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Breaking the bonds on marriage

<em>Illustration: Andrew Dyson</em>

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

The discrimination against same-sex couples should end, but progress on the issue can't be taken for granted.

SOME of the most implacable defenders of marriage as a union between a man and a woman don't make it sound all that enticing. In fact, some of the more recent characterisations make marriage sound about as appealing as a medicinal dose of cod liver oil.

Published polls suggest Australians are gradually warming to the concept of marriage equality. 

I tuned in to a recent public hearing on the two private member's bills currently before Federal Parliament legislating same-sex marriage, and felt the romance drain relentlessly from my person. Christian groups were advancing the proposition that our free-wheeling times had turned decisively against the institution. Marriage was a contract. Notions such as no-fault divorce had ''trivialised'' the union and allowed folks to breach their ''until death do us part'' undertaking on a whim (a view that could only be advanced by a person without direct experience of the emotional wreckage associated with separation and divorce). Upping stumps mid-transaction would not be tolerated in the world of business, where contracts are entered and honoured. It was all pretty stiff upper lip, and eat your cabbage.

Queensland National Barnaby Joyce, who is married to one of the loveliest women I know (and, I'm certain, loves her very dearly), was in the same dutiful mode last week when he told the ABC's JJJ: ''If you want all the rights in the world, my advice is don't get married.'' Marriage was ''not really about love, it's about, hopefully if you are lucky enough, it's about bringing up kids.''

The conservative argument against same-sex marriage is that it undermines the assumed sanctity of heterosexual marriage. It's another corrosive step into a relativist, valueless, post-modern universe where if men can marry men, and women can marry women, nothing has any meaning. Brothers could marry brothers and sisters sisters - and men could take multiple wives. (I'm not certain about whether wives could take many husbands, automatically, in the valueless universe because that example is not so frequently canvassed.)

As one of the Christian advocates told the hearing, the bills before Parliament want to deconstruct marriage by pretending an act of parliament can change the underlying reality.

What is that underlying reality? That men and women create unions for life, blessed by God, that bring forth children. That is the world view of my country Catholic childhood (spent in part with the lovely Mrs Joyce, an old mate from school). If men aspired to marry men or women women, I never heard about it.

Some people remain within the bounds of their early conditioning, anchored by the gift of unwavering religious faith or by a fixed sense of right and wrong that remains the yardstick by which to measure life's events. I don't say that flippantly or satirically - part of me is envious of their certainty. Despite my thoroughly lapsed state, I remain a cultural Catholic, pining in secret for a God who sees and knows and plans and, when defied, punishes.

But despite the residual religious instinct, I don't find any of the arguments against same-sex marriage in the least bit persuasive. It is past time to end the discrimination against Australia's same-sex couples. While there has been steady progress in recent years by governments to deal with antiquated forms of discrimination, marriage has remained off limits, bound and gagged by that ''underlying reality'' articulated by the Christian lobbyists.

Published polls suggest Australians are gradually warming to the concept of marriage equality, and while the comparison isn't scientific, there has been a noticeable change in disposition between 2004 and now.

When John Howard entered this fray in 2004 to ensure marriage remained resolutely heterosexual, a Senate inquiry took 16,000 submissions, with 90 per cent endorsing his view. An online survey for the current inquiry (while it is not a statistically significant survey) indicates 57.5 per cent of respondents are in favour of same-sex marriage, and 42 per cent are against.

To borrow a Howardism, we are either more comfortable and relaxed with the concept than we once were, or same-sex marriage advocates can now rival the number-crunching professionalism of Christian lobbyists.

But before we get giddy with the notion of inevitable progress (and do something impolitic, like laugh, given this is serious), evidence before the hearing gives reason for pause. Political opposition to gay marriage from Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott is what it is - predictable. But legal experts looking at the current proposals suggest another hurdle besides politics looms.

The legislation, if it passes, will almost certainly be challenged in the High Court. Legal experts judged it ''uncertain'' whether the High Court would accept the proposals currently on the table.

Constitutional law expert George Williams said there was sufficient comfort to proceed with the reform, and consider the options if the High Court knocked out the proposals. Much would depend on the composition of the bench that heard any challenge. ''I agree it's uncertain,'' Williams said.

Like life. And love. And the prospect of joy being able to co-exist with life-long commitment. Still, we can hope. And I do.

Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent.

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207 comments

  • I'm pro-same-sex marriage, but the current proposed amendments are not appealing to me either. The Greens want to redefine marriage to " the union of two people, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.".

    If I get married, I don't want the celebrant repeating that definition because I don't want to be thinking about gender politics at that point in time.

    How about we say marriage is "the union of two people, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.". Then the religious folk can interpret two people to mean man and woman and the secular folk can see two adults of any sex, race, gender, disability, IQ, postcode etc?

    Commenter
    Shaun
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    April 16, 2012, 7:56AM
    • Amusingly, the definition "marriage is the union of two people, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life." was what was included in the Marriage Act up until Howard changed it in 2004; and the reason he changed it was to ensure that a same-sex couple couldn't mount a challenge to the Courts (one was being prepared) on the basis that this did not exclude a same-sex couple from having their marriage recognised.

      The need for the new "clunky" wording is because of other changes that Howard made - it is easier to make one "clunky" change than to reverse the changes howard made (so I have been led to believe).

      Commenter
      rob1966
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 9:13AM
    • Why should marriage be restricted to two people?

      We need to go back and ask what is the purpose of ANY legal position on marriage. Apart from definition of property rights, and ensuring kids are looked after, why do we need any marriage laws at all?

      Don't get me wrong, I believe in lifelong, heterosexual commitment. I just don't need it legally enforced to abide by it, nor do I need it mandated for others who don't share my views.

      Commenter
      Randroid
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 11:09AM
    • So marriage between siblings is ok? They're 2 people. Why should it be limited to 2? Are you honestly suggesting it's not possible to love more than one person at a time? The problem I have with gay marriage is that the next step is always for them to have kids (either via adoption or surrogacy). I don't think that's an ideal environment for a child to be raised it. I find it interesting that social progressives are always saying "oh, what about the children?! We MUST put their interests first etc" when it comes to issues such as custody or anything else. However, suddenly when the choice is between the childs best interests, and their own sexual interests... well apparently a childs interests are less important.

      I was watching Modern Family last night and the gay couple wanted to have a baby. They joked about a "swirl". That's where they get a doner egg and both ejaculated into the dish and mix it all around so they don't know who's the father. This is supposed to be a family show. Quite frankly, I nearly threw up. This is a small, but perfect example of why gay marriage is the start of a slippery and in my view amoral slope.

      Commenter
      JamesM
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 11:11AM
    • @JamesM .. oh you poor deluded man. Same-sex couples already can, and do, have children. They have not needed the ability to get married in order to raise children - just as heterosexual couples don't need to be married in order to have children.

      And if your sensibilities are sickened by the thought of how AI occurs, then I do hope you don;t think about what goes on at a sperm donor clinic.

      Commenter
      rob1966
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 12:12PM
    • Don't worry, the likes of GetUp & the Gay Lobby will organise society to the point where no others will get a say in anything.

      We will be told that we must 'embrace' Gay Marriage, even if we don't want it, don't support it &don't agree with the concept. We won't even get a look in, as it's pushed on us by force.

      By the way, why are politicians allowed a conscience vote? Why aren't we all allowed a conscience vote on an issue as important as this one?

      Gays are no longer discriminated against in our society. Now it is the rest of us who are bearing the brunt of the organised discrimination.

      Commenter
      mimi
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 12:59PM
    • @mimi .. I'm guessing the irony of you stating "gays aren't discriminated against in our society" in the same post were you are demanding that they be prevented from getting married escapes you.

      I wonder though, how exactly is it that you are being discriminated against?

      Commenter
      rob1966
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 1:33PM
    • I'm being discriminated against by not having this issue go to a referendum so that I get a say in it. I don't want politicians (who are being pressured by the highly organised GetUP & gay lobby) making this decision on my behalf.

      I would vote NO, but would be happy to accept the final outcome of a national refernedum, even if it was different to my views on same-sex marriage. I'm sick and tired of being told by the minority as to what I should be "embracing".

      Commenter
      mimi
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 2:38PM
    • @mimi - when can people get a vote on your marriage? I don't care if you embrace it or not. Gays should be allowed to get married. Hold whatever opinion you want, but who are you to say what other people, who have no effect on your life, can and can't do? Sounds to me like another person who spends all their time focusing on other peoples' lives to distract them from their own.

      Commenter
      buffybot
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 3:12PM
    • Referenda in this country are for constitutional amendments rather than legislative changes. This matter has to go through the appropriate forum - Parliament.

      Commenter
      Bob
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 3:19PM

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