After this country’s politicians eventually work out who is and isn’t entitled to sit in Parliament, hopefully they’ll turn their attention back to more important things – like the plebiscite on same-sex marriage.
Despite the seemingly endless discussion about the issue and the cry from advocates for change for politicians to “just do it because it’s popular”, there’s been remarkably little public debate about the consequences if a majority of people vote “Yes” to change the legal definition of marriage.
Partly this is because both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage are for the moment arguing about the technicalities of what marriage is, and partly it’s because Australians take a narrow and utilitarian view of human rights and are reluctant to engage in philosophical arguments – unlike in the United States.
The debates around the free press and the Gillard government’s attempt in 2013 to regulate the media, and now the ongoing controversy about the appropriateness of legislation which makes it unlawful to offend someone on the basis of their race reveal that in Australia when it comes to fundamental issues of principle, there’s a tendency to pick a partisan side first and invent a rationalisation for it second.
Law gradually proscribed what we can say
In the wake of a “Yes” vote, how we talk about same-sex marriage and how we’re allowed by the government to talk about it, is part of a much larger conversation about how Australians talk about questions of sexuality, gender, race, and politics. Gradually the bounds of what by law we can and can’t say about these things are being limited, and at this stage there’s certainly the potential for the legalisation of same-sex marriage to reduce our freedoms rather than extend them.
The question to be asked in the plebiscite: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” is at best disingenuous – and at worst dishonest. The answer that many reasonable people would give is – “it depends”. It’s completely consistent for someone to believe that two people who love each other should be able to get married, while at the same time also believing that those who publicly state that marriage can only ever be between a man and a woman should not be guilty of breaking the law for expressing such an opinion.
If the plebiscite passes, whether it will in fact be unlawful for say a Christian or Muslim school to teach the “traditional” view of marriage is unknown – as yet no politician has wanted to answer. The question is not hypothetical. Last year the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart was alleged to have breached Tasmania’s anti-discrimination laws for distributing a brochure saying marriage was between a man and a woman.
What about the question?
It’s surprising the “conservatives” in the Coalition who were so eager to have a popular vote on same-sex marriage did not demand that the public should vote on the actual legislation implementing same-sex marriage. The result of a “Yes/No” plebiscite on same-sex marriage is as meaningless as that from Labor’s own proposed plebiscite on Australia becoming a republic.
Same-sex marriage is often presented as a matter of personal freedom. But freedom cuts both ways. At the moment anyone is free – without threat of legal sanction – to describe traditional marriage as a product of the capitalist patriarchy that enslaves women. In fact that’s exactly how marriage is labelled in more than a few critical theory classes at universities across the country. The advocates of a “Yes” vote in the plebiscite would increase their chances of success if they reassured the public that should the law be changed, same-sex marriage could be talked about in exactly the same way as is traditional marriage.
Marriage is more than a legal construct, it’s a cultural and social institution and it’s entirely appropriate the community should have a say on its future. But it should be a real consultation about the specifics. It’s incumbent on those who want change – whether to the definition of marriage, or our head of state, or anything else so significant – to explain how the change will work in practice.
One of the lessons of history is that the habit of authoritarians is to talk in generalities.