In same-sex marriage debate, Australia, too, must recognise love is love

Barack Obama called it “justice that arrives like a thunderbolt”. Speaking after the US Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, he stitched the decision into the country’s very understanding of itself.

“Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle that we are all created equal. The project of each generation is to bridge the meaning of those founding words with the realities of changing times – a never-ending quest to ensure those words ring true for every single American.”

The Supreme Court’s decision recognised a constitutional guarantee for marriage equality. It struck down same-sex marriage bans in state jurisdictions and compelled all states to grant marriage licences to gay and lesbian couples. 

Obama described the decision as the “consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up, who came out, who talked to parents, parents who loved their children no matter what, folks who were willing to endure bullying and taunts, and stayed strong, and came to believe in themselves and who they were, and slowly made an entire country realise that love is love.”

In Australia, the debate is stalled by its opposition: countless small acts of bigotry and malice. These are the people who endure against enlightenment, whose hyperactive fear of other people’s happiness wills them to bunker down against history. These are the people who mistake marriage for a talisman with which to ward off acceptance. They are the people who believe their own institutions so fragile they would be imperilled by the inclusion of others who wish to celebrate them.

Warren Entsch and Teresa Gambaro, both Coalition MPs, intend to co-sponsor a bill for marriage equality. It will be seconded by Labor’s Terri Butler, with further backing from Laurie Ferguson, independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, and the Greens MP Adam Bandt. It is not the first such bill to be proposed, but it is the first with cross-party support.

The prime minister’s response was to dismiss it, to continue playing his petty shell game of jobs and national security. “It’s quite unusual,” he threatened, “for private member’s bills to come on for debate and vote in the parliament.”

Andrew Nikolic, one of the Coalition MPs who will decide if the bill is debated, called the renewed push “a poor attempt by someone to generate momentum on an issue where there is none”. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells called it an “ambush” – although if it was an ambush, it was one played in open fields with much public support, after years of similar ambush.

The government leader in the senate, Eric Abetz, warned at length against following America’s example. He suggested support for same-sex marriage was a media hoax, and argued that Australia better follow the human rights record of Asia. “If you undo the institution of marriage by redefining it for the latest movement or the latest fad,” he said, “you will open the Pandora’s box.” 

Equality, though, is not a fad. Nor is happiness. Nor is love. These things are fundamental and the longer they are resisted, the more tenuous becomes the claim that this government represents the people who elected it. Like so many issues born of rights and decency, the public is ahead of the politics. The longer the Abbott government resists this basic fact, the more pathetic its game of catch-up will eventually look.

In offices in Canberra, men and women threatened by the recognition of other people’s love are plotting means by which to refuse this latest bill. Voting systems on both sides of politics will be rigged to frustrate progress. Empty fears will be stoked. The bill will quite likely be defeated, the debate set back. But all these harried fearful bigots will achieve is a stalling of the inevitable. Love, as Obama said, is love.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2015 as " Love is love".

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