Depending on when the materials arrive, I may or may not be able to take part in this postal survey (it is not a true plebiscite, a vote of the citizens), because of a likely absence from home. There are a number of options if I am there, and indeed for all citizens. One is to support the proposal; one is to oppose it; another is to write back saying what you think of this method of obtaining the opinion of Australians; another is to feed the materials to our worms, who like paper as well as vegetable scraps, or use them for a Spring fire in the domestic fireplace.
The longer this farce has gone on the more helpless I feel. Hasn’t Parliament got more important things to do? (The correct answer is YES.) Why is all this happening? I’m not going to go through the history, and I don’t think it matters much whether you call the issue one of ‘same-sex marriage’ or of ‘marriage equality’.
Let us think of what is involved. I am not a Christian in regular communication with a church, and indeed I am a Christian only in the most tepid sense that I see our general culture as Judaeo-Christian, and support that culture. I would not, for example, be happy to see Sharia law come into our legal system, or accept payback just because some indigenous groups used to practise it. So I’ve read what the most notable ‘No’ campaigners have said, and shrug my shoulders.
I know Penny Wong and Julia Gillard both spoke against same-sex marriage, but what they said at the time was (unless I have missed something important) really a restatement of the legal position, that marriage in Australia is presently between a man and a woman. Senator Seselja and others have said, if I understand them correctly, that a heterosexual relationship is the best environment to bring up children. The real evidence for such a proposition must be scanty. We have no historic data of any consequence, and it is only recently that same-sex couples were able publicly to bring up children.
I can’t see any straightforward reasons that would suggest to the reasonable citizen that the proposal should be opposed in the public interest. Marriage has a great diversity of forms across human societies, and the Australian one has no great significance. It is simply what we are used to, that is all. In colonial Australia couples cohabited with the knowledge and agreement of parents and neighbours, and when a priest or travelling parson came by he solemnised the union. What is so special about it all? If gays want to go through these hoops, why not?
Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby doesn’t like this method for obtaining the views the people, and I am with him on that. He told the ABC’s Radio National about his feelings in a forceful way: It’s just a complete political improvisation and it’s completely unacceptable and it should stop. And I feel as a citizen I’m being treated in a second-class way by interposing an arrangement of this kind between the making of the law in Parliament, which is where it should be done. [Other changes in Australia, he went on to say, had not been made by postal ballot or plebiscite.] It wasn’t done in the case of the advancement of the legal rights, equal rights of the Aboriginal people, it wasn’t done in respect of women’s advancement of legal rights, nor in the demolition of ‘White Australia’.
Kirby’s central point seems to be that Parliament had rejected twice the bill to provide for a plebiscite (the Government’s position during the election campaign and since). Then for the Government to organise a survey of popular opinion arranged by the Australian Bureau of Statistics is simply disrespectful of Parliament’s decision. I think the less said about this irregular and unscientific polling the better. I’m not going to take any part in it whatsoever. As I understand it, Michael Kirby supports same-sex marriage, but will not advocate for it in the coming process.
My position is simple: I have no horse in the race, and don’t care much one way or the other. Marriage between heterosexual couples is not what all Australians do anyway. About a fifth of all couples in the 25-34 age-group are in de facto relationships, and marriage, let lone church marriage, appears to be on a slow decline. We have de factos in our extended family, as indeed we have lesbian relationships and a TG young person. We all get along well. Although a church marriage was de rigueur in 1958, I was prepared to live in whatever relationship my second and third ladies preferred. Each preferred marriage. So I’ve been married for almost all the last 59 years.
As far as I can ascertain from public opinion polling most Australian don’t care much the issue anyway, but on the whole their attitude seems to be, ‘Why not?’ Those who have thought about the issue might add that given the divorce rate and the growing rate of unsanctioned cohabitation, marriage plainly isn’t what it was cracked up to be. Gay couples at the moment can dissolve a relationship (property matters are controlled by existing law) without having to go to the Family Court. The advantage of having to go there should a gay marriage break down seems small to me.
What we have is one passionate tiny minority against another one, with Parliament and politicians having to deal with the fuss. I don’t agree with Mr Abbott that the issue is much more serious and important than gay marriage. I am no more in favour of political correctness than he is, but the notion that a No vote would ‘help to stop political correctness in its tracks’ is just risible. The small marriage-equality crowd and the no larger Christian Lobby will go on battling this out until there is a lasting outcome. The only lasting outcome I can see is marriage equality, and even then the Christian Lobby will go on arguing against it.
A lot is changing in our society, and ‘marriage’ is a good example. It is not what it was, and I have no real sense of what it will be like in fifty years, let alone a hundred. Many Australians start being sexually active very early, well before the legally sanctioned age of consent at sixteen. A union between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, is a noble ideal, but with 80 to 90 years being the new expected length of life, it is a big ask as well as a noble ideal. As always, the care of children resulting from union and the disposal of property after the breakdown of the union will remain important factors for society and governments as far ahead as I can see.
I still think this survey, which is both non-compulsory and non-binding, is a dreadful way of establishing an outcome. I have no idea how many will participate, and heaven knows what would happen if, say, only fifty per cent vote and the result is evenly split. But I won’t vote against the proposal. I’ll probably abstain, if I am actually able to take part in the survey.