“If You’re Not at the Table You’re On the Menu”- Interview with Sydney MP Alex Greenwich
By Isabella Cornell
We caught up to have a chat with the inspirational, activist/politician Alex Greenwich. The charismatic Alex has been behind the push for Marriage Equality in Sydney for a decade now, but his passion for social justice and personal investment in Sydney’s future reaches far beyond this.
Read as we talk marriage equality, being openly gay in Australian politics, activism, refugees and Trump.
Q: Let’s start by telling us a little bit about yourself
I’m Alex Greenwich, I’m the Member for Sydney in the NSW Parliament but also the co-chair of Australian Marriage equality.
I come from a banking and finance recruitment background. I joined the marriage equality campaign in 2006/2007 and soon progressed into the national convenor role and obviously really enjoyed the challenge of progressing the reform at a very difficult time. I mean 2007 to 2012, when I became the member for Sydney, was a very difficult time in a number of ways. We had to sell to the LGBTI community that this was an important issue, we had to demonstrate the support that there was for the reform in the wider community, we had to get Labor to shift to have a position with their members to actually support reform, and now most of them do. We also had to set a good tone in the debate so it wasn’t seen as an issue too much to the left, but it was one that indeed we could get coalition members to support.
So it was during my time in campaigning for marriage equality, and advocating, that’s where I got my first exposure to the political world. I also travelled around to state parliaments across the country to build support amongst parliamentarians in New South Wales, and I was really proud to work with a good cohort of upper house MP’s towards a motion that passed in 2011, which was a motion from Cate Faehrmann in support of same-sex marriage in the NSW Upper House.
I then, in 2012 went into state politics. What motivated me was when the then O’Farrell government passed legislation that said that Clover couldn’t be the member for Sydney and the Lord Mayor of Sydney at the same time. Sydney-siders had voted for her knowing she was doing both roles, and I had a very strong feeling that my vote and many other people’s votes had been taken away from us. So that inspired me to reach out and to then eventually run for the seat of Sydney, which I did. And that’s sort of how I got to where I am today.
Q: So was it your experience in that advocacy work that did somewhat prompt your move to politics?
That advocacy and campaigning for marriage equality is not necessarily what prompted me into politics. I actually found at that time, it to be not the most enjoyable thing. I have a great deal of respect for people who work in political parties and there are many good people in political parties. But that was just not something that I could do.
So, I thought to myself, there’s no way I will be a politician, because to be a politician you’ve got to be a member of a political party. But it was the unique situation around Clover and my response to her being undemocratically kicked out of the state parliament that motivated me to run for office and to run for the seat of Sydney.
Q: How do you find what you’re doing now compared to the work you were doing before? What are some of the similarities or differences?
I think what has been interesting… A lot of great background in marriage equality advocacy, then really worked quite hard in State Parliament and continued to be there, and also in the past 12-18 months, I have, in addition to my role in State Parliament, I have taken a bit more of an active role in the marriage equality campaign as well- Particularly, with the threat of a plebiscite there, I felt I need to step back up and play a role.
It is interesting, going from being an activist and lobbying MP’s to being an MP myself, was a big transition. I learned that building relationships was critical. I learned that making sure you were prepared to work with anyone across the political spectrum to press your issue was really important, and also seeing politicians as actual people and treating my colleagues with respect. Which is not something that always happens from activists. So I feel that my time as an MP has now helped me, particularly in the last 12 to 18 months where I have taken up a larger advocacy role at the federal level for that.
Q: You’re one of only a handful of openly gay MP’s, what has that experience been like?
Yeah, so there’s two of us in the NSW lower house, myself and Bruce Notley-Smith. But then in the NSW upper house, there’s actually four openly gay members- Don Harwin, Shayne Mallard, Mark Pearson and Penny Sharpe. So there is a good cohort of us, and then federally, there is also Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans, Tim Wilson, Penny Wong and Dean Smith. So there is a growing number of openly gay MP’s. I have found the NSW parliament to be really welcoming, even amongst members who don’t support marriage equality for example. They want to talk to me about it. And I think Bruce particularly broke down so many barriers, from being an openly gay member of the government who members could approach with questions they had, whether that be about marriage equality or other LGBTI law reform, they knew they could go and talk to. So for me, the critical thing is to be really approachable and be prepared to talk about any issue that people want to talk about with me. And to do so in a very open minded way. I am realising, they are coming from electorates where these issues are not as top line as they are in mine.
Q: You’re also quite young compared to a lot of other MP’s, how has your youth influenced your time as an MP?
I am lucky that I am in a profession where I am considered young… I am 35, turning 36 very soon, and there is certainly a good new generation of parliament. I’m certainly not the youngest in NSW parliament, there is a good cohort of them. I bring a different perspective having grown up in a different time. But I have learnt really to respect the more experienced MP’s and the knowledge that they have to bring and share. Obviously I have a different perspective, probably more connected with say, social media than some of the older MPs, but that is also rapidly changing.
Q: I recently saw an article you wrote for the Huffington Post where you said that ‘we are closer than ever before to achieving marriage equality.’ In the wake of the end of the plebiscite, I guess what a lot of people are wondering is- what now? What is next? So how do you see that and the future of marriage equality in the next few years in Australia?
I think it is first important to start by reflecting on the fact that it has been a really tough 12 to 18 months for our community. We have had to prepare for the threat of a plebiscite whilst campaigning against it. And we have had to deal with the fact that our right to be equal citizens was something that was potentially going to go up to a national public vote. And understandably, many people found that very distressing. But what I take heart in is, that in the lead up to the last federal election, Australian marriage equality ran a really strong campaign in a whole bunch of seats. We informed voters as to everyone’s position on the topic of marriage equality and what we have done is ensured that there is a parliament that has been elected that has the majority of the house and the senate in support of marriage equality.
What has held us up from having a vote has been the discussions around the plebiscite and that has obviously gone on for a very long time. Dragging it on has been the responsibility of many sides of politics I would argue. Now that that is behind us, I guess I am really encouraged because with the plebiscite behind us, we are now dealing with a parliament where there is a majority of people in support. There is a strong campaign for reform, and there is a strong will to get this done. I think probably there needs to be some clear air following the defeat of the plebiscite. It was a policy the government took to the election. That policy has now failed. Now we obviously need to work with the government to work out a pathway forward in this term.
Q: In saying that, what would be your advice to non-governmental, grassroots organisations in striving for marriage equality?
I think there is a couple of things that are really important. A key thing is engaging with federal members of parliament. And it could be that it is to a Labor MP or senator in encouraging them to really work with and advocate to their coalition colleagues to get this done. It could be to win over an undecided crossbencher, Labor or Liberal MP. It could be to work with a Liberal MP who is a supporter to demonstrate support to them to get them to vote for reform.
I think the critical thing that we really need to do is that we need to depoliticize the issue and we need to shift the focus back to the people that this reform is about. Because in my experience of 10 years advocating for this reform it is when people are thinking about who they are voting for not what they are voting for that really makes a difference. And we have been doing this throughout the equality campaign at the moment. Really focusing on human stories which everyday Australians can identify with, which everyday members of parliament can identify with and its that, which not only the local experience but the international experience shows wins over hearts and minds. So I would encourage people to share their stories, to talk with their friends and family about marriage equality and indeed to talk to their members of parliament and senators about marriage equality.
Q: You mentioned the standards set internationally, Taiwan is looking like it is about to pass marriage equality and it seems like there is a lot of countries that many people didn’t think would pass marriage equality before Australia. Do you think the marriage equality debate that has gone on, has been damaging to the way Australia is viewed in a global context as a Liberal, democratic country?
I guess I would separate the political class from the wider Australian community. This issue has been tied up in knots in political game playing from people from every party, for far too long. While that has gone on, Australian marriage equality and others have been out there in the community winning over hearts and minds, who don’t see this as a political issue, but see this as a straightforward issue about people just wanting to marry the person that they love in the country that they love. So I think from an international perspective, people see Australians as fair-minded people who support this reform and are surprised that we haven’t got there. I think they look at the politicians we have in federal parliament and wonder, like many Australians, how we have got a majority of support for reform in the community, a majority in support of reform in the parliament, yet we don’t have marriage equality. So I am hoping that with the plebiscite behind us, that we can break that impasse.
Q: What are some other major issues that you are passionate about as an MP?
I guess there are a number more than the LGBTI space, and that ranges from anti-discrimination protections for gay and lesbian people, trans law reform- so ensuring that people aren’t forced to go through surgical intervention to be able to change their sex or gender on their birth certificate. Just like, they don’t have to go through surgical intervention to change it on their passport, it should be the same for their birth certificate.
I am really proud that this year we were able to deliver an apology to the 78’ers in NSW parliament. I am really proud that the year before that we were able to legislate to expunge former criminal convictions of largely gay men charged previously.
I am also encouraged in the way in which engagement with the police is improving, there is still obviously some legacy and historical around gay hate crimes I the 80’s and 90’s that still need to be resolved, and I think there is wounds that have not healed there yet. So I will continue to work with the police to make sure that happens.
Another glaring issue for Sydney is how we address the lock out laws, this is soemthing that has caused a great deal of frustration for Sydney siders and I continue to work with the government and the city of Sydney to get the balance right. We need to make sure that venues that provide diversity to our nightlife are exempt from the 1:30am lockout. It is clear from what we know about the star and the fact that a number of instances were not reported to the police, that there has been a displacement and that obviously hasn’t solved the problem. I think we need to provide a really good variety to our nightlife. That venues that are providing live music and entertainment can get an exemption from the 1:30am lockout. And we can go back to having a safe and vibrant nightlife in Sydney.
Q: How do you see Australia’s treatment of refugees, especially considering Turnbull’s lifetime ban proposal, especially when in Papua New Guinea homosexuality is not yet decriminalised?
In my view, this is another issue which has been overly politicised and in which there is a disconnect, again between the political class and the community. My experience with Australians is that we are welcoming people and we are an immigrant nation. Aside from Indigenous Australians, either ourselves, our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents, or our great great grandparents all immigrated here. So I think we understand what it is like to immigrate and to need to leave a country. I think many Australians have also fled persecution and discrimination at different times.
My experience is that as a nation we are actually really welcoming. We want to be welcoming refugees and asylum seekers and we’ve seen that in NSW, our premier Mike Baird has made strong statements in support of refugees and asylum seekers and welcoming them. They’ve been able to take steps like ensuring there is proper concession passes for public transport, taking the bulk of the Syrian refugees that are coming into the country and indeed the government supported my motion about welcoming asylum seekers and refugees to NSW.
There is though, some times that the politics of extremes takes over and that is what we’re seeing play out at a federal level. I always think it is great that hopefully Manus Island and Nauru will be closed down, because as you rightly say, these are countries where being gay is illegal and gay people are obviously often fleeing persecution or discrimination based on their sexuality, so sending them to Manus Island or Nauru is just cruel.
So, I think the lifetime ban seems to be something that is unworkable and I don’t think really fits in with the Australian spirit of being quite welcoming to people who are needing to flee quite dire circumstances.
Q: You recently wrote on your twitter, presumably in response to the Mardi Gras board’s motion not to invite Turnbull in an official capacity this year, ““Having been part of a number of successful campaigns for LGBTI rights … it’s best to invite and engage, not attack”.
As such an influential figure in the fight for marriage equality and LGBTI rights in Australia, how do you reconcile a willingness to extend such an honorary invite to someone who’s actions have ultimately stood in the way of achieving marriage equality and other issues facing the community?
What my colleagues will always say about me is that I’m the ultimate optimist, and it is that optimist that I think has been accountable for a lot of my drive and passion to play a role in a number of issues succeeding. In my experience, engaging and talking to people, making people feel welcome, wins them over, shutting the door on them, makes them go in the other direction. So, I think that Mardi Gras, is an amazing platform to put forward to case of the urgency of marriage equality. That is done through floats, that is done through direct advocacy, that is done through the hundreds of thousands of people who support marriage equality, coming out to oxford street to make that point.
I think it is beneficial for the Prime Minister to see that, rather than to be discouraged from seeing that. I think that obviously there is a great deal of frustration of inaction, and it is inaction that not only of this Prime Minister, but of previous Prime Ministers and previous Prime Ministers who have been invited to Mardi Gras and who haven’t come. Malcolm Turnbull did come last year as a guest of SBS. For me, the concern is, I completely understand the frustration people have, and it is completely understandable, that as the head of the Australian government, that that frustration be directed at the Prime Minister. The reality is though, that we actually need to work with Turnbull’s federal government if we want to achieve marriage equality. So I am all about olive branches and I am all about working with, not working against. And I know that people can have a differing view of that, and I completely understand where they are coming from and you know, I am not a member of Mardi Gras, so I don’t have a vote, my approach though, is always one to be welcoming and engaging and I know that if we are talking about, the VIP viewing area of Mardi Gras it is going to be full of people who are going to be directly lobbying the prime minister to make marriage equality happen, and I would rather that happens than that doesn’t happen.
Q: For you personally, who are some of your professional or political role models that you really look up to?
The first one is obviously Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney. I, with my family immigrated from New Zealand in 87, Clover became the member for what was then the seat of Bligh in 88, so I actually largely always grew up in a Sydney represented by Clover. Fiercely independent, was always able to stand up to the major parties, and was always able to deliver results. So always, gained a great deal of inspiration from clover, and I am very lucky to have a strong working relationship with her. Her political advice is better than anyone’s is my experience.
Other people I look up to would be Bob Brown, the first openly gay member of the Senate. Bob again, a fearless defender and someone who was a politician who was gay, and didn’t let that define him, but indeed was someone who’s mark on the Australian political system is something that will be ever present in my view. Again, someone who is really prepared to stand up to major parties to work with them and to deliver results.
Another one who is definitely a political role model of mine, is Greens senator Sarah Hanson Young. I think no one has done a better role than Sarah in shining a light on the appalling treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and in my experience, few people have been as focused on actually achieving marriage equality and having the approach of needing to work with members across the political spectrum than Sarah.
I have learned a great deal from Sarah, from Bob and indeed from Clover. Those would be my top three.
I would also flag my fellow independent in NSW parliament, Greg Piper, he is someone who has really taught me a lot about the role of a member of parliament to be representing all of your constituents… whether they are currently in incarceration, whether they are people who fundamentally disagree with you on a number of issues… As a member of Parliament you represent all of your electorate and you have a duty to all of them and Greg has taught me that greatly.
Q: What are your thoughts on what is happening in America in the wake of a Trump election?
My mum is American, and I have a great number of friends in the US, and as I said I’m an optimist, so let’s look at some of the good news… Marijuana was legalised in 4 states, a number of LGBTI people were elected to public office, a number of my friends like California senator Ricardo Lara returned with big swings. Obviously there is a great concern about the presidency, a number of things that were said in the lead up to his presidency were deeply concerning. I take a little bit of heart in what he said about the decision on marriage equality to say, its been done.
I guess what I really take from the Trump election, is that the real lesson for Australia is that we cannot let ourselves be hijacked by the politics of extremes, and it is all too tempting to go to the far left, or the far right, to say the most shocking thing to get attention and to repeat people’s fears back to them rather than look towards solutions. So for me I hope people’s responses are to distance themselves from the politics of extremes which happens on the left and the right of politics. I think that we need to be a country that is able to continue to have conversations about important issues rather than name-call. So I hope that we can learn that if we go down that path, the politics of extremes, and the tone of calling ourselves victims or victimizing other people that that is what we are going to end up with. Instead let’s focus on conversations and solutions.
Q: So in saying that, what is the one message or piece of advice you would like to pass on to the community?
To be optimistic. To realise how far we have come and to realise that the gay and lesbian community is not a community that has ever turned away from a struggle or a battle. And to realise that we are better united and the we ourselves need to always demonstrate inclusion and tolerance because that is how we want to be treated, and to spend time really engaging with people, particularly people who may have a differing view, because that is your opportunity to win people over.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt in my four years in politics is that if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu. So engage in those conversations, be at the table in those tough discussions, run for public office, engage with people, show that visibility whether it is in your family, your community, or in your local council, your state parliament or federal parliament, because it is only when we have that visibility and we are directly there, that people can’t say no to us.
Only other thing I would say, is that it is it is also important, that whilst we have these topline political discussions about issues like marriage equality, that we really don’t forget about supporting organisations that service vulnerable LGBTI people, whether that’s twenty10 or the Inner City Legal Centre. There are many of us that are very lucky, and there are many of us that struggle a lot and are very vulnerable, and we always have to remember the importance of looking after our own community.