Real marriage, sham debate


Never in the field of political conflict in Australia was so much time of so many monopolised by so few.

Many will no doubt quibble with various aspects of the above statement. Some issues are so basic and important to who we are as a nation, and some injustices so profound, that it does not matter whether one or one million are affected. Others will argue that the issue of same-sex marriage – or marriage equality – could, and should, have been resolved very easily a long time ago.

It is certainly not in anyone’s interest – except Labor’s, which is sitting back and enjoying the Coalition tearing itself apart as well as the fact that this issue is drowning out any other political news – that the SSM continues in limbo. I have friends who are vehemently in favour of the changes, and friends who are vehemently opposed; I have friends right across the whole spectrum of opinion and the intensity of opinion – but all are united in being sick and tired of the never-ending saga – either because they wish the question had never arisen, or because they think the reform should have been obvious and easy, or because either way we should have achieved a resolution by now and moved on to other, arguably more important issues.

I was never much excited or interested in the question of the definition of marriage. My position is well on record, even if it is very much a tiny minority one: I don’t believe the government should be involved in regulating marriage in the first place; if it had not been, this would not be a controversy at the moment. Alas, the good sense, as I see it, will not prevail; once a government sinks its teeth into anything, it is near impossible to make it spit it out again. And so, the nation is being forced to be consumed by something that in an ideal world would not be an issue, and even in this imperfect world is barely one, as I wrote not that long ago:

The fact that the issue seemingly as boutique as same sex marriage has so thoroughly dominated the political and public debate in Australia and generated more heat and passion than arguably any other in recent years, including the republic referendum, to me shows that we have pretty much arrived at a state of social nirvana where all the other big issues of political, legal, civil and economic rights and equality have been solved. Never mind “big ones” like slavery or universal suffrage; wherever you look, the previously oppressed and/or underprivileged minorities (or, in case of women, majorities) have now all achieved de jure equality, and in most cases the equality of opportunity, if not always (yet) equality of outcomes (which is a different issue to equal rights). You disagree? Then explain to me why obtaining the government’s blessing of a union between two people of the same gender, an issue which directly affects some undetermined percentage of about 40,000 couples in Australia, which other than the official name, enjoy exactly the same rights as all the other couples, has become a national preoccupation that would have made the suffragettes, black civil rights leaders, first and second wave feminists, and gay rights pioneers purple with envy.

Now we know there are another few months of political pain and bitter debate ahead:

Liberal backbenchers have overwhelmingly agreed to try for a second time to secure a plebiscite on marriage equality, despite an initial attempt being voted down by Labor and crossbench senators in November.

The government will put the legislation before Parliament this week, Turnbull Government Minister Mathias Cormann confirmed tonight.

If that fails, the government believes it will be able to conduct a voluntary postal plebiscite through the Australian Electoral Commission, and then a free vote in Parliament.

The opposition of Labor, the Greens, most of the Senate crossbenches, and many LGBT activists to a plebiscite strikes me as opportunistic or silly. If the change is as popular as it appears to be then why fear a democratic vote? Bill Shorten famously didn’t want a plebiscite because it would generate ugly debate. Well, we have one anyway, and without the benefit of a quick, post-plebiscite, resolution. And any concern about the cost or respect for representative democracy is a sick joke coming from those who in any other circumstances have neither.

There is no greater example today of the disjuncture between the political and the activist class and the rest of the population. The people might not have electricity, but let them chew instead on SSM and republic.