. Source: Sapphire Coast Tourism

“Aboriginal people would be moving into Bega’s ‘prime domestic area’. ‘Ghettos’ would be formed and ‘property values would be affected’,” McKenna details.

Aunty Glenda Dixon recalls the excitement of moving into their new Howard Avenue home.

“Our family was the first Aboriginal family to be housed in Bega, in the township,” she told the ABC’s Right Wrong project.

“We had a stove, we had a shower, which was a big deal to us, we had a toilet that we flushed all the time.

“The locals called it Koon Avenue,” she remembers.

Those attitudes and the size of the ‘No’ vote in Bega at the 1967 referendum remain a blight on the town’s history.

A sunny day has been forecast for May 27, 2017, much the same as described by Mr J.B Oehm in his report back to Electoral Commission HQ 50 years earlier.

Under that sunshine, Aboriginal leaders, including Eden’s Ossie Cruse are meeting at Uluru to determine the next step in reconciliation, perhaps the greatest step, opportunities are ahead for Bega and every town in South East NSW to heal their past.