Originally published in The Australian, 14 November 2017
Whichever way it goes, the supporters of marriage between a man and a woman can be proud of their campaign. With polls showing support for same-sex marriage as high as 70 per cent just two months ago, the No campaign has done a fine job reminding people of the importance of keeping faith with values and institutions that have stood the test of time. Change is part of life but change for the better is invariably evolutionary, not revolutionary, and builds on our best traditions and historical strengths.
Two months ago, there were all sorts of hysterical claims about the bigotry and homophobia that the plebiscite would supposedly un- leash. There have indeed been nasty social media posts on both sides of the argument but there’s been no bullying, intimidation, or prejudice from the No campaign. Yet again, the Australian people have shown that they’re more than capable of respecting views they don’t necessarily agree with and the Abbott government’s decision to resolve this matter by popular vote has been vindicated.
For whichever side emerges on top, the challenge will be to show magnanimity in victory. Of course, the result has to be respected by the parliament as there’s no point having a national plebiscite, even by post, if its result is to be ignored.
Bill Shorten, I suspect, might now be a little embarrassed by his pre-plebiscite declaration that Labor would introduce a same-sex marriage bill into the next parliament regardless of tomorrow’s vote, because any democratic politician who declares that he’s right and the public wrong is on a hiding to nothing.
A No vote would dismay the activists who have long demanded the status of marriage, if not its heavy duties and obligations. It shouldn’t make much difference to same-sex couples, though, as they already have exactly the same rights as a man and a woman in a settled domestic relationship.
In the event of a Yes vote, both Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull will need to do much more to protect freedom of conscience and freedom of religion than is the case with Dean Smith’s private member’s bill — which does no more than allow ministers of religion to decline to perform same- sex weddings.
Less than two months ago, the Prime Minister said: “I … want to reassure Australians that as strongly as I believe in the right of same-sex couples to marry, even more strongly … do I believe in religious freedom.” The opponents of same-sex marriage will certainly facilitate the passage of a bill through the parliament but hope that the Prime Minister will be as good as his word on entrenching the right to dissent from any new orthodoxy.
Naturally, the supporters of marriage as it has always been understood would be disappointed; heartbroken, indeed, in the case of those who have always maintained the power of the “silent majority”, if it turns out that the cultural ground has collapsed from under them.
Yet defeat could turn out to be a blessing in disguise if it forces the defenders of Western civilisation out of their long complacency. For too long we have put up with the trashing of our country’s history and the rubbishing of our ethical norms because we didn’t want to upset people.
The most persuasive advocates of same-sex marriage have a point when they characterise it as mere- ly the latest manifestation of the decency and generosity of spirit that has long characterised West- ern societies. But how long can we slice and dice the ethical understandings on which our civilisation has rested? How far can we accept the redefinition of concepts that have always been taken for granted; assert rights without corresponding responsibilities; allow every opinion to be equally valid; or seek to give what we haven’t actually got? If we don’t want to end up at the bottom of a slippery slope, we have to be careful about starting down in the first place.
The same-sex marriage plebiscite is really the first time the public has been asked their view on an important values question. With no big political party leader on their side and with many church leaders dithering and divided, the ability of the No case to mobilise more than 5000 volunteer door- knockers and phone canvassers and to raise more than $6 million from 20,000-plus individual donors shows the latent power of respect for tradition, if only the case is made for it. The challenge will be to keep the faith and stay the course for the even more important struggles ahead.