Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear

Wallace shortens life expectancy of the Australian Christian Lobby

Over the last few years we’ve become accustomed to the Australian Christian Lobby’s, Jim Wallace, bumbling and stumbling his way from one PR disaster to another. This week, we saw Wallace completely humiliate himself and his organisation when he favourably compared the life expectancy of smokers to that of homosexuals.

Retribution was swift. Wallace’s comments resulted in an avalanche of negative media, a social media storm and the indignant repudiation of his views by fellow Christians. Indeed, the public outrage infiltrated parliament house and reached all the way to the Prime Minister’s office.

Significantly, Prime Minister Gillard condemned Wallace’s remarks as offensive and irresponsible and promptly reneged on her commitment to address the forthcoming Australian Christian Lobby’s National Conference.

”To compare the health effects of smoking cigarettes with the many struggles gay and lesbian Australians endure in contemporary society is heartless and wrong,”  said the Prime Minister. ”Although everyone is entitled to their own view, these statements reiterated again today on behalf of ACL are totally unacceptable. In light of this, I believe my attendance at the conference would be inappropriate.”

It was the ultimate rebuke made on a national stage and Wallace brought it all on himself.

Last August, in response to a particularly pitiful performance by Wallace on Seven’s Sunrise program, I wrote on this blog:

“If I was one of the shadowy figures pouring money into the Australian Christian Lobby, I’d be having a long hard think about the way the organisation’s been travelling over the last 12 months and asking myself if it’s time for new leadership: ‘Has Jimbo done what we hired him to do or has he made the organisation a national laughing-stock and damaged the ACL’s reputation beyond repair?'”

In that article, I suggested Wallace was overdue for a performance review, noting that, “… if Jim was brought in to give the ACL a veneer of mainstream respectability, he’s failing badly.”  This week he proved me right in spectacular style!

Securing Prime Minister Gillard  to speak at the ACL’s forthcoming National Conference was a real coup for the Australian Christian Lobby, but it was a decision for which the Prime Minister received a great deal of flak. Close observers have been warning for some time that the ACL has declined into an obsessive, homophobic hate group but the PM has not been listening. Now she is.

This may well be the beginning of the end for the ACL and it is entirely thanks to Wallace’s mismanagement that they have been brought so shamefully into public disrepute.

Wallace’s latest gaffe was made at the University of Tasmania during a debate about same-sex marriage with Greens leader, Senator Christine Milne. The Melbourne Age reports  that during the debate, Wallace said:

“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years.”

“The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”

“… But what I’m saying is we need to be aware that the homosexual lifestyle carries these problems and … normalising the lifestyle by the attribution of marriage, for instance, has to be considered in what it does encouraging people into it.”

Understandably, it was immediately suggested by those with an in-depth knowledge of Christian right propaganda, that Wallace’s comments were based on a 1994 ‘study’ by discredited American psychologist, Paul Cameron (et al)  in association with Cameron’s anti-gay Family Research Institute – an organisation designated as a gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Cameron’s research on the life expectancy of homosexuals  is woefully outdated but, more importantly, his bizarre method of research (counting obituaries in gay newspapers) has been exposed, not only as fundamentally flawed, but downright ridiculous. So compromised is Cameron’s reputation that, while right wing Christian propagandists still quote his data, they rarely cite his name.

So, it was no suprise when, in an interview with ABC News, Wallace refuted this connection, insisting instead that his statement was based on a relatively recent, 2009, human rights complaint to the Canadian government, made by a peak gay activist group in a ‘well-referenced’ submission.

“OK, Mr Wallace,” I thought, ” Let’s take your word for it and take a look at that document.”

Based on the information provided by Wallace in his ABC interview, I tracked down the relevant paper:  a submission from Canada’s Rainbow Health Coalition.

It is certainly true that the Rainbow Health Coalition’s submission suggests that the life expectancy of gay men in Canada is significantly shorter than average, although they responsibly concede the difficulties in obtaining accurate data on life expectancy in the gay community. It is also true that the Rainbow Health Coalition mention that gay men may live up to 20 years less than their heterosexual peers.

But, why should I take them at their word? Why should I accept the Rainbow Health Coalition’s data simply because it comes from a group that that supports gay rights?  Academic discipline requires that we contest, not only the information which challenges our preconceptions, but that which confirms them; that we interrogate not only information sourced from those we oppose, but also that from those we support. Confirmation bias is a dangerous thing as Jim Wallace discovered  this week to his great detriment.

So, I decided to do what Wallace and his ACL researchers should have done; critically examine the life expectancy claim made by the Rainbow Health Coalition in their 2009 submission to the Canadian government.

[NB: I should note that Crikey writer, Andrew Crook, undertook similar research and that our independent investigations yielded similar results. I did not read Andrew’s article prior to writing this but am struck by the similarity of our two analyses.]

“Where does this lifespan ‘estimate’ come from?” I wondered. “And how recent is the statistical data on which this conclusion is based?”

Wallace’s suggestion that the figures date from 2009 is highly misleading. It takes no more than a glancing view of the Rainbow Health Coalition’s submission to determine that the estimate of a significantly shorter life expectancy for gay men is not based on their own research, but is referenced to a 2003 book by Doctors Peterkin and Risdon: Caring for Lesbian and Gay People – A Clinical Guide.

Note the date of publication. It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to realise that, if the estimated life expectancy is based on statistical information collected prior to 2003, the data is at least 10 years out of date.

It wasn’t hard to track down the the pertinent chapter from Peterkin and Risdon’s book online. It’s true, they do argue (2003, p. 45) that the life expectancy of gay/bisexual men in Canada is 55 years of age, but, again, this is not based on their own research; it is attributed to “(Jalbert, 1999)”.  Their bibliography pointed me in the right direction.

As it turns out, “Gay health: Current knowledge and future actions” is a literature review by Québécois academic, Yves Jalbert. As its name suggests, a literature review is not a report on the original research of the author. Rather, it provides an overview of existing academic literature pertaining to a particular area of study. This means, the ‘life span’ estimate could not have originated with Jalbert in 1999, it must have come from an earlier source.

I’ve been unable to obtain a copy of Jalbert’s paper, but my research suggests that his discussion of homosexual life expectancy is almost certainly based on Hogg et al’s 1997 “Modelling the impact of HIV disease on mortality in gay and bisexual men”, a study undertaken in Canada and published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 1997.

This study examined mortality rates among gay and bisexual males in Vancouver and is  easily accessible online (you really should try googling, Jim). Importantly, the authors note that the statistics which form the basis of their conclusions are drawn from the period 1987 to 1992. This means that Wallace’s argument that the contemporary lifespan of gay men is 20 years less than average is based on statistical data collected 20 to 26 years ago – during the height of North America’s HIV/AIDs epidemic!

If Wallace or one of his minions had spent an hour or so checking the Rainbow Coalition’s references, they should have discovered, as both Andrew Crook and  I did, that a life span estimate based on statistics collected almost a quarter of a century ago is completely irrelevant in assessing the projecte life expectancy of gay men in 2012. Just a small amount of responsible research may have stopped Jim Wallace from making a monumental ass of himself and Julia Gillard might still be addressing the ACL’s National Conference.

In fact, the contemporary irrelevance of the research has been confirmed by the authors, themselves. Revisiting their 1997 paper on homosexual mortality rates in 2001, Hogg et al wrote:

“Over the past few months we have learnt of a number of reports regarding a paper we published in the International Journal of Epidemiology on the gay and bisexual life expectancy in Vancouver in the late 1980s and early 1990s. From these reports it appears that our research is being used by select groups in US and Finland to suggest that gay and bisexual men live an unhealthy lifestyle that is destructive to themselves and to others. These homophobic groups appear more interested in restricting the human rights of gay and bisexuals rather than promoting their health and well-being …

… if we were to repeat [our 1997] analysis today the life expectancy of gay and bisexual men would be greatly improved. Deaths from HIV infection have declined dramatically in this population since 1996. As we have previously reported there has been a threefold decrease in mortality in Vancouver as well as in other parts of British Columbia.

… we do not condone the use of our research in a manner that restricts the political or human rights of gay and bisexual men or any other group.”

Isn’t it strange that both Andrew Crook and I should be able to find that piece of readily available information on the internet, but it seems to have completely escaped Jim Wallace and the researchers at the Australian Christian Lobby.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth from fundamentalist supporters of the ACL (no, Bill ‘my-book-has-700-references’ Muehlenberg, I won’t link to your grubby little blog) that Wallace is being vilified for simply ‘stating the truth’ about homosexuals. As I (and others) have shown, that is simply untrue. To the contrary, by publicly representing 25 year old data as ‘evidence’ of the contemporary life expectancy of gay men, Wallace has been, at best, professionally negligent and, at worst, intentonally dishonest.

As an peak  lobby group*, the Australian Christian Lobby enjoys privileged access to our country’s political leaders. That privilege should surely be contingent on lobbyists adhering to certain ethical and professional responsibilities. It does not seem unreasonable to expect that every effort should be made to ensure that ‘evidence’ presented with a view to influencing public opinion and public policy is accurate, relevant and drawn from credible sources. Indeed, one might particularly expect a Christian organisation to be meticulous in ensuring it does not ‘bear false witness’.

In my view, the Australian Christian Lobby consistently fails to uphold this ethical responsibility. Instead, they peddle propaganda imported from America’s religious right and uncritically rehash it here in Australia. This is irresponsible, unethical, lazy and unprofessional. It is this corporate culture, not ‘teh’ homosexual lobby,  which has brought the Australian Christian Lobby unstuck under Jim Wallace’s leadership.  Whatever the truth is about the life spans of smokers and homosexuals, it seems certain that Wallace has succeeded in substantially reducing the life expectancy of the Australian Christian Lobby.

The Australian Christian Lobby now stands, publicly disgraced and exposed for the homophobic hate group it has become under Wallace’s leadership. If its financial underwriters will not do the decent thing and dissolve it, the Federal parliament must now take action to distance itself completely from this hateful, divisive and mendacious group of publicly disgraced homophobes.

This is not an argument against freedom of speech. Of course, the Australian Christian Lobby has every right to voice their objectionable opinions and pernicious propaganda in public – I am certainly not arguing that they should be silenced. But,  they have abused the privilege of having the ‘ear’ of the Prime Minister, they have negligently misled the Australian public  and any privileged access they may have to parliamentarians should be immediately withdrawn.

Chrys Stevenson

This kind of misleading propaganda is all too common among the religious right. For more information see the text of my 2012 speech to Dying with Dignity, NSW – The Debate on Assisted Dying: Distortion, Misinformation and the Influence of the Religious Lobby.  

Neil Francis, CEO of peak voluntary euthanasia body, Your Last Right, has also begun holding the religious propagandists’ feet to the fire on his blog. I recommend you subscribe.

*NB: A former version of this article noted that the ACL is an ‘accredited’ lobby group. I have since realised (having written this in the very wee hours of the morning!) that my memory was faulty on this point. Representatives of the Exclusive Brethren are (were?) registered lobbyists at Parliament House Canberra (sponsored by Rev. Bill Moyes I believe) but I can find no record of the ACL being ‘registered’ and now understand that some organisations do not require registration, so I have to withdraw that comment. I apologise for the error but the principle stands – Wallace and the ACL have abused their close relationship with Canberra politicians and politicians should distance themselves from this group.

More info on registration here: http://lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/needs_register.cfm
I’m not sure whether the ACL would qualify as a ‘religious organisation’.