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Reflections on the Fitzgerald era: The Social Justice Advocate

Mark Young
I WAS WORKING as the Uniting Church Queensland Synod’s Social Responsibility officer when the Fitzgerald Report was submitted to the Queensland Parliament on 3 July 1989.

The Report followed a two year judicial inquiry, led by Tony Fitzgerald QC, and went some way towards restoring respect for democracy in Queensland.

One of the recommendations of the Fitzgerald Report was that the state should review its laws regarding voluntary sexual behaviour. A Parliamentary Criminal Justice Committee (CJC) was consequently commissioned to consider the proposed decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Churches were divided by the government’s proposal.

The Uniting Synod Social Responsibility Committee argued that the existing legislation in Queensland discouraged homosexual men from coming forward for AIDS testing due to fear of prosecution.

This was not a popular position amongst Uniting Church congregations, many of which preferred the stance taken by the Baptist, Presbyterian and Lutheran Churches in expressing complete opposition to law reform.

Ever mindful of the influence of the churches in matters of personal morality, the government took the unusual step of providing church leaders, including the Moderator of the Uniting Church and the Archbishop of the Anglican Church, with a preview of a Preamble to the proposed Bill.

This Preamble included a statement that “Parliament neither condones nor condemns the acts which cease to be criminal because of this legislation”.

It was one of the few times during my involvement with Synod social responsibility matters (from 1988 to 2000) that the government of the day took a proactive interest in what the churches had to say about a piece of legislation.

Clearly there was politics afoot, but there was also a refreshingly open style of leadership, evidenced by the fact that the Parliamentary CJC held public hearings to consider the range of strongly held opinions.

In hindsight it was apparent that the government was divided about the concept of a Preamble, which tried to separate messages about personal morality from the process of repealing an inadequate law.

I am supposing that the Queensland Attorney-General at the time, Deane Wells MP (a former university lecturer in philosophy) and the young head of the Office of Premier and Cabinet, Kevin Rudd (less than a decade past his Student Christian Movement days at university) wanted ‘clear air’ in which the matter could be debated, free of the instinctive conservatism displayed in the 1970s and 1980s by the then Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Photo : Mark Young