Features Australia

Untying democracy’s knot

The marriage equality debate can only be resolved with a plebiscite

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

When is a question not an invitation to discuss? When Guardian Australia holds a forum called ‘Why Knot?’ on the subject of marriage equality. Billed as bringing together a ‘broad range of voices’, every single speaker — including David Marr, Rodney Croome, Kristina Keneally, Van Badham, Bill Shorten and Richard Di Natale — were full-throated supporters of marriage equality, and in furious agreement that the Australian people must not be allowed have their say on the issue at a national plebiscite.

This is what passes for pluralism among the denizens of the Australian left. This exercise in stacking the deck reinforces the case for holding a plebiscite on marriage equality irrespective of the cost to the public purse. Real and democratic public debate is rarely entertained these days on the future of as important a social institution as marriage because those who question fashionable ‘progressive’ stances are not tolerated and pay a price for expressing their dissenting views.

Even serving politicians — whose job it is to ventilate contending positions for the benefit of the voting public — are often intimidated into keeping quiet. Social conservatives who speak out on subjects such as marriage are rarely thanked by their party leaderships and colleagues when statements made in support of the traditionalist case for marriage inevitably attract the glare of hostile and condemnatory media coverage. The routine application of the campaign slogans of bigotry, homophobia, and religious fundamentalism by marriage equality activists simply seeks to marginalise and silence contrary opinions.

The democratic process is how liberal societies are meant to resolve contentious issues. Though Guardianistas don’t believe it, there are competing ideas and competing objectives at stake regarding marriage equality. There is more substance to the case for maintaining the traditional definition of marriage than the marriage equality movement claims. To appreciate the substance of the traditionalist case for preserving marriage, we need to trace the evolution of social values over the last half century.

Since the social revolution of the 1960s freed up attitudes towards sexual matters and family life, attitudes towards marriage have been shaped by a socially permissive individualist ethic. Traditional restraints on a range of behaviors have been relaxed, including the divorce laws that required fault or bad behavior by a husband or wife to be proved to legally dissolve a marriage. This has been rejected as an illegitimate restriction on the individual’s right to seek self-fulfillment outside of a marriage if they so wish.

Few would seriously wish to revise the ‘no fault’ divorce laws introduced by the Whitlam government with the cross-party support of the federal parliament in 1975. I also doubt many would want to go back to the old and hypocritical days of private detectives lying in court about the marital infidelities they had supposedly witnessed in order to reach the evidentiary threshold the courts required to sanction a divorce. Nor would we necessarily want to revive the old social stigmas of shame that used to be applied to those who divorced.

Yet the victories that have been achieved for personal liberation have also come at a social cost concerning the wellbeing of children. Decades of social science research shows escalating rates of divorce, co-habitation and sole parenting have compromised outcomes for children. The evidence shows that children, on average and regardless of class, do best in life on a range of measures of welfare and achievement when their parents get married and stay married.

This is the heart of the modern traditionalists’ case for preserving (what’s left) of marriage as a matter of public policy. There is a higher social purpose at stake in preserving the notion that marriage ought to be about restraining the individual behavior of biological parents, even at the price of individual self-fulfillment, for the sake of children. This is where the traditional case for marriage stability runs headlong into the contrary philosophy of marriage equality.

The ‘gay rights’ agenda is, naturally, an expression of the social ethics of the 1960s, and rightly so. Once again, few would wish to go back to the old days of people having to live a lie in the perpetual closet, fearing disclosure, persecution, and ruin if their sexuality was revealed.

For its supporters, marriage equality is seen as one of the last steps towards full public acceptance of gays and lesbians. These political objectives are entirely understandable and legitimate in terms of breaking down prejudice.

Yet this kind of public affirming and attendant self-validation of personal and sexual identity isn’t what the institution of marriage has traditionally been about — it has traditionally been about using the legal authority of the state and the social authority of collective cultural attitudes to restrain individual behavior, particularly of men (sexist maybe, but true) to create and preserve the best environment for the raising of children.

The marriage equality movement says there is a conservative case for extending the right to marry to gays and lesbians — that this will strengthen the institution. Traditionalists argue that this would actually represent another endorsement of the social ethics of the 1960s, and a further weakening of the core purpose of marriage.

We won’t resolve the question of the meaning and future of marriage unless we are able to discuss the issues freely, and unless these questions are put to a free and fair plebiscite, and the restraints on the debate are released. This is what direct democratic processes are intended to achieve — hand authority back to the people and stop the interests of political elites from stifling the true and democratic will of the democracy.

Moreover, irrespective of one’s attitude to marriage equality, the broader discussion about the institution of marriage and how it relates to children is worth having as a matter of public importance.

Family breakdown is linked to a host of social problems that cost taxpayer’s billions of dollars a year as governments try to implement solutions for dysfunction, disadvantage, and inequality. Marriage should matter not only to social conservatives, but also to economic dries. The latter ought to take a bigger interest in the role this fundamental social institution can play in limiting the size of government.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and the author of The Madness of Australian Child Protection, (Connor Court 2015)

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Richard Lutz

    Labor leader Bill Shorten said failing to legalize same-sex marriage says to same-sex partners: “your relationships are not equally valued by the State, your love is less equal before the law”. Thus it follows that if we fail to legalize close relative marriages and group marriages we say to closely related partners and polygamous partners: “your relationships are not equally valued by the State, your love is less equal before the law”. You don’t want to deprive three adult lesbian sisters and their children of the protection of marriage do you?