The ghost of Howard hovers over Gillard's marriage vow
Odd perhaps to note this, given all the eulogising that Labor conferences deliver about Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam and the rest, but an interloper ghost hovers over this weekend's federal ALP conference: John Howard.
Odd perhaps to note this, given all the eulogising that Labor conferences deliver about Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam and the rest, but an interloper ghost hovers over this weekend's federal ALP conference: John Howard. Odd perhaps to note this, given all the eulogising that Labor conferences deliver about Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam and the rest, but an interloper ghost hovers over this weekend's federal ALP conference: John Howard.The two issues at the centre of the big policy debates this weekend are etched deep in the former PM's legacy. Howard was the first advocate of Australian uranium sales to India, spearheading a major change in Australia's foreign policy in 2007.We won't dwell on this history too much because the more interesting counterpoint to ponder is the second Howard bequest, gay marriage.The timeline on Labor's marriage equality debate this weekend perhaps begins with Howard's decision in 2004 to amend the Marriage Act to explicitly define the union as being between a man and a woman.Julia Gillard goes into this weekend echoing Howard on both questions. She's been persuaded on the merits of uranium exports to India she wants policy change. She's also glued herself to the Marriage Act. Even though Gillard is a left-wing progressive, a woman who herself has never been married, and is not religious, apparently gay marriage is a bridge too far.This position is so out of kilter with our collective perception of the PM's instincts and motivations she must actually believe it. (I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt and believe she believes it in any case.) Hopefully, conviction will sustain her in the likely event that her party over-rules her and votes to change Labor's policy on the issue.The Labor conference should stand up the Prime Minister on gay marriage. The platform should be amended. As Finance Minister Penny Wong declaimed in a column in these pages two weeks ago, equality should be a matter of policy for the ALP, not a matter of conscience. This remark was possibly Wong's most pointed and passionate intervention since arriving in Canberra. And she was absolutely right.Facilitating marriage equality is not about indulging sentiment, although I've read some truly moving stories supporting the reform case it's about sound practice. For a country like Australia, the elimination of state-sanctioned discrimination is a question of fairness, consistency and decency an emphatic affirmation of our underrated exceptionalism.It might be ironic that the dog fight is now for The Word, when once ''marriage'' was a concept derided by progressives as epitomising staid social conservatism. But so what? Let's give up this anachronistic exclusivity heterosexuals reserve for marriage. It's antiquated and discriminatory and wrong.Australia is a secular society we are inherently sensible enough to excise God from politics - to keep the divine in the cathedral and in the stillness of our souls, and in the sanctity of our lives lived for others. History shows Australians are comfortable with a sensible, iterative rights agenda. We are capable of casting off old prejudices in the light of better information. Why, as some joke rather lamely, shouldn't Australia's gay couples have the right to be as unhappy as the rest of us?But this is my personal view. It is not a universal truth. Opinion polls tell me I'm with the majority of Australians who favour the change. But this is a textured picture.I'm not reflexively of the view that Gillard is out of sync with political reality, that she's screwed up by aligning herself with the Catholic right of her party.That analysis pays insufficient homage to history. I'd like to line up with the majority here and declare the politics of same sex marriage settled. But before we rush to declare the enlightenment locked, loaded and landed, let's amble back to 2004.When Howard moved to ''shore up'' the Marriage Act, there was a Senate inquiry into the bill being proposed. Churches around the country mobilised their flocks to rise up in support of Howard's brave effort to stop marriage falling into the wrong hands. Fred Nile spoke approvingly in the New South Wales Parliament of his efforts.''The federal government under John Howard recently introduced a bill to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to secure the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life,'' Nile said. ''That was done deliberately because of threatened legal challenges. Three Australian same-sex couples, including one couple from Western Australia, had been to Canada to get marriage licences. They returned to Australia and announced their intention to seek legal recognition of their Canadian marriages from the Family Court of Australia.''Howard's deft legal move to corner and then strand the vexatious litigants was supported, Nile claimed, by ''about 80 per cent of Australian people''. You might conclude that Nile - a bit of a parody of himself at the best of times - was kidding, exaggerating.Then submissions started rolling in, a deluge like nothing before seen at a routine Australian parliamentary inquiry. More than 16,000 submissions came, and they ran 90 per cent in Howard's favour. The churches made submissions, but the bulk of the correspondence was one or two-page letters, hand written, from Neville of Nambour or Gloria of Gladstone. I use the Queensland locations judiciously as well as a touch facetiously because Queensland was heavily represented among the submitters.Perhaps this outbreak in 2004 wasn't a genuine ''people's revolt'', as Tony Abbott might have it, but a brilliantly executed lobbying campaign from the Australian Christian Lobby, or some other religious interest group.The internet and the phenomenon of social networking have, of course, transformed the debate in recent years, allowing advocates of reform an organising platform to match the might of the churches. If that same Senate inquiry was held now, we could expect a more organised and forceful rebuttal from advocates for marriage equality.But most practising politicians tell you this about gay marriage: the people who oppose the idea oppose it passionately. Labor MPs in traditional Labor seats would be hearing from a radically different constituency than the inner-city progressives.While gay marriage may feel to many of us as an issue whose time has come, existing in implacable equivalence is a stubborn political obstacle to change. A vocal minority of Australians are not open to suasion on the merits of this issue they oppose it, and will die opposing it, convinced of the sanctity of their prejudice.So what do prime ministers do with such shaded realities?Howard's opposition to gay marriage was personal, and like most of his social policy forays, effective shorthand defining his conviction conservatism. (Howard, of course, regularly combined the totemic with the pragmatic. In the same year he stirred up the marriage debate, he changed the law to allow gay couples to inherit one another's superannuation.)But what does Gillard do with her defeat on the platform, if she is defeated this weekend? Once she weathers the short-term reactive headlines about her tattered authority, what then? Has she got the political dexterity to convert a drubbing on the day into a longer-term victory, particularly if she emerges with a conscience vote?If you had a mind to be cynical, you might just see some deft orchestration by those much maligned factional bosses in tying down a platform change, balanced by a conscience vote. That balancing act gives a gesture to Labor's progressive constituency - the platform change. The conscience vote is a genuflection to conservatives and the traditional blue-collar types.Labor in 2011 supports gay marriage in policy, but it won't get up legislatively. Not yet. The totemic and the pragmatic - it's positively Howardesque.One of her seasoned colleagues on the left thought losing the battle might assist Gillard. ''If there's one issue Julia can help herself by losing, it's this one,'' the MP said before the conference. ''Her opposition has value with conservative Australia. A defeat might give her some currency.''This person's rationale was that the gay marriage chapter in Gillard's prime ministerial history might prompt some voters to ponder whether they had got her figured: ''People have her in the atheist de facto corner. This might make them question that picture.''Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent.