John Howard’s inimitable brand of ‘dog-whistle politics’ is in full swing over the issue of gay marriage and alleged plans to amend the Marriage Act to prevent it. An article by Liberal Senator Guy Barnett in today’s Australian is a prime example of the genre. Whether Barnett himself is a cynical dog-whistler or just an ignorant goose is another question (although the two categories may not be mutually exclusive). Here’s Barnett’s killer argument:
MARRIAGE, a bedrock institution worthy of protection, has endured for thousands of years across cultures and religions. It is a social institution that benefits family members and society. It provides a solidly built roof under which children are nurtured. It specifically benefits children and is designed to ensure their welfare is maximised. There should be no doubt about its definition.
Perhaps so. But why should the need for definitional certainty preclude the adoption of an inclusive definition allowing for gay marriage?
The need to maximise the welfare of children certainly doesn’t provide a rational basis for excluding gays from the legal union of marriage. In fact quite the reverse. Gay couples frequently have children, a fact Barnett’s argument conveniently ignores. It might occur through adoption in States permitting it (the Commonwealth having no clear constitutional power to override such state legislation). It might occur because a lesbian couple creates a family through judicious use of the old turkey-basting technique; or the more traditional method of selecting a less than utterly repugnant male “partner” and then thinking of God, Queen and country while making the penultimate sacrifice. More commonly, it happens because a member of a gay couple has custody of his/her child previously born in a failed heterosexual union. In any of those cases, surely the welfare of those children is maximised by allowing the custodial parents’ relationship exactly the same legal protections and stability available to everyone else. God knows, couples need all the legal and practical support they can get to help their marriages last, as this recently-failed practitioner knows only too well.
It’s that sort of logical non-sequitur, in a conservative politician whose prose otherwise suggests he’s not in fact a complete fool, that leads irresistably to the conclusion that Barnett isn’t an ignorant goose, but a cynical politician engaging in a particularly distasteful effort at wedge politics. He and Howard are attempting to divide the community over an issue that should unite us, in the hope of winning some soft Labor votes through appealing to the sort of Labor voter who instinctively agrees with Paul Keating’s glib (but no doubt sincere) line that marriages are meant for Adam and Eve not “Adam and Steve”.
That impression is confirmed by Barnett’s closing observation that marriage is “not a fashion to be updated.” But was the traditional right to own slaves in the US a “fashion” that shouldn’t have been updated? What about all the other basic civil rights that didn’t effectively begin to be recognised by the US Supreme Court until the early 1950s? Were they too just judicial fashions that ought to have been rejected? What about the constitutional right to political free speech first recognised by Australia’s High Court in 1992? Another worthless judicial fashion promoted by pooftah judges who don’t understand the unique sanctity of mum, dad, two kids and a white picket fence? I’d rather think these reforms happened because the political and legal culture in western liberal democracies has been evolving in the direction of freedom of choice, and tolerance and even celebration of diverse lifestyles. At least it was evolving in that direction until politicians like Howard and Bush gained power and started rolling back those freedoms. Maybe I won’t vote Informal after all. Then again, God knows whether Latham’s views are any different.