The recent WA election saw the ALP under Premier Geoff Gallop comfortably returned. The fact that the WA economy is doing quite well seemed to play a major role in his victory. The leader of the Liberals, Colin Barnett, managed to boost Gallop’s chances by displaying unbelievable incompetence in committing to building a potentially costly and poorly thought out Kimberley to Perth canal. As Peter Van Onselen argued earlier in On Line Opinion, the canal proposal was the equivalent of John Hewson’s GST policy. It made voters nervous and the electorate tends to shy away from leaders with whom they feel unsafe.
The WA gay community had other reasons to feel unsafe with Barnett. In a policy position statement, Family First: Defining the Difference, the WA Liberals explicitly called for the age of consent for gay men to be made higher than for heterosexuals (prior to Gallop coming to office it was 21 years for homosexuals. It was adjusted across the board to 16 years). In the statement it was put that:
The Gallop Labor Government has justified lowering the age of consent for homosexual males to 16 solely on the grounds of equality. Whether that is right or wrong, or whether this is in the best interests of vulnerable young adults has not been properly considered by the wider community.
No consideration has been given to the fact that teenage girls are generally more mature than boys or that community concern has more to do with predatory and exploitative behaviour by older males than it has to do with sexual relations between young adults of similar ages.
On balance, most people would accept the age of consent for homosexual males to be 18 years, in line with the age of majority.
The last sentence is interesting given the WA Liberals showed no indication of ever reducing the age of consent for homosexual sex from 21 years to 18 years while they were in office.
Not content with alienating gay men, Barnett’s Liberals reaffirmed their opposition to lesbians accessing IVF services and opposed same-sex couples’ use of the Family Court. Their document may as well have been called “Homosexuals Last”.
It is not clear how many gays voted ALP or even if the vote was significant. However, Barnett’s anti-gay policies surely didn’t help his cause. And gay rights campaigners across Australia were alarmed by the explicit attempt to make the age of consent in WA unequal once again - and rightly so. The age of consent, which I will focus on, should remain equal for very good reasons.
Richard Roberts and Peter Maplestone have argued in their report The Age of Consent and Gay Men in NSW (2001) (pdf file 607KB) that:
No substantial evidence was found to support a higher age of consent for young homosexual men. The evidence supports the position that the age of consent should be equalised on the grounds that the current position is not only discriminatory against young gay men but is harmful in inhibiting their access to educational, health and welfare services at a time they need them most.
One counter-argument is that discriminatory practices can exist for very good reasons. For instance, 10-year-olds unlike 18-year-olds are not allowed to drive - for their own safety as well as everyone else’s. However, an unequal age of consent serves no useful purpose, is discriminatory for its own sake and has negative social and health implications for younger gay men.
Roberts and Maplestone point out that:
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