In an interview on ABC News Breakfast this morning, Federal Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt asked that “everybody to be respectful of the views of each other”. He wasn’t talking about opinions on emissions trading, direct action or any typically divisive policies related to his portfolio. Rather, Mr Hunt was referring to the burgeoning debate in Australia on for marriage equality, which has stepped up recently after the Irish referendum and US Supreme Court finding.
The call for respect is a line that reeks of party divided, with straws being desperately grasped to delay the inevitable. It’s also a line that smacks of irony so stark that some might relish in its deliciousness, was it not overshadowed by its glaring hypocrisy.
The Liberal Party wants us to cut them a break. They are feeling it really hard, guys, with all this talk of the gays being allowed to marry. While some Coalition MPs now publicly support marriage equality, there are still many in the party who maintain deep-seeded, conservative views on this issue and they are asking if we can just respect that some people just do not want gays to marry. Okay guys?
The call for respect is coming from members of a party whose recent history has displayed anything but for those with opinions that the Liberal-National Coalition did not share. We only need to look at recent activity in Mr Hunt’s own portfolio to demonstrate this. When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull tried to negotiate an Emissions Trading Scheme, the Liberal Party viciously overthrew Mr Turnbull in favour of climate sceptic Tony Abbott. And when Prime Minister Julia Gillard negotiated a Carbon Tax with the Greens, Tony Abbott stood in front of Parliament House, with placards surrounding him stating “Ditch the Witch” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch”.
Seemingly nothing has changed now that the Coalition is in government, as seen with the recent debates on the ordinarily bipartisan issue of national security. Whilst the Labor Party has agreed in principle to new laws stripping citizenship from dual-national terrorists, Tony Abbott has inexplicably been determined to create division by baiting arguments with the Labor Party where there was not argument to be had.
These are not the actions of a party that has a history of displaying respect for other views in political debate.
So what is it that we are being asked to respect? It is the view that marriage should hold the “traditional” view that marriage is between a man and a woman. But where does this “tradition” lie?
The idea of the “tradition” of marriage is open for debate. Certainly, there is anthropological evidence that the concept of marriage predates Biblical history. And the idea that marriage was about celebrating the love between a man and a woman is truly a modern concept, when considered in the grand history of the institution. Cousins of ruling families married to strengthen dynasties. Rulers have arranged marriages to forge alliances. Young girls have been promised to grown men. Even the Bible records Kings with multiple wives. The “tradition”, we are now told, of marriage being between the loving union between one man and one woman is truly a tradition newly evolved.
So where else do the arguments take us? Those based on marriage as a religious institution cannot be sustained as the Australian Constitution demands a separation of Church and State. In any event, such an argument ignores the hundreds of thousands of atheists who have legally said “I do” in this country.
Those debasing the societal ills of homosexuality are embarrassingly out-dated and an argument that has already been lost. The decriminalisation of homosexuality began in the ACT in 1973 and has been the nation-wide status quo since Tasmania finally followed the rest of the country in 1997. The Fred Niles of the world continuing their sermons that homosexuals have “abysmal moral standards” should not be taken seriously in the debate for marriage equality.
Finally, those arguments based on marriage being about families or based on the idea that children need a father and a mother are so misguided that it is difficult to know where to begin. People who get married in Australia are not required to have children, people who have children in Australia are not required to get married, divorce is legal and many parents raise children on their own. Whilst some people may have views as to the ideal family unit, it does not currently dictate marriage law in Australia. And there is currently no law preventing homosexual couples from having children in Australia, so the entire basis of the argument is moot.
On the same morning that Greg Hunt has made a plea for respect his colleague in the Senate, Eric Abetz has decried that the media has championed the cause of marriage equality when it should be allowing a “proper, appropriate debate”. In the same breath, Mr Abetz demonstrated his proper, appropriate debating skills by arguing that Australia shouldn’t do it because Asia hasn’t, ignoring interviewer Kieran Gilbert’s comment that Australia differs from Asia in relation to many issues, including capital punishment.
Mr Abetz also retreated to the tired, old argument that same-sex marriage will lead to polygamy; an argument so unimaginative it stings of sour grapes. Lumping same-sex marriage with polygamy is an alarmist and irresponsible conflation of issues. Marriage equality is the quest for every person to have equal rights to marry under the law. There is no right to have multiple husbands or wives in Australia, nor is there any grand campaign for this to occur. And human rights activists certainly do not consider polygamous relationships as the hallmarks of equality. Arguing that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy is the kind of commentary that demonstrates a lack of any respect for sensible debate.
Sensible debate requires a real examination of the idea of equality. In the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia, two people in the United States stood trial for the charge of “cohabiting as man and wife against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth”. This seminal case came about as the culmination of the growing discontent of the restrictions on marriage in numerous US states based on what was described as “the natural law”.
In 1869 in the case of Scott v State the Georgia Supreme Court ruled as guided by “natural law”. The court held that:
“…moral or social equality between the different races…does not in fact exist, and never can. The God of nature made it otherwise, and no human law can produce it, and no human tribunal can enforce it. There are gradations and classes throughout the universe. From the tallest archangel in Heaven, down to the meanest reptile on earth, moral and social inequalities exist, and must continue to exist throughout all eternity.”
Thanks to the case of Loving v Virginia, this concept of marriage based on “tradition” – one which banned interracial unions –that America has truly abandoned. Australia does not share a history demonizing interracial marriage as damning as the United States. And yet it is the United States that has now evolved passed Australia to recognise same-sex marriage.
Marriage is not a concept bound by tradition. It has evolved over time to reflect changes in societal norms and society’s definition of fundamental human rights. We can no longer force any man or woman to marry against his or her will. And we no longer allow children to marry at all. But we do allow a consenting man and a consenting woman to marry for love, irrespective of race, religion or their intention or ability to have children. The root of the Marriage Equality movement is found in its description. It is about equality for all Australians. To have equality, the rights of all Australians must be equal, irrespective of gender, race or sexuality. It is about mutual respect for all.
If the Prime Minister was intent on being respectful to “the views of each other” he would allow his party to have a conscience vote. And yet we still have reports today the he continues to be unmoved on the issue.
The fight for equality requires robust debate. It requires calling out the hypocrisy of the status quo. Any call to respect a call against equality is a curious call indeed.