Greens MP Adam Bandt will introduce a Marriage Equality Amendment bill into the House tonight. Simply put, the amendment will call for the definition of marriage to be changed in order to include same-sex marriages.
Both major parties have already signalled that they have no intention of supporting this bill. Neither will allow a conscience vote. Government Senator Mark Arbib, a former leader of the Labor right, said in an interview last week that he believed Labor should change this policy, and said he would raise the question at the next national conference in 2012. It’s possible that the parliamentary party could consider it sooner, but there’s no guarantee of that. Labor Senator Doug Cameron, an outspoken member of Labor’s left faction, rejected the idea of a conscience vote – because, he said, it is ‘absolutely crazy’ for the party not to endorse same-sex marriage. Even with pressure coming from both the left and right, however, Prime Minister Gillard stands firm. Labor policy does not support marriage equality.
The Coalition, for its part, remains in lockstep. No same-sex marriage. At all.
Given all this, Bandt’s bill looks utterly doomed. It won’t even make it to the Senate. Why, then, introduce it at all? Well, there are several reasons. There’s always the hope that someone might cross the floor to support it, even though it could well be political suicide (at least for Labor MPs). It keeps the issue alive in the Parliament. And – perhaps most importantly – it keeps the issue alive in the public sphere. It forces parliamentarians to keep justifying their stances, and subjects them to close scrutiny.
And on the subject of those stances – let’s take a long, close look. (And yes, I’m going to leave aside religious objections here – they have no place in a political debate in a secular parliament.)
The major justification for not supporting marriage equality hangs on two points: the ‘traditional’ view of marriage, and the definition of marriage as contained in the Marriage Act 1961 – or rather, the definition as amended:
Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.
Certain unions are not marriages. A union solemnised in a foreign country between: (a) a man and another man; or (b) a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.
Let’s start with the second point. Because of the way marriage is defined in the Act, politicians argue it simply is not possible to allow same-sex marriage. Indeed, to hear people like Gillard talk, you might think that this definition is possessed of an eternal quality that binds even those who might disagree with it. ‘That’s just the way it is’ seems to be the way the thinking goes.
That definition, originally crafted by former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, did not exist in law until 2004. In fact, there was no definition of marriage. Ruddock’s amendment was, according to the Howard government, designed to bring the Act into line with common-law understanding. In other words, everyone ‘knew’ that marriage was between a man and woman, and it simply hadn’t been necessary to define it before.
That, of course, brings up a question: what made it necessary to define marriage as between a man and a woman in 2004? It was all about ‘protecting’ marriage – so what was the threat? Answer: the desire of same-sex couples to marry. This definition was brought into law – with the shameful, weaselly co-operation of the then Labor Opposition – purely to deny same-sex couples the right to formalise their relationships in the eyes of Australian law and society on an equal basis with mixed-sex couples.
So much for the immutable nature of Australian law.
And then there’s the rest of the definition, which is equally out of touch with Australian society. It presumes that a marriage will be lifelong, and that the partners will stay faithful to each other. One only has to look at the massive divorce statistics to see that this is far from true. One-third of marriages ends in divorce, and divorced partners often remarry. This is in clear violation of the definition of marriage – but do we see anyone in Parliament calling for tougher penalties for those who break that vow?
Of course not. The very idea is ludicrous – and politicians know that. It’s a rare MP who would stand up and argue that divorce should not be allowed in our society. Presumably, these representatives are aware of the definition of marriage – and yet they seem able to ignore that particular section.
So where is the consistency? The answer is short and brutal – there is none. Those who quote the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act as a good reason to deny same-sex couples equal rights are simply hiding behind it. Perhaps they have a religious objection that they don’t want to disclose, because they are worried they’ll lose votes – which goes beyond cowardly to downright deceptive. Perhaps they have a poll result that tells them they’ll win more votes by opposing same-sex marriage – in which case they should fire their pollsters. Galaxy’s 2010 poll showed that 62% of all those surveyed supported marriage equality, and 80% of respondents aged 18-24 years of age.
Or maybe it’s the ‘traditional view of marriage’ argument. After all, marriage has always been between a man and a woman, right? Think again. Even in so-called ‘Western’ society, same-sex relationships have had equal weight of law at various periods throughout history.
Another ‘traditional’ argument has a somewhat Darwinian slant. The most important thing a species can do is survive, right? And they do that by reproducing, right? So marriage is really about continuing the species – and therefore denying marriage to same-sex couples makes sense.
Wow. Where do I start? Let’s take that argument to its logical extreme. If we accept it, we would need to make sure that anyone seeking to marry was not only capable of reproducing, but would commit to doing so. No marriage for infertile people, or anyone not wanting to pass on genetic abnormalities, or even just not wanting to have children, for whatever reason. Oh, and if a marriage didn’t produce children, the licence would have to be revoked, and possibly some kind of penalty would be applied.
Absolute nonsense. The mere idea flies in the face of people’s essential rights to self-determination – and while those rights may not be enshrined in Australian law, they form the assumed basis for much of our social freedoms and protections. Why, it would be like denying couples of different races the right to marry! No sane, right-thinking person would dream of applying such a draconian regime.
Yet apparently ‘sane, right-thinking’ people don’t see that, in denying the right of same-sex couples of marry, they are doing exactly the same thing.
Exactly one week ago, Prime Minister Gillard announced that she would hold a referendum with a view to changing the words of our Constitution to acknowledge the first peoples, who have long been wrongly disenfranchised by our society. This was couched in terms of ‘respect’ and ‘healing’. To quote Gillard:
‘There’s a false divide between working practically and working to increase trust. In fact they go hand in hand … building trust can make practical things possible. To make a life you do have to feel that you are recognised and respected.’
Noble words, and a truly noble goal. (And I am absolutely not attempting to downplay the significance of this historic resolution.) Yet this is the same Prime Minister who hides behind the weaselly justification that she is bound by the amended definitions of the Marriage Act, and who tries to excuse that by talking about all the practical measures her government has put in place to remove discrimination against same-sex couples.
Apparently, she doesn’t see the hypocrisy of holding such a double standard. She doesn’t think allowing same-sex attracted people the same ‘symbolic’ right of marriage as is granted to other-sex attracted people has any value. At least, not any value that might justify the serious step of changing a definition in law that was only made in order to deny those rights. For Gillard, Abbott and the major parties, it’s enough to allow same-sex couples to be recognised by Centrelink – what else could they possibly want?
What else, indeed? Only the right to fully partake of Australian society without discrimination. Only the right to publicly show their commitment to a beloved other – and have that commitment recognised throughout the country. Only the right not to be treated as second-class citizens, ‘separate but equal’ (and what a filthy phrase that is).
As long as the government enshrines this discrimination, the tireless work of those who give their time, money and – sometimes, horribly – their lives to build trust, rapport and respect between all Australians regardless of their sexuality will continue to be undermined. It’s easy to look at other problems in Australia – continuing discrimination and disenfranchisement of indigenous people, the terrible burdens of living with mental illness or caring for someone with disability, and the dreadful racism against people of Muslim faith – and say that same-sex marriage is a ‘minor’ issue compared to what else is going on.
It’s not a minor issue – none of them are. It’s a matter of building what former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described as ‘a future that embraces all Australians … based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.’
And that’s why Bandt’s bill is so important, and why it, or something like it, must keep being presented to Australian Parliaments – both state and federal. It may be not be as ground-breaking as the Apology, but without it, we will never have that future.
(The GetUp ‘Marriage Matters’ campaign has a form where you can leave your local MP a letter urging him to support the amendment.)