Labor's 'same-sex' push masks deeper issues

As Paul Howes eggs Labor on to fully embrace marriage equality, maybe it's time to think about leaving the State out of our personal lives altogether.

The parliament is quiet in the weeks before the Abbott government takes up the Treasury benches – a good time to catch up with old sources and listen to their frustrations.

One, a former Labor MP from before the Rudd/Gillard years, bent my ear yesterday with a rant about same-sex marriage. With both leadership contenders Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese seeing no reason not to extend the Marriage Act to same-sex couples, this true believer wasn’t happy.

“I don’t agree at all,” he said. “I’m not anti-homosexuality – they can do what they like, hanging upside down from a trapeze, for all I care. But why do we have to call it marriage? That’s between a man and a woman.”

As Bill Shorten pointed out in his Q&A debate on ABC TV with Albanese on Monday night, Labor has pro- and anti- voices on this issue, but has given its MPs a conscience vote on the matter.

If Tony Abbott acceded to Labor’s call for a conscience vote for Coalition MPs, there is a good chance the change would get up, and Abbott ­– rightly or wrongly – would be credited with changing a long-standing tradition.

So it won’t happen.

However, AWU boss Paul Howes thinks a conscience vote is a “cop-out”, because it allows some in Labor to hold anti-egalitarian views which he sees as inconsistent with the party’s ethos. He wants this year’s national conference to pass a binding vote on the issue.

Howes, in excerpts from a speech published by The Australian, says Labor has reached “...that moment when we send an unambiguous, liberating message rippling through society: that there is nothing inferior about gay people, there is nothing inferior about their relationships and our society does not condone anyone who believes otherwise. I want tonight to urge my party to finally disown this phony notion that we should be affording equal respect to both sides of the gay marriage debate.”

It has taken four decades for the rights of non-heterosexual Australians to shift from near-invisibility to the centre of Labor’s political debate. And it has to be said that over the same period heterosexual couples have done little to demonstrate why marriage should still be defined as the “union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.

Divorce rates have climbed over those years to the point that one in two marriages now fails. A newish trend is for couples to wait until their kids leave home and then make the split. Divorce, and the separation of de facto spouses, is now so common that leading family law firm Watts McCray has even launched its own app called ‘MyDivorce’ which explains how the whole thing works.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard, in her public interview with Anne Summers this week, wanted Australians to look again at the institution of marriage itself. She said she still opposed ‘same-sex marriage’, but added: “I think that marriage in our society could play its traditional role and we could come up with other institutions which value partnerships, value love, value lifetime commitment.”

She makes a good point. The cultural and social changes that have swept Australia since the liberationist movements of the 1960s and 1970s make the whole notion of marriage problematic.

Non-traditional couples want to have the word ‘marriage’, sanctified by the Commonwealth of Australia, included in their ceremonies and ‘marriage’ documents.

In some cases, these will accompany mono-theistic religious ceremonies (still predominantly Christian), agnostic ceremonies in which “we all believe something, but we don’t want to define it”, or rigorously humanistic marriage ceremonies that rely on the act of ‘commitment’ between the betrothed before earthly human witnesses.

But what role has the State in any of those?

In the contemporary body of law governing marriages and de facto relationships, the state awards the same rights to all couples, straight or gay, married or not, for tax and superannuation purposes. You need only prove de facto status, at the very least, to attract those legal rights.

The blurring of church and state is worrying. Whether you worship a Goddess – as in many Vietnamese religious traditions – or God in the Christian/Judaism/Islamic religions, why does it follow that you’d want to be told by a bunch of grey-suited politicians, many of whom don’t believe those things, that you can enter into a ‘marriage’?

Surely in those cases the religion sanctifies the marriage, not Canberra (and anyway, the last demi-god of our age was convincingly thrown out by the voters on September 7).

The problem with ‘marriage’ equality is it lets the rest of the nation off the hook. Standing in a registry office with a bored celebrant takes on an magical, romantic aura, when actually the couple are really signing a legal contract only slightly more binding than if they’d shacked up for a year.

While the State gets to say what ‘marriage’ is, couples who may not even know ‘what they believe’ – theist, agnostic, humanist – get to blame somebody else for their marital status: “Canberra says I’m married, and that’s all that counts.”

Could we envisage a future in which entering into a ‘marriage’ relies on the moral strength of the couple’s family, friends, community – and religion if relevant?

And that would just leave Canberra to fine-tune the tax law, superannuation and family law context in which that marriage lives.