The Rainbow Family Kids Who Helped Bring Down The Plebiscite

'We feel free. We won't get hurt now.'

12/10/2016 1:37 PM AEDT | Updated 12/10/2016 1:39 PM AEDT
Andrew Meares
the Rainbow Families group at Parliament House in September, with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Greens Senator Janet Rice

CANBERRA -- As Bill Shorten announced on Tuesday that Labor would block the marriage equality plebiscite, almost certainly dooming the idea to failure, a small group of parents and kids inside Parliament House let out a cheer. It was the announcement they'd been waiting months to hear, the culmination of back-to-back visits to the nation's capital and meetings, conversations, phone calls and emails with countless federal politicians.

Annette Sparks and Samantha Walsh are from Rainbow Families, a community organisation promoting equality and support for LGBTI parents and families. They're sitting on the terrace of the public cafe in Parliament House, almost literally basking in the good news as Canberra's weak October sun shines down. It's just hours after Shorten made his announcement, and the women are still buzzing when The Huffington Post Australia meets them. Their kids Callum, Sadie and Rafi, all aged 10, natter as they slurp down the last drops of their milkshakes.

"We're very excited. It's a very emotional day," Walsh said.

"Even though it will still be a battle to get marriage equality in this country, I feel like [the plebiscite being voted down] will put a stop to a hatred campaign. Now if they would just hurry up and do a free vote, we'd all be fine."

Rainbow Families/Facebook
The Rainbow Families group in Canberra on Tuesday; Callum (blue hair, holding sign), Sadie (grey shawl, middle), Annette (glasses, behind Sadie), Samantha (short hair and vest on right of photo), Rafi (striped shirt, holding sign) and Felicity (behind Rafi, glasses and dark jacket)

Tuesday was the second Canberra visit for Rainbow Families in the last month. They came to Parliament House several weeks ago, a 49-strong contingent of parents and children, to directly lobby federal politicians to oppose the plebiscite; you might remember our story on Eddie Blewett, part of that group, who posed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull a question about the plebiscite through Labor's Tanya Plibersek in question time. The group added their personal stories to the more formal legislative lobbying work done over a long period by anti-plebiscite LGBTI groups like Australian Marriage Equality and Australians for Equality.

Walsh said the group had formal meetings with several dozen MPs and senators on their first visit, speaking to them about the plebiscite and their fears that any accompanying public campaign would further marginalise and target their vulnerable children. Many more politicians sought them out in Canberra to say hello.

"Rather than just using the kids [as props] in the argument, we let them have a say, let them speak," Sparks said.

"When we came four weeks ago, it was a different feeling. Some politicians were talking about the plebiscite like 'this is the chance, this is the opportunity for marriage equality', they thought they were doing us a favour. They thought this was the right path to go down. But as we said, we'll wait, if that's what it takes. We don't need to wait, but if we must wait another term, we will."

Walsh and Sparks said a grassroots campaign of Rainbow Families members and supporters had targeted key undecided parliamentarians with phone calls, emails and meetings. The group spent a lot of time with Labor during their first visit, as well as speaking to the Nick Xenophon Team and the Greens, but the women said they were disappointed that only a handful of government figures had agreed to meetings. They said Turnbull would not meet with them.

Fairfax Media
Rainbow families at Shorten's press conference on Tuesday, where he announced Labor would oppose the plebiscite

"When Malcolm asked Bill in the parliament 'what changed', I wanted to yell 'what changed is that Bill listened to us, he met with us, not like you Malcolm'," Walsh said.

Sparks said that the politicians who did agree to a meeting, or at least said hello in the corridors of Parliament House, were very receptive to their arguments and especially to the children.

"The kids had a great experience. Some of them were a bit overwhelmed but the great thing was when we met an MP or one of their advisors, they either introduced themselves as coming from a rainbow family, or being gay or lesbian themselves, or introducing them to someone who was. It was a very safe space. The kids felt very comfortable just having conversations," she said.

"My son Leo couldn't understand that Malcolm Turnbull wouldn't meet with us. He called the office and begged, they said no can do. That's a 12-year-old. He felt so empowered by the end of the day."

Their milkshakes drained and slurped of every last drop, the kids piped up across the table.

"I liked talking to people today. Now we know there won't be a plebiscite, we feel free. We won't get hurt now," Sadie said.

"I'm very happy. I was very worried about people saying mean things, about what people would say," Callum added.

Felicity Marlowe, one of the conveners of Rainbow Families, said she hoped the group's efforts had played some part in Labor's opposition to the plebiscite idea.

" We saw the tenor of debate around the plebiscite was becoming more uncivil, and we needed our kids to be part of the debate," she told HuffPost Australia.

"Our children are often the first target of anti-marriage equality campaigners, first and foremost in the material produced about marriage equality, and we thought our kids need a voice in that debate."

Andrew Meares
Rainbow Families outside Parliament House in September

The plebiscite is not necessarily dead, buried and cremated, to borrow a phrase from Tony Abbott. While Labor has signalled their intent to oppose the measure, there is the possibility the government could make concessions or changes to win Labor's support -- but that is looking increasingly unlikely. Marlowe said she hoped the plebiscite debate would be pushed to the side, and that moves would be made toward having a marriage equality vote in the parliament instead.

"What we all do as parents is encourage compromise, to work together and come up with a solution. That's my parenting advice for the parliament, work together, and get marriage equality done and dusted," she said.

"The tide is turning. As a social justice and human rights policy, this can be the legacy of this term of parliament. If we can keep the momentum up, if friends and allies stand up, and demand our pols take action and get on with it, there will be enough public impetus and spirit and energy to make the change that needs to happen."

Walsh signed off with a final thought.

"We've given our kids a voice. They can't vote. These are all young kids, they've been spoken about a lot in the media and they wanted to have a voice. That's been a really important part of this, that they're not a hypothetical," she said.

"People have used rainbow kids as an excuse. Don't use them as an excuse. Just listen to them."

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