Janet Albrechtsen 12 August 2017 The Australian
This week Malcolm Turnbull laid out how same-sex marriage could become law by the end of the year. Now that a compulsory plebiscite has been knocked back a second time by the Senate, there will be a postal survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in September. Ballots must be returned by November 7, a result declared on November 25, and a parliamentary vote held in the final fortnight of parliament for 2017 a few weeks later. All it requires is for principle to trump politics; in other words, a total reversal of the history of this issue in Australia. Fat chance.
Same-sex marriage has become the most tedious episode in Australian political history. As a New Yorker commented after flying from Canberra to Brisbane this week: “Let me get this right. I just flew on a domestic plane without showing any ID, a dirty bomb almost made it on board a plane here a few weeks ago, and you’re talking about a plebiscite and same-sex marriage.”
This sorry saga has unveiled an unholy alliance of judicial meddlers, political opportunists, intolerant activists, overreaching social engineers, corporate and medical grandstanders and hypocrites in conservative ranks, too. And in among the shrill voices spanning left and right are loving people in same-sex relationships who share the natural desire to be in a union that has the same standing as marriage. They have been let down by all and sundry across many institutions in this country.
Start with the judicial meddlers. If the High Court had stuck to constitutional principles, the Australian people would have their say via a referendum. That’s how the word “marriage” in the federal Constitution should be altered. Instead, in a 2013 decision striking down an ACT law to legalise same-sex marriage, a handful of High Court judges decided that “marriage” must be redefined by the federal parliament.
Never mind section 128 of the Constitution that says that our founding document may only be changed when a majority of voters in a majority of states agree to it by referendum. Never mind that the word “marriage” had a settled meaning at 1901 when the Constitution was written. Indeed, it’s hard to find a word in the Constitution with a meaning more settled than “marriage”, given that it has meant the union between one man and one woman for millennia. That 2013 decision, rejecting the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws, stripped Australians of their right to change the Constitution, turning same-sex marriage into the political barney it has become.
That said, even before that High Court decision, the then Labor government treated same-sex marriage as a capricious political circus. New prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2007 opposed same-sex marriage as did Julia Gillard in 2012 when she assured the Australian Christian Lobby her government remained committed to traditional marriage. To say that was weird coming from an unmarried atheist is an understatement. But politics being politics, Gillard needed to shore up her position with conservative voters. After Labor was given a conscience vote on the issue at the December 2011 national conference, it helped defeat another same-sex marriage bill. Angling to return to the top job, Rudd had a perfectly timed epiphany in May 2013, setting up a contest between the church-going Rudd who would deliver same-sex marriage and Gillard, the unmarried atheist who wouldn’t. Gillard now supports same-sex marriage.
Kudos to Bill Shorten, then, for being a consistent supporter of same-sex marriage even when his own party wasn’t. He also supported a plebiscite in 2013, which makes his current position all the more vulgar. By opposing a plebiscite, he obstructs the fastest track to legislate same-sex marriage law by Christmas. That’s not high principle. It’s base politics aimed at inciting division within the Turnbull government. To add insult to injury, Labor’s mischief-making Shorten has treated people who disagree with him with disdain, accusing opponents of same-sex marriage as “motivated by homophobia”, and his opposition to a plebiscite is premised on his belief that he doesn’t want to give “haters” a chance to “come out from under a rock”. Concerned about a disrespectful debate, Labor’s legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus said yesterday morning he didn’t see any lack of respect coming from the “yes” side of the debate, only from the “no” side.
That’s extraordinary because the “yes” side has become a simple proposition: say yes, or be a bigot. Indeed, the party that pushed hardest for same-sex marriage has also played the dirtiest. When he became Greens leader, Richard Di Natale was dubbed by excitable sections of the media as Mr Mainstream, a middle-of-the-road chap who would move his party to a more sensible place. Instead, Di Natale has pursued social engineering that has harmed the cause of same-sex marriage, from the Greens’ full-throttle embrace of the misleadingly named Safe Schools program with its “heterosexist” complaints about calling students “boys” and “girls” and LGBTI role-playing for young students, to the Greens’ push to remove religious exemptions from the Sex Discrimination Act.
Consider Di Natale’s dangerous and despicable suggestion last year that a plebiscite would put young people in the LGBTI community at risk of harm. “We will most likely see young people take their lives if this plebiscite goes ahead,” he said. It seems the Greens leader exploited the tragic issue of youth suicide for his own political purposes to oppose a plebiscite, ignoring Ireland’s referendum a year earlier.
On Monday night, following the two-hour partyroom meeting of federal Liberals, Mathias Cormann, the acting Minister of State responsible for the plebiscite, said this to Emma Alberici on ABC TV’s Lateline: “Well, Emma, this is actually not about us. This is about the Australian people. We respect the fact that there is a diversity of sincerely held, strong views on both sides of the argument in the Australian community.”
Cormann is right. Good people can disagree on same-sex marriage and that should have been the starting point in this debate. Instead, there’s been breathtaking intolerance from those whose campaign is premised on expecting tolerance from others.
There is blanket campaigning on the national broadcaster from News Radio and Fran Kelly on Radio National to Alberici on Lateline, and Insiders on Sundays. So much so that the cost of the plebiscite has turned Keynesian ABC hosts into fiscal conservatives. It’s become so blatant that even ABC boss Michelle Guthrie warned the ABC’s taxpayer-funded employees to cut it out, which makes a mockery of her chairman’s wacky view that the ABC is a balanced organisation that meets it charter. Searching for one voice at the ABC that supports the traditional definition of marriage is like searching for the Kangaroo Island emu, last seen in 1805. Killed off by hunters.
In the 21st century, ideological hunters hound out opponents. Human rights activists have endeavoured to turn same-sex marriage into a human right when it is no such thing. Chief executives have tried to frame it as a workplace issue to justify their personal politics. And grandstanding doctors have tried to make it a health issue. In fact, their crude politics show it’s a political issue, pure and simple. The net effect of their censorious sanctimony may well be to turn otherwise apathetic supporters of same-sex marriage into determined opponents.
While Turnbull has paved the way for same-sex marriage, his own party has stumbled on the hurdle of hypocrisy too. It started with a highly principled stand from Tony Abbott prior to the 2013 election, when the then opposition leader made it clear that a conscience vote on same-sex marriage was a matter for the Liberal partyroom. It was principled precisely because Abbott is a known opponent of same-sex marriage.
But then Abbott played politics too, drawing together the Nationals and the Liberals in a partyroom meeting to plump up the numbers to settle on a plebiscite that would be non-binding. How does that respect the people’s say? From Eric Abetz and other conservatives refusing to honour a yes vote from the people to left-wing Liberal Christopher Pyne boasting that we’re going to secure marriage equality sooner than everyone thinks, the Liberals have no reason to crow about their record.
Polls suggest most Australians support same-sex marriage even if it’s a piffling issue for most. They also support a plebiscite. The dismal history of this issue across politics and institutions in this country proves why the Australian people should have a say, and should have had one from the get-go. They can’t possibly muck it up as badly as the band of politicking protagonists have to date.