Marriage Equality Sellout?

Pic: thetaxhaven

Australian Marriage Equality is the leading campaigner for our marriage rights, but are they still run by the community, or has there been a stealthy takeover behind the scenes?

Like many people in the LGBTI community I’ve been puzzled, and not a little angered, by what looks to me like the failure of Australian Marriage Equality to engage much during the election campaign. I’ve been inundated with people asking wtf is going on. Read on for enlightenment.

AME fend off criticism with two lines: that they’re keeping their powder dry for the plebiscite; and that they want to change the nature of the debate from politics to personal conversations. You know, having cups of tea with granny etc etc refuting the charge of lack of engagement, AMEs Alex Greewich explains.

Along with our team of volunteers we’ve been to nearly 30 marginal seats in the course of the election to build and support campaigns especially in outer-suburban, rural and regional areas – it’s been covered in about 40 local and national papers. Our message is a clear that marriage equality should be achieved by the parliament, not through a plebiscite.

This technique is a straight steal from the Irish referendum campaign. Hardly surprising, when they’re employing the former director of that campaign, flown in for the purpose.

But most G.A.Y. people are terrified of a plebiscite. Not because we think we’d lose, but because of the damage it will do. We already lose too many of our people, especially our vulnerable teens, and trans people, to suicide, hatred and violence. We can’t afford a plebiscite campaign. Anecdotally, the hate is already ramping up even before we have a plebiscite to legitimise it. Increasing numbers reporting anxiety, depression, suicidality. Verbal and physical violence on the streets. And the ACLs promise of a respectful debate looks like is a sick joke.

Chatting with friends about AMEs lacklustre performance for the thousandth time, someone remarked “they’ve probably run out of money. After all, it’s a while since they’ve been fundraising.” And it’s true. AME don’t seem to have been round with the begging bowl for quite a while.

That’s odd, I thought, with an election and possible plebiscite in the offing. Odder still, as they’ve been recruiting staff, most notably, importing the head of the Irish referendum campaign, Tiernan Brady. I wonder who or what is paying for all this?

Greenwich says nothing has changed: fundraising has proceeded as normal, from the usual sources.

AME’s funding arrangements haven’t changed, we are largely a volunteer based organisation and thanks to successful crowd funding campaigns and fundraising events have been able to engage some great staff to help us out.

Puzzling. Then someone else reminded me that of their most effective campaigners, Ivan Hinton-Teoh, had resigned some months back without any meaningful explanation.

Then another thought surfaced : why had the most senior figure in AME, and some would argue, in the gay movement, Rodney Croome, disappeared on holiday to Europe for several weeks, and only returned a fortnight ago? Why has he been conspicuously (mostly) silent during the election campaign?

A bit of a trawl around social media revealed that Hinton-Teoh has been campaigning furiously against a plebiscite. Croome has also been making his opposition to a plebiscite clear. Yet AME give me the impression of focussing on winning the plebiscite rather than the election. Greenwich denies this.

Our vote4equality site is getting thousands of visits, and social media profiles of supportive candidates is getting tens of thousands of views, as is our content regarding a plebiscite being totally unnecessary.

To put it bluntly, it was clear to me that something was going on at AME. There has clearly been a split. But why?

I decided to try to find out: not easy when none of the main players will talk to you, and no-one, apart from Greenwich, will go on the record. It was at this point that things started to take a bizarre turn. I felt as if I was in the remake of The X-Files.

“I can’t tell you anything, but you tell me what you got, and I’ll tell you if you’re on the right track.”

“I don’t buy it. This is just your lefty paranoia.”

“Congratulations. You’re annoying some very important people. Keep digging.”

“Maybe after the election. It’ll be clearer Sunday. Better make that Monday. Yeah, call me Monday. Maybe.”

“You’ll have to put it together yourself. I can’t give you a name. Just ‘think winter.'”

“Think winter?” What the hell does that mean? Do I have to schlep out to some underground car park next? What is it with all this overheated cloak and daggery??

But mostly it’s been silences, no comments, unreturned calls and messages. Nonetheless I am confident enough of my sources to say that I have a good idea what has happened: Malcolm Turnbull supporters are now effectively in control of AME.

It begins with that curious lack of fundraising activity. If they’re not passing the begging bowl, they have to be getting money from somewhere. But where?

It’s no secret that some very wealthy A-list Sydney gays give money to AME, as do several big corporates, like Qantas. Maybe Alan Joyce had tipped in a pile of cash, I thought. It turns out he gave some, but not enough to explain what was going on.

Maybe someone else on the A-list. Stories of one donor beginning to dominate. No-one will give me a name, but in honour of my melodramatic informant, I’ll call him Mr Winter. He’s said to be exceedingly rich.

UPDATE: thanks to everyone who emailed, messaged and posted to Facebook, the mystery is solved

Winter tipped in more money, more consistently, gradually gaining a greater influence over the organisation. People like Croome and Hinton-Teoh pushed back, but were overruled. Winter began virtually dictating policy. Winter was most anxious that AME should back Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal policy for a plebiscite as the only way forward.

I imagine the argument went something like this: Turnbull is going to ace this election, but he can’t get us a free vote. If he tries, the religious right will tear him down (I think this is a big fat bluff, myself). So you can’t waste all this money I’m giving you on fighting against the coalition in the election: we have to get behind Malcolm and that means the plebiscite. Then, when Malcolm is re-elected, we’ll be in the box seat to run the Yes campaign, and snaffle all that lovely money he’s going to hand out.

This seems to have been the clincher. It was a compelling argument, because Mr Winter the rich gay AME donor is also a Liberal party donor, and personal friend of… Malcolm Turnbull.

And for the moment, the story ends there. I have endured phone calls where I have been offered no comment beyond “go on” and “keep digging”. I have been told I must be careful. Or at least wait till after the election. But no-one has told me I am wrong. Not one person has contradicted the story in its essentials. And I have absolute confidence in my sources.

I asked Alex Greenwich a few more questions, but remain unenlightened.

I have been told of a policy disagreement at AME related to the plebiscite. That policy is now being driven to a considerable extent by one particular donor. Who is he?

No response

Are you getting major funding from a person close to Malcolm Turnbull?

No answer

Do you expect that in return for your support, you’ll get to run the YES campaign?

No answer

Like Malcolm’s promises of the plebiscite and the marriage bill “sailing through”, we’re just going to have to take ithis on trust.

If any of you caught up in this would like to talk to me, on or off the record, I’m happy to listen.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)