Same Love30 April 2013
Our federal politicians overwhelming voted against legislation to change the definition of the Marriage Act on September 19, 2012, rejecting gay marriage and leaving Australia lagging behind a growing number of gay-friendly states. Although the Labor Party voted to support marriage equality at its national conference in September last year, it also passed a motion to allow a conscience vote in parliament, meaning that Labor MPs do not have to follow the party line. Then in an unusual move, the Liberal Party prohibited a conscience vote and demanded that MPs vote as a block in opposition of gay marriage. As predicted, the bill failed to pass the House of Representatives, with 98 votes to 42.
A Galaxy poll that analysed public opinion from 2009-2012 found that 64% of Australians supported marriage equality, while a Sydney Morning Herald/Nielsen poll from the previous year showed similar support (62%). A majority of Christians (53%) and 81% of people aged 18-24 said they supported gay marriage. Given the apparently high levels of public support for a change to the Marriage Act, why were the major parties so reluctant to take on the issue? What’s special about the Australian debate and when will politicians listen to the electorate?
For years conservatives have touted the value of heterosexual marriage as an institution that underpins our Judaeo-Christian society. It is, we are told, an institution that comes from nature. Marriage between a man and a woman is a natural affair and it has always been this way. The conservative mantra is that if we allow homosexual marriage, then our traditions will be undermined and our society eroded. The Christian Churches, broadly speaking, add that allowing gay marriage discriminates against religious freedom and is symptomatic of the moral decay brought about by Western secularism.
Looking at the debate like this, things seem quite clear-cut. Gay marriage can be viewed as a left-right issue, right? Well not really. The Australian debate tells us that this is certainly not the case.
Dr Nick Economou, a political scientist at Monash University, gives two reasons for the Labor Party’s reluctance to take up the banner of marriage equality. Although the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) disbanded in 1978, its conservative Catholic ideology continues to influence the ALP. Economou argues that key union leaders such as Joe de Bruyn, National Secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employee’s Association and member of the National Executive of the Labor Party, have been instrumental in the party opposing gay marriage. This ideological “ hangover from the DLP years” complements the concerns of Labor strategists that legalising gay marriage will alienate traditional ‘blue-collar Labor supporters’ who are already disillusioned by the party’s Carbon Tax. While marriage equality is a priority for inner-city Labor voters, Economou doesn’t believe that outer-suburban and rural voters see it as important.
Monty Python’s ‘Bruce Sketch’ aims to explain the Australian macho stereotype. When English professor Michael Baldwin is introduced to his colleagues at the “University of Woolloomooloo”, the faculty members are all called Bruce and lay down the golden rule: “no poofters”.
Python’s stereotypical Australians are just that: stereotypical. But maybe Australia is not as progressive as we might think. After all, the UK’s conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, successfully introduced gay marriage legislation to the House of Commons in February this year. Our centre-left, Labor Party failed to do the same.
With a potential recession and vicious election campaign on the horizon, the major parties seem to have put gay marriage in the too-hard basket. But Economou gives us another explanation, and one that is rarely discussed. While many Melburnians like to think of themselves as socially progressive, the reality is that the rest of the country and particularly rural areas, vote and think quite differently on social issues. The reason, argues Economou, is Australia’s underlying macho culture, a culture engrained in the national psyche. Resulting from an oversupply of males up until World War II, Australia is still emerging from “the recesses of the colonial period”.
The UK Prime Minister surprised many when he decided to legislate in favour of gay marriage. Many conservatives in his ranks were outraged and repeated the mantra that homosexuality is unnatural and undermines the value of heterosexual marriage. Interestingly, Cameron fought conservatism with conservatism.
“Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other,” he said. “So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a conservative.”
This pro-gay marriage conservative angle added a new side to the debate. With the support of Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, the bill passed the lower house with 400 MPs in favour and 175 against. This raises questions about the debate at home.
Chris Berg, a research fellow at the notoriously free-market Institute of Public Affairs, said that Cameron’s is a “powerful and compelling argument”. Berg adds that conservatives who think that marriage is a good thing “should extend it. If you want gay people to be conservative, let them marry”.
This isn’t a widely acknowledged view, but it’s one that holds weight in some conservative circles. As Berg puts it, “I don’t want the government in my pocket any more than I want them in my bedroom.” This idea, that liberalism is social as well as economic, prioritises the rights of the individual to act free of government control.
Berg’s comments come in light of two gay Liberal candidates pre-selected to run in the federal election this year. Sean O’Connor is running in the inner-city electorate of Sydney (held by the incumbent Tanya Plibersek) and Kevin Ekendahl is running in a similarly progressive inner-city seat, Melbourne Ports.
Ekendahl claims that marriage equality is a rights issue. “I’m not going to support any legislation that discriminates against me,” he says. Also a free marketeer, he believes that the Liberal Party still accommodates socially progressive views and that the party is a “broad church”. Ekendahl cherishes the ‘small-l liberal’ philosophy and believes that there are votes to be won by supporting gay marriage. While he acknowledges that some MPs are unwilling to support gay marriage because their marginal seats might be threatened at election time, Ekendahl labels himself and O’Connor examples of the diversity of ideas that exists within the Liberal Party. His view is that “everyone should be equal before the law” and that marriage is no exception.
What conclusions can we draw about Australia’s gay marriage debate? Firstly, it’s clear that marriage equality is not a simple party-political issue. Traditional ‘left’ and ‘right’ labels don’t do the arguments for and against justice. It’s clear that the Labor Party has its fair share of social traditionalists. It’s also clear that Tory elements in Australia and the UK are in favour of gay marriage, for a number of different reasons (liberal and conservative).
An analysis of the debate shows that there is considerable external pressure upon politicians to take a particular stance. Sharon Dane from Australian Marriage Equality suggests that Gillard made a deal with the Christian lobby to oppose gay marriage. Whether or not this is true, the irony of the Australian debate is that we have similar, or higher, levels of public support for same-sex marriage than countries in which it is at least partially legal–such as the US (51-54%) and the UK (61%).
Lagging behind the likes of Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Iceland, Portugal, South Africa, it’s clear that Australia is a unique case. Whether homophobia is ingrained in the national psyche is a complex question, particularly when other post-colonial countries, such as Canada, have legalised gay marriage. For now, the marriage equality debate is at a stalemate.