Rainbow Blindness: Same-Sex Partnerships in Post-Coalitional Australia





Australia, Politics, Coalition, Sexuality, Law


How to Cite

Lambert, A. (2010). Rainbow Blindness: Same-Sex Partnerships in Post-Coalitional Australia. M/C Journal, 13(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.318
Vol. 13 No. 6 (2010): coalition
Published 2010-11-17

In Australia the “intimacy” of citizenship (Berlant 2), is often used to reinforce subscription to heteronormative romantic and familial structures. Because this framing promotes discourses of moral failure, recent political attention to sexuality and same-sex couples can be filtered through insights into coalitional affiliations. This paper uses contemporary shifts in Australian politics and culture to think through the concept of coalition, and in particular to analyse connections between sexuality and governmentality (or more specifically normative bias and same-sex relationships) in what I’m calling post-coalitional Australia. Against the unpredictability of changing parties and governments, allegiances and alliances, this paper suggests the continuing adherence to a heteronormatively arranged public sphere.

After the current Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard deposed the previous leader, Kevin Rudd, she clung to power with the help of independents and the Greens, and clichés of a “rainbow coalition” and a “new paradigm” were invoked to describe the confused electorate and governmental configuration. Yet in 2007, a less confused Australia decisively threw out the Howard–led Liberal and National Party coalition government after eleven years, in favour of Rudd’s own rainbow coalition: a seemingly invigorated party focussed on gender equity, Indigenous Australians, multi-cultural visibility, workplace relations, Austral-Asian relations, humane refugee processing, the environment, and the rights and obligations of same-sex couples.

A post-coalitional Australia invokes something akin to “aftermath culture” (Lambert and Simpson), referring not just to Rudd’s fall or Howard’s election loss, but to the broader shifting contexts within which most Australian citizens live, and within which they make sense of the terms “Australia” and “Australian”. Contemporary Australia is marked everywhere by cracks in coalitions and shifts in allegiances and belief systems – the Coalition of the Willing falling apart, the coalition government crushed by defeat, deposed leaders, and unlikely political shifts and (re)alignments in the face of a hung parliament and renewed pushes toward moral and cultural change.

These breakdowns in allegiances are followed by swift symbolically charged manoeuvres. Gillard moved quickly to repair relations with mining companies damaged by Rudd’s plans for a mining tax and to water down frustration with the lack of a sustainable Emissions Trading Scheme. And one of the first things Kevin Rudd did as Prime Minister was to change the fittings and furnishings in the Prime Ministerial office, of which Wright observed that “Mr Howard is gone and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has moved in, the Parliament House bureaucracy has ensured all signs of the old-style gentlemen's club… have been banished” (The Age, 5 Dec. 2007). Some of these signs were soon replaced by Ms. Gillard herself, who filled the office in turn with memorabilia from her beloved Footscray, an Australian Rules football team.

In post-coalitional Australia the exile of the old Menzies’ desk and a pair of Chesterfield sofas works alongside the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and renewed pledges for military presence in Afghanistan, apologising to stolen generations of Indigenous Australians, the first female Governor General, deputy Prime Minister and then Prime Minister (the last two both Gillard), the repealing of disadvantageous workplace reform, a focus on climate change and global warming (with limited success as stated), a public, mandatory paid maternity leave scheme, changes to the processing and visas of refugees, and the amendments to more than one hundred laws that discriminate against same sex couples by the pre-Gillard, Rudd-led Labor government. The context for these changes was encapsulated in an announcement from Rudd, made in March 2008: 

Our core organising principle as a Government is equality of opportunity.  And advancing people and their opportunities in life, we are a Government which prides itself on being blind to gender, blind to economic background, blind to social background, blind to race, blind to sexuality. (Rudd, “International”)

Noting the political possibilities and the political convenience of blindness, this paper navigates the confusing context of post-coalitional Australia, whilst proffering an understanding of some of the cultural forces at work in this age of shifting and unstable alliances. I begin by interrogating the coalitional impulse post 9/11. I do this by connecting public coalitional shifts to the steady withdrawal of support for John Howard’s coalition, and movement away from George Bush’s Coalition of the Willing and the War on Terror. I then draw out a relationship between the rise and fall of such affiliations and recent shifts within government policy affecting same-sex couples, from former Prime Minister Howard’s amendments to The Marriage Act 1961 to the Rudd-Gillard administration’s attention to the discrimination in many Australian laws.

Sexual Citizenship and Coalitions

Rights and entitlements have always been constructed and managed in ways that live out understandings of biopower and social death (Foucault History; Discipline). The disciplining of bodies, identities and pleasures is so deeply entrenched in government and law that any non-normative claim to rights requires the negotiation of existing structures. Sexual citizenship destabilises the post-coalitional paradigm of Australian politics (one of “equal opportunity” and consensus) by foregrounding the normative biases that similarly transcend partisan politics. Sexual citizenship has been well excavated in critical work from Evans, Berlant, Weeks, Richardson, and Bell and Binnie’s The Sexual Citizen which argues that “many of the current modes of the political articulation of sexual citizenship are marked by compromise; this is inherent in the very notion itself… the twinning of rights with responsibilities in the logic of citizenship is another way of expressing compromise… Every entitlement is freighted with a duty” (2-3).

This logic extends to political and economic contexts, where “natural” coalition refers primarily to parties, and in particular those “who have powerful shared interests… make highly valuable trades, or who, as a unit, can extract significant value from others without much risk of being split” (Lax and Sebinius 158). Though the term is always in some way politicised, it need not refer only to partisan, multiparty or multilateral configurations. The subscription to the norms (or normativity) of a certain familial, social, religious, ethnic, or leisure groups is clearly coalitional (as in a home or a front, a club or a team, a committee or a congregation).

Although coalition is interrogated in political and social sciences, it is examined frequently in mathematical game theory and behavioural psychology. In the former, as in Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation, it refers to people (or players) who collaborate to successfully pursue their own self-interests, often in the absence of central authority. In behavioural psychology the focus is on group formations and their attendant strategies, biases and discriminations. Experimental psychologists have found “categorizing individuals into two social groups predisposes humans to discriminate… against the outgroup in both allocation of resources and evaluation of conduct” (Kurzban, Tooby and Cosmides 15387).  The actions of social organisation (and not unseen individual, supposedly innate impulses) reflect the cultural norms in coalitional attachments – evidenced by the relationship between resources and conduct that unquestioningly grants and protects the rights and entitlements of the larger, heteronormatively aligned “ingroup”.

Terror Management

Particular attention has been paid to coalitional formations and discriminatory practices in America and the West since September 11, 2001. Terror Management Theory or TMT (Greenberg, Pyszczynski and Solomon) has been the main framework used to explain the post-9/11 reassertion of large group identities along ideological, religious, ethnic and violently nationalistic lines. Psychologists have used “death-related stimuli” to explain coalitional mentalities within the recent contexts of globalised terror. The fear of death that results in discriminatory excesses is referred to as “mortality salience”, with respect to the highly visible aspects of terror that expose people to the possibility of their own death or suffering. Naverette and Fessler find “participants… asked to contemplate their own deaths exhibit increases in positive evaluations of people whose attitudes and values are similar to their own, and derogation of those holding dissimilar views” (299).

It was within the climate of post 9/11 “mortality salience” that then Prime Minister John Howard set out to change The Marriage Act 1961 and the Family Law Act 1975. In 2004, the Government modified the Marriage Act to eliminate flexibility with respect to the definition of marriage. Agitation for gay marriage was not as noticeable in Australia as it was in the U.S where Bush publicly rejected it, and the UK where the Civil Union Act 2004 had just been passed. Following Bush, Howard’s “queer moral panic” seemed the perfect decoy for the increased scrutiny of Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war. Howard’s changes included outlawing adoption for same-sex couples, and no recognition for legal same-sex marriages performed in other countries. The centrepiece was the wording of The Marriage Amendment Act 2004, with marriage now defined as a union “between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”.

The legislation was referred to by the Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown as “hateful”, “the marriage discrimination act” and the “straight Australia policy” (Commonwealth 26556). The Labor Party, in opposition, allowed the changes to pass (in spite of vocal protests from one member) by concluding the legal status of same-sex relations was in no way affected, seemingly missing (in addition to the obvious symbolic and physical discrimination) the equation of same-sex recognition with terror, terrorism and death. Non-normative sexual citizenship was deployed as yet another form of “mortality salience”, made explicit in Howard’s description of the changes as necessary in protecting the sanctity of the “bedrock institution” of marriage and, wait for it, “providing for the survival of the species” (Knight, 5 Aug. 2003). 

So two things seem to be happening here: the first is that when confronted with the possibility of their own death (either through terrorism or gay marriage) people value those who are most like them, joining to devalue those who aren’t; the second is that the worldview (the larger religious, political, social perspectives to which people subscribe) becomes protection from the potential death that terror/queerness represents.

Coalition of the (Un)willing

Yet, if contemporary coalitions are formed through fear of death or species survival, how, for example, might these explain the various forms of risk-taking behaviours exhibited within Western democracies targeted by such terrors? Navarette and Fessler (309) argue that “affiliation defences are triggered by a wider variety of threats” than “existential anxiety” and that worldviews are “in turn are reliant on ‘normative conformity’” (308) or “normative bias” for social benefits and social inclusions, because “a normative orientation” demonstrates allegiance to the ingroup (308-9). Coalitions are founded in conformity to particular sets of norms, values, codes or belief systems. They are responses to adaptive challenges, particularly since September 11, not simply to death but more broadly to change. In troubled times, coalitions restore a shared sense of predictability. In Howard’s case, he seemed to say, “the War in Iraq is tricky but we have a bigger (same-sex) threat to deal with right now. So trust me on both fronts”.

Coalitional change as reflective of adaptive responses thus serves the critical location of subsequent shifts in public support. Before and since September 11 Australians were beginning to distinguish between moderation and extremism, between Christian fundamentalism and productive forms of nationalism. Howard’s unwavering commitment to the American-led war in Iraq saw Australia become a member of another coalition: the Coalition of the Willing, a post 1990s term used to describe militaristic or humanitarian interventions in certain parts of the world by groups of countries. Howard (in Pauly and Lansford 70) committed Australia to America’s fight but also to “civilization's fight… of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom”. Although Bush claimed an international balance of power and influence within the coalition (94), some countries refused to participate, many quickly withdrew, and many who signed did not even have troops.

In Australia, the war was never particularly popular. In 2003, forty-two legal experts found the war contravened International Law as well as United Nations and Geneva conventions (Sydney Morning Herald 26 Feb. 2003). After the immeasurable loss of Iraqi life, and as the bodies of young American soldiers (and the occasional non-American) began to pile up, the official term “coalition of the willing” was quietly abandoned by the White House in January of 2005, replaced by a “smaller roster of 28 countries with troops in Iraq” (ABC News Online 22 Jan. 2005). The coalition and its larger war on terror placed John Howard within the context of coalitional confusion, that when combined with the domestic effects of economic and social policy, proved politically fatal. The problem was the unclear constitution of available coalitional configurations. Howard’s continued support of Bush and the war in Iraq compounded with rising interest rates, industrial relations reform and a seriously uncool approach to the environment and social inclusion, to shift perceptions of him from father of the nation to dangerous, dithery and disconnected old man.   

Post-Coalitional Change

In contrast, before being elected Kevin Rudd sought to reframe Australian coalitional relationships. In 2006, he positions the Australian-United States alliance outside of the notion of military action and Western territorial integrity. In Rudd-speak the Howard-Bush-Blair “coalition of the willing” becomes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “willingness of the heart”. The term coalition was replaced by terms such as dialogue and affiliation (Rudd, “Friends”).

Since the 2007 election, Rudd moved quickly to distance himself from the agenda of the coalition government that preceded him, proposing changes in the spirit of “blindness” toward marginality and sexuality. “Fix-it-all” Rudd as he was christened (Sydney Morning Herald 29 Sep. 2008) and his Labor government began to confront the legacies of colonial history, industrial relations, refugee detention and climate change – by apologising to Aboriginal people, timetabling the withdrawal from Iraq, abolishing the employee bargaining system Workchoices, giving instant visas and lessening detention time for refugees, and signing the Kyoto Protocol agreeing (at least in principle) to reduce green house gas emissions.

As stated earlier, post-coalitional Australia is not simply talking about sudden change but an extension and a confusion of what has gone on before (so that the term resembles postcolonial, poststructural and postmodern because it carries the practices and effects of the original term within it). The post-coalitional is still coalitional to the extent that we must ask: what remains the same in the midst of such visible changes? An American focus in international affairs, a Christian platform for social policy, an absence of financial compensation for the Aboriginal Australians who received such an eloquent apology, the lack of coherent and productive outcomes in the areas of asylum and climate change, and an impenetrable resistance to the idea of same-sex marriage are just some of the ways in which these new governments continue on from the previous one.

The Rudd-Gillard government’s dealings with gay law reform and gay marriage exemplify the post-coalitional condition. Emulating Christ’s relationship to “the marginalised and the oppressed”, and with Gillard at his side, Rudd understandings of the Christian Gospel as a “social gospel” (Rudd, “Faith”; see also Randell-Moon) to table changes to laws discriminating against gay couples – guaranteeing hospital visits, social security benefits and access to superannuation, resembling de-facto hetero relationships but modelled on the administering and registration of relationships, or on tax laws that speak primarily to relations of financial dependence – with particular reference to children. The changes are based on the report, Same Sex, Same Entitlements (HREOC) that argues for the social competence of queer folk, with respect to money, property and reproduction. They speak the language of an equitable economics; one that still leaves healthy and childless couples with limited recognition and advantage but increased financial obligation. Unable to marry in Australia, same-sex couples are no longer single for taxation purposes, but are now simultaneously subject to forms of tax/income auditing and governmental revenue collection should either same-sex partner require assistance from social security as if they were married

Heteronormative Coalition

Queer citizens can quietly stake their economic claims and in most states discreetly sign their names on a register before becoming invisible again. Mardi Gras happens but once a year after all. On the topic of gay marriage Rudd and Gillard have deferred to past policy and to the immoveable nature of the law (and to Howard’s particular changes to marriage law). That same respect is not extended to laws passed by Howard on industrial relations or border control. In spite of finding no gospel references to Jesus the Nazarene “expressly preaching against homosexuality” (Rudd, “Faith”), and pre-election promises that territories could govern themselves with respect to same sex partnerships, the Rudd-Gillard government in 2008 pressured the ACT to reduce its proposed partnership legislation to that of a relationship register like the ones in Tasmania and Victoria, and explicitly demanded that there be absolutely no ceremony – no mimicking of the real deal, of the larger, heterosexual citizens’ “ingroup”. Likewise, with respect to the reintroduction of same-sex marriage legislation by Greens senator Sarah Hanson Young in September 2010, Gillard has so far refused a conscience vote on the issue and restated the “marriage is between a man and a woman” rhetoric of her predecessors (Topsfield, 30 Sep. 2010). At the same time, she has agreed to conscience votes on euthanasia and openly declared bi-partisan (with the federal opposition) support for the war in Afghanistan.

We see now, from Howard to Rudd and now Gillard, that there are some coalitions that override political differences. As psychologists have noted, “if the social benefits of norm adherence are the ultimate cause of the individual’s subscription to worldviews, then the focus and salience of a given individual’s ideology can be expected to vary as a function of their need to ally themselves with relevant others” (Navarette and Fessler 307). Where Howard invoked the “Judaeo-Christian tradition”, Rudd chose to cite a “Christian ethical framework” (Rudd, “Faith”), that saw him and Gillard end up in exactly the same place: same sex relationships should be reduced to that of medical care or financial dependence; that a public ceremony marking relationship recognition somehow equates to “mimicking” the already performative and symbolic heterosexual institution of marriage and the associated romantic and familial arrangements.


Post-coalitional Australia refers to the state of confusion borne of a new politics of equality and change. The shift in Australia from conservative to mildly socialist government(s) is not as sudden as Howard’s 2007 federal loss or as short-lived as Gillard’s hung parliament might respectively suggest. Whilst allegiance shifts, political parties find support is reliant on persistence as much as it is on change – they decide how to buffer and bolster the same coalitions (ones that continue to privilege white settlement, Christian belief systems, heteronormative familial and symbolic practices), but also how to practice policy and social responsibility in a different way.

Rudd’s and Gillard’s arguments against the mimicry of heterosexual symbolism and the ceremonial validation of same-sex partnerships imply there is one originary form of conduct and an associated sacred set of symbols reserved for that larger ingroup. Like Howard before them, these post-coalitional leaders fail to recognise, as Butler eloquently argues, “gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but as copy is to copy” (31). To make claims to status and entitlements that invoke the messiness of non-normative sex acts and romantic attachments necessarily requires the negotiation of heteronormative coalitional bias (and in some ways a reinforcement of this social power). As Bell and Binnie have rightly observed, “that’s what the hard choices facing the sexual citizen are: the push towards rights claims that make dissident sexualities fit into heterosexual culture, by demanding equality and recognition, versus the demand to reject settling for heteronormativity” (141).

The new Australian political “blindness” toward discrimination produces positive outcomes whilst it explicitly reanimates the histories of oppression it seeks to redress. The New South Wales parliament recently voted to allow same-sex adoption with the proviso that concerned parties could choose not to adopt to gay couples. The Tasmanian government voted to recognise same-sex marriages and unions from outside Australia, in the absence of same-sex marriage beyond the current registration arrangements in its own state. In post-coalitional Australia the issue of same-sex partnership recognition pits parties and allegiances against each other and against themselves from within (inside Gillard’s “rainbow coalition” the Rainbow ALP group now unites gay people within the government’s own party). Gillard has hinted any new proposed legislation regarding same-sex marriage may not even come before parliament for debate, as it deals with real business. Perhaps the answer lies over the rainbow (coalition). As the saying goes, “there are none so blind as those that will not see”.


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Author Biography

Anthony Lambert, Macquarie University

Anthony is Senior Lecturer in Critical and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University. He is co-editor of the book Diasporas of Australian Cinema and editor of NEO: Journal of Higher Degree Research in Social Sciences and Humanities. His recent work includes a study of non-Aboriginal landscape traditions in Australian Cinema for Metro Magazine and a study of Australian spaces for Space and Culture. From 2011 he his editor-in-chief of Studies in Australasian Cinema.