Bill Shorten says he was just trying to help. In sentiment and action, he is like the old woman in Borja who took it upon herself to restore a fresco. After her intervention, Christ had the round face and witless eyes of a gibbon.
“I’m sure my instinct to defuse ugly culture wars is right,” Shorten said this week. “There are many people who feel the word ‘mother’ is special and worthy and there are others who feel their identity is not included – each has a legitimate point of view. We just need to be better at not having to have one view at the expense of the other.”
It seems noble but it is not. When Shorten intervened to end a pilot program using inclusive language on hospital forms, he was reacting to an anxiety confected by The Daily Telegraph. Perhaps giving in to Rupert Murdoch makes him feel as though he got to be prime minister after all.
Shorten pretends that the choices are neutral but they are being made in the context of an ugly war against queer rights. The form added clarity for trans and non-binary parents and for lesbian couples. His compromise is more ironic than he intended it to be: tick a box that calls you “other”.
Part of this is about Scott Morrison’s political legacy, which is as small and malicious as a botfly egg. In his final act as prime minister, Morrison reopened debate on trans rights. The effects of this are cumulative. Prejudice is interconnected. The panic over trans women in sport sees Black women with naturally high levels of testosterone barred from competition. A jersey change in the NRL gives licence to homophobia among players.
Shorten’s intervention has invigorated a campaign against language changes for birth-related leave in Queensland. In Victoria, the Liberal Party has endorsed a candidate who claims children are being coached to change their genders at school and that anti-bullying programs to support queer teenagers were designed by “paedophilia apologists”.
Each of these things is connected. That is why Shorten’s intervention is so disingenuous. He might believe he is managing the debate but, if so, he fails to see how unequal and insidious it is. Sending people back to the box marked “other” will not make a kinder or more fair society.
The stakes of this are significant. They are about much more than paperwork. The Labor Party needs to recognise what is really happening in this debate and find an informed position. The other side is not saying “I want to be called Mum” – it is saying, “You have to be called Mum or admit that you are not, that you are something suspicious, something else.” It is saying, “You do not belong here, not even on this form.”
Shorten was not resolving a difficult issue. He was telling trans and queer people to be quiet. His rationale was that this was for their own good. He may truly believe that, but it is not for the good of the country, and that is what he needs to understand.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "The botfly egg".
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