Finding the voice of reason

By Bec Bridges in conversation with the Hon. Fiona Patten MP | 24 May 18
A mid-morning chat with the Hon. Fiona Patten, MP for Northern Metropolitan Region in Victoria, led to an enlightening conversation about party loyalty; the role of independents; government’s remit in a more digital society; cutting through the media; politicians becoming parents; and of course, the name change from the Australian Sex Party to the Reason Party.
The first article published online by Right Now, was a piece by Gideon Cordover, a piece that brought much-needed attention to the issue of voluntary assisted dying. Now, here we are, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill has just become a part of Victorian legislation, and the Australian Sex Party has adopted a new name: Reason Party.

Bec Bridges: I believe “Congratulations!” are in order.

Fiona Patten: Thank you! It really was an amazing thing. You see, you’re always hopeful. On the day that I was elected, people asked me “What is your first goal?” I listed voluntary assisted dying. People were quite taken aback that death was the first that The Sex Party wanted to do. The Premier immediately said “Absolutely no way”.

Did that drive you a little more?

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s right. Oh, a challenge?

Do you think that other states will follow?

Absolutely, no doubt. Because we did it in a very cautious way. We weren’t the first state to introduce legislation by any means – most states have at some stage attempted it, SA and NSW being the most recent. Because we started with a Parliamentary inquiry that was long, that was detailed, that received over one thousand submissions – that’s a big number for a parliamentary inquiry – and that we didn’t look at voluntary assisted dying in an isolated way.

We considered it as part of that toolbox around end of life. That involves greater legal certainty in advanced care planning; redefining power of attorney; but also looking at how we could improve palliative care, and how we could increase the conversation around end of life. That’s the real problem a lot of the time; people don’t talk about death, so it’s hard for us to prepare. It’s hard for doctors to get a handle on the values of their patient, especially if the patient has lost, in some way, their ability to communicate.

We took a very holistic approach and we brought the community with us. That gave the Government more confidence.

Do you think opening up that discussion with the community made this issue a more approachable and more palatable topic through the eyes of the media?

Yes I do. From a politician’s perspective too, it gave them some confidence that there was community support for it. Quite often you only hear the negative, you don’t hear the positive, and that might be a minority view, but it feels like a majority view.

For example, when you hear “Catholics don’t want [?] this” it sounds like the majority, but once you start looking at the evidence and looking at the research and submissions the real picture becomes clearer. The inquiry provided a catalyst for people to start talking to their MPs as well, and for MPs to open up those conversations with their communities.

Politicians are often motivated by saving face or gaining face, but the way you have approached things and fought for controversial issues, it hasn’t been about either of those – and that’s got a lot to do with being an independent. But how does that feel?

It gives you great freedom, and I can see that as I get to know my colleagues here better and better. Particularly the people who started when I did. So, we’ve all been on the same journey, but their freedom of speech has been absolutely limited by the party that they’re members of, it doesn’t allow them to speak their mind on, well, anything really.

It’s a funny thing, I heard Amanda Vanstone talking about the damage that independents are doing to our political system, and that you couldn’t have trust in the political system because there are all of these independents who have no one to answer to and are just trotting along on their own path. Then I think back to this very Parliament when everyone was an independent. The “party structure” came into play long after parliaments came into play. We didn’t have party structure then.

The Labor party might have a diverse backbench but you won’t hear a diverse range of views.

We even saw this in the voluntary assisted dying debate, where the leader of the Liberal party opposed the legislation and there was significant pressure on Liberal members not to oppose their leader. What was ostensibly a free vote, there was a lot of pressure on members of the Liberals and Nats, to oppose that legislation.

Death is something everyone can relate to, whereas being a woman, a person of colour, or a sex worker, isn’t something that marks everyone’s individual experience – how has that played out in your career?

As a lobbyist, which is what I did when I first got started, representing an industry association, and not the most popular industry in the world, it was really around free speech and I would come in here and would argue a lot around this idea that if you push someone’s workplace underground you know you’re not stopping that work, you’re making it more dangerous for the worker.

That certainly goes for sex work, it also goes for the creation of adult material. So, if you push [their workplace] into the shadows, the ability for those workers to uphold their rights is greatly diminished.

My argument was that, well, these are videos showing people doing something that is absolutely legal, so why is it illegal to film that? It was legal to take photos of it, but illegal to film it!

So, you’ve always had fierce opposition to censorship, would you like to speak to your goals there in terms of how they’ve changed in our increasingly digital media environment?

I have to say that I’m really sad that I didn’t get X-rated DVDs legal before they became obsolete. Unfortunately, they’d become extinct while they were still illegal, so that was sad.

Yeah, the digital has changed everything. It’s changed everything, and yet governments haven’t changed with it.

In 1999, Senator Alsten said: “We will have no online pornography in Australia. Australia will be an online porn-free zone.”

He actually won the American Civil Liberties Union Global Village Idiot Award for that. And rightfully so, it was well deserved. His notion was just say no.

What that meant is he lost all control and regulation of the availability of online adult material, and we did it with gambling as well.

I think in the online field, it’s beyond government’s remit now – as are so many things. Now, we’re actually in an incredibly exciting time. We’re now looking at how do we as citizens respond to this and govern ourselves? And interestingly, crime has been going down. Governments will play a role there, but they will not play the role that they traditionally had, even things like tax, given what the internet does to your ability tax a product; given what a 3D printer might do to, you’re not even going to have a physical package arriving at customs to whack a GST stamp on. It’s bypassing all of those. And then there are bitcoins and digital currencies, I don’t think anyone has quite figured out how they can fit into our existing structure.

How do you still build roads when you can’t collect tax?

It does go back to, what we’re going to be looking towards, which is greater personal responsibility. And in doing that, it means greater resilience in our children, building up that coding and decoding education.

It’s interesting to think about when the rules aren’t legislated, but rather learned, where will people look for guidance?

The government can say, “Don’t do drugs”, and it does regularly, but how’s that gone for them? What we know – and this is why I’m cranky today – is that 11 kids overdosed and got taken to hospital, one is still in hospital. And then the government says, “Well, just don’t do drugs”. And we’re asking “Can you just tell us what they took? Or give us a picture of what they took?”, so that other kids don’t take it. And they say no. To me, that’s so irresponsible.

How is the medical marijuana legislation going?

The Victorian Law Reform Commission wrote a very good report. They investigated and researched, they looked at what a legalised medicinal cannabis regime would look like. The government adopted everything – they didn’t implement any of it. Well, barely any of it. They’ve been able to import [medical marijuana] products (and let’s be honest, we didn’t need to change the law for them to be able to do that), [but] no product has come onto the market in Victoria that has been produced in Victoria since that law.

Do you think there is a lack of demand?

There would be at any one day, in Australia, over 100,000 patients, not wanting it, but using it, and accessing it through the black market, where, for very sick people, this product is providing them with relief, but we don’t know how that product has been manufactured and cultivated.

The Government says, “We’re not going to let it be used for palliative care, for nausea, for pain relief, for cancer patients, for adults with Parkinson’s or intractable epilepsy”, and these were all the things that the VLRC said that these were the first round of people that should have access to it. So, none of these patients got access.

I pushed for them then and I’m questioning them again because they’re now kind of pushing people into a federal scheme. The federal scheme is so complicated and so convoluted that across Australia, probably less than 200 people have been able to access medicinal cannabis, legally that is.

That’s the reality – the media story is that Australia is set to be the biggest medicinal cannabis exporter in the world, yet only a handful of people here in Australia can access it.

It’s how we avoid talking about the real issues of harm around some of our legislation, it’s a moral issue. If it had been called something else, if it hadn’t been called cannabis.

Time for a rebrand?

If only somehow we had figured out a new word for it. You know 29 states in the United States have done it. Canada is about to legalise the use of cannabis on the 1st of July. California did it on the 1st of January. Ten other states in the United States have done that. We’re seeing it happen in Europe, in America, no doubt New Zealand (yet again) will be far more clever than us and get in first.

Okay, as a last question, what’s it like being The Reason Party now?

Look, I’ve been to quite a few events over the last few months as The Reason Party, there is a lot of people that are very nostalgic about The Sex Party name, and how fun we were, they’ll say, “Oh I loved voting ‘Sex’”.

There are people telling me I’m kidding myself to think that we’ll be elected without “Sex”. Look, they might be right, but we had to give it a go. If we stayed as Sex we couldn’t grow. We could stay as that irreverent, slightly kooky brand, where people give us their vote simply because they don’t want to give it to anyone else.

I’m hopeful and optimistic that the name “Reason” will actually bring a wider amount of people that couldn’t look past our name.

What we’ve tried to instill, in the way we’ve presented ourselves in Parliament and the way we’ve presented ourselves at elections, is about being reasonable; about bringing the voice of reason; about using evidence and considering issues from a scientific approach, not religious, not even a populist approach.

We want to keep the same level of irreverence, we need to not take ourselves too seriously, which will keep us grounded. The next big challenge is how we get the voice of reason out there.