Bill Shorten shows leadership on marriage equality; the question now is will Tony Abbott join him at the altar?

Same-sex marriage may well prove the rebooting of Bill Shorten’s less than inspiring leadership of the Labor party, but in the meantime, and more importantly, it provides much needed political momentum in support of marriage equality in Australia.

Australia’s reluctance to face up to marriage equality as a fundamental issue of human rights ended with the announcement by Shorten and his deputy Tanya Plibersek to co-sponsor a private member’s bill. Marriage equality is now only a matter of time; if there was ever any doubt about that, those doubts can now be cast aside.

It is mischievous to dismiss the Shorten-Plibersek initiative as a political stunt. While there is growing support for same-sex marriage among MPs and the community, there remain pockets of entrenched opposition to such a reform.

As Shorten admitted to Fairfax Media: “I know this private member’s bill will not have the universal support of my colleagues.”

Plibersek’s recent misjudged call for a binding Labor vote on same-sex marriage illustrated how passions can be very quickly inflamed on the issue.

The Shorten-Plibersek announcement should be welcomed as an act of policy leadership – leadership sorely lacking from the Abbott government which has preferred to stall on the matter in the hope that it goes away.

But the Irish referendum ‘yes’ vote in favour of same-sex marriage put paid to that misreading of a generational move for change. If Ireland can overcome its social conservatism and Catholic mores, what is Australia’s problem? More to the point, what is Tony Abbott’s problem?

Abbott has personal views against same-sex marriage, but those views, as deeply held as they may be, must be secondary to the objectives of national inclusiveness and respect for the rights of all Australians. As Prime Minister he has a responsibility to show leadership on the issue that transcends his own personal position.

When all is said and done, there are no fundamental reasons for opposing same-sex marriage. Certainly none so fundamental that Australia can continue to say to a section of its citizenry that they are not free to marry the person of their choice; that marriage as a profound expression of love is not available to them.

Australia’s Marriage Act has not been handed down from the heavens. It is an instrument of the state, an expression of community values. The state has an obligation to ensure that the laws governing the institution keep pace with changing social attitudes and the human rights of all its citizens.

One day Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief

Marriage is hardly a fixed entity. It was not so long ago that laws proscribing marriage between white and African Americans, and laws circumscribing marriage between white and Aboriginal Australians, were considered reasonable and consistent with preserving the “sanctity” of marriage. Such laws today would be considered unthinkable by all but the most extreme margins of society.

Generations from now, Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief that homosexual men and women had to fight for the right to marry the person they loved.
Tony Abbott has called for tolerance in the conduct of the same-sex marriage debate, but he has no tolerance for the profound desire of some Australians to marry someone of the same sex.

“[W]e need to see mutual respect of all the different views on this debate because as I said, decent people can differ on this subject,” Abbott says.

No doubt the PM is blind to the irony that while he is pleading for mutual respect, he is denying it to those gay Australians who wish to marry but in law cannot.
It is absurd that homosexual Australians should have equal standing before the law in every respect but marriage. By what perversion of logic does equality stop at the door of marriage?

It’s true, some Australians do have deeply held views of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Convictions deserve to be respected, but they are not always the best foundations for a just and inclusive society. Marriage can longer be preserved as an exclusive club.

There is no excuse for Australia’s inaction on marriage equality. Nineteen countries have so far legalised same-sex marriage, including the country of Abbott’s birth, Britain, and our neighbour New Zealand. Australia is in danger of standing as isolated on gay marriage as it does on climate change. For Abbott this may be a point of pride, but only at the cost of his credibility.

Quite apart from issues of equity, inclusiveness and respect it is preposterous that what is legal in a growing band of countries, in nations as familiar as Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and France, is illegal in Australia. In multicultural Australia it is now the case that many citizens find themselves wondering why it is possible for marriage equality to apply in the countries of their origin but not in their own country.

There is no turning back

Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek are to be congratulated for bringing the issue of same-sex marriage to a head. There is no turning back following their decision to place the issue front and centre of the nation’s political agenda.

Curiously, and unconvincingly, sections of the government and its backbench have accused Labor of politicising the issue of same-sex marriage and of jeopardising a bipartisan approach to change.

Liberal MP Warren Entsch, a long-time supporter of marriage equality, rather than welcoming an imminent vote on the matter, says he is “profoundly disappointed” by Shorten’s announcement because it will turn the result into a partisan vote.

“This is about survival for Bill, this is not about marriage ¬equality. It was always our intention to bring something on this year. I’m determined to get something up and I don’t want it to be partisan. Let’s do it in a civil, orderly way,” he says.

Tony Abbott, avowedly opposed to marriage equality, has been stalling on the issue since assuming office. Even granting Coalition MPs a conscience vote has been a stumbling block for Abbott, let alone opening his mind to the substantive issue itself.

Whatever “something” Entsch had in mind, there was no definite prospect of the government bringing the issue to Parliament; nor, in the event that it did, that it would permit Coalition MPs a free vote. Similarly, the issue being brought to the Parliament by a minor party would have been fraught and far easier for the government to stymie.

The fact that the alternative government has announced its intention to put the issue to the Parliament is entirely another matter. In doing so it has raised debate and discussion on marriage equality to new heights. The genie is out of the bottle and proud.

“Political”? Yes. An out-of-step, tin-eared, ideologically hidebound government has been out-manoeuvred by Labor. But it is no less an action of leadership by Shorten and his deputy. Their next leadership challenge is to prosecute their case and take the rest of Australia with them to the altar of reform.

Warren Entsch and like-minded colleagues can ensure that marriage equality is not a partisan issue by backing the Labor initiative and urging their Prime Minister to adjust his hearing aid and, like his opposite number, show some courage on the issue.

Even if the Prime Minister finds gay marriage confronting, as he does so many things, he must declare that the time has come for marriage equality in Australia.

Bill Shorten’s position is compelling, unambiguous and ultimately straightforward:
“Our current [marriage] law excludes some individuals, and to me that is unacceptable. It says to them: your relationships are not equally valued by the state, your love is less equal under the law.”

We should have heard such a statement from the leader of the nation.

But better late than never. There is absolutely nothing to stop Tony Abbott from regaining the initiative and endorsing Shorten’s sentiment as a matter of fundamental principal.

It is not too late for Abbott to race down the aisle, join Shorten, and declare “I do too”.

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