Senator Sarah Hanson-Young introduced the Marriage Equality Bill 2010 into the Senate today. The aim of the bill was to amend the Marriage Act 1951 to remove the definition of marriage as between a man and woman only, with a view to facilitating same sex marriage. In effect, it was a re-run of a defeated bill introduced by the Democrats in 2006.
In their great generosity, the Government allowed thirty minutes for debate. Yes, you read that right. This was a bill with profound implications for Australian society. You’d think that a reasonable amount of time would be set aside to talk about it in Parliament, wouldn’t you? Oh, but maybe there are just so many bills that there isn’t that kind of time.
Not so. Since Parliament recommenced for 2010, amendments to finer points of income tax law were debated for over an hour. Changes to Youth Allowance took up nearly three hours only yesterday – and let’s not forget the hours and hours and hours that have been spent so far debating the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation over the past two sessions.
No, the simple truth – the ugly truth – is that the debate was deliberately gagged.
It isn’t hard to see why, really. Of the people in the chamber, only a few would have stood up and spoken in support of the bill. Perhaps the Government felt it wasn’t worth taking up the time for all of them to have a say. After all, it was fairly obvious that the bill was going to be defeated, so really, what was the point?
The point is that the decision was made before that bill even made it to the Chamber. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that it was made before it was even drafted. Those thirty minutes were nothing but lip service – and patronising lip service, at that. Effectively, the major parties patted Senator Hanson-Young on the head, smiled tolerantly while she gave an impassioned speech in favour of human rights, and then sent her to bed without any dinner. They stood up first, though, and smacked down the bill with the kind of pathetic reasoning that would get you booted from any high school debating team.
Let’s take a few samples.
Senator Steve Fielding – no one ever expected him to support the bill. His party’s stated platform is in lockstep with the Assemblies of God churches that back him, and there was no way he was going to deviate from the dogma. ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life,’ he proclaimed.
Apparently Senator Fielding has not seen any divorce statistics, and is absolutely against second or subsequent marriages. I’m sure that millions of unhappy, abused spouses will be comforted to know that.
Note, however, that he was not quoting any religious text here. He was actually quoting the Marriage Act itself, from the Interpretation section: ‘”marriage” means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’. If one were to strictly interpret that definition, there could be no re-marriages – or divorces, for that matter. Nonetheless, over 47,000 people identified themselves as divorced on the 2007 Census, and over one-third of marriages solemnised were second or subsequent unions.
Guess the definition isn’t so strict, after all. Selective interpretation? You decide.
Then there was Senator George Brandis, from the misnamed Liberal Party. ‘Marriage has never ever in any society in history been regarded as anything but between a man and a woman,’ he intoned solemnly.
Senator? Step right this way, please. We have some information for you. We’ll put it in chronological order, so you can see just how wrong you are.
There’s evidence from ancient Greece of male-male unions – cited by Aristotle (c. 500 BCE), for example – which were not the more well-known teacher-pupil type. These relationships were considered identical to heterosexual marriage, even to the point where the men in question could adopt children and arrange for them to inherit.
Rabbinic Jewish midrashic texts on Leviticus refer to same sex marriage contracts taking place in Canaan (which puts it around 200-1500 BCE). In fact, it’s one of the Canaanite practices that made the rabbinic writers foam at the mouth on several occasions – so well-attested, in fact, that it appears in at least four different treatises.
The Emperor Nero married one of his male slaves in the 1st century CE. Later, in the 2nd century CE, the Emperor Elagabulus followed suit. In fact, it was pretty common in Rome right up until Constantine specifically outlawed it in 342CE.
France, in the late medieval period (before around 1400) had a kind of contract that was considered legally equivalent, but there was no religious component. It was symbolised by the sharing of bread and drink in a ceremony.
There’s also a rather curious, if disputed, tradition among medieval Christian monks in France, where they were bound together in a religious ceremony whose text reads exactly like a marriage ceremony, including the exhortations to faithfulness. It was postulated by the historian Boswell, but is generally not accepted – you can imagine why.
From Ming Dynasty China (c.1300-1644) there is evidence of binding contracts between women, and between men.
More recently, among certain Native American tribes, there was the phenomenon of ‘Two-Spirit’ marriage, where one male partner was considered a ‘wife’ and took on a female social role. This marriage was recognised as identical to a heterosexual union.
‘It’s not a discrimination issue,’ stated Brandis. Oh, we rather think it is.
And Senator Brandis? This information is not hard to find, nor (unless otherwise noted) disputed. Five minutes in a library would have told you that.
By far the most shameful performance of that thirty minutes, however, came from the government, led by Senator Nick Sherry. ‘The Government is committed to removing all forms of discrimination,’ he vowed, and went on to list a raft of tax and social security issues that had historically discriminated against same sex couples, and which the Government was going to abolish. Good start.
But then there was this: ‘equally, we are committed to preserving the Marriage Act’. Specifically, the Government stated that it was committed to the ‘man and woman’ definition of marriage. Now, we’ve already seen that Australian society and law plays fast-and-loose with that definition when it comes to divorce and re-marriage. In fact, you could say that it’s not so much selectively interpreted as ignored altogether. Why not, then, ignore the ‘man and woman’ description?
Apparently, it simply cannot be done. To borrow a phrase from Prime Minister Rudd, ‘for reasons passing understanding’ it must not be done.
No explanation is given that holds up under even the most cursory scrutiny. The appeal to history fails miserably. Holding to the strict definition of ‘marriage’ from the Act is completely flawed, and in fact could be said to make a case for allowing same sex marriage, given its ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’ status. Claiming that prohibiting same sex marriage is not discriminatory is, frankly, ludicrous.
I’ll give Senators Brandis and Fielding this: they stated matters of principle in their objections. Yes, they were patently wrong, but at least they tried. Fielding has even said that it is a form of discrimination, one that he supports. Points for honesty, there.
Senator Sherry, however, weaselled around the issue, pathetically offering up a few sops that – in effect – only further ensure that same sex couples are treated as second-class citizens. Same sex couples will be subject to the same income testing for purposes of tax, superannuation and social security as heterosexual couples. On the face of it, that’s pretty egalitarian, right? No. A heterosexual couple can walk into any Government office in the country and have their marriage instantly recognised, and gain the benefits of that. A same sex couple cannot. They are, when it comes down to it, gaining most of the disadvantages of being married – yet Senator Sherry, speaking for the Government, would have us believe that this is removing discrimination.
It is hypocrisy, plain and simple. The Government does not have the excuse of faulty reasoning, or a lack of knowledge of history. They are flat-out stating that what they are doing is not discriminatory, merely holding to the law. Even as Government MPs and Senators say that, though, their eye shift and they rush to fill up their answers with convoluted reasoning that twists in and around on itself, and goes nowhere. They know.
So what is behind it?
One could speculate that Mr Rudd and his fellow politicians have learned their definition of marriage not from the Marriage Act, but from their churches. Homophobia and discrimination against same sex relationships is well-enshrined in all but the most progressive of Christian religious institutions.
There is also the unpleasant truth that Australia has, socially, a history of discrimination and hatred towards same sex relationships that goes hand-in-hand with ‘mateship’ and ‘true blue Aussie bloke’ mythology. Perhaps the Labor Party learned it there.
Whatever the reasoning behind the statements, the bill was voted down. The Government, Opposition and Senator Fielding united to preserve a shameful violation of human rights. Even Senator Nick Xenophon, who had supported the removal of some forms of discrimination in his home state of South Australia, lived up to earlier statements that he was a ‘bit more reluctant to support gay marriage’. And all after barely thirty minutes’ discussion, most of which was taken up by speeches like those from which I’ve quoted.
There is no excusing this. It was incredibly disrespectful – not only to Senator Hanson-Young, but to all those who believe that everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law of Australia. It was blatantly gagged, ensuring that only a single speech supporting same sex marriage made it into Hansard. It was a demonstration of how faulty reasoning and lack of knowledge determine who has rights, and who does not.
And it was an exercise in hypocrisy for the Government,resulting in a devastating loss of whatever credibility it still retained. The Labor Party, under Prime Minister Rudd, stands condemned in the eyes of Australia.
It is my devout hope that this inequality, this meaningless discrimination, will be struck down soon, and that Australian law finally lives up to its ideals of equality and fairness. Until that time, our elected representatives should be constantly aware of one thing:
We are watching you. We see how you act, and we will call you to account for it.