That makes it critical to precisely define the “question” itself. Because running both sides of the actual question is not the same as running “both sides” of all the other spurious “questions” the anti-equality case is setting up as obfuscations.
So here, at the get-go, is a list of the arguments this is not about, and to which Guardian Australia will definitely not be giving “equal time” or attention.
This is not about “political correctness”, that wonderfully nebulous term subverted by the right to become a catch-all cri de coeur against elites refusing to listen to the common sense views of ordinary people. Former prime minister Tony Abbott and the Australian Christian Lobbywere both employing this handy it’s-really-about-something-else-entirely tactic from day one. “Voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks,” Abbott claimed, champing to lead the march into another war on something or other.
But quite obviously “political correctness” does not apply – even if we were clear about what it meant – because we already know (from actual, properly weighted, surveys) that the overwhelming majority of Australians want marriage equalityand that it is the elites, in this case some churches and a determined group of politicians like Abbott, who are resisting.
It is also not about a “stolen generation” of children, or any other claim that children of same-sex couples are disadvantaged. The argument is offensive, particularly to gay parents, as articulated in the Senate this week by Penny Wong, incredulous at the suggestion the survey could become a “unifying moment” while people were saying such things.
“The Australian Christian Lobby described our children as ‘the stolen generation’. We love our children, and I object – as does every person who cares about children and as do all those same-sex couples in this country who have kids – to being told that our children are a ‘stolen generation’. You talk about unifying moments? That’s not a unifying moment. It’s exposing our children to that kind of hatred,” she said, with the quiet fury of a woman who should not have to defend her parenting but finds herself having to anyway.
But as well as being offensive, the argument is also obviously illogical. Children are already being born into same-sex families, and preventing their parents from being married will do nothing to stop this. In fact allowing couples who have already decided to nurture and love children to marry would provide them with additional security and public recognition and support.
This is, in fact, quite a conservative notion, as explained by Tony Abbott’s former speechwriter Paul Ritchie in a book setting out the conservative case for same-sex marriage.
“Allowing same-sex couples to marry is not just a matter of law. It’s also a matter of heart and soul. It reflects a universal hope: to be blessed by family and friends, and to share your life, with its trials and tribulations, laughter and joy, with the one that you love.
“The institution of marriage affirms us as people; gives standing to our most significant relationship; and changes our families for the better. It is an institution that points to a better life and helps us answer the deepest question: can I selflessly love another and find meaning and purpose in that love? This is a conservative ideal,” he writes.
Nor is this about anti-bullying or “safe school” campaigns, or about any kind of creeping “rainbow ideology” or “gay agenda” allegedly infiltrating the education system. That is an entirely separate scare campaign/discussion, as applicable or otherwise to the children of same-sex or opposite-sex parents. It has no relevance to marriage equality.
And it is not about whether the Labor party is hypocritical for not changing the law during its time in government. It’s true that they didn’t, but this is a decision for this parliament, at this time. And Labor leader, Bill Shorten, who has also changed his mind on the subject, has made his party’s position completely transparent.
This discussion is, to some extent, about where to draw the line between religious freedoms and freedom from discrimination, and this will be central to the “no” campaign. But draft legislation and private members’ bills have already provided exemptions for religious institutions and, in some cases, civil celebrants.
Some argue the exemptions should extend to individuals or non religious institutions, for example to the much-spoken of, but seldom actually seen, “conscientious objectors” to same sex marriage among the ranks of wedding providers like florists, cake decorators or erectors of large marquees. The private members’ bill introduced by Liberal Dean Smith covered service providers linked in some way to religious institutions.
I can’t see any justification for further stretching the anti-discrimination provisions from religiously-affiliated institutions to everyday service providers or businesses and institutions which wish to operate as though the marriage law had not changed. Service providers haven’t been exempted from anti-discrimination laws in the past when other laws have changed due to social pressure and changing attitudes. There may still be some publicans around who genuinely think women shouldn’t drink in public bars, as was illegal in some states until the 1960s. But it is, thank goodness, now illegal for them to refuse us service.
The anti-same-sex marriage lobby also argues marriage equality threatens religious “freedoms” in schools, which should be able to continue to teach that marriage should only occur between a man and a woman even if the law is changed – a curious position for organisations that would almost certainly be outraged if some other religion demanded the right to teach something contrary to the applicable law of Australia.
And these decisions about where to draw the line between religious freedom and discrimination are details, not determinants of the central question that this government is tying itself – and now also the country – in knots trying to answer.
This is, very simply, about tying just one sort of knot, answering that one straightforward question. If there was a reasonable argument to say “no”, we’d certainly discuss it. I just haven’t heard it yet.