Christopher Pearson writing in The Australian has (or thinks he has) the good oil on the social agenda of a third term Howard government:
Legislation preventing gay marriage was the Coalition’s most significant third-term concession to the more conservative of its supporters. In the fourth term, we can expect further changes to matrimonial law.
Pearson starts with the usual refrain about divorce “sky-rocketing” after the introduction of no-fault divorce. It would be interesting to compare Australia’s divorce statistics with comparable countries or jurisdinctions which haven’t liberalised marriage laws. I doubt very much there’s a hard and fast causal link here – it seems to me that the law has followed social change rather than the other way round. The mantra we constantly heard (well actually we didn’t hear too much since the ALP passed the laws Pearson referred to in a lay-down misere – but from the contemporaneous debate in the States) with regard to same-sex marriage was that it would “weaken the institution”, the social bond, the sacredness of commitment etc etc. Never mind that Britney Spears and other Hollywood Celebs (even those who are not former poster girls for sexual abstinence) demonstrate that hetoresexual marriage is not always a result of a deep commitment.
But Pearson has the answer – covenant marriage. Coming soon to a church near you from the Government that tried to bring you a ban on IVF for single women and lesbian couples. Already in place in those bastions of liberalism – Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona. Louisiana, desperately missing a Governor like Huey P. Long, has already flirted with the bold legislative step of banning hipster jeans.
ELSEWHERE: David Tiley at Barista has a classic post examining how all this ties in with lerve…
So what is covenant marriage? Pearson explains:
Covenant marriage is a more binding form of union. Commonly, it involves pre-marital counselling and counselling afterwards if trouble arises. Divorce can take two years or longer and is only available on very limited grounds. In Arkansas, those grounds are “cruel and barbarous treatment” which encompasses adultery, physical or sexual abuse, conviction on a felony or abandonment. Divorce under a covenant marriage involves the attribution of responsibility, and has consequences in the division of property and decisions about custody of children.
I’m totally opposed to any state sanctioning of such “covenants”. Loyalty, commitment and integrity are central to any partnership or friendship. I believe that one should stick by those one loves, through ups and downs. As Springsteen put it:
Though our love may have died
and our luck run cold
With you forever I’ll stay
There is no doubt in my mind also that the increased propensity of people to wait for a “perfect” partner, to follow the advice of Cosmo to “discard friends who don’t do it for you”, or to treat partnership as some sort of commodified exercise in aesthetic or self-gratification are missing out on its true rewards, and are caught in the grip of a negative social and cultural trend. But the response is not, and should not be to build a state-sanctioned two tier matrimonial law.
Pearson evidences his dessicated view of intimate relationships by his casual comparison of marriage to a contract for the sale of goods:
Would-be covenanters are entitled to turn the question around and ask: if the state is prepared to enforce every other kind of civil contract, why not my marriage? We all have to pay our grocery bills, whether we like it or not. Why should something as serious as marriage, for those who choose to accept its traditional bonds, be set apart as the only non-binding contract?
Let’s flip this around again. It’s precisely because we live in a time where almost everything has a price on it, that Pearson feels the need to shore up this particular business arrangement. Max Weber pointed out long ago in his sociology of law that the reason why contract was so central to law in a capitalist society was that capitalism gave every incentive to break bargains and undermined traditional values and codes of honour.
One of the arguments raised in the debate (to the degree that there was one) in Australia about same-sex marriage was the feeling by many queer people that marriage was an institution with so much baggage that they didn’t really care for it and would prefer to live partnership in a different way. That’s an argument I personally find very attractive, and I also like the old anarchist question – why should you feel the need to have your commitment sanctioned by the state and/or blessed by the church? But I’m a libertarian about these things, and while I’d think seriously about whether marriage was an institution I personally wanted to buy into (as Pearson might have it), I think that everyone who desires it ought to have the right to enter into it no matter what their sexuality or gender.
But why then oppose “covenant marriage”? Well, I have no problem whatever if people want to bind themselves to a particular form of partnership voluntarily, perhaps because of their particular religious beliefs. Different traditions view marriage differently – not every church sees it as a sacramental bond, the Islamic take on divorce is much freer than the Christian (at least for men), and the Catholic Church has its own canon law on the validity of marriages. That’s all fine. But I see absolutely no reason why the state should endorse anything but a minimum civil set of requirements for the legal status of marriage.
To legislate for covenant marriage implies that those who “choose” it have made a worthier, more serious choice. The objections about freedom of choice that Pearson brushes aside so quickly are pertinent, but that’s not the main reason for my opposition. Simply put, it’s very clear that Pearson’s reference to divorce implies some sort of moral judgement and the notion of covenant marriage making divorce “a more difficult decision” is an absolutely gratuitous insult to people who’ve made that heart-breaking decision, as I believe most people do, in an attempt to protect the interests of both partners and children, if any. It implies a condescending judgement and it is completely illiberal in its assumption that marriage can only be dissolved through “fault”. There is a great irony in Pearson’s own reasoning, poor as it is. If “ordinary” marriage is some sort of disposable commodity, then why not extend it to everyone regardless of sexuality and gender and reserve the real thing for all those upstanding really moral people. The idea that covenant marriage ought to be sanctioned by the state is illiberal, reprehensible and abhorrent.
Hopefully this is just a trial balloon. But if not, welcome to Howardian Australia post July 1st.
Oh, and watch for Cardinal Pell’s next column.