Last month the council voted to continue flying the rainbow flag until same-sex marriage is recognised by Federal Parliament. (ABC News: Cameron Best)
A split has occurred at a local council on Victoria’s Surf Coast over the flying of the rainbow flag in support of marriage equality, with at least one councillor being labelled a homophobe and bigot for calling for the flag to be taken down.
The Surf Coast Shire last month voted to fly the rainbow flag at its council offices to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) and continue flying the flag until same-sex marriage was recognised by the Federal Parliament.
A week after the flag was raised at the offices in Torquay, Councillor Heather Wellington led a new resolution for it to be taken down until community consultation had been undertaken.
The Surf Coast Shire has been a trailblazer in its support of same-sex marriage, with a number of other local councils following suit to fly the rainbow flag.
“The shire has raised a flag in recognition of IDAHOT day for a long time and I think that’s a completely appropriate thing to do,” Cr Wellington said.
“I think it’s a good thing to recognise different groups in our community, but the permanent flying of the flag over the council chambers is an entirely different issue.
“To pick a particular flag of a particular group and fly it on the civic building of a shire is not a decision I believe that ought to be in the power of a council without consultation with its community.”
Cr Wellington said it was “grossly offensive” that she had been labelled a homophobe by some as a result of her motion.
“It’s very disrespectful and unfair,” she said.
“There is absolutely no reason for there not to be marriage equality in Australia and I’m really very firm on that.”
In a heated meeting, the council voted to immediately remove the flag but a notice to rescind that resolution meant the flag will continue to fly at the council chambers at least until the next meeting in a month’s time.
‘Tears’ after council meeting
Local Merrin Wake, who works with young people with health issues, said the meeting was very divisive and disturbing.
“You could have cut the air with a knife – the audience as well as the councillors, you could see the divisiveness,” she said.
Petitions were tabled from community members both in support of retaining the flag and calling for it to be taken down.
One petition said it was a human rights issue, while another said it was “totally inappropriate and completely irrelevant”.
“There were tears afterwards, there were people who were really upset by this,” Ms Wake said.
Mayor Brian McKiterick, who gave the casting vote to have the flag taken down, said he was not comfortable with the council effectively challenging the Federal Government to change marriage laws.
“The issue for me is more related to the use of the position of a councillor to attempt to influence other spheres of government,” he said.
“It’s divided the council and community so as Mayor I’m looking at ways to come to some sort of agreement.”