At the time of writing there are two intersecting debates going on about marriage in our country. In the first, those talking about ‘marriage equality’ (code for gay marriage) are opposed by those wanting Australian society to adhere to the ‘Christian’ form of marriage that has been our lot for a few hundred years, one reserved for a man and a woman, whose ostensible purpose is the production and protection of new human beings. If all that sounds somewhat qualified, it is, and I’ll return to it later. In the second, the issue is whether the question is to be resolved by a plebiscite or by a vote in Parliament (if by a plebiscite, the understanding is that a subsequent vote in Parliament would be consistent with the result of the plebiscite).
How many people would be affected if marriage became available to gays and lesbians? There are no accurate figures on any of this, for obvious reasons. Kinsey reported all those years ago that use of the terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ was unfortunate, and that we are all capable of bisexuality, depending on the circumstances. A couple of decent surveys put the proportions of exclusively male and female homosexuals in Australia at about 2 per cent and a bit over 1 per cent respectively. A current estimate for Australia puts the proportion of gays and lesbians at about 6 per cent. How do you choose? How many of them want to get married anyway? No one knows. I know same-sex couples who would wish to do so, and others who don’t care one way or the other.
How important is marriage anyway? The most recent data come from the 2011 Census. People still marry in large numbers, but they divorce too. About half of all marriages contracted will end through divorce. In 2011, there were 4.65 million ‘residential partnerships’ of men and women, and 33, 714 of same-sex couples. The latter make up about three quarters of one per cent of all residential partnerships. About 10 per cent of all ‘heterosexual’ residential partnerships involved couples who were not married. Maybe they will marry one day. Maybe they don’t want to. Maybe they can’t. Would there be a huge increase in the numbers of same-sex couples were they entitled to be ‘married’? I rather doubt it, though the numbers of such households have risen sharply over the past three decades. Do these statistics help? Not much, I think. The issue is not about numbers but about aspiration. Those who would like to marry their partners but are not legally allowed to do so may be a tiny proportion of the population, but they care about this issue in a way that few of us care about any political policy.
What do we know of wider attitudes towards the issue? There is quite a lot of data, all of it subject to the usual warnings about survey data. You need to know exactly what question was asked, and in what context. You need to know the size of the sample, and how it was selected. Then you have to have faith that those doing the work were professional. That said, on the current evidence, a plebiscite would, I think, succeed in gaining a majority of voters to support the proposition that same-sex couples should have the same right to marry as heterosexual couples. There would be a major effort raised by what is generally known as ‘the Christian lobby’ to maintain the status quo, but my guess is that the majority don’t care enough to be persuaded. ‘Why not?’ the majority will say, ‘What can it hurt?’ They are unlikely to be be persuaded that same-sex couples cannot straightforwardly make babies, or that they are not going to be good parents. After all, virtually all the offenders in prison came from heterosexual couplings, if not couples.
So why are we having the current fuss about a plebiscite or a Parliamentary vote? The answer seems to be complex. On the face of it, the status of marriage is no more important than the decision to go to war, yet we never have a plebiscite on that issue. In fact, we have have only ever had three plebiscites, two on whether or not there should be conscription for military service, during World War One, and on the national song in 1977. So why one on marriage? Ah, the Liberal Party is not united on this issue, and it may be that some or even many of its members feel that a plebiscite might in fact reject the proposal. Why are they that way? Maybe because they are conservative, and think that the marriage system we have has served us well, and should be retained. I’m not sure that there are all that many devout Christians in the Parliamentary Liberal party, but I could be wrong. Devout Christians are a diminishingly small proportion of our society. Current church attendance at least once a month stands at about 15 per cent. How many are devout? Your guess is probably as good as mine. But not many.
Again, all this is guesswork on my part, but I feel that the Labor Party (which will have its own doubters who would like to have marriage stay the way it currently is) sees an excellent opportunity to make things difficult for the Government. It is also likely to be closer to the LBGTI fraternity. If Labor were in power then, other things being equal, it would organise an appropriate bill and get it through by making it difficult for the other side to object. ‘Have a conscience vote!’ it would suggest to the Liberals. ButLabor is not in Government but in Opposition, so its current strategy is to tell us all, and in particular, the LGBTI crowd,that ‘marriage equality’ could be there in a week or two if only the Government stopped delaying. And, in order to force it to stop delaying, it is (apparently) determined to block the plebiscite bill, which means it won’t get up, since the Greens and the Xenophon team don’t like it either. One stops delaying by delaying.
What will happen then? Well, PM Turnbull could say that he made a promise that there would be a plebiscite, and that he will have to put that matter on the back-burner until later in the Parliament, or until the next Parliament. That won’t make the gay-marriage people happy. They then might say to Bill Shorten that he should rethink, because they’d rather have what they want in the next year than in the next Parliament. All in all, this is a mountainous molehill of an issue, and we’ll have to wait for three weeks before we can experience the next exciting instalment.
I don’t have a horse in the race, and though I am inclined to be conservative about cultural forms, I would vote ‘for’ a marriage equality bill if there were a plebiscite. The status of marriage in our society has changed a good deal since the Family Law Act of 1975. The statistics of relationships, only a small portion of which I have set out above, tells me that refusing to accommodate gay marriage within our system is a lost cause, if not now, then before long. Anyway, why shouldn’t gays be subject to divorce, the Family Court, and all that comes with it? If marriage is a ‘right’ (it’s not, but I’ve seen this aspirational claim on a number of occasions), then it comes with some responsibilities, too. And the kind of marriage that was solemnised by the church and hard to get out of we owed to the accumulation of property over the centuries, and the need to allocate it in some kind of regular manner. Hence dowries, settlements and wills. But that’s for another time.