The Marriage Equality Plebiscite (4)


 In the previous post, we referred to the manner in which one dissenting voice, in a panel convened to discuss the upcoming plebiscite, was subtly discredited. It happened after the other three panellists had “converged” on the view that the public debate “has gone on for long enough”, implying that “everyone has had an opportunity to have their say”. The sky hasn’t fallen in in Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, UK and USA and so (here is the appeal to our conventional Australian cultural cringe) we should simply “get in line” with the trend. Besides it is now so tiresome. Can’t we finish this and redesign marriage and get on with the rest of our lives?

The appeal to being tired is rather convenient, even if it is true that there is a sense of exhaustion with respect to discussing same-sex marriage. Indeed it has been on the Federal Parliamentary agenda for over a decade, and now it beckons to exhaust us completely with a “marriage equality” plebiscite sometime early next year.

We have already explained last time what the questions for such a plebiscite might be. In the “affirmation” that precedes the proposed questions, the concern has been to form a series of questions that respects (does justice to) the political integrity of all citizens and for Parliament to thereby respect the commitment of those who vote, whatever their vote may be. No zero-sum here. No winner takes all. Public justice for all.

Yes, it has been long-running, and at this point it certainly seems as if it is locked in a perpetually unresolved political debate (or conundrum). But as we have been trying to point out (ad nauseam) in Nurturing Justice posts for over a decade, this characteristic has everything to do with the entrenched inability of the two major political forces in this country – the Liberal Coalition and the Labor Party – to develop coherent marriage-family policies across all the issues of “human body politics” –  frightened as they have been of losing votes on such sensitive moral issues and adopting an attitude of amazing electoral cowardice to protect their own entrenched elite standing in the community. If we are to identify the source of our political exhaustion on this issue (and other issues besides), then we need to take issue with the failure of them both to comprehensively articulate why they both so resolutely were committed to the raft of legislative reforms to the Marriage Act that were made in 2004! Their continued failure to do so does not go away simply because they wish now to forget and have us forget their former policies and commitments as they proceed to walk away from their former political commitment to those reforms. What they haven’t begun to explain is their current view. Why were such reforms unjust? This is the point that The Drum panel simply ignored, despite the efforts of Lyle Shelton of ACL to raise it. It is an empirical political fact, now conveniently ignored, and on that occasion over-ridden by the  presumption of the ABC presenter.

Put in those terms, one wonders whether the significant and decisive place assumed by the contractarian supremacists of “marriage equality” simply signals the end point of the implicit political cowardice that is basic to “two party politics”. Whether we are or not at that point in our political history, we still seem to be in for a torrid time!

Consider the question: What place will there be for a political programme put forward for consideration in our polity by any political party or voters’ group or citizen, that rejects the contractarian theory of marriage that Parliament is now being regularly asked to endorse? What of those citizens, equally committed to public justice who do not believe that marriage is a civil right but a long-established institution basic to our humanity that expresses in, an important and enduring generation-to-generation way, how we, male and female are created to be the imageo Dei. Sure, the Christian churches, with their persistent sex scandals, have little credibility to say anything on this matter even if they should have been an important bastion of responsible limited civil Government promoting public justice.

But what of those citizens (whether Christian or of other faith) whose politics includes political convictions that dissent from the view that marriage is a civil right? What of those who have a view that this seemingly pan-global marriage equality movement is based upon a fundamental empirical mistake and who wish to prevent public governance from becoming caught up and embroiled in serious legal and judicial error? There are those in this polity who believe that the marriage equality movement is simply a dimension of global neo-liberalism that seeks – in this country – to have Parliament exceed its lawful competence by endorsing a contractarian theory of marriage.

The fact that this theory (i.e. the contractarian theory of marriage basic to the “Marriage Equality” movement) is false can only be judged to be so. But the point is not that the Parliament’s task is therefore to endorse another theory judged to be true. Parliament’s task in administering public justice is not about judging between theories, not even between theories of political science except in so far as it will necessarily endorse that which a political theory should presuppose (i.e. pre-theoretically), namely that public justice is the true calling of Government, the administration of public justice, the particular normative responsibility on the shoulders alike of both those in Government office and the governed (citizens).

For the proposed plebiscite to be structured to obtain the opinion of citizens on a particular theory of marriage – i.e. the contractiarian individualistic view that marriage is but a civil right – is not in itself contrary to Parliament’s rightful use of its powers. Parliament might decide to hold a plebiscite in order to adequately inform itself – particularly if the major political parties have by their own neglect of political education stood in the way of adequate political debate about this dogmatic theory. And so with the information gleaned from a plebiscite it can frame regulations that take into account the way citizens understand themselves and their relationships. But to assume that it, as Parliament, should take on the task of endorsing a theory of marriage – which is implicit to “marriage equality” demand  – even if the majority of citizens subscribe to this theory, is actually to subscribe to, and bind itself by, a contractarian theory not just of marriage but of public governance itself.

What we have here is a well organised, well funded, political movement that has a global reach. We have therefore to carefully assess whether it has shown itself to be in principle supportive of public and political contributions from those who, while committed to public justice, disagree fundamentally in political terms with its view of marriage. (NB: to disagree fundamentally is not the same as being a fundamentalist.) And further, one has to also meet the reservations of those who, having followed the antics of the major political forces in this country, conclude that they, as citizens, are being used in this proposed plebiscite to manufacture the fiction that their public participation is recognised and their voices taken seriously, when in fact they have been seriously neglected. [For further discussion of this in relation to the previous election, see here.]

For Parliament to legislate that marriage is a civil right is actually to endorse one theory of the marriage institution – namely the contractarian theory that marriage does not exist until Government grant it the right to do so –  over against all other political theories. In fact Government has no legitimate grounds for making such a theoretical judgement, and no grounds have been put forward to suggest that the view of marriage in the Marriage Act is an endorsement (explicit or implicit) of injustice.

So what of the political rights of those citizens who disagree with that theory and who deny that Government has the authority to privilege it above other theories? What of the political rights of citizens who dissent from the view that Government brings itself into existence by the legislation of civil rights? Is Government to be viewed as self-creating, an autonomous human institution? Does Government give itself the right to dispense rights? In other words are we thereby to be put on the path – are we already on it? – to a thoroughly pagan and, from a Christian standpoint, idolatrous political development? Further, could not such a development exclude from political participation (whether by design or by unintended consequence) all those who dissent from the view that Government is an autonomous agent of self-creation? It has happened before.

The question for Christian citizens is this: do we believe that the civil government – the institution charged with ensuring and maintaining public justice – is given to us as office bearers in God’s Kingdom (politically responsible as citizens and Government officials) to ensure public justice, so that we can love our neighbours also politically? Is not this calling prior to our corporate political response? Is it not indeed what is required from Christian discipleship, and does it not accord with Biblical teaching, fully endorsed by the New Testament pronouncements of Jesus and the Apostles?

Let us make no mistake: we may indeed feel weary. We may indeed sense we have been “banging on” in resistance to this movement for too long. We may indeed long for resolution. But as this global movement of a neo-liberal religious commitment rolls on, and as parliaments and judiciaries around the world seek to get in line with its demands, there will have to be continual adjustments, an ongoing series of adjustments to laws and regulations, and these will continue to tire those committed to maintain this fictitious misunderstanding of marriage and civil government. The impending disasters of State absolutism will not be overcome by seeking to elevate alternative theories as a counter-balance to this viewpoint. What is required is an alternative way of life, an alternative life-vision that resolutely seeks public justice for government and citizens alike. It is indeed as the prophet Amos said: What does the Lord require of you but to to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God!




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