THE REFORM OF THE MARRIAGE ACT &
THE PRIVATISING MOTIF IN THE LIBERAL WORLD-VIEW
In our previous post we drew attention to the way the Australian Greens, via their “join us or get out of the way” video, had promoted themselves and the “marriage equality” cause by an artefact of political ruthlessness. The video implies a political competition in which “threats” are “part of the game”. That video marks a very regrettable development but it was consistent with other “threats” that were promulgated under parliamentary privilege including those by that party’s leader. And veiled threats such as “We’re watching you!” and “Join us or get out of the way!” do not promote political debate. They are the dogmas of pulpiteering that close down authentic debate.
But given our social-media ethos of instantaneous political gratification, we can expect someone to tell us that the totalitarian edge we have noted in the Greens’ 2013 video was just another “tweet”. It is of no enduring significance, an ironic smiley face even if it is experienced by the “over-sensitive” as nasty. We would be counselled not to get too “uptight” about it.
Nevertheless, the unhelpful rhetoric of an erstwhile “third force” should not be evaluated in isolation. It actually emerged from a political process within the Parliament. The leaders of “both sides” had hitherto closed down debate that had been generated by this “third force”. The legislation they found acceptable enhanced their own electoral appeal, while marginalising, albeit only for a short time, the dissent that had provoked the parliamentary debate in the first place.
Though I am not suggesting that the Greens should be viewed as innocent victims, it was rather convenient then (i.e. in 2004) for the Liberal-National coalition and Labor to “wedge” their legislative efforts in that way. And was there no electoral advantage in making it seem as if the Greens party was inordinately committed to its leader’s chosen lifestyle? Of course that may have never been said, not in so many words. Yet apart from the electoral advantage gained by that “wedging”, the bi-partisan effort in 2004 to resolve the issue carried within it a significant political perversity that has not since been reversed. In fact it has deepened the crisis we face because the Australian parliament has been inhibited in its development of policies that would ascribe due and just respect to marriage, with proper protection to its integrity as an institution vital to our social fabric. And this parliamentary inhibition surely reflects the sense of uncertainty, if not crisis, that pertains to married life across this country and beyond. And in that sense, yes, we are all involved in this political problem and, yes, we all shoulder our own part in resolving it. But anyone who thinks that Prime Minister Bill Shorten’s proposed “marriage equality” legislation or Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite will resolve the political problem now facing marriage, are living in a neo-liberal Flatland; and so politically-correct abstractions about compassion and solidarity have displaced genuine flesh-and-blood politics.
In previous Nurturing Justice posts, I have often drawn attention to the fact that from “both sides of politics” (a phrase, incidentally, much used by John Howard) we are no longer being served by genuine political parties. Instead, standing behind the parliamentarians are publicly funded public relations firms that are employed to ensure that those elected on their “side” retain their seats in Parliament. Though public funding of political parties was introduced in 1984, the slide away from genuine parties has been the norm since 1974-5, when the Australian electorate resolved the so-called constitutional crisis, and in the process, perhaps unintentionally, endorsed the Liberal Party’s effective overturning of its own constitution in order to win government.
In order to safeguard their electoral standing, both sides have consistently distanced themselves from their own party platforms when it was deemed appropriate to enhance their standing in the polls. In so doing they think they are accommodating public opinion, maintaining their share of electoral support and thereby increasing their chances of winning elections (if not the share of public funds that derive from the election). They have persistently failed to develop coherent policy options for what I have called the issues of “body politics” (marriage, family and household, abortion, euthanasia, research on human subjects, pharmaceutical research and homosexuality). These matters have been concertedly removed from political debate and consigned to a specious realm where “conscience” is supposed to reign supreme; in other words these issues are considered divisive and of such a character to destroy party unity. But it is also here that “neo-liberal” world-view has manifested itself “on both sides” in the “privatisation” of a party’s political programme.
One consequence of this is that those entering political debate without the diffidence of “both sides” to a forthright policy platform of “body politics” issues, are regularly characterised as “extreme”, as “unrealistic”, as “intolerant”. And so the inability of the major parties to develop coherent policies on these issues is viewed by themselves as a civic virtue.
To have a clear and comprehensive framework for policies, especially on these so-called controversial issues of “body politics”, meant, in former times, that some dissenters would end up resigning their membership and joining other parties. As long as it was understood that a political party had to have such a comprehensive framework, then such a drift in party membership was to be expected, even if it were regretted. A party was to give voice to a significant political voice that was already alive in the electorate. But since the party organisation allowed itself to become subservient to its parliamentary wing the distinctive character of political party membership has been blurred. Allegiance to the party’s constitution and platform is displaced by a discipline oriented to supporting the strategies that have been devised in parliament to defeat political opponents and thus win elections by retaining and increasing parliamentary seats. In this way the political party’s former purpose to give political voice to its own membership becomes somewhat irrelevant. Party membership now consists is accepting that the party’s strategists have been employed to devise a plan to gain or regain election under a traditional banner with whatever wording given to the election platform. And so it’s now a vicious circle. And the term coherent policy at the parliamentary level, becomes a matter of deciding what rafts of policies will keep and increase the crop of politicians who align with “our side” of binary politics. Winning enough votes at the next election becomes the sine qua non of this kind of parliamentary democracy – the basic idea of this kind of political system is that it should be controlled by the ongoing distribution of entrenched privileges to competing “public relations firms”.
The above analysis also explains why “both sides” scrupulously avoid developing policies that draw attention to the responsibilities of political parties, namely the task of such publicly registered associations in ensuring a just system of parliamentary representation for all electors. Not only do the political parties of “both sides” avoid authentic political education, they perpetuate a serious misrepresentation that politics is primarily about the winning of elections, whether they or their opponent is going to win. This is political miseducation pure and simple. It is a serious misunderstanding of political responsibility which should be about citizens promoting and contributing to public justice.
Now the Australian electorate is being enjoined to make a political judgment not just about the public value of an institution crucial to the fabric of our society, but also to its internal composition. Government does not have the competence to create marriage; the Marriage Act from the outset simply identified the type of marriage that would, henceforth, be accepted as lawful marriage within the Australian polity.