The Conundrum of a Marriage Equality Plebiscite
WE REPUBLISH A SERIES FOR ONGOING DISCUSSION BASED UPON THE POST OF NOVEMBER 3RD LAST YEAR.
When the “marriage equality” issue eventually comes before the United Nations can we really imagine that the representatives of this member state would willingly stand against the neo-colonial presumptions of the “marriage equality” movement? Are we going to forsake our English-speaking friends and align with the states of Africa, the South West Pacific and elsewhere, those bucking, or trying to buck, the neo-liberal libertarian trend? Can we imagine, as a polity of 25 million, that we would give our moral support to marriage as it has for millennia been configured as male-female relationship? Can we even imagine taking such a Christian political stand in our region, in solidarity with Christian communities in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia? That stand needs to be taken today! Keep in mind that such a stand is in line with what has been confirmed for thousands of years by people on this soil!
What I would like to suggest by this 3-part series is that we should attend very closely to the debate and carefully notice how its twists and turns not only presuppose a committed (that is religious) belief in our own human self-sufficiency to devise political solutions to the social problems that confront us, it implies a significant turning away from Christian discipleship as a matter of the heart, the centre of our social life. It also implies an urgent desire to not only interpret todays reality but human history in its entirety. We are dealing with the libertarian bluff, the humanistic notion that we, autonomous rulers of the universe, are the makers of ourselves.
That’s the nub of the issue I wish to emphasise here. We seem to be presupposing a kind of nationalist ethic in which “what Government says (for us) goes”. Presumably for some Christians (including the immediate former PM and the current Treasurer), adherence to the “national will” means no longer being politically committed to a Christian view of marriage. Somehow that commitment is assumed to be a-political. No doubt Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison will be taken to task on this. Should a party’s policy be ruled by the result of a plebiscite? The Liberal Party has long tried to avoid splitting over family matters; the current PM has opined that the conscience vote promoted by a former Liberal PM over embryonic stem-cell research was a brilliant strategy enhancing party unity and that PM’s hold on power in the early years of the new millennium. But now party unity as sine qua non for party policy threatens party.
The willingness to simply accommodate the “will of the people” with respect to “marriage equality” indicates a serious political confusion. Will not the result of the plebiscite depend upon whether a majority of people decide that the current wording of the Marriage Act is essentially homophobic? But does the Marriage Act create marriage as a heterosexual, male-female bond for life? Are we to live in the mythical universe of such neo-liberal jurisprudence suggesting that marriage did not exist before Governments could hand down legislation about this life-long relationship that is so basic to the human community from generation-to-generation?
Or consider the following: are we to conclude that the demand for a change now is because those parliamentarians who voted against a change previously are wanting to make amends for their own previous homophobic reactions to same-sex marriage when they cast their previous vote? There are many layers of compounded confusion in this ongoing unresolved debate.
But consider: were there not forms of marriage among this island continent’s indigenous peoples, and across the Polynesian and Melanesian region, long before Europeans and Governor Phillip arrived? At times one has to wonder whether in our “enlightened” political progress that indisputable fact has conveniently been ignored. What kind of latter-day Western ethnocentrism are we involved with here? Simply clicking our fingers and uttering the magic formulae with its twin terms – “post-colonial” and “homophobic” – does not mean we have avoided our own latter-day forms of egregious exploitative colonialism.
The definition of marriage in the Marriage Act does not in the first instance exclude homosexual unions; it excludes other non-monogamous forms of marriage from recognition by this country’s government as marriage. It specifies the kind of marriage that will be acknowledged as such in Australian law. And, it would seem that that definition of marriage as a male-female union for life was integral to the legal arguments set forth for homosexual law reform that finally came about in 1981 on the back of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships (1975-1977) (see here).
Now presumably, we are being asked to judge whether “marriage law” itself has developed a relatively recent competence. Presumably Marriage Law is to be no longer focused by defining the kind of marriage to be recognised in the Australian polity, but to be reoriented by the view that Parliament, presumably guided by the “will of the people”, has within its legislative power the ability to fundamentally change and “update” the marriage institution itself. The appeal is thus to the creational power of Parliament. In fact Parliament has no grounds upon which to assume such an ability. The Marriage Act has stood the test of time and over recent decades the entitlements that have been traditionally ascribed exclusively to married couples are now also available to those in same-sex civil partnerships. But Parliament is effectively being asked to assert itself as the legislator of rights to thereby become the creator of marriage by a procedure that demands that marriage be considered as a civil right. That, in a nutshell, is the specious argument at the root of the same-sex marriage and marriage equality movement.
The push for “marriage equality” is not only wrong because it promotes a legal error based on an empirical mistake, it is wrong because it seriously misrepresents the task of Parliament and of Government itself. It is implicitly statist and thereby potentially authoritarian. And those who fear that there are dangers ahead from such statism are not without justification. We know only too well that when Government’s task is misrepresented in legislation, let alone in authoritarian rhetoric, with majority compliance, that precedents are set for further State-led injustice that need great political effort and leadership to resist and avoid.
In politics we are confronted with persistent efforts to make ourselves and our Governments self-sufficient. The appeal to human self-sufficiency always involves subservience to idols, to false gods. And as we look closer it becomes clear that any such professed self-sufficiency is simply a frantic belief, against all the evidence, in the salvific power of a mythological dream. And who will deny that human sexuality is a realm in which tyrannical idols and evil spirits flourish?
In the “marriage equality” case we confront the belief that “marriage equality” is self-evident once freedom and equality are properly understood. Human rights will carry the day and carry us through. But in that sense, the upcoming debate is not going to be about marriage at all; it is going to be about whether humans at the centre of our lives are self-governing. Are we going to resist the view that Parliaments are there simply to give expression to human self-sufficiency? Is legislation simply a matter of social engineering designed to enable autonomous human creativity to flourish. And therein lies own national (and nationalist) folly. It is all part of a Promethean faith. It is described in the Psalms in this way: “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.”
It is also highly ironic that at the inauguration of “queer theory” in the social and political sciences some twenty years ago, conventional marriage was the subject of merciless deconstruction for its reliance upon what was said to be an essentialist viewpoint – these days the arguments persistently put forward for “marriage equality” would evaporate in a puff of post-modern logic if it weren’t for the pre-theoretical commitment to an essentialist understanding of sexual identity-cum-attraction, all the recently alleged “gender-fluidity” notwithstanding.
We recommend careful attention to the 1975-1977 Royal Commission and the observation of the leader of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) that a homosexual relationship is not a marriage. There is a question here of a profound shift. We have noted the movement from “gay marriage” to “marriage equality”. More recently there has been the shift from simply “marriage equality” to “marriage equality being an expression of the civil rights of the LGBTI community”.
These shifts in strategy and outlook will require further careful examination if we are to properly address the underlying sentiment. “We will not now be subject to a law that we cannot make for ourselves!”
In other words, I am suggesting it has, to a significant degree, been resolved already, at least in the hearts and minds of many if not a majority – of professional people, newspaper editors and owners, advertising executives, journalists, commercial interests and celebrities of many sorts, let alone political party members and self-assigned “movers and shakers”.
A plebiscite will perhaps provide an indication of just how many people have not been convinced that this is an appropriate move. But the tracks on which this debate is running have been set by decades of the deeply rooted pragmatic liberalism of our national political life. And that has also, somewhat ironically, seen a persistent denigration of marriage that politicians have not been willing to confront with coherent marriage, family and household policy.