Politics of marriage is changing Australian politics

by on December 6, 2011  •  In Marriage

By Dennis Altman, published in the National Times:

…The most interesting aspect of the Labor [Party] debate [on gay marriage] was the way in which the issue became central to the party's search for a contemporary identity. Those of us old enough to remember the battles in the 1970s and '80s for decriminalisation might wonder cynically why it took so long for the ALP [Australian Labor Party] to incorporate sexuality into concern for human rights. Such cynicism overlooks two points: the success of the gay movement and the changing nature of a larger understanding of human rights.

The campaign for marriage equality, largely run by younger women and men, not all of them gay, is one of the most successful examples of effective lobbying in Australia over the past few decades. Their efforts worked because they have been able to tap into changing social attitudes and growing acceptance of homosexuality.

Some homosexuals certainly want to get married, and others, myself included, are deeply sceptical of the desire to emulate a women's magazine version of marital bliss. But the right to marriage has become a symbol of acceptance of gay equality, and the push for marriage succeeded by framing it as commitment to basic human rights. While some of the arguments were exaggerated, the underlying question was whether to fully accept the equal validity of same-sex lives and relationships.

Accepting same-sex marriage has become the respectable way of supporting the right for adults to live their sexual and emotional lives as they wish. It is a triumph over religious doctrines, and a further mark of a secular society.

Marriage is a deeply conservative way of promoting acceptance, and same-sex marriage has become possible in an era when marriage itself is declining as an institution.

Same-sex marriage activists are unhappy that Labor has allowed a conscience vote on the issue. Rather than deploring the fact that parliamentarians will be free to vote as they choose, we might applaud the fact that individual MPs will not be able to hide behind the party in revealing their views… 

Surely we need more, not fewer, votes in which MPs are forced to take responsibility for their positions. I wish the ALP conference had extended the same latitude over asylum seeker policy, which is also a question of fundamental moral principles not easily limited to party allegiance. Indeed in a period where party membership is crumbling, the greatest weakness of Labor lies not in its party organisation but in the fact that it requires total obeisance of its MPs to the dictates of its leadership… 

The traditional demand for total loyalty to the party line is increasingly unsustainable as Australia becomes more diverse and political debates occur around a widening range of issues…Were [Prime Minister] Gillard to acknowledge that MPs are elected both as party delegates and representatives of their electorates, and that the right to vote according to their own judgment is essential in issues where there is deep disagreement within the party, she would be attacking one of Labor's shibboleths. She might also be able to stake out a position as a genuinely bold and visionary reformer.


One Response to Politics of marriage is changing Australian politics

  1. Jay December 6, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    Altman’s comments reflect the “grass is greener on the other side of the fence” phenomenon. Those of us who saw the blue-dog Democrats wreck the Obama Administration’s agenda when he had huge majorities in both houses of Congress in his first two years are not so enthusiastic about the lack of party discipline.

    In the Australian context, the granting of a “conscience vote” of marriage equality (but not on other controversial issues) is simply a means of giving the Labor right (mainly Roman Catholic MPs) veto power over the issue. It is all about maintaining power for Gillard’s fragile coalition. It has nothing to do with conscience.

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