The Australian Sex Party’s first MP, Fiona Patten, is focused less on “adult services” than she is on abortion rights, euthanasia, drug reform and civil liberties.
In November last year, a law preventing anti-abortion protesters from demonstrating within 150 metres of an abortion clinic passed the upper house of the Victorian Parliament. The legislation was particularly directed against a group called Helpers of God’s Precious Infants (HoGPI) who had staged daily pickets outside the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic, and had sometimes filmed women entering the building. In 2001, an unarmed security guard at the clinic was shot dead by Peter James Knight, who had planned to massacre everyone in the clinic by burning them alive. Knight was overpowered by staff and clients, and was sentenced to life in prison for murder. He was not a member of HoGPI, but had joined protests at the clinic.
The bill was originally put forward by Fiona Patten, the only member of the Victorian Parliament – or, for that matter, any parliament – to represent the Australian Sex Party, which was founded in 2009 by Patten and her partner, Robbie Swan. The party was widely assumed to be at best a dirty joke or at worst a front for the Eros Association, a long-standing lobby group formed by Patten and Swan on behalf of the “adult industry”. At inception, it was a bit of both. “We actually did think about starting a religion instead,” says Swan, “a kind of sex religion, like [neo-paganist] Wicca. The idea of doing that appealed to me probably more than it did Fiona.”
Nobody would have ever heard of us if we were the Truly Sensible Party. Or even the Common Sense Party. And I think that’s what we are.
But somehow the Australian Sex Party seems to have turned into something else as well. Since she was elected in 2014, Patten has done little tangible for porn-ographers and lap-dancing clubs, but instead drafted the abortion buffer-zone legislation, and instigated two parliamentary inquiries: into end-of-life choices – that is, voluntary euthanasia – and drugs. The party’s surprising success seems largely due to the drive, charisma and political intelligence of Patten herself.
“She’s a very good member of parliament,” says Liberal MP Bruce Atkinson, the president of the Victorian Legislative Council. “She’s a very articulate member, very considered in the positions that she takes, and she does a lot of research. I think there is quite a number of MPs who have been somewhat surprised at the value of her contributions and just how genuinely and diligently she approaches issues.”
For a member of parliament, Fiona Patten is gloriously candid. We meet for lunch at the Kelvin Club, a curious Melbourne institution favoured by former members of the SAS, and which has an air-conditioner that uncannily resembles Robbie the Robot. Patten orders a glass of champagne, and talks in habitual, cheerful and not-always-publishable detail about her work among parliamentarians and her relationship with Swan. She knows how to play the media, but she makes it feel like fun to be taken in.
Patten was born in Canberra in 1964 to an English mother and an Australian father. Her parents had met in Scotland, where Patten’s father, naval officer Colin Richard Lloyd Patten, had been attached to the Royal Navy. The family followed her father’s postings, and Patten spent time growing up in the UK and the US. As a child, she was a good swimmer and “very keen on the metric system”, she says. When she returned to Australia in 1978, she believed God had come to her in a dream and told her to become a nun. She says she made a pact to serve God, as long as He would allow her to have some fun first. Although God appears to have kept His part of the bargain, Patten has reneged on the deal.
At the University of Canberra she studied landscape architecture, then industrial design – “because I really liked the boys in industrial design” – and ended up a fashion designer with her own label, Body Politics. She sold a lot of clothes to sex workers, and had a large number of gay friends. “Then I got involved in sex-worker rights issues,” she says, “and I became employed by Workers in Sex Employment as their outreach worker. That’s when I jumped the counter.”
She used to write letters to The Canberra Times, which were noticed by Robbie Swan, a colourful journalist who was then an Adult Video Industry Association lobbyist. Swan approached her to run as a candidate in the 1992 ACT elections. “We realised the sexual-service side of the industry and the sexual-products side of the industry had the same opponents,” says Patten, “and very often the same arguments for regulation or decriminalisation. So Robbie and I joined forces.
“It became pretty obvious that Robbie and I were attracted to each other during the election campaign, but I still had a boyfriend and I wasn’t interested in starting a sexual relationship with Robbie while we were running an election campaign. And I kept my word, just. We had sex in the car park on the night of the election.”
Patten failed to get elected, and she and Swan moved in together six months later. In November, 1992 they set up the Eros Foundation with funding from sex shops, pornographers, the Packer family’s Australian Consolidated Press (ACP), condom manufacturer Ansell, table-dancing clubs and a few illegal NSW brothels.
Living and working with Swan presented certain challenges. “In previous relationships, Robbie was a bit of a ratbag,” says Patten, “and I knew that. Right from the start, I said, ‘I don’t expect you to change your ways, I just expect you to be honest, then we can work it out from there.’ So, if he was going to have sex with somebody else, as long as I could know about it, I could work out whether it bothered me or not. That’s how we started, and that’s how we continue.
“So if we do meet someone we quite like and end up forming a relationship with them, we always talk to each other. I don’t necessarily need to know all the physical details of Robbie’s encounters, but he’s very keen to talk to me about the details. He’s always wanting to talk about it. I’m interested to know probably more how they’re feeling, not the physical ins and outs. Both Robbie and I have had long-term friendships with other people that have worked. If I do meet someone fabulous, and am attracted to him, I don’t necessarily have to just say, ‘No, I can’t do that. That would break my boyfriend’s heart.’ Because it won’t.” But, she says, “Robbie and I are always first to each other.”
The couple owns homes in Melbourne and Canberra. “We haven’t lived together for nearly 15 years,” says Patten, “but we’ve had joint bank accounts for close on 25 years. We’ve found that working together and holidaying together seems to work for us.”
The Eros Association campaigned against government restrictions on the now-almost-forgotten phone-sex industry, whose advertising provided substantial income for several Australian men’s magazines. It also worked to keep churches out of politics – since many Christian political interventions were aimed at curbing the sex industry.
In 2000, Eros produced a booklet entitled Hypocrites. “We had a researcher look at all the successful prosecutions for child sexual assault cases in Australia,” says Patten. “There were none from the adult industry, yet an enormous number from the churches and religious institutions. So we sent this book to every member of parliament, state and federal, and every local government councillor, saying, ‘You need to investigate this. If this had been the adult industry, you would have closed us down.’ And we sent it to the church as well. That was probably the only time in our lives that we got death threats. We had some sent back to us, torn into tiny, tiny little pieces, not just ripped. They would’ve spent a long time doing it.”
The Australian Sex Party grew out of the fight against federal Victorian Labor Senator Stephen Conroy’s proposed ISP-based internet filter, which was presented as a means to block child pornography and violent erotica, but would also have jammed a large number of sites peddling legal porn and others that included information about drug use and euthanasia. In 2009, Patten ran for the Sex Party in a by-election for the federal Victorian seat of Higgins, largely to publicise the case against the filter.
The name of the party was “a cheap ploy that paid off”, says Patten. “We couldn’t think of a better name. We could think of lots of worse names: the Libertarian Party, or the Freedom Party. All of them sounded a bit gun-toting for my liking. It’s a name which is double-edged. Certainly, people say, ‘No one can take you seriously when you’ve got that name.’ But nobody would have ever heard of us if we were the Truly Sensible Party. Or even the Common Sense Party. And I think that’s what we are.”
On election day in south-east Melbourne’s blue-ribbon Higgins electorate, she says, “We pimped up this van, so we could go around and drop flyers off to all the polling booths. We had balloons and streamers all over it, and a big ‘Sex Party’ [sign] on the back. Police stopped us at 8:30 that morning. They’d had complaints that we were a mobile brothel, advertising a ‘sex party’ in the back. It was probably the best thing that happened, because we immediately took photos of the cops stopping the van and sent them to Channel Ten, who then ran the story on the midday news. We used to get calls from people thinking we were literally a sex party. ‘When’s it on?’ We got that quite a lot.”
In following elections the party also fielded as candidates human-rights lawyer, stripper and pole-dancer Zahra Stardust and, the next year, Australia’s most successful international porn star, Angela White. But it began to broaden its concerns to include issues unrelated to sex. “It was already like that in 2010,” says Angela White. “A lot of people didn’t realise it. There were Sex Party policies on public transport, on health, on schooling. Most of the policies we discussed were not actually about the adult industry: that, obviously, was the core component, but I was surprised myself at how serious the party was, and how much I was going to have to talk about the traffic on Hoddle Street.”
White and Stardust are both interesting and articulate intellectuals with degrees in gender studies, but their most memorable contribution to Australian political history may well be the fact that they were the first two parliamentary candidates ever to make a lesbian-sex video together.
Both politics and sex are notorious for producing strange bedfellows, and in 2010 a staffer for then Victorian Family First senator Steve Fielding secretly sought Sex Party preferences for that year’s federal election. “They chased me,” says Patten. “They came out to Melbourne Airport and waited for me on a flight that was two hours delayed, to drive me into the city so they could talk me into giving them preferences.”
When, during a quiet moment in the election campaign, Patten told the story to a journalist, Family First chairman Bob Day described the subsequent newspaper report as “completely false”. When Patten released the emails sent by Family First to try to arrange a meeting, Fielding’s office explained that his party had actually wanted to speak to Patten to “know where the Sex Party was directing its preferences so it would not inadvertently favour the Sex Party”. Despite this credible and logical explanation, Day promised the staffer in question would be “counselled about Family First values”.
So Patten and Swan had fun during the campaigns, but not much of it. “I wouldn’t say that the elections and by-elections that we’ve contested over the years have been happy experiences for me,” says Swan. “I guess there’s some joy when you kick a goal but, by and large, I found those elections to be incredibly f…ing stressful.” Swan himself stood for the Senate in Tasmania in the 2013 federal election, only to be pipped for the sixth and final state seat by the Palmer United Party’s Jacqui Lambie. “It’s really difficult stuff,” he says, “and the disappointment is so huge.”
He wasn’t sure he wanted to go through it all again, but Patten was determined to contest a seat in the 2014 Victoria state election. “It was her drive that got her there,” says Swan. “And, as soon as that Victorian campaign opened, there was a sense of ease and grace about it that was just not there before. I couldn’t understand it. I kept thinking, ‘We’ve f…ed up somehow. How come the Greens aren’t attacking us on social media anymore? They must be planning some overwhelming thing at the very end.’ But it just never happened.”
Patten won 2.88 per cent of the upper house primary vote, raked in preferences from the Rock’n’Roll Party, among others, and was elected as a member for the Northern Metropolitan Region. Then things began to get serious. Kind of. The party has a broadly libertarian outlook, and favours the legalisation and taxation of cannabis sales, but is also beginning to develop an economic policy.
“We’re not going to make government,” says Patten. “It’s not like we’re going to be in charge of the budget. So, we can state our general position, which is prudent – ‘Don’t tell me you want to spend money on this unless you know where you’re going to get the money from’ – and we use that to develop policy. So if we’re going to say, ‘Every 12-year-old should get a bicycle’ as part of our get-active health policy, we would have costed that and worked out that every 12-year-old’s parent would have to buy some [government-taxed] marijuana to help fund that.”
Some of the Sex Party’s new policies have arisen out of deals with other micro-parties, but in Victoria the two inquiries and the abortion clinic buffer-zone law, which was picked up and ushered through by Labor, with acknowledgement to Patten, were earnest and successful political plays. Patten says it’s difficult for mainstream politicians to say what they really think about abortion, for fear of a backlash from the religious faction of caucus. As Patten is her own caucus, she has no religious faction. “So a small party like myself,” she says, smiling, “can nudge them on.”
The Sex Party has been criticised for its support for the buffer zone, which the Australian Christian Lobby has derided as an attack on free speech. “I am an advocate of free speech,” says Patten, “but I’m not an advocate of a free audience.
“If you don’t like the abortion laws, protest at parliament. You have every right to do that. And, in fact, every day that parliament sits, they stand outside handing out brochures and telling people how an abortion will give you breast cancer. Imagine if the anti-vaxxers were outside a vaccination clinic saying to parents, ‘You know your child will come out autistic if you do this.’ We would have them closed down and moved on immediately. But because it’s abortion, we’ve done nothing about it. We’ve let these people behave appallingly to people very often in very difficult emotional times in their life.”
The Australian Sex Party does not talk so much about sex since its leader actually won a seat. And perhaps the reason lies somewhere in the wise words of that great political scientist, Frank Underwood from House of Cards. “Everything is about sex,” said the Machiavellian TV character, “except sex. Sex is about power.”