• Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks to SBS Mardi Gras host Pat Abboud. (SBS News)Source: SBS News
"If politicians want to drape themselves in the rainbow flag, they must be prepared to have their record on equality held up to scrutiny," writes Jill Stark.
By
Jill Stark

31 Oct 2016 - 12:08 PM  UPDATED 31 Oct 2016 - 12:08 PM

Arms outstretched amid a sea of glitter and rainbow flags, Justin Trudeau did not just march in Pride this year, he partied. 

As the first Canadian Prime Minister to take part in the Toronto parade, here was a man who was truly proud to be there.

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And so he should have been. His record on LGBTI rights is solid.

Dubbed the “Prime Minister of homosexuals” by his critics, Trudeau has placed equality at the center of his political agenda, speaking out against homophobia and introducing legislation to protect transgender people from hate speech.

A politician who does not just pay lip service to equality but backs it through his deeds has arguably earned the right to march.

But does our own Prime Minister deserve the same courtesy?

After last year becoming the first sitting Prime Minister to attend Sydney’s iconic Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, there are now calls for Malcolm Turnbull to be formally uninvited from next year’s event. 

His capitulation to the right-wing of his party over the marriage equality plebiscite has left some angry that this once progressive leader should be allowed to use the LGBTI community for a photo opportunity whilst failing to stand up for their basic rights.

At a recent marriage equality rally, Mardi Gras board member James Brechney said the parade was borne out of protest and Turnbull was not welcome.

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It put Brechney at odds with fellow board members who formally censured him for his comments, and forms part of a wider schism within the organisation over its role, and whether it has put relationships with government and the corporate sector over the interests of the community.

Online, there were similar divisions, with some arguing it was important to keep Turnbull on side if marriage equality is to be achieved in this term of government. 

Others felt that a man who has the power to grant same-sex couples equal marriage rights by calling a free vote in parliament yet chooses not to in a bid to save his own political skin, is not someone who gets to come to the party.

Banning him would be a mistake. It would hand marriage equality opponents the moral high ground and allow them to paint themselves as victims, and the LGBTI community as bullies.

It would also let Malcolm Turnbull off the hook. By making him unwelcome he would have a convenient excuse not to face the people he has consistently let down since taking over the Liberal Party leadership.

And that would probably suit him. The Prime Minister knows it would be best not to draw attention to his hypocrisy by waving a rainbow flag at Mardi Gras or any other LGBTI event. 

His very presence would only underscore how utterly disappointing his leadership – or lack of it – has been on an issue he once passionately believed in.

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How can you claim to support the LGBTI community yet remain silent while colleagues compare gay people to pedophiles and link marriage equality to bestiality?

Turnbull also failed to condemn the Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton who likened the advance of gay rights to the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany. And he has gutted an ant-bullying program designed to protect same-sex attracted and gender diverse children, despite his own review finding no problems with the Safe Schools Coalition’s content.

Arguably, the only thing standing in the way of same-sex couples who want to be married is Malcolm Turnbull and his desperation to cling to power at any cost. 

So invite him to the party. If he accepts, the Mardi Gras crowd can send a strong message that political opportunism is not an acceptable substitute for equality. Imagine the statement if revelers in Oxford Street turned their back en masse as the Prime Minister greets them.

If he declines the invitation, he will have to convince the public that his reasons go beyond the divisions in his own party and his reluctance to publicly own the choices he has made.

Mardi Gras may have shifted from its protest roots to one of the greatest street parties in the world but the struggles faced by LGBTI people cannot be airbrushed out of history for the sake of the corporate dollar or to curry favour with political leaders.

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And while Bill Shorten marched at last year’s Mardi Gras and can claim to be an ally, the Labor Party’s support of the government’s offshore detention policy means LGBTI refugees face persecution and abuse whilst being housed in countries where homosexuality is a crime.

Yet Mardi Gras organisers threatened to ban protesters marching in the ‘No Pride in Detention’ float if they tried to approach the Labor leader to make this point.

They can’t have it both ways. If politicians want to drape themselves in the rainbow flag, they must be prepared to have their record on equality held up to scrutiny.

What better place to do that than in the full technicolor spotlight of Mardi Gras?

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