Originally published in The Australian, 15 August 2017
Same sex marriage is a tough issue. It divides families; it splits political parties; often enough, it tears at individuals too. It was definitely rending the Liberal Party in mid-2015 between those sure that the institution at the heart of our society must not be redefined to suit a politically correct minority; and those worried that our stance was unfair and standing in the way of history. We needed to find a way forward that wouldn’t just decide the issue but would reconcile the public with the result.
The conclusion I came to (and that Malcolm Turnbull has respected) was that a plebiscite was most likely to reassure people that their views had been taken seriously and that the outcome was fair. It would ensure that the issue had been carefully weighed and the best possible decision made. It was least likely to produce ongoing acrimony, for who could back his or her individual judgment against a vote of the whole people? After all, it’s marriage that creates families, families that make up communities, and communities that build our nation. On such an issue, where change would never have been imaginable to our constitutional founders, it was right and proper to refer it to the people rather than just leave it to the parliament because everyone would have some ownership of the final result.
Now that the vote looks like going ahead, the challenge is to have a debate that takes seriously the ramifications of changing something that is so central to the way we live. It’s a pity that the advocates of change haven’t finalised what they think are fair protections for freedom of religion and freedom of speech in an era of same sex marriage because it’s hard to be sure about something without knowing exactly what it might entail.
Another disappointment is the tone of so much of the same sex marriage advocacy. If polls are right, most support change so the plebiscite should be a way to reassure people that it won’t strain the social fabric. Instead, the activists have insisted that the general public can’t be trusted to have a sensible debate and make a considered decision. Last week, one very senior Labor senator attacked the Prime Minister for allegedly exposing her children to “hatred” because of their family circumstances. It is not homophobic to maintain that, ideally, children should have both a mother and a father. Yet I fear much moral bullying in the weeks to come – invariably from those demanding change.
For me, voting “no” will not be a criticism of gay friends and family members; it won’t be an assertion that there’s only one right way to live your life or to express your love. Rather, it will be an affirmation that the things that matter should not lightly be changed and that marriage is different from other relationships.
Ask yourself what is the most decent and respectful thing to do: is it to endorse this change that the gay lobby is stridently insisting upon; or is it to question whether a few years’ agitation should unmake a concept of marriage that had stood for many centuries and has always been regarded as the rock upon which society is built? Ask yourself what’s more likely to maintain respect for marriage and to reinforce the notions of constancy and selflessness that sustain all lasting relationships: an ongoing recognition that marriage is a union of one man with one woman, preferably for life and usually dedicated to children; or changing marriage so that it can mean any two people who love each other?
Thankfully, censoriousness towards gay people has long gone. I admire the courage of those who battled discrimination (and worse) to establish the equal rights and dignity of all people regardless of race, gender, religion or sexuality. I am grateful for the decency of gay friends (such as the late Christopher Pearson) who have deepened my understanding of the human condition. But I am baffled by the current claim that gay relationships are somehow diminished without the badge of marriage. Unmarried people are not lesser humans than married ones. Couples with children are not greater than those without. Same sex partnerships are not lesser than opposite sex ones. They’re just different.
We Australians are an easy-going and open-hearted people. Our tendency is to take people as we find them and give them the benefit of the doubt. We hate injustice and yearn to help everyone who’s doing it tough. But that doesn’t make it right to acquiesce in every request or to accommodate every demand.
Of course, there has always been an honour in marriage beyond that of other relationships. By all means, let’s find means to solemnise same sex commitments and to impose upon them the demanding mutual obligations that spouses undertake; but I doubt that’s what most activists have in mind. To them, I suspect, it’s about status rather than responsibilities.
The best claim for same sex marriage is that it will reinforce stable and committed relationships. In New Zealand, though, where civil unions have been allowed for more than a decade and same sex marriage since 2013, the marriage rate has been in the same slow, steady decline as elsewhere in the West so it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that broadening marriage weakens it. Given all the other pressures upon us right now, is that what we really want?