Michael Sainsbury
September 7, 2016

Marriage equality: Are we open?

Civil rights

Marriage equality: Are we open?

What a joke: The debate that makes Australians look smaller than they usually do

Australia has a proud history of being at the forefront of enacting legislation that eliminates our myriad inequalities.

In the extension of basic human rights, it has been an innovator. Australia was one of the first to give women the vote, to establish a minimum wage, abolish capital punishment, remove university fees, and create of one of the best national healthcare systems anywhere in the world.

These moments, and thousands of others like them, marked Australia at the vanguard of the new world, not saddled with hard to budge of conservative positions.

This was a place where people were free, not bound by class or ideology. A nation of immigrants all bound, co-operatively towards a more equal future.

Like the United States, Canada and New Zealand, it left the baggage behind and was starting fresh, untethered from our colonial masters. Anything was possible, and there would be opportunity for all, not just some.

That was then. Somewhere, sometime, we lost our way.  Of course just where is hard to tell, as these things tend to happen by one thousand cuts.

But there is no doubt that we are now here, completely lost and way back in the pack.

The partisan debate over a simple, basic equal right, for two people who love each other and want to commit to a partnerships – that thing the State calls marriage – is hard and clear evidence of that.

This is not about religion, it is not about sexual orientation, it is about basic civil rights. Full stop.

That the push-back on same sex marriage should come from the people who cast themselves as ‘conservatives’ is even more evidence of how far Australia has lost its way. In this case, the Australian conservative movement that has attached itself to – and almost overwhelmed – the Liberal Party.

Conservatives are about small government, and getting government out of people’s lives, and that means getting them out of the bedroom.

The embarrassing fracas over same sex marriage is all the more bewildering because it is now legal in deeply religious and conservative countries like Spain. It’s hard to know where this comes from in one of the most secular countries on earth as Australia is.

The stoush, which has been noticed in those countries that have eased past Australia on the path to egalitarianism, is just the latest sign – along with state-sanctioned prison torture and state-sanctioned abuse of refugees – that Australia has embarked upon the lonely road to being the Land that Time Forgot. 

We are a nation that is increasingly adrift, trapped between our philosophically similar brothers and sisters in far-away Europe and our sometimes bewilderingly different – and at times impossible to understand – geographical neighbors.

It is arguable that Julia Gillard’s utterly unconvincing lie that she had never believed in gay marriage was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It exposed her well-hidden ruthlessness and tipped questions of basic rights into the political fray.

Further signs of Australia’s drift can be seen in its extraordinarily sexist workplaces, compared to countries in northern Europe, that are the benchmark for comparison, as well as the United States.

Ask any Australian woman who has worked overseas in a substantial executive position and they will, if speaking to other women, tell you of their genuine, awful shock at the constant, genuinely accepted casual sexism that exists in Australia.

Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to eliminate as many risks as possible in his bid to lead the Liberal Party – and hence taking forward the ridiculous idea of an extensive plebiscite – was understandable.

It showed that he had learned some the lessons of his dud of a tenure as Opposition leader and had learned to be a better politician, that being the smartest man in the room (just ask him), charming and handsome was never going to be enough to survive and succeed in the viper’s nest that has become the Liberal Party.

Same sex marriage may not be, as its critics harp, the first, second or whatever priority on most Australian’s important things for government to do.

But if you are a sidelined minority, as gay people still are in Australia because of this fundamental injustice, it is important. And to many in their families and friends too.

And boy, oh boy, has it shone what is just the latest batteries of harsh light on this country. And it is nowhere near as relaxed, casual, accepting and welcoming the collective self-delusion has convinced it that it is.

Where Mr Turnbull goes on same sex marriage will tell us everything we need to know about our Prime Minister. It will show if he is agile innovative and progressive.

And whatever happens next, even – and perhaps especially – if it is a plebiscite, will also tell us all that we need to know about Australia and whether it can turn the corner from the invidious place it has found itself.

Marriage equality is not a diversity issue, although that is important. It is a basic civil right.

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