News & Comment
'It's not important'
What are some of the sticks that could be thrust in marriage equality's spokes?
The Queensland ALP State Conference has voted to support marriage equality.
This means a majority of state and territory conferences have endorsed the reform, leaving only NSW and WA.
Grass-roots members in those states will be asked to vote on the issue in coming weeks.
If they follow suit, and there's no reason to think they won't, Labor Party rank and file will have sent the strongest message possible to Julia Gillard that's she's out-of-step with Labor values.
Opponents of equality see the importance of the Qld decision.
Both the Australian Christian Lobby and the Australian newspaper are reacting with their usual refrain about Labor losing touch by not dealing with what they consider more mainstream issues.
"Mr Shelton said the Queensland Labor Party risked alienating mainstream voters by fixating on a small, activist component of the population instead of dealing with the issues most Australians were concerned about."
"Labor does not speak well to middle Australia, where the marital "rights" of same-sex couples barely rate a mention alongside concerns over soaring living costs and healthcare."
The obvious response is that if debate on same-sex marriage is getting in the way of more important issues then why not move on by allowing such marriages?
But beyond this simple political logic there's a profound hypocrisy in the it's-not-important argument against equality.
When John Howard amended the Marriage Act in 2004 to preclude the recognition of same-sex marriages both the ACL and the Australian championed the change on the basis marriage is a universal and fundamental social and legal institution.
Everyone should be concerned, they argued, because everyone has a stake in marriage.
This is how they justified devoting most of their campaigning / columnists to the cause of gay exclusion.
But now that public opinion has swung towards equality, it seems reform of marriage no longer matters to anyone but a troublesome few.
If marriage mattered in 2004, it should matter now, unless, of course, the motive in 2004 was not marriage but political mischief-making.
Given that momentum for equality continues to grow, prompting opponents of equality to engage with the issue ever more defensively, it's time to take another look at what sticks may be thrust in marriage equality's spokes.
The one I find least troubling is a conscience vote on equality.
Obviously it would be best if the Labor National Conference adopts a new policy supporting marriage equality.
But if it can't, a conscience vote would at least allow the issue to keep moving forward.
It's also hard to imagine the Coalition adopting a policy any better than free vote.
If there has to be a compromise on the path to full equality, this should be it.
Another compromise that would keep the momentum going, but which I find much less attractive is a referendum.
This option is floating around the religious right and has made its way into random letters to the editor, but it is yet to perculate up to the top rungs of the political ladder like a carbon tax plebiscite has.
While I believe marriage equality would be endorsed by a referendum, I fear the campaign leading up to it would register stormy to apocalyptic on the political barometer.
The recent street clashes over marriage equality would be nothing compared to the divisiveness of a referendum.
That's something the nation definitely does not need.
Another possible compromise on the path marriage equality is a national civil union scheme.
This would be a disaster, both for same-sex attracted people seeking equality and for the marriage equality movement.
Very little is said about this possibility at the moment. Politicians know it is unpopular among both supporters and opponents of reform.
But the threat is still there. Powerful members of both major parties have the civil union option tucked in their back pockets waiting for the right moment to spring it on a nation that hasn't had a chance to consider its implications.
In the event a referendum and/or civil union scheme are rejected, there will be yet more annoying sticks awaiting spokes, especially in the event of a conscience vote.
One possibility is a ban on all religious marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, including by religious celebrants who are happy to perform such marriages.
A parallel is the ban on religious civil partnership ceremonies inserted in the UK Civil Partnerships Act to get it through Parliament in 2005, and only now being considered for repeal.
More likely, in my view, is an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act to allow churches to discriminate against same-sex couples on the grounds of marital status.
This is the kind of compromise being considered in New York to win the one or two Republican State Senate votes needed to pass reform.
In Australia the final resort of many opponents of reform - once their scare tactics about polygamy, incest and the end of the world have been exposed as baseless - is the argument that allowing same-sex marriages will mean religious celebrants are forced to perform same-sex marriages, church schools forced to teach they are legitimate and faith-based services forced to treat them equally.
Equality opponents haven't yet raised the possibility of an anti-discrimination amendment, but, believe me, this is where they are heading.
If you're in doubt, consider the same-sex adoption debate in NSW which followed the same trajectory.
Just as churches are currently not forced to perform marriages they don't recognise, and are not forced to legitimise these marriages in other ways, so they will be not be forced to act against their teachings in relation to same-sex marriages.
Indeed, there are already exemptions in anti-discrimination laws that allow churches to refuse recognition and services on the grounds of marital status or sexual orientation.
But this will not stop them seeking further exemptions that are both more pointed and broader...anything to re-inforce the walls too many religious leaders seem determined to build between their congregations and the societies of which they increasingly seem to detest being a part.
In other marriage-equality news,
Jacqui Tomlins explains what she would tell Julia over dinner
In other LGBTI human rights news,
Congratulations on the Australian Government for co-sponsoring a ground-breaking UN resolution on sexuality and gender identity discrimination.
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