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Politics

Spreading appeal of the Sex Party as civil liberties champion

The party once dismissed as a voice for pimps and perverts is among myriad micro parties that are staking their claim on Victoria’s next parliament. But sex is not the only thing on its agenda, reports Ali Winters.

Words by Ali Winters
 
Fiona Patten (centre) is leading the Sex Party’s biggest-ever election push, with four upper house seats her goal.

Fiona Patten (centre) is leading the Sex Party’s biggest-ever election push, with four upper house seats her goal.

THE Australian Sex Party is nothing if not audacious.

The party that has long championed relaxing X-rated film classifications and the full decriminalisation of prostitution, but has never won representation in any political jurisdiction, believes it can snare as many as four upper house seats in November’s State Election. Though highly improbable, such an outcome would likely deliver it the balance of power in Victoria’s Legislative Council.

Often dismissed as the political voice of “pimps, perverts and prostitutes”, but determined to fashion itself as a defender of civil liberties, the Sex Party is fielding two candidates in each of Victoria’s eight upper house districts and is contesting at least six lower house seats

The party has never before attempted such a comprehensive – and ambitious – political thrust.

But its president, Fiona Patten, is unfazed. 

“It’s a big increase,” she enthuses. “Instead of running in half the state, we’re now running in the whole state. Every Victorian will have a chance to vote for us.”

The Sex Party is contesting the lower house seats of Melbourne, Richmond, Albert Park, Bentleigh and Prahran – all marginals – as well as the newly incarnated Wendouree, which takes in a good chunk of the former Ballarat West, held by Labor.

The contrast with the last election is marked. The party, which registered in Victoria just months prior to the 2010 poll, had a crack at just  four upper house seats, including Northern Metropolitan where Ms Patten fell 2000 votes short of what would have been a stunning victory.

Overall, the party won 1.91 per cent of the upper house primary vote in 2010, but has attracted support of more than 5 per cent in lower house by-elections since.

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Although compromised by the Liberal Party’s decision not to field candidates, the by-election polls delivered a handy rump for the Sex Party in Broadmeadows (5 per cent), Niddrie (8), Melbourne (6.6) and Lyndhurst (8.4).

These mid-term lower house contests might account for the party’s optimism going into November, but winning upper house seats will depend on the flow of party preferences between myriad micro parties.

The Greens, which typically can win 10 per cent or more of the Victorian primary vote, have only ever succeeded in securing three upper house representatives at once. So, for upstarts such as the Sex Party, any talk of winning three or four seats seems akin to climbing a political Mount Everest.

“Instead of running in half the state, we’re now running in the whole state. Every Victorian will have a chance to vote for us.” — Fiona Patten, president Australian Sex Party

“Any chance of the Sex Party winning four seats seems to me way out in the ballpark,” says Paul Strangio, associate professor of politics at Monash University. “It could get lucky with one seat – if a whole lot of preferences flowed its way, but it’s hard to imagine it could do that four times.”

Swinburne professor of political science Brian Costar is pessimistic about the Sex Party’s prospects in lower house contests, but like Professor Strangio he believes a number of minor players could triumph in the Legislative Council vote.

“But we don’t know [which one] . . . the DLP could win a seat, Family First could win a seat, even the No East-West Link could win a seat,” he says.

In that regard, the Sex Party is not alone in champing at the bit, and the man who helped engineer a preference deal that catapulted Ricky Muir of The Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party into the Senate at the last Federal Election, reckons micro parties will emerge with the balance of power in the Legislative Council come November 29.

“[The Sex Party] could get lucky with one seat – if a whole lot of preferences flowed its way, but it’s hard to imagine it could do that four times.” — Professor Paul Strangio, Monash University

Glenn Druery is reportedly working with a clutch of minor parties – at least 17 are bidding for a seat, almost double the number which contested the 2010 election – on preference agreements.

“At the minor party level, you can’t afford to make any mistakes,” he recently told Guardian Australia. “You have to be precise; if they do that they have a chance.”

ABC pollster Antony Green predicts as many as five or six micro party candidates could be elected, including those of the Palmer United Party. “If Labor wins the election they will not control the upper house and if the Coalition holds on there is only a small likelihood that they will,” he told Fairfax Media.

Most of the candidates being put forward by the Sex Party in November appear to be the usual suspects: young, edgy, socially progressive. But there are those among its ranks who seemingly speak to the party’s desire to reach a broader audience. 

They include Martin Leahy, who works in warehousing and is standing for the South Eastern Metropolitan region. It will be his fifth time running as a Sex Party flag-bearer.

A conventional man in his late 50s, Mr Leahy is not someone who you would normally expect to see running on the “sex ticket”.

But his motivation is clear.

“Most of the liberties that were around when I was a kid are now illegal. We’ve got to get back to the old days. We’ve got to get back to freedom.”

Mr Leahy is typical of the Sex Party’s broadening target audience: working-class citizens who view it as a freedom-of-choice party. The Liberal Democratic Party might otherwise have fitted the bill for Mr Leahy – but he is uncomfortable with its stance on guns. “We shouldn’t have gun rights like America,” he says.

On Saturdays, Mr Leahy (pictured right) volunteers at an East Melbourne family planning clinic, describing his role as a “friend to the clinic”. He stands between patients and the religious groups picketing the clinic’s entrance.

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Although he is there independent of the Sex Party, his mission accords with the party’s stance opposing religious interference within society. “One of our party slogans is ‘Your body, your choice’. I don’t have the right to tell you what to do with your pregnancy, why should a religious group?”

Meanwhile, in the Southern Metropolitan region, which takes in a swathe of prime bayside and inner eastern suburbs, Dr Francesca Collins, a senior lecturer in behavioural studies at Monash University (pictured below), is standing for the first time.

She says the Sex Party best reflected her libertarian and secular beliefs.

“Your right to conduct your life as you wish comes with the social obligation to ensure others can do the same,” she contends. “This is especially important when it comes to matters of life, death and sex.”

Dr Collins, who has also worked at Princeton University in the US, expects “to put a serious dent in the major parties’ primary votes”. She hopes to offer “a better-informed and more inclusive voice in parliament, one that isn’t constrained by ideology”.

She cites as particularly disturbing a recent VicHealth study about sexual consent that found one-in-six Australians believed that when a woman said ‘No’ she actually meant ‘Yes’, remarking: “This has got to change. We need to see the introduction of age-appropriate sex and relationships education across the primary and secondary school curriculum, which will set foundations for future healthy and respectful relationships.”

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While the Sex Party has drawn together some new faces for the Victorian poll, its policy platform is built on much the same foundations as its first tilt at Victoria four years ago.

Twenty-four hour public transport at weekends, legalised medicinal marijuana, improved sex education, support for live music, and the decriminalisation of drugs, euthanasia and prostitution are being paraded again.

A key addition is a mental health policy launched last month that includes adapting mental health services to target marginalised groups such as the LGBTI community. More controversially, it promotes lifting bans on smoking and allowing safe injecting rooms within mental health facilities.

But a new initiative is its invitation to voters to help set the policy agenda. So sure of its place in parliament post-election, the Sex Party has invited the public to vote on its “wegiveaf**k” campaign website for an issue that it promises to raise in the Upper House “in the first 100 days” of the state’s next parliament.

“Your right to conduct your life as you wish comes with the social obligation to ensure others can do the same. This is especially important when it comes to matters of life, death and sex.” — Francesca Collins, Sex Party upper house candidate

Three transport-related initiatives have been proposed: extending the Myki short trip pass from two to three hours; legalising helmet-free push-bike riding; and, allowing motor bike riders to filter between lanes legally, as is the practice in NSW.

A pointer to the Sex Party’s broadening political engagement has also been its interjections in the federal sphere.

It has spoken out in support of the Medical Services ‘Dying with Dignity’ Bill 2014. The legislation put forward by Greens Senator Richard Di Natale would make it legal for doctors to prescribe and administer an end-of-life drug.

“We’ve always had a very robust dying with dignity policy and for anyone who is pro-choice,” Ms Patten says. “[The] arguments are absolutely compelling.”  

At a state level, the party responded to a callout by the Arts Industry Council (Vic) seeking input into future policy. Ms Patten proposed redistribution of funding from state-owned cultural institutions towards the “small-to-medium” independent arts sector, as well as suggesting that entry fees for the big cultural institutions be scrapped.

Additionally, Ms Patten says that if she is elected she will introduce a bill to repeal the Victorian anti-graffiti laws that carry a penalty of up to two years’ jail and a maximum fine of more than $35,000.

Despite robust activity in the social arena, the Sex Party has done little to develop any comprehensive economic policies, preferring instead to fashion itself into a social issues party.

But Professor Costar does not expect this to have any bearing on its electability. “Micro parties can win a seat in the Victorian upper house by having no policies, by not campaigning and by winning very few votes,” he says. “It’s a bit weird, but that’s the transferable voting system we have … You buy your ticket and hope for the best.” 

Indicative of this lottery was the Sex Party’s near-winning of a Senate seat both in Tasmania and Victoria in last year’s Federal Election.

Preferences nearly put Robbie Swan – Ms Patten’s partner and the party’s co-founder — into the Senate. Mr Swan had been just a few parcels of votes away from picking up one of the last Senate seats in the state.

Ms Patten herself narrowly missed out on a Victorian Senate spot, coming third for the last seat behind Ricky Muir. But had a preferences deal with the Liberal Democrats been properly executed, election analysts believe Ms Patten would have triumphed at Mr Muir’s expense. Instead, the LDP failed to lodge the necessary paperwork with the Electoral Commission in time, but in NSW Sex Party preferences helped get the Liberal Democrats’ David Leyonhjelm elected.

“Micro parties can win a seat in the Victorian upper house by having no policies, by not campaigning and by winning very few votes. It’s a bit weird, but that’s the transferable voting system we have . . .  You buy your ticket and hope for the best.” — Professor Brian Costar, Swinburne University

If the deal with the LDP was ideological, history suggests there are no guarantees that the Sex Party would preference like-minded parties again. It  sent preferences to Labor ahead of the Greens in the state by-election in Melbourne, for example.

Professor Costar expects the Sex Party this time to make deals with parties who have no chance of collecting enough transferred votes to win a seat, rather than the Greens or Palmer United with which it finds itself in direct competition.

There’s no doubt that such important deal-making will be overseen personally by the party’s leader, and undisputed matriarch, Ms Patten.

Since the Sex Party was first registered federally, in 2009, both its profile and that of Ms Patten have grown in tandem. The former sex worker has participated in live debates on Channel 7’s Sunrise program against representatives of the DLP and Family First, features in most of the party’s video promotions and regularly speaks at protests and political forums. Most of the party’s media releases quote her directly and when asked about a succession plan, party colleagues say there isn’t one.  

But historically, micro parties in Australia have tended to fracture within their first decade and Paul Strangio notes that parties that focus too heavily on an individual often rarely succeed.

“Very few new political parties endure,” he says. “They rise and fall based around a single leader or a single issue. And it is too early to tell with the Sex Party.”

But there are no signs that the Sex Party – or its president’s personal campaign – are losing momentum. Ms Patten was recently included in a high-profile public forum for The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association that included the Minister for Mental Heath, Women’s Affairs and Community Services, Mary Wooldridge, as well as representatives from Labor and The Greens.

Her ambitions stretch well beyond the Murray River. Already, the Sex Party is active in the Northern Territory and the ACT with Ms Patten planning for the party to be “staked out in all states of Australia over the next five years”.

“We don’t see our role as a lobby group, but as providing a strong civil libertarian voice in Parliament,” she insists.

* An earlier version of this story suggested incorrectly that the Sex Party had preferenced Pauline Hanson in last year’s Senate contest in NSW.    

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