Time warped

Greg Hunt is the minister for health. This is a fact easy to forget. He is marked by neither competence nor effectiveness. His appalling record as environment minister still overshadows his lacklustre effort in health. Few if any would remember his brief stint as minister for industry, innovation and science.

It is important, though, to remember Hunt’s ministry – his responsibilities to health. It is as health minister that Hunt refuses to condemn gay conversion therapy. It is as health minister that he pretends the torment of young queer people in the name of religious doctrine is a freedom of speech issue.

In other countries, this kind of psychological abuse is illegal. In Australia, the health minister entertains it on national radio.

The reality of this is so awful it is hard to overstate. It is a reality bound up in youth suicide and electroshock therapy, in shame and violent pseudoscience. It is a rhetorical flourish built on the self-hatred of marginalised people.

Hunt offered his view in the shadow of a motion supporting gay conversion therapy, which was going to be debated by the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party before it was withdrawn. The motion came from a Kevin Andrews-backed branch.

Hunt said it was not federal government policy, but refused to say whether the motion alarmed him.

“People are entitled to have different views, views that I disagree with,” he told ABC Radio National’s Patricia Karvelas. “What I do worry about is this constant view that nobody is anywhere allowed to have a different view. As a journalist I would think you believe in freedom of speech … Do you believe in freedom of speech? What does freedom of speech mean to you? This is a genuine engagement of a real debate between a parliamentary representative and a journalist: What does freedom of speech mean to you?”

He continued with this line for some time, hectoring and indignant. He seemed either ignorant of the impact of his own view or cynically cultivating of it. “Here’s your chance. What does freedom of speech mean to you, as a journalist? Your audience is listening. Here’s your chance. Or are you afraid to stand up for freedom of speech?”

Sometimes it feels as if we have travelled back through time. The power stations have been renationalised and half a century of science forgotten. The church is back deciding the country’s values. Women are overlooked and queers ridiculed. The health minister’s two great concerns are polio and milk in schools.

Does Hunt think there are votes in this? Does he long for the past? Is his liberalism so uncritical that it condones abuse in the name of free speech? Does he understand the health ramifications of this kind of intervention? Does he care?

The Australian Medical Association has a clear position on this. It “opposes the use of ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy that is based upon the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder and that the patient should change his or her sexual orientation”.

All science agrees, but the minister does not – or not enough to argue that a motion supporting such therapy is of concern.

The Coalition is in a place of self-crisis. It is caught between 1950 and somewhere resembling the present. Its policy-making is lost in the no space of these intervening decades. It has no feel for reality, because a gulf of this size is unreal. It is impossible to remain spread like this, across two eras, but that is what is happening. Hunt is a symbol of one camp, the one in the bromide-smelling past. It is an unreasonable place from which to attempt the duties of a health minister, but that is the reality of Australia in 2018. It is a horrific one.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 21, 2018 as "Time warped".

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