The Canberra Bubble

It’s impossible not to be proud of Canberra. Despite the Prime Minister’s attempts at using “the Canberra Bubble” as a dismissive and straightforward slur on the politics that is part of Canberra’s DNA, I’m delighted to use it differently. We have, over successive generations, created a bubble that celebrates diversity to such an extent that I feel more at home, more safe and more welcome here than anywhere else.

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the formation of Australia’s first gay rights organisation, established right here in Canberra by a group of allies who wished to remove homosexuality from the criminal code.

I was fortunate to attend a panel discussion of some of these folk and recognised parallels.

Like my contemporary campaigners, they spent much of their time knocking on the doors of power, sharing their unshakable beliefs, writing op-eds and taking interviews. All pushing against not only the Establishment that actively kept us on the margins but the inertia supported by those working within the establishment who had the mistaken belief that the status quo must be defended rather than challenged.

Each panel member took their turn, sharing memories, shaking heads in good-humoured frustration.

50 years on I was shaking my head too.

Not only out of respect to their stories but that this narrative continues today.

Too often, by too many, there remains an uncritical assumption that what we have is as it should be. Not here though, in some quarters.

Recently, I was delighted to attend the launch of the ACT Government’s “Capital of Equality” strategy to improve the lives of LGBTIQ+ people.

It’s a great initiative and a reflection of the support and investment in our community by the current government.

At this early point, it is a framework of things to come and while it’s welcome it shows “Capital of Equality” is an admirable & achievable ambition rather than a reflection of where we are today.

Fortunately, I’m more confident that we’ll become the Capital of Equality than those who joined forces to plead with the Establishment to decriminalise us 50 years ago.

What concerns me is how long it will take for the Establishment to shift. In particular, Canberra’s directorates which are all too familiar in providing services and facilities on the assumption that we are all straight and cis-gendered, or that their core responsibility is to provide services and facilities for the rest of society, not us.

It’s a well-founded concern. Like those advocates from 50 years ago, I’ve knocked on doors and had meetings with our public service. In one instance a directorate head informed me that their organisation was busy conducting a “whole-of-service review”. Too busy to consider changing the way in which the organisation served LGBTIQ+ Canberrans. I was told they may have more time in 18 months time after the review was complete.

Let that one sink in.

This highlights three barriers for change if we pretty graciously exclude bias.

The first is some in our public service don’t yet see us as a cohort that their services or facilities are required to include. Not as a bonus if they find the time, but as essential to their responsibilities.

The second is that there is no defined urgency in creating change. What we have seen is (sometimes) orderly, incremental, sporadic, opportunistic, eventual change.

How long will it take to shift our directorates? Bringing us into the focus of the agencies our taxes pay for and what will be the collateral cost of that delay?

The third is that the cultural politics of the last 50 years have seen services for LGBTIQ+ citizens largely deflected to NGOs. While many of those NGOs have developed to be excellent, targeted and well-informed service deliverers, they will never fill the void left by government agencies that currently tailor their programs and delivery to straight, cis-gendered citizens.

So, what can we expect of the Capital of Equality, at least in this context? Patience with incremental change over the next several years or decades? Or urgent directives to invest, recognise, engage and include as a matter of urgency, within a timeline?

Make no mistake, I am grateful for what our ACT government, and successive recent governments, have done to change the status quo. I’m concerned the roadmap acknowledges resistance and assumes a long road to change when it says a goal is to “support mainstream services to be safe, inclusive and appropriate”.

Like many, I would suggest that my expectation has risen to “demand” or “mandate”. I think our opportunity includes urgency.

Let’s imagine what could be achieved if it was acknowledged that our continued exclusion in government services continues to cause unnecessary injury in our Capital of Equality. It’s taken 50 years to get to this point, how long will it take for us to be included? 

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