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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