Our major parties’ gay abandon

Why, pray tell, is there a bipartisan consensus against same-sex marriage? A Galaxy poll last year found that 60% were in favour of it – more than enough to legalise something socially progressive, since when it finally happens, and gay marriages are proven to have absolutely no impact on anyone else’s except making functions venues slightly harder to book, even more people will come on board.

But for days now I’ve been watching the endless televised question-and-answer sessions with Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, and every time they’re asked they simply stonewall, if that’s not too confusing a term to use in an article about homosexuality.

Julia Gillard had to defend her position last week both on Q&A and at the public meeting of the Rooty Hill branch of the Liberal Party, and both times she used the same formula. “What I say now is going to disappoint you,” she said, briefly allowing a moment of Realness to permeate the discussion before returning to her carefully scripted line:

The position, my position, the position of the Labor Party, which we worked out at our national conference, is we believe that the Marriage Act should stay in the same way that it is now.

“How it is now”, you may remember, is that celebrants are required to state that in Australia, marriage is between a man and a woman. That little gem was introduced by the Howard Government and adds an unpleasant moment of homophobic priggishness to every ceremony, the ceremonial equivalent of hocking a ball of phlegm into the punch.

After that, Gillard quickly moved onto a long list of reforms her government had made to guarantee legal equality for homosexual relationships, just in case anybody was mistakenly thinking that the ALP hated gays. And of course, Labor doesn’t – why, some of its best Senators are gay. It’s just that it likes winning marginal seats a whole lot more.

Gillard’s defence of the ban to both audiences went no further than explaining that Labor didn’t want it to change. Which the questioner already knew, of course, having asked the question. Ultimately, she could offer no more sophisticated an argument than Pauline Hanson’s famous “I don’t like it”.

I’m sure she has no issue with it personally – as we know, the PM is not exactly a traditionalist when it comes to marriage. And yet, she doggedly defends the party line, albeit unconvincingly.

So, why is a notionally progressive party so intrangient on gay marriage? Labor’s timidity partly dates back to Howard successfully using the issue as a wedge ahead of the 2004 election. However, according to the Adelaide Advertiser’s Mark Kenny, the policy was confirmed at the ALP’s National Conference last year because the powerful Labor Right – and in particular the – shop assistants’ union – have links to the Catholic Church, and chose to reflect its view that marriage should be straights-only.

But what business has the Catholic Church to demand that their religious belief should determine public policy for “sinners”? The theology of Christianity is all about believers following a set of rules that’s distinct from the rest of society, so why expect non-believers to conform? Churches are at liberty to refuse to allow gays to marry in their buildings, just as the likes of George Pell are free to demonise homosexuality despite the church’s own internal struggles with the issue. But that’s where it should end – at the church doors, not in Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, Tony Abbott’s in lockstep with the Catholic Church on this issue, leading to a touching question on this week’s Q&A from audience member Geoff Thomas:

I have a gay son. When I was confronted with that situation in a very short amount of time and with due consideration I accepted his position and I overcame my ignorance and my fear of gays and the idea of gay marriage. When will you, Mr Abbott, take up the same – when will you, sir, overcome your fear and ignorance of gay people and give them the dignity and respect that you’d happily give to all other Australians?

Abbott’s response felt more sincere than Gillard’s, unsurprisingly. “I think that there are lots of terrific gay relationships, lots of terrific commitments between gay partners, but I just don’t think that marriage is the right term to put on it,” he said.

And then he stroked Tony Jones’ arm (at 14:40 here), just to show how cool he was with the whole gay thing. Unfortunately, an awkward moment of television doesn’t prove that he’s down with the gay community the way, say, riding on a Mardi Gras tribute float featuring Speedo-clad lifesavers with giant prosthetic ears would.

When asked by kids last week to explain what the Liberal Party was about, Abbott’s answer was full of the rhetorical of liberalism. “The Liberal Party is the freedom party,” he said. For straights, that is. A true liberal would support genuine freedom for people who choose a different lifestyle from them – but Abbott only believes in the freedom of those who agree with him.

In truly free countries, governments shouldn’t restrict the actions of individuals without good reasons. If the Marriage Act’s defenders can’t mount a more convincing defence of the status quo, then Tony Abbott should be allowed to take Tony Jones’ hand in marriage, not just in a creepy little gesture on the set of Q&A.

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