25 February 2014

Council last night passed a Greens motion to condemn the increasing violence being directed at St Petersburg’s LGBTI citizens, and to use Melbourne’s sister city relationship with St Petersburg to raise awareness of the issue and advocate for change.

The motion comes after a change.org petition signed by 14,000 Australians called on Council to suspend the relationship, and disassociate Melbourne from St Petersburg’s abhorrent ‘gay propaganda’ laws, which are now in effect nationally, and which are part of a renewed conservatism and state-sanctioned discrimination in Russia.

The matter was debated by Council twice last year as well, but it was not until 2014 that opinions from the Russian community in Melbourne and the LGBTI community in St Petersburg were canvassed by Councillors.

In moving the motion to use the sister city relationship to advocate for change rather than suspend the relationship, Cr Leppert argued that Melburnians should not only be asking “why should Melbourne associate itself with a homophobic city” (the most common sentiment expressed by petitioners and submitters) but also “does suspending the relationship make matters better or worse in St Petersburg”.

It is clear that had the relationship be severed, school, university, hospital and other public institution exchanges would be at risk. Students from St Petersburg, for example – the next generation of Russian citizens – would likely no longer have access to existing cultural exchange programs with Melbourne schools.

It has also become clear that there are those in the St Petersburg LGBTI community who do not understand why Melbourne would suspend the relationship when it has the opportunity now – through formal mechanisms – to continue to communicate with the St Petersburg government.

What is not clear however is how a suspension helps LGBTI citizens in St Petersburg.

Cr Leppert argued that as a symbolic step, there is a very strong case to make for a suspension of the sister city relationship. But if the primary objective is to work and advocate to overcome the injustices done to St Petersburg’s LGBTI citizens, then Council needs to do some of that hard work.

Without the sister city relationship, the City of Melbourne’s ability to advocate and work for change is removed, as is the political imperative for Council to involve itself.

Council will now consider two reports from management: one in March to determine how to assist the St Petersburg LGBTI community itself, and one in April to determine how to build LGBTI issues into the cultural and community exchange components of the sister city program this year.

Cr Leppert’s motion and speech are available here.

The minutes of the Council meeting, and audio of the debate, are available here.