Nuclear power or same-sex marriage? Why choose?

December 1, 2010

If you’ll forgive the bridge metaphor, lately it seems that the government just can’t take a trick. If they stand on principle, they’re not listening to the electorate. If they talking about re-examining policy, they’re weak, deceptive or just plain fractured. Either way, it ends up all over the media – and you can practically see the Opposition rubbing its hands together with glee. They’ve got the government between a rock and hard place, and they’re going to exploit that as far as they possibly can.

It’s no wonder people increasingly feel that politicians simply don’t know or don’t care what’s really going on outside Canberra. Legitimate debate is as poisonous to a party’s image as principled stances. What’s worse, where debate on a subject is both necessary and, apparently, possible, all too often it becomes undermined by those seeking to shut it down in favour of their own agenda.

That’s what’s going on right now. Two issues, both the subject of firm Labor policy, are being challenged from within the party. Not only is this being framed as a problem, the issues have now been pitted against each other.

First it was Sports Minister Senator Mark Arbib, who challenged the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage. He called for the party to debate changing the policy at their national conference next year. Then Finance Minister Senator Penny Wong broke her long and much-criticised silence on the subject to support the idea. Their voices joined those of Human Services Minister Tanya Plibersek and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, whose support for the right of same-sex couples to marry was already on record.

Coming on the heels of Greens MP Adam Bandt’s successful motion in the House of Representatives calling on all members to canvass their electorates on the subject, it looked like a groundswell was in motion. Certainly Joe de Bruyn, head of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, thought so. He delivered a stern warning to Prime Minister Julia Gillard that his union wouldn’t stand for ‘pandering’, and recommended she get on with tackling ‘real issues that the ordinary person in the electorate cares about’.

There it is again. There’s that calculated, belittling, marginalising language. It’s not a ‘real’ issue. Hardly anybody cares about same-sex marriage, certainly not an ‘ordinary person’. It’s a despicable tactic, getting far too much unanswered airplay lately.

But it gets nastier.

Last night, Energy Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and Senator Mark Bishop recommended that Labor should also re-examine its policy against nuclear power in Australia, adding that it was ‘at least as important’ as the issue of same-sex marriage. Seems like a fair call. No matter what your personal stance on nuclear power or same-sex marriage might be, both are equally deserving of consideration.

Well, you’d think so. But New South Wales Senator Steve Hutchins had other ideas. Nuclear power was not just as important as same-sex marriage. ‘It is more important for the country’s future than gay marriage and it affects a lot more people,’ he said.

Now, there’s no denying that nuclear power would directly affect far more people. Everyone needs access to electricity; not everyone wants to formalise a same-sex relationship. That’s a no-brainer. But what Hutchins said goes well beyond this apparently obvious point. He’s added an insidious little wrinkle to the ‘it’s just not that important’ argument. To give time to a debate on same-sex marriage, by Hutchins’ logic, is just plain irresponsible – and he was happy to provide some rhetoric that goes beyond hyperbole to border on the outright ridiculous to ‘prove’ it.

Nuclear power is an urgent issue, he’s argued. If we’re going to talk about a carbon price, and alternative energy, we need to at least talk about adding nuclear to the mix. If we give time to these ‘fringe’ issues like same-sex marriage, why we could all find ourselves living like Neanderthals and burning down our houses just to stay warm!

I’m not exaggerating here. This is his direct quote: ‘I cannot see us returning to living in the cave and burning fallen timber to keep us warm’.

Apparently Senator Hutchins, de Bruyn and some conservative voices in the media, think that politicians have a limited allotment of policy debating ability – and that it has to be divided up carefully. In order to do that, one must set priorities, and it’s unacceptable to ‘squander’ that limited amount on something as unimportant as same-sex marriage.

It also tries to position supporters of a same-sex marriage debate in opposition to those who want to address our power needs. Naturally, the former will be moved to defend their right to a debate – and it’s all too easy to be drawn into the trap of belittling the nuclear issue as way of conveying the necessity of dialogue about same-sex marriage. It’s a tricky thing to avoid, especially on those issues that engage our most passionate emotions – and I have to wonder whether this is deliberate, or just a fortunate side-effect for Hutchins and his ilk.

This is, perhaps, the worst argument yet brought against same-sex marriage. (It’s not the most ridiculous – that distinction is reserved for ‘because the Marriage Act says so’.) Not only does it tacitly argue against the issue, it urges people not to even consider it. And, just in case people feel that it couldn’t do any harm to just talk, it asserts that doing so will actually cause harm – that talking about same-sex marriage might threaten our ability to meet even the most basic needs of our society.

This is pernicious. When someone tells you not to talk about something because it’s ‘trivial’, there’s always the possibility that you might disagree – or perhaps just get annoyed enough with such a high-handed attitude to do it anyway. But this – this appeals to you as a responsible citizen, as a parent, as someone who wants to provide safety and comfort for your loved ones. This argument whispers to you that if you give time to thinking about same-sex marriage – no matter how well-intentioned you are – you might hurt us all. You might even be complicit in dragging us back to the Stone Age.

And, of course, it’s UTTER RUBBISH.

We’re human beings. We’ve got pretty big brains, and – all evidence to the contrary – we are capable of thinking about multiple issues. Yes, how we generate our power is a huge priority – it’s something with the potential to affect all life on the planet. But does that mean we cannot also think about something that might only affect a relatively small number of us? Will debating same-sex marriage prevent us from investigating renewable, or even nuclear, energy?

I shouldn’t even have to ask that question.

It’s not something the government can officially argue, and they know it. In defending their opposition to same-sex marriage, they’ve clung to the indefensible ‘Marriage Act’ justification. Now it looks as though both the Left and Right factions of the Labor Party want that policy changed – or at least want it re-examined. For the first time, members of the Senior Ministry have spoken out in favour of that.

But are they being applauded? Far from it. The Opposition leaped at the chance to spin this as ‘a clear sign that the government is fracturing’ (thank you, Steve Ciobo from this morning’s AM Agenda program), that they are held hostage to the Greens and hijacked by minority interests. The mainstream media question whether this means Gillard is soon for the chop, if her Ministers are in revolt against her. Voices in queer media carp about Wong’s ‘hypocrisy’.

There aren’t a lot of people out there applauding Mark Arbib – most of them think he’s a ‘factional warlord’ who’s just salivating in anticipation of toppling another Prime Minister. Anthony Albanese has been on the receiving end of abuse. Tanya Plibersek, still away from politics with her new baby, has been spared a lot of scrutiny – and Penny Wong has copped the worst of the lot. Now, you can argue that, to a certain extent, these people deserve criticism for not speaking out earlier, or more firmly.

What’s happening, though, is that those who are now publicly calling for a change from within Labor party ranks are being pilloried by not only their opponents, but those whose cause they champion. Meanwhile, Gillard moves to quell debate with authoritative pronouncements. Worse, Steve Hutchins and Joe de Bruyn get away with poisonous arguments designed to send this issue back into the streets and the blogs – and try to enlist the fabled ‘ordinary people’ to help them do it.

These marginalising, false arguments should be challenged at every turn. It’s not a question of choosing between talking about nuclear power or talking about same-sex marriage; both are equally deserving of consideration, and equally able to be considered by the same party at the same national conference.

What if those who want to see every Australian have the same rights to marry regardless of gender or sexual orientation focused on destroying those arguments in a calm, reasoned way – by refusing to compete, or apologise, and by saying there is room at the debating table for many issues? What if there was a real effort to encourage more politicians – both government and Opposition, state and federal – to scrutinise their policies without fear of being criticised for being slow to act, or held hostage to extremists, or on the verge of fragmentation?

There might be a possibility that those ‘ordinary people’ – the ones Steve Hutchins apparently thinks can be frightened into suppressing debate on same-sex marriage – would start to listen, and discuss it themselves.

We might even find to time to talk rationally about nuclear power while we’re at it.

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