Tue, Nov 14, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Australian crocodile hunter is unlikely gay rights champion

By Rod McGuirk  /  AP, CANBERRA

As a self-described straight crocodile hunter from the country’s rugged and socially conservative far north, Australian lawmaker Warren Entsch does not fit many people’s mold of a gay rights activist.

However, if results of a nationwide postal survey this week reveal that most Australians want same-sex marriage legalized, it is Entsch — from the country’s leading conservative party, no less — who plans to introduce legislation that could make it a reality as soon as next month.

Entsch, 67, emerged as an unlikely champion for gay rights back in 2004, when he complained that the government had amended federal laws to make clear that marriage exists only between a man and a woman.

He was the only lawmaker from his conservative Liberal Party or the center-left opposition Labor Party to speak out, earning him the moniker “progressive redneck” from bemused media outlets.

“I got literally thousands and thousands of communiques, not from the gays, but from the broader community — family, friends and relatives of gays — saying that if a healthy heterosexual, far north Queensland crocodile-farming, bull-catching Liberal can speak out on behalf of my gay friend or relative, we want to come out too,” Entsch said.

Gay rights advocates say Entsch’s championing of the issue was instrumental in getting Australia to change about 100 federal laws almost a decade ago.

Under the changes, gay couples in long-term relationships were treated the same as married couples on issues such as taxation, pensions and welfare payments.

However, removing discrimination against gays from the Marriage Act remained a step too far for most lawmakers.

Rodney Croome, a veteran gay rights campaigner, said no lawmaker deserves more credit than Entsch for pushing the issue — even though Australian Parliament now has several openly gay lawmakers.

“A key to Warren’s success is that he’s an unlikely champion,” Croome said. “It’s meant that his fellow Liberals are less able to dismiss him as having a personal interest in it and it effectively means that they have to think of the principles involved.”

However, Entsch has not managed to win over much of his own party, which has long opposed same-sex marriage.

Fellow Liberal lawmaker Craig Kelly, a vocal same-sex marriage opponent, sees Entsch as a political maverick.

“We don’t want to make jokes about our far north Queensland cousins, but often they’re an unusual bunch,” Kelly said.

Entsch said his interest in gay rights was sparked by an Outback ranch cook he knew in the 1970s who moved to Sydney for gender reassignment surgery and became a female doctor.

Entsch retired from politics in 2007, but returned for 2010 elections, where he unseated the Labor Party candidate.

“Everybody told me I was taking a risk up here. It’s a place full of rednecks,” he said, referring to his 149,000km2 electoral district, which extends from the city of Cairns, where he lives, north to islands off Papua New Guinea.

“I don’t do it for politics. I do it because it’s right,” he said.

In 2015, then-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a same-sex marriage opponent, committed his conservative government to holding a compulsory nationwide vote to decide whether the unions should be legal.

He was replaced weeks later by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who supports marriage equality and opposed the public vote, but eventually agreed to it in a deal with party powerbrokers.

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