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Same-sex marriage debate closer to tipping point

Date

Christine Forster

The national discussion on equality will help to persuade opponents to back reform.

About a month ago I met a student actor who was interested in portraying me in a play about the lives of gay and lesbian men and women in today's Australia. Without knowing any of the detail, I was intrigued by the concept and agreed to participate.

Over the course of our first meeting, this young artist and I talked about my life and coming out, my relationships with my family and partner Virginia, and my role as a councillor at the City of Sydney. We discussed at length how I feel about and relate to my brother, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who would inevitably be central to some of the discourse of the other people featured in the play. I recounted honestly and in detail his empathetic, non-judgmental and supportive response to my revelation to him that I was gay.

At the last of what turned out to be several sessions, she and I talked about how she had been affected by our conversations and by the reactions of her fellow students to her having chosen me as her subject. She had grown up in a family committed to Green politics and lived in a world in which the Liberal Party was regarded as the great evil, and people like me as closed-minded, even dangerous, reactionaries.

This artistic project, however, had changed her view of politics and opened her eyes to how people so often blindly accept as absolute truth ideas and opinions we have never thoughtfully considered.

In some ways a similar thing is what has been and still needs to happen in Australia's debate about same-sex marriage.

Australia is a liberal democracy. It's a nation that values individual liberties, freedom of speech, majority rule and, for the most part, small government. In countries such as ours lasting social reforms come from the will of the people, reflected in the decisions of their elected representatives.

Those reforms start with personal changes of opinion that challenge the status quo, taking root as an idea or conversation shared between individuals, their families and associates. Liberal democracies like ours provide the freedom for appealing ideas or conflicts of rights to be acknowledged and more broadly discussed by the leaders of communities, scholars, commentators and politicians.

If the argument holds sway, those on the middle ground can be persuaded to support and opponents can be brought round, or at least to a point of acceptance. Eventually, a tipping point is reached and when an obvious majority is in favour, our parliamentarians inevitably feel compelled to implement reform.

Our national discussion on same-sex marriage has come a very long way in a relatively short period. According to opinion polls cited by Australian Marriage Equality, 62 per cent of us support and only 33 per cent of us oppose same-sex marriage. But clearly that is not yet an obvious majority, at least not to our legislators.

The Australian Capital Territory's Legislative Assembly recently became our first Parliament to pass legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry. Not long afterward, Tasmania's Legislative Council narrowly rejected a motion to reopen debate on the issue and, more recently, the NSW upper house failed to pass a same-sex marriage bill by just a single vote.

Even if the High Court quashes the ACT legislation, recent events have moved the debate further into the mainstream of our political and social discourse on human aspirations and freedoms. The outcomes in Tasmania and NSW have also shifted the spotlight back to the federal arena, which is where the issue must be decided for us to achieve true equality under the Marriage Act.

In order for this reform to happen, we must convince our federal legislators in the political centre and at least some of their more conservative colleagues that it has merit, that it's supported by a clear majority of their constituents and that it deserves careful consideration. This is what occurred in Britain and New Zealand, where same-sex marriage was passed under governments from the right, not the left.

It is inevitable that a same-sex marriage bill will be tabled in Parliament over the course of the Abbott government's first term, and as a supporter of the reform I want it to have the best possible chance of passing.

My own party, the Liberals, went to the election for the first time without a binding position, but even with consciences being exercised on both sides of the House, clearly many of our decision-makers will still need respectful and private persuasion.

The timing of any new bill will also require careful planning, with an eye on both the Abbott government's priority to address its election agenda and the sensitive period when all parliamentarians are navigating through pre-selection processes.

It will not be an easy task, but the debate has shifted towards the centre and the cause is being taken up by Australians such as Governor-General Quentin Bryce, who command respect and admiration, and whose support will influence many.

As a middle-aged Liberal who managed to sway the view of a young, left-leaning actor, I am full of optimism that the tipping point is coming.

Christine Forster is a councillor with the City of Sydney.

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