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Opponents of same-sex marriage are mounting a last-ditch campaign to prevent parliament heeding public opinion, Mike Seccombe reports By Mike Seccombe.

Final fight against same-sex marriage

Whatever else you might say about Australia’s big four banks, there can be no disputing that they are astute calculators of profit and loss.

To the extent that ethics come into those calculations at all, they are the ethics of enlightened self-interest, which is to say that when and if they act to advance the interests of others, their actions ultimately serve their self-interest.

And that is why we should attach huge significance to the fact that Australia’s four big banks, and most of the lesser ones too, have lent their support and their corporate logos to the campaign by Australian Marriage Equality (AME) to change the law to permit same-sex unions.

They are among nearly 500 big corporates that have done so in the past three or four weeks: Google, McDonald’s, Virgin, Telstra, Twitter, major supermarkets and department stores, law firms, accountancy firms, the AFL, the NRL, et cetera, ad nauseam.

It is tempting to suggest these big corporates are more astute at reading the public mood than is Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who continues to use every trick he can think of to stymie the push for marriage equality.

Tempting, but wrong. Corporate entities, by their nature, have no consciences. Nor do they have prejudices. They only have interests and they have decided, en masse, that it is in their interests to sign up for social change.

Individuals, though, do have consciences and prejudices. Tony Abbott’s problem is that he and his government are bound to old prejudices and to consciences that have not evolved with the times.

Back in May 2004, within weeks of the Blair Labour government in Britain proposing to reform its marriage laws through the Civil Partnership Act, John Howard determined to change Australia’s marriage act to specifically exclude the prospect of gay marriage.

At that time, the act included no wording about gender. Presumably back in 1961, when the Marriage Act was written, no one even considered the prospect that same-sex couples might one day want to get hitched. By 2004, though, things were changing, not only in Britain but also in other parts of Europe and in the United States.

Howard’s attorney-general, Philip Ruddock, introduced an amendment to define the institution more closely as “the union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.

No doubt the change genuinely reflected the views of the vast majority on his own side of politics and the majority public opinion of the time, but it also served to discomfit his political opponents by pitting the social progressives in Labor against the social conservatives.

In a compromise, the government simultaneously moved to allow people living together in an “interdependent relationship” to bequeath their superannuation to one another tax-free, regardless of sexuality.

It was a typically cunning Howard manoeuvre, serving a couple of ends simultaneously. The government threw a bone to the social conservatives, threw one also to same sex couples, and confounded its political enemies. Labor meekly endorsed it all.

“When that change went through, public support [for same sex marriage] was around 38 per cent,” says Rodney Croome, national director of Australian Marriage Equality. “Now according to [Liberal Party’s pollster] Crosby Textor and the most recent Ipsos poll, it’s over 70 per cent. That’s almost a doubling in a decade. It’s unlike any other progressive social reform in the speed at which opinion has shifted.”

Demographics of public support

The political problem is that opinion has not shifted evenly. Support for same-sex marriage is much stronger in the cities than in rural and regional areas, much stronger among the young than he old, much stronger among the secular than the religious. And the Abbott government relies heavily for its support on religious voters, older voters and voters in the bush.

On a national basis, the polls tell us, 70 per cent of Labor voters think same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Among Greens, it’s well over 90 per cent. Among those who vote for the Liberal and National parties, however, it is below 50 per cent. Not much below, though – only 1 or 2 per cent. And less than 40 per cent of Coalition voters are opposed. A large number of conservatives remain undecided.

But national figures do not tell the whole story. The day I spoke to Croome, he was responding to local media in Tasmania about a fresh poll carried out for The Examiner in Launceston. It showed that even in northern Tasmania, probably the most socially conservative part of the country, more people support than oppose gay marriage. In the federal seat of Bass, held by Liberal Party arch right-winger Andrew Nikolic, 47.9 per cent of respondents supported the change; 40.7 per cent opposed it.

The real import of The Examiner’s poll, though, was in the demographic breakdown. Among voters aged 18 to 34, some 70 per cent supported same-sex marriage. Among those aged over 65 it was only 25 per cent. Among Liberal voters, support stood at just 30 per cent.

City voters might wonder why the views of a relative few in northern Tasmania matter. The answer is because these are Abbott’s people.

In February, when Abbott’s leadership looked very shaky, Andrew Nikolic, as deputy whip for the federal Liberal Party, was instrumental in shoring up support. He wrote to all his parliamentary colleagues urging against a leadership spill. His loyalty was rewarded. Soon thereafter, the whip, Philip Ruddock, was sacked, and Nikolic installed in his place.

Nikolic is also on the committee that decides which pieces of proposed legislation get brought up for debate and when. The indications are that he will do all he can to prevent the cross-party private members’ bill on same-sex marriage from getting up.

As he said a couple of weeks ago: “Anyone who thinks that this should be prioritised over economic or national security issues has got rocks in their head and is totally misreading the needs of the Australian people.”

It’s a common refrain from opponents of marriage reform: let’s talk about more important things. This overlooks the fact that Abbott has spent much of the past several weeks talking about the programming decisions of the ABC. It also overlooks 500-odd of the country’s major corporations, which clearly have a different view of what the public thinks important.

It smacks of desperation. So do the arguments of other members of the Liberal religious right.

ACL's argument

Another of Abbott’s key people, and another Tasmanian, senate leader Eric Abetz, for example, recently argued that Australia should not legislate for same-sex marriage because our trading partners in Asia had not done so. Furthermore, he said in the same interview, any move would open a “Pandora’s box” of other marriage demands, such as polyamory. He apparently overlooked the fact that polygamy is legal in a number of countries with which we trade, notably Malaysia and Indonesia.

Primary Industry Minister Barnaby Joyce ran a similar line, suggesting same-sex marriage could threaten Australia’s live cattle trade with Indonesia.

AME’s deputy director, Ivan Hinton-Teoh, was amused by that one and notes that New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser was too. Groser, who voted in favour of that country’s 2013 Marriage Equality Bill, said there was no evidence at all of a negative impact on international trade. In fact, his country’s trade with China jumped more than $3 billion.

When The Saturday Paper asked Lyle Shelton, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, which is furiously campaigning against same-sex marriage, what he made of the suggestion that we should set our moral compass by reference to other countries, he defended the two ministers.

“The point they’re trying to make,” he says, “is that we’re unlikely to see Asian countries redefine marriage any time soon. Certainly not Muslim countries.”

The Saturday Paper: “Yes, but they allow polygamy.”

Shelton, after a long pause: “Yes, well, they don’t discriminate numerically. We’re talking about not discriminating based on gender. I’m a little bit tired of hearing people saying that it [the polyamory argument] is a straw man. The US polyamorous community, 500,000 strong, is also calling for marriage rights. In Sweden there’s a political discussion going on about number-neutral marriage. They’ve had gay marriage for about 10 years.

“If the principle, as we are told, is equal love, on what basis do you discriminate against the numerical requirement for marriage?”

Shelton uses the word “discriminate” a lot. He worries that the passage of marriage reform would prevent “people of good faith who will always believe in the timeless definition of marriage” from discriminating according to their religious beliefs.

“We’ve gone and briefed MPs to help them see that where the definition of marriage has been changed, it’s resulted in legal action against people who hold the view that marriage is between a man and a woman,” he says.

He cites examples, all from the US, most referring to cases where businesspeople refused to provide services for same sex marriages – wedding cakes and flowers mostly.

“We’ve seen a baker in Colorado have to put his staff through a re-education program. Another baker was fined $135,000 in Oregon for refusing to provide a cake for a lesbian wedding.”

Says Croome in response: “Most of those cases have nothing to do with marriage law. In many of the cases there were no marriage equality laws in the jurisdictions at the time. They have everything to do with anti-discrimination laws.”

That is to say, the same sorts of laws that prevent businesses from refusing to provide services to people on the basis of skin colour, for example.

“And the examples they cite come from the US, which is a highly litigious society. If you look at countries more similar to ours, like New Zealand or Britain, you don’t find such examples.”

As for the argument that same-sex marriage poses a threat to religious freedom, Croome is dismissive.

“Anything religious organisations are able to do now, they will still be able to do. If they are not able to do it now, they will still not be able to do it.”

Some churches, though, are very exercised by it. The Catholic Church elected to produce a booklet called Don’t Mess with Marriage and distribute it to all Catholic schools across the country. The Presbyterians have begun talking about getting out of the business of legally marrying people. Some in the Anglican church have hinted at the same. If this happened, members of their flocks would have to get married twice: once civilly, outside the church, and then separately and without legal force in church.

AME targets electorates

While the people at AME find much of the campaign against marriage reform offensive and denigrating, they don’t find it worrying in a campaigning sense. Their polling shows only 17 per cent of people fear polygamy or other follow-on consequences. Only 18 per cent perceive
a threat to religious freedom.

“The fear mongers are playing to a very small audience,” Croome says.

While the AME’s tactics have attracted corporate endorsements, the Australian Christian Lobby has none on its website, nor pictures of smiling sports stars, musicians, actors or politicians. There are instructions on how supporters can email their MPs. So far 32,000 of them have. And while the organisation has been doing the rounds on MPs, Lyle Shelton frankly admits the pro-marriage-equality advocates “have far outmatched us in lobbying”.

For the AME, the endorsements are a minor part.

“Our focus,” says Croome, “is getting people in to tell their personal stories. We’ve found that compelling personal stories play an important role. Almost every MP who has come out in support over the past couple of years has cited a story from a friend or a constituent as one of the main reasons for changing their mind.”

Right now, by their count, 65 members of the house of representatives have publicly declared support for marriage equality.

“We need another 11,” Croome says. “There’s several more who have told us privately that they support it. So we are just a handful of votes short. In the senate we may well have a very slim majority. Already 39 or 40 members have declared.”

He recites the list of electorates AME is targeting, in the hope of getting the numbers: “Hume, Gilmore, Capricornia, Flynn, Bowman, Latrobe, Dunkley, Lyons, Boothby, Sturt, Pearce, Hasluck, Curtin.”

All are held by Coalition MPs because, as he says, “in the ALP, almost all members who aren’t affiliated with the SDA have declared their supported”.

Influence of Shoppies union

The SDA is the shop assistants’ union, the biggest single union affiliated with Labor, which for years has been dominated by fundamentalist Catholics led by Joe de Bruyn. One senior Labor identity described the SDA as “a religious cult hosted by a union”. De Bruyn is the one unionist in the country for whom Eric Abetz professes admiration.

But the shoppies’ iron discipline is breaking down, too. Several of them have broken ranks and will vote for marriage equality. The progressives in Labor have high hopes that this presages a more conciliatory approach by the union on
a wider range of social reforms.

The real drama here is in the Liberal Party. Before the last election, Abbott promised the issue would be addressed in this term of parliament. To date, he and his supporters on the far right of the party have done all they can to avoid keeping that promise.

But you have to wonder how long they can hold back the tide. Conservative parties have always prided themselves on the fact that they allow free votes on matters of this kind.

“Our claim on the Liberal Party is nothing more than a free vote,” says Croome.

But it’s a tough one for the government. Either they let it happen and leave their leader exposed as being out of touch with the overwhelming weight of public opinion, or they continue to let the issue fester, making the whole government look out of touch.

Surely they must go for the former. They’ll call it a conscience vote. But really it comes down to a calculation of profit and loss.•

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2015 as "Final fight against same-sex marriage". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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