Bigots' Island becomes gay rights central: Tasmania is undergoing a remarkable cultural conversion

 

Sydney

Twenty years after being dubbed "Bigots' Island", Tasmania is shaking off its reputation as a bastion of conservatism so successfully that it now seems more like Progressive Central. It looks set to be the first place in Australia to legalise same-sex marriage, and is considering a whole range of reforms that will make it one of the most liberal places on Earth.

The island state off mainland Australia was one of the last places in the Western world to decriminalise homosexuality. Mass rallies in the 1990s against repeal of the sodomy laws resounded to chants of "Kill them, kill them", and some politicians called for gay men to be whipped.

Last week, though, as the Australian federal parliament dashed hopes of a vote on the issue, gay rights activists in Tasmania expressed optimism that same-sex marriage would be legalised there before the end of this year. Last September, legislation was defeated in the state's upper house by just two votes.

Long regarded as a social backwater, Australia's southern-most state has blazed a progressive trail in recent times. A Bill to legalise euthanasia is expected to be introduced later this year. Sow stalls have been banned by the Labor-Green government, and battery-hen farming is being phased out – both firsts for Australia. There is even debate about banning smoking for people born after 2000. Tasmania, which finally decriminalised homosexuality in 1997, has also led the rest of the country in atoning for past treatment of Aboriginal Australians. Five years before the then PM, Kevin Rudd, delivered a national apology, the state apologised to the "Stolen Generations" of mixed-race children forcibly removed from their families. Its government is the only one in Australia to have paid compensation.

Tasmanians could be forgiven for pinching themselves, so radically have things changed in little over a decade. But they, too, have changed, according to opinion polls. In 1988, support for the decriminalisation of homosexuality was at 15 per cent below the national figure. Recent polls have found support for same-sex marriage to be several per cent higher than nationally.

Although 65 per cent of Australians favour legalising gay marriage, two private members' Bills were defeated in the federal parliament last year, and the latest draft legislation – introduced by a Green MP, Adam Bandt – will not be voted on until after a general election in September. That election will almost certainly be won by the opposition Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, a conservative Roman Catholic. Mr Abbott has so far refused to allow Coalition MPs a conscience vote.

However, Rodney Croome, the Tasmanian-based national director of the lobby group Australian Marriage Equality, believes the political climate is changing, not least because of New Zealand's recent legalisation on gay marriage and Britain's moves to follow suit. "In the case of New Zealand, there's an added rivalry because Australians don't like to be beaten by New Zealand, be it on the sporting field or in social reform," he said yesterday.

In Tasmania, the main obstacle remains the notoriously conservative Upper House, which in the 1990s rejected the Bill to decriminalise homosexual relationships six times. The same-sex marriage Bill – expected to be re-introduced in the coming months – will have a better chance this time, campaigners believe. They say constitutional issues – cited by some Upper House members who opposed it last time – will have been clarified.

"Because of Tasmania's past as the last Australian state and one of the last places in the world to decriminalise homosexuality, it would be a source of immense pride to be the first jurisdiction in Australia to achieve this," said Mr Croome.

The campaign to legalise homosexuality began in 1988, when activists set up a stall at the Saturday market in Hobart's Salamanca Place, collecting signatures for a petition. Every Saturday, Hobart City Council officials would order them to dismantle the stall. When they refused, the council would summon police, waiting in nearby vans, who arrested dozens of people.

With the Salamanca Market one of Tasmania's biggest tourist attractions, drawing thousands each weekend, the civil disobedience campaign won widespread coverage. A total of 130 people were arrested, including Mr Croome, who was detained four times. However, it was another decade before the state bowed to national and international pressure, which included condemnation of its laws by the UN's Human Rights Committee.

Those who welcome a more progressive Tasmania note that the seeds were planted long ago. In the 1970s, the state was the birthplace of modern Aboriginal politics, with protest marches leading to the recognition of Tasmanian Aboriginal identity and the burying of a century-old myth that the race became extinct in 1876 with the death of Truganini, the last full-blooded Aborigine.

It was also the cradle of the global environmental movement, with the world's first Green party created there in 1972. A place of pristine wildernesses and outstanding natural beauty, it was at the same time (and until very recently) the site of rapacious logging of old-growth native forests. To the outside world, Tasmanians were greenies or rednecks, although the reality was more nuanced. "If you look at the forestry issue, in particular, it's a battle for the Tasmanian soul, and that's what has underpinned politics here for a long time," says Cassy O'Connor, a Tasmanian Greens minister.

In recent times, Tamania's reputation as a cultural desert has been overturned, thanks to the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), which opened in 2011 beside Hobart's Derwent River. Featuring the private art collection of a professional gambler, the multi-millionaire David Walsh, Mona has won international plaudits and boosted Tasmanian tourism, with 1,500 visitors a day.

Tasmanians now talk of a "Mona moment", symbolising the state's transformation. Ms O'Connor says: "When David Walsh built Mona, it was such an act of faith in this place, and in our identity and what we have to offer. I actually think Mona changed the way a lot of Tasmanians think about this place. Because suddenly the eyes of the cultural world were on us, and we have here in Hobart this amazing cultural institution of international value."

The Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan has a different perspective. In a New Yorker article this year, he wrote: "Of many misunderstandings Mona has given rise to not the least is that it is in sharp contrast to a Tasmania frequently misrepresented in mainland Australia as conservative. But it [Tasmania] is better understood as a place of extremes, radicalism and unreality, and Mona merely its latest manifestation."

Mr Flanagan said: "We've still got a pretty conservative polity, enacting backward, divisive and unnecessary policies." He cited the government's backing for a pulp mill in a scenic valley, its endorsement of mining in the Tarkine Wilderness area, and its insistence on building a motorway bridge across a riverbed north of Hobart despite the discovery of 40,000-year-old Aboriginal artefacts at the site. One factor often missing from the debate, he believes, is the relatively high levels of poverty and welfare dependency in Tasmania.

Advocates of same-sex marriage say it would boost tourism and the ailing economy. Mr Walsh is keen to host weddings at Mona, envisaging a Hotel Mona, or HoMo.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor