Lessons learnt on the run

Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson and Dr Bob Brown at the Optimism book launch. Picture: Scott Gelston
Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson and Dr Bob Brown at the Optimism book launch. Picture: Scott Gelston

"IN 1972 I went to Tasmania to replace one of three doctors in a Launceston practice. The following year I bought (Liffey property) Oura Oura.

For a while I worked weekends at the practice. While there I slept on the examination couch in the back room. It was high, narrow and hard, but I had a good pillow and blanket.

Near midnight one Saturday, just as I was getting to sleep, the practice phone rang. A worried mother told me that her 18-year-old son had stomach pains and she thought it was appendicitis.

'When did the pain start?' I asked.

'This morning,' she replied.

I chided her for not calling me earlier, dressed, secured my doctor's bag on the bike rack and rode up the hill to the housing estate at Mayfield.

My patient's street was in darkness because the street lights had been shot out. Helpfully, halfway around the second block, light beamed from an open doorway in which a man slouched, holding his midriff. I grabbed my bag and jumped the fence.

'How are you going?' I asked the fellow in the doorway, who seemed older than 18.

'Not so bloody good, Doc! The pain's been going all day,' he groaned. I could smell alcohol. His mother had gone to bed.

The house entrance was untidy. I asked him to lie on the carpet in the bedless room just inside the door and did a quick examination. Two things stood out: his pain was in his chest rather than his abdomen, and he told me that his father had fallen dead of a heart attack just a few months earlier.

There was no arrhythmia or heart murmur, no raised temperatures or pulse rate, and no abdominal tenderness. This man was more anxious than ill. He was also more than a little drunk.

'Well, your heart's healthy and you'll be OK,' I reassured him, not making obvious my pique at being called out so needlessly.

'You know, Doc,' said my clearly relieved patient, holding out a small wad of banknotes, 'you're the besht bloody doctor in Launcheshton. I called all the other doctorsh and they didn't come, but I didn't call you and you did come!' The penny dropped. I was at the wrong house.

So, turning down the money, I jumped the fence again and crossed the street to the right house.

After calling an ambulance for the 18-year-old who did have appendicitis, I had a settling cup of tea with his mum and then coasted back down the hill to catch up with my sleep on the practice couch."

Dr Bob Brown addresses a gathered protest crowd in 2007.

Dr Bob Brown addresses a gathered protest crowd in 2007.

"THE worst moment of my political career came early.

I was the Green Independent for Denison (central Hobart) in the Tasmanian House of Assembly when, in 1987, attorney-general John Bennett, of the Liberal government, introduced the Sexual Offence Bill, which included amendments to the Criminal Code to make it 'gender neutral'.

The word 'person' would replace the words 'male' or 'female' in the code. Previously, for example, rape was a crime that could only be committed by men against women.

However, Bennett deliberately excepted Section 123, which made 'indecent practice between male persons' an offence punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

This law had destroyed men's lives.

To quote one young victim from Launceston: 'If there had been reform in 1958 I would have been saved from the worst period in my life'.

'I was 21 and living with another man of the same age. The police came to the house and asked who lived there. When we said we did, they asked where we slept and we pointed to the only bed in the house.

'We were taken to the police station, interviewed and charged with gross indecency. In the Supreme Court I pleaded guilty. I had no legal representation. I got three years [in prison] . . .'

Section 123 was to remain for men only. There was some speculation that the Labor opposition would move to delete Section 123, which had caused this poor man's ordeal, from the code.

In South Australia the modernising premier Don Dunstan had got rid of the law criminalising homosexuality a decade before, but this was not for Tasmania.

When the time arrived, Labor did nothing. So I moved to abolish Section 123 but got neither Labor nor Liberal support.

I was desperate not to let the rare opportunity to remove discrimination against homosexuals go by with no change.

I moved impulsively to have Section 123 brought into line with the rest of the Criminal Code by making it gender neutral as well.

I was surprised when the government and opposition said 'aye!' without demur and the debate moved on to the rest of the bill.

That left me more time than I needed to think through the ramifications of my rare legislative success. I went home with the horrors.

Libby Lester, political reporter for the Launceston Examiner, had also worked out what I had done. Her front-page headline on July 11, 1987, said it all: 'LESBIAN BAN LOOMS'.

Here's how Lester's story began: 'Tasmania is likely by next week to be the only Australian state where homosexual acts between consenting females are illegal.

'Homosexual acts are already illegal in Tasmania, but previously female homosexuality was not mentioned in the law.

'An amendment by Dr Bob Brown MHA (Ind. Denison) to include lesbians in the legislation which previously outlawed only male homosexuality was not mentioned in the law was passed by the House of Assembly this week and is unlikely to be touched when it is debated by the conservative Legislative Council.'

After denying I had made an oversight, I lamely told Lester, 'What the amendment does is replace a discriminatory non-operative clause with a non-discriminatory inoperable clause. The law has no right in consenting adults' bedrooms'.

The calls from distressed lesbians and many other citizens started coming in as the story went national. What had I done?!

Too late I learnt an axiom of good parliamentary practice: never legislate on the run.

Attorney-general 'Bullbars' Bennett made it clear he had no intention of reversing my amendment in the Legislative Council, which had a well-earned reputation as the most hidebound and reactionary upper house in the western world.

It was my mess and I alone would have to try to fix the unfixable.

I went through the list of 25 councillors — all male except one — and picked out the least conservative among them.

I called him to explain my absurd mistake and made a heartfelt plea that he move to reverse it. But he told me he thought banning lesbians wasn't a bad idea at all.

I had snookered myself. I feared history would record my defining career outcome as a stupid if not spiteful act against the thousands of women in Tasmania who loved other women.

Overnight I had made myself the global wowser for banning lesbian rights.

I was imploding.

But then, as so often happens in out-of-control adversity, something fell unexpectedly from the sky. It was Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

In Brisbane the notoriously conservative premier of Queensland, a staunch advocate of jailing homosexual men, was asked if he would ban lesbian activities in Queensland.

'Oh, goodness! No, no, no . . .' Premier Joh's disfavour opened a possible door for me.

I knew better than to make a personal plea to the Legislative Council. It loathed 'Greenies', let alone homosexuals.

In 1982 it had voted to dam the Franklin. A few years earlier it had blocked a bill to set up an ombudsman in Tasmania: the councillors themselves were the rightful watchdog for the people of Tasmania.

Way back in 1856 the council had been empowered by governor Denison, representing Queen Victoria (whose 1834 portrait has dominated the chamber to this day), to put a stopper on 'the excesses of democracy' that were liable to erupt from the House of Assembly.

So I sent all 25 councillors the news clip giving Joh Bjelke-Petersen's opinion.

I added an anonymous note pointing out that the amendment to the government's bill in the House of Assembly had been made by none other than Dr Bob Brown.

Fortunately, in her 'Lesbian Ban Looms' article, Libby Lester had repeated the apocryphal story that Queen Victoria 'would not allow the [British] legislators to mention indecent acts against females because she refused to believe that it could happen. As a result the female gender was not mentioned in Tasmanian law'.

The test became clear: would the councillors side with Queen Victoria looking down over them from her Huon pine and gilt-framed portrait, and with premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, or would they side with the homosexual Dr Bob Brown?

The Legislative Council rescinded my amendment and the lesbians of Tasmania were saved."

Optimism: Reflections on a Life of Action, published by Hardie Grant Books, $29.99, is available from selected bookstores.


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