It was so much more than just “awkward.”
This week’s “What Weird Thing Did Tony Do?” was to deeply offend one of Australia’s most decorated public servants, Stephen Brady, a man who has a long history of service and who recently received the Order of Australia.
As the present Australian Ambassador to France, Mr Brady, was scheduled to greet Tony and his staff at the airport during his recent tour there. The Ambassador’s long term partner Peter Stephens was in the greeting party. However, and there is a dispute to the exact source of this instruction, Tony’s advance party informed the Ambassador that rather than greeting the Prime Minister, his partner would need to wait in the car.
Perhaps they thought Stephen was an errant Corgi, or even a poorly behaved toddler. After all, that’s the kind of treatment one meters out to pets and children, when they misbehave.
The Ambassador, who has also served as the Official Secretary for two Governor-Generals, refused the instruction and offered his resignation to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The resignation was refused.
Read more: This is why #waitinthecar is so offensive.
If it is the case that Tony himself was the source of the instruction, I entirely understand his reluctance to be greeted by a gay couple. After all, it’s well known that if a straight man accidentally walks between two gay men in a relationship the sheer gravitational power of gayness will drag the three together, fusing them into a mandwich and converting the straight man directly into a gay. It’s how I was converted. One misstep and POOF, both literally and figuratively.
It ought to be said that a “junior official” has been blamed for the mix up. Confusingly Liberal Backbencher Alan Tudge declared that in fact protocol hadn’t been breached and, described the Fairfax article breaking the story thusly: “I think it is an absolutely disgraceful article because it has the implication that the Prime Minister wanted a gay person not to greet him on the tarmac when he arrived in Paris.”
It might be a disgraceful suggestion but it’s also one people might draw partly because the PM is on the record as saying he feels “confronted” by homosexuality? Maybe?
The Prime Minister today refused to comment and declared he does not concern himself with “trivia”. Whoever ordered what, let’s be clear here, ordering the gay partner of an Ambassador to go and sit in a car is a profoundly dehumanizing act.
In particular in a wider political context where the validity of gay relationships are under debate, and where the person, allegedly, giving the order happens to lead a political party that happens to question their validity (through opposing marriage equality) “trivia” like this can seem weighed down with symbolic meaning. Because the homophobia from conservatives isn’t trivia. From Cory Bernardi connecting homosexuality to beastiality, to arguments about gay marriage compromising the whole institution of marriage, to attacks on allowing gays to have children. This isn’t fluff. It’s bloody important.
Read more: Homosexuality? There’s an App for that.
The question might be asked, why the fuss? Would we be talking about this if the female wife of an Ambassador had been ordered into the car? Here’s another: whatever the protocol, would it really have mattered if there was one extra person there? You would think, if anything, the Prime Minister’s office would be at pains to ensure that the problematic symbolism of an elementary error like this was avoided. Whatever the official protocols of greetings, the PM’s office could easily have over ruled DFAT tradition.
The core problem is this. The committed partner of a dedicated public servant was treated by the PM’s office in such a way that that public servant offered his resignation.
Marriage equality in Australia has always been about dignity and about gays and lesbians feeling like they’re treated with the same dignity as everyone else. This issue serves as a case in point of how ham fisted the Abbott government has been on gay rights. All we want, is a little respect, Tony. Frankly, if you gave us that, the “trivia” wouldn’t matter.
Toby Halligan is a comedy writer and stand up comedian. He runs a room in Melbourne called Political Asylum. May 10th is the next gig, at the Brunswick Green on Sydney Road.
You can follow him on Twitter here.