2013 Election: Our very own conscience vote
Project forward 100 years. Tony Abbott’s great-granddaughter is Prime Minister and leader of the Green Liberals. She’s about to address the nation – via holographic projection – to announce that Mardi Gras will become a national public holiday to celebrate a century of same-sex marriage in Australia.
It could happen. Right?
Anything’s possible. Natasha Stott Despoja could be cryogenically frozen and revive the Australian Democrats. But there’s something fundamental that needs to occur first: our elected representatives need to listen.
On Wednesday, 6 February, a vast majority of British MPs voted to pass a Bill which would legalise same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom. Although the bill must still make it through the House of Lords, it seems likely that the UK will join nations like Canada, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, Sweden, and Mexico in granting substantive equality to same-sex couples.
With the success of that vote, it’s difficult to know why the prospect of legal change in Australia still seems uncertain, especially when levels of public support for same-sex marriage are almost identical between the two nations.
In March 2012, the Populus Poll in Great Britain revealed 65% support for the right to marry, while in August of the same year, Australia’s Galaxy Research poll revealed 64% support.
We could draw a number of conclusions from these figures. The most obvious is that when it comes to our old Ashes rivals, we share more than a love of cricket. We share a tradition of egalitarianism. Perhaps it also suggests that we are subject to the same global trends. Same-sex equality has gradually, and then rapidly, gained traction as a social issue, as jurisdiction after jurisdiction has recognised that the opportunity to publicly express a loving union is a cornerstone of self-determination.
Yet true to the adage “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics”, the figures don’t tell the whole truth. For while Britain was passing civil partnership laws in 2004 in order to reflect national sentiment, the Howard government amended the Marriage Act 1961 to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, bringing marriage laws closer in legal tenor to nations such as Nigeria and Latvia. In Australia, sustained public support for social change has not translated into law reform.
Of course, the role of elected representatives is more nuanced than to simply reflect and implement the views of the majority. History has taught us, often harshly, that majoritarian politics can lead to brutality and oppression. We have Edmund Burke to thank for the notion that the duty of an elected member is to both listen to the public and exercise judgment, the latter being one of the chief provisos of healthy parliamentary democracy.
In this case, good judgment tells us that the case for change is overwhelming. Research in the United States and Australia confirms that the stigmitisation of sexuality, in all its forms, is a significant contributor to rates of youth suicide, homophobic violence and depression. Conversely, recent studies of gay and bisexual men suggest that legalising same-sex marriage may actually reduce public healthcare costs.
However, we should be cautious about arguments that rely purely on sociological research to promote equality. Same-sex marriage should not be reduced to some utilitarian notion of ‘the social good’. The debate concerns the concept of human dignity and the impact of denying it on the integrity of our democratic institutions.
The effect of maintaining a ban on same-sex marriage, or acquiescing in separate systems of relationship recognition, is to create a moral hierarchy based on conjugal status. That hierarchy, like its racialised predecessors, profoundly damages, even negates, what it means to self-define - for everyone.
What value can we attribute to other rights, such as the right to equal pay, or religious freedom, when an entire section of society is unable choose something as basic as how they express their love or define their family life?
To redress the damage, we could just wait around for a more receptive bunch of leaders. We could say “she’ll be right, it’ll happen eventually”. But the stakes are too high.
The legal exclusion of gay and lesbians from the right to marry is a form of segregation, and that is how history will record it. It will also record what people did. We are all facing a “What did you do when…” moment.
It’s an election year. If the pollies won’t engage in a conscience vote on the issue, we still can.
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