As the federal government continues to shirk its responsibility to legislate for marriage equality, councils are increasingly being called on to take a lead.
On April 26, former mayor Councillor Rose Hodge moved a motion that the Surf Coast Shire Council fly the Pride flag continuously from May 17 (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia) until the federal government passed a law in support of marriage equality.
Five councillors voted in favour, three, including the mayor Brian McKiterick, voted against and there was one councillor absent. The three councillors who voted against claimed to support marriage equality but argued that the motion was not local government business.
The Surf Coast community celebrated and activists encouraged residents to let the mayor know about their support.
Many councils have passed similar motions, including Darebin and Yarra City councils in Victoria and Fremantle and Bayswater councils in Western Australia.
The corporate media reported the vote as “controversial” and said there had been a split. It quoted local Liberal MP Simon Ramsay who said that flying the flag was an inappropriate use of ratepayers’ money and not council’s responsibility.
Things came to a head at the May 23 Surf Coast Council meeting. A motion was put to immediately take down the flag until council consulted the community. The motion was put by the one councillor who had been absent the previous meeting, and now was outspoken against flying the flag.
The council was split down the middle and the Mayor used his casting vote to oppose it. Hodge then moved to rescind the motion which allowed the rainbow flag to fly until the June meeting.
Activists organising around a Surfcoast for Equality Facebook group, which had hundreds joining in hours, started emailing the councillors who voted to take the flag down. They also started a #PutOutYourFlag campaign which called on residents and local businesses to fly the rainbow flag. A Change.org petition was sent around and residents collected hard copy signatures as well.
On June 24, a high school student organised a sit-in outside council where attendees were asked to make as much noise as possible to emphasise the point that too often the LGBTIQ community is silenced.
On June 27, Geelong Trades Hall showed its support for marriage equality by raising the rainbow flag and issuing a statement in support of it and Surf Coast residents.
That evening council unanimously passed a motion, proposed by the Mayor, to fly the flag “in support for the LGBTIQ community”. There was no mention of marriage equality and the motion included a proposal to move the flag to a new 8-metre flagpole so it would not fly higher than the Australian flag.
Despite not winning the original motion, the struggle to fly the rainbow flag has pushed the campaign forward at council level. It has brought together the LGBTIQ community who are now organising together. It has formed a local Easy Speak group that meets once a month, and LGBTIQ youth are being consulted on what services they need.
The rainbow flag will now fly continuously at the Surf Coast Shire Council building —a symbol of inclusivity and equality. While the words “marriage equality” may not have been passed, most people identify the rainbow flag with that democratic reform.
This debate at council level has shown we can make progress in this campaign, despite corporate media’s support for a vocal bigoted minority.
Marriage equality is hardly controversial when more than 70% of Australians support it. Rather, what is controversial is that the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, both of whom claim to support marriage equality, are determined not lead on it.