Equality – an update

Wednesday, 19 October 2016 

On the issue of marriage, I think the reality is there is a cultural, religious and historical view around that which we have to respect. I do respect the fact that’s how people view the institution.

Penny Wong 2010

I do find myself on the conservative side in this question. I think that there are some important things from our past that need to continue to be part of our present and part of our future. If I was in a different walk of life, if I’d continued in the law and was partner of a law firm now, I would express the same view, that I think for our culture, for our heritage, the Marriage Act and marriage being between a man and a woman has a special status.

Now, I know people might look at me and think that’s something that they wouldn’t necessarily expect me to say, but that is what I believe.

Julia Gillard 2011

Personally speaking, I’m completely relaxed about having some form of plebiscite. I’d be wary of trying to use a referendum and a constitutional mechanism to start tampering with the Marriage Act. But in terms of a plebiscite — I would rather the people of Australia could make their view clear on this than leaving this issue to 150 people.

Bill Shorten 2013

Questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth Parliament. Referendums are held in this country where there’s a proposal to change the constitution. I don’t think anyone is suggesting the constitution needs to be changed in this respect.

Tony Abbott 2015

Marriage is primarily a social institution rather than a legal or political one. If some whacky law was passed tomorrow annulling all marriages, they would of course continue to be recognised by society, both by those in them and everyone else. Society is constantly evolving and so naturally does its view of marriage and its relation to the family. Decades ago, divorce had a social stigma and children born out of marriage were considered illegitimate. These days, every social attitude survey and opinion polls indicates that society recognises marriage between same sex couples and so you’d think the law would be changed to reflect that.

You’d think.

Actually if anyone believes politics is about reflecting what society wants, they haven’t been paying attention. Politics has its own dynamic. And on the issue of same sex marriage, politics has got itself in a right pickle.

When Howard put forward the Marriage Amendment Act in 2004, effectively banning same sex marriages, it could be argued that it reflected the public view at the time. But even then, the view was shifting across the developed world, and starting to be reflected in legislative initiatives, especially in the US. Howard’s amendment was partly to stave it off.

But safe to say that Howard’s main concern was not protecting the sanctity of marriage, but playing on Labor’s insecurity with its base. The real cause of the insecurity was the declining social relevance of the unions that formed Labor. But Labor under Latham was trying to recover the connection with Real Australia through “values”, a parody of working class priorities commonly found amongst the enlightened left. So Labor dutifully fell in behind Howard. No need for consciences then.

Because Howard’s ban on same sex marriage was mainly a political manoeuvre, it almost exactly coincided with the start of a shift in society in the opposite direction. This was despite the issue pretty well being ignored in the political sphere. By the time Latham’s acolyte, Julia Gillard, took over in 2010, despite the major parties mostly ignoring it, the majority of the public were now recognising same sex marriages. Nevertheless, Gillard Labor, with a new push on “values” of Real Australia, continued to refuse to do so, “respecting” society’s traditional view on marriage – which it no longer had.

The issue returned to the political sphere for several reasons. The first was the election of the first Green MP in the House of Representatives in 2010 who took it out of the hands of the major parties with a Private Members Bill in 2012.

But more importantly, it became an issue as the whole “values” strategy of aping Howard fell apart. Gillard, followed by the Yin to her Yang, Abbott, proved no more popular with Real Australia than Unreal Australia. Same sex marriage then became an internal political weapon used by both sides to undermine their leaders.

For Labor, same sex marriage became the badge of recognition by the party “modernisers” grouped around Rudd. This started to come to a head in the 2011 party conference by when Labor’s position was becoming more conservative than Coalition supporters, let alone its own. But attempts within the party to bring its marriage policy into line was meeting resistance from the leadership. By then it was less due to a Lathamesque attempt to relate to Real Australia, rather internal considerations applied. The push for same sex marriage was seen as undermining a Gillard leadership that was now under pressure from lousy polling and a resurging Rudd.

The result was a compromise to hide behind “consciences”. An issue that Labor had lined up on as policy in 2004 was now considered a deeply personal/religious issue that was beyond mere politics. There is of course no doubting the sincerity of Labor MPs consciences. But they proved remarkably in line with political interests.

Gillard’s opposition to same sex marriage came from a deeply personal held view that stemmed from her being read Bible stories as a child. But her opposition was also a way of not only broadcasting her social conservatism to Real Australia but also her union backers on which she came increasingly to rely. Similarly, the deeply personal journey that Rudd went on over the issue also happily coincided with him shifting to a position that placed his rival Gillard under internal pressure. Even more remarkable were the deeply personal simultaneous journeys travelled by other Labor MPs between 2011 and 2013 (especially those in Western Sydney seats), that mirrored the shift in balance of forces of the NSW Right away from Gillard to Rudd.

The incomplete nature of Rudd’s return and the modernisation meant that Shorten could block an attempt at the ALP’s 2014 Conference to make support for same sex marriage binding, so leaving it a conscience vote until after the next election.

As for the Coalition, there’s been deliberate re-writing of last year’s decision to call a plebiscite on the issue. It was not, as some opposing the plebiscite now claim, to defer the lifting of the ban on same sex marriage – that had already been done with the Coalition’s decisive party room vote to maintain the current policy just before the plebiscite was announced. Rather, the plebiscite was meant to defuse the issue becoming a rallying point for those opposing Abbott’s leadership.

It would have been thought that with the failure of the “values” strategy, Labor could now stop with their parody of what working class people think and act like the nice middle class professionals they generally are.

But something odd has happened. Instead of just doing their job and reflecting the support of Labor voters on same sex marriage, Labor began to repose the debate. From being simply about where society’s at on marriage, as they were (falsely) doing under Gillard, Labor was now making it about “love” and “equality” .

Leaving aside that the institution of marriage has never sat comfortably with formal equality, Labor’s reposing it as about equality obviously contradicts with its “conscience” position – when was equality an issue of conscience? Labor’s internally motivated compromises have not kept up with its shifting public tactics.

By Labor making it about love and equality, it naturally makes those against it about hate and inequality. This was, of course, not something that Labor would apply to their own policy opposition just a couple of years before – a double standard that has not gone unnoticed. This now being about love/hate, equality/bigotry, it has naturally led to a marked change in attitude to a plebiscite – from being “relaxed” about it in 2013, and even up to the Irish referendum (if seeing it unnecessary), to now claiming it could be harmful, a potential platform for hate, and linking it to mental health and suicide.

In doing so, Labor has suddenly decided to pick up the message from those same sex marriage activists who, barely a year after celebrating the Irish referendum, are now warning of the dire consequences of a repeat of any such public debate in Australia. After years of publicly campaigning for marriage equality, now the whole idea of a minority having to campaign to a majority on their rights is being considered as “demeaning”. A campaign that was supposed to be about getting social recognition of same sex relationships is now objecting to having to do precisely that.

It is worth noting that this opposition to a public debate and a refusal to call on majority support for minority rights is a marked contrast to the whole thrust of civil rights movements over the last half century. The US black civil rights movement was precisely about demanding minority rights from the majority, against an often vitriolic reaction from local white communities. Those brave souls who marched in the Sydney Mardi Gras in 1978 against the contempt and violence from the then Labor government’s police force, also did so to force a minority demand for equality into the public arena.

Given the far greater backlash such social protests would provoke in those days, they could almost seem irresponsible to activists of today. This retreat from such a public debate represents the implosion right across the spectrum of such social movements in the last fifty years to become the retreat of identity politics.

But the issue here is not really what has happened to social movements and identity politics, but the mainstream politics it was meant to challenge. Far from challenging it, the implosion of identity politics, whether feminism or indigenous rights, is being taken up and used by the major parties for their own purposes – as Labor is now using the retreat from the public sphere sounded by same sex marriage activists.

At one level, the reason for Labor’s sudden responsiveness to what SSM activists think is quite banal. Let’s be blunt, having opposed same sex marriage in government, Labor now wants to own it in opposition, especially to appeal to younger voters against the Green threat in the inner cities. It is why at the same time as it warns of a public campaign, it has been doing precisely that under its own banner, both at the last election and with Labor MPs flocking to the Mardi Gras and whizzing selfies up on social media.

It is also why Labor is continually putting up bills in Parliament that it knows will fail, even if they clash with bipartisan crossbench bills, as it did last month, just so it can keep it as a partisan issue that boxes the Coalition in – to the annoyance of those like Warren Entsch who are looking for a free Coalition vote with perhaps more sincerity and consistency on the issue than Bill Shorten.

Similarly, despite the attempt by some Coalition conservatives to undermine the credibility of the plebiscite by saying they would oppose it regardless, the fact a plebiscite win would have been the best chance for former opponents like Morrison and Abbott to throw their hands up and support it under the cover of public opinion, is now secondary to making sure it exists only as a campaign with a “Vote Labor” at the end of it.

However, Labor’s sharpening of its rhetoric against the plebiscite also reflects a more profound view of politics that is developing elsewhere. It was a view summed up in Gillard’s notorious Michael Kirby speech last year, best known for revealing that her previous “conservative” opposition to same sex marriage was a heavily disguised searing radical feminist critique. Perhaps of more interest are her reasons for opposing the plebiscite:

The speed and temper of our times is already working to undermine faith in the ability of democracies to cope and to embrace reform. The bonds that bind government and the governed together are already fraying. Enabling our nation to ready for the future, to adopt the continuing stream of big changes necessary, requires thoughtful strengthening of those bonds, not unusual tactics calculated to increase the wear and tear.

All this means a plebiscite or referendum is an idea of superficial appeal and long lived dangers.

What is happening here is that Labor’s insecurity about its own political project’s relationship to the base hasn’t gone away, but morphed into insecurity about the “frayed” bonds of the entire political system to society at large. The plebiscite threatens to not only create a counterpoint to Parliament but undermine its integrity.

The flipside to asserting the integrity of the political system to decide issues is the inability of society to directly do the same. While parliamentary consciences are a fine thing, the idea of society displaying theirs could be dangerous for mental health. There are some similarities to the discussion around this year’s referendum over Britain’s membership in the EU, where a debate that could be had forty years ago, when Britain was a much more openly racist society than today, cannot now be debated without risking the “unleashing of furies”. In the case of same sex marriage, Labor is using its opposition to the plebiscite and the argument of the activists about the dangers of the public to not only bolster its own campaigning, but the integrity of an increasingly unpopular Parliament.

The irony of all of this is such an approach could be self-fulfilling. As was perceptively noted by Peter Brent, despite the polling support for same sex marriage, there is still the possibility it could lose if it turned into a vote against the “elites”.

We know this is possible for two reasons. First, it has happened before when a lobbying group even more unsuccessful than Australian Marriage Equality, the Australian Republican Movement, managed to lose a republican referendum in a republican country, not least because they, and Labor, chose the most unpopular model to put forward, a President elected by Parliament. Here again the concern was the integrity of Parliament and the “long lived dangers” of setting up an alternative, more popular, pole of attraction. Doing so left it open for Howard to talk of a “Politicians’ Republic” knowing, what the ARM did not, that if there is one thing the Australian public likes less than the House of Windsor is their own political class.

We also know a defeat is possible because the Yes side have already gone the right way about losing it. First step in the run up to a vote is to tell the voters they are incapable of having it. Second step is to tell those that disagree they are hateful bigots. It is probably then best that such activists are looking to withdraw from the public sphere, since a majority support for same sex marriage that had little to do with them could turn into its opposite with their, and Labor’s, best efforts.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 19 October 2016.

Filed under Society, Tactics

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5 responses to “Equality – an update”

  1. FREDDO on 21st October 2016 9:34 am

    Not your best effort, I’m afraid. You don’t note that:
    1. 85% of LGBTI Australians don’t want a plebiscite. Why? Because they know it is an ambush. They lose the plebiscite (and it’s not unloseable: think Brexit, think Columbia Peace Deal) and it will be 30 or 40 years before they get another chance. They are much smarter to wait a few years and get it passed through Parliament without all the attendant hysteria.
    2. Why should the basic human rights of a minority be put to a vote?
    3. Why should the Govt spent $200 million on a glorified opinion poll that is not binding on its members.
    4. Of course Labor has changed its position as social attitudes have changed; of course it is playing politics. Isn’t that what viable political parties do?

  2. FREDDO on 21st October 2016 9:45 am

    You’re problem, Piping, is that you spend so much time impugning everybody’s motives (particularly labor’s) that you don’t bother to say what should be done. We’re all selfish bastards. I don’t need to know that. I need to know the way forward.

  3. David Rohde on 22nd October 2016 8:04 am

    Well, I as always, enjoyed the post!

  4. F on 22nd October 2016 3:41 pm

    Turnbull is unable to deliver Marriage Equality, in any format. He cannot have a free vote, he is unable to pass legislation in the Senate for a plebiscite, even if the plebiscite legislation had passed he would have been unable/unwilling to campaign for Marriage Equality. It is a bit rich to lay the blame for Turnbull’s failings at the feet of the Opposition. He is the PM, he is in government, it is his failure. What is with people continually trying to excuse away the failings of Right of center male politicians?

    That he has presented himself as some sort of reforming wet Liberal ‘progressive’ leader makes the deflection of blame all the more annoying. It is the same cognitive dissonance displayed by a majority of the Gallery, with a prime example being Kenny (who you have taken upon your self to re-Tweet on a number of occasions.) who continually make excuses for just how awful Turnbull really is.

    And in the end the plebiscite was just a stalling mechanism, designed to sow discord amongst those wanting Marriage Equality(and the Labor party.) That it will now drag on and be used against a pathetically weakened Turnbull, and completely detached and self-absorbed Liberal right is fine by me.

    P.s Looking forward to your post November 8th piece on the Clinton EC landslide.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 22nd October 2016 11:27 pm

    Just coming back to FREDDO, thanks for your comments.

    1) the issue has never been what LGBTI want, otherwise there would be SSM already. That “poll” (which was open to all BTW) may be true, but it is only being acknowledged (and unquestioned) as it is useful for the major parties for the purposes described. This dodgy use of “representative” views strikes me as very similar to how “indigenous community” views are picked up or ignored depending what purpose they suit.

    2) because we live in a democracy. It will be the case whether it’s a direct vote or a parliamentary vote

    3) because some people clearly think it’s important. Cutting public funding for either side would reduce that cost. But putting cost on a democratic process is a pretty weak argument IMO (and fairly unconvincing when it is said by those who see it as a very important issue indeed).

    4) Labor has not changed its attitude to changing social attitudes. As I said, social attitudes shifted between 2004 – 2009. Labor’s policy did not. My argument is that the timing of Labor’s shift was more due to internal political reasons – as is the Coalition’s. Similarly its opposition to the plebiscite is also for political reasons, some opportunistic, some more profound.

    As I said I think the plebiscite would have been the quickest for the handful of Coalition MPs that would be needed to switch sides on the issue. If there are those who think bringing the issue into the public arena will be harmful, fine. But I can point out how very different that approach is from those who stuck their necks out to make it a public issue years ago.

    F very much looking forward to doing a US election post!

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