Australian Notes

Australian Notes

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

The redoubtable Andrew Bolt wants a referendum on same sex marriage. Edmund Burke gave the best and traditional answer to government by referendum in his famous Speech to the Electors of Bristol in 1774: ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’

What a foolish speech Bill Shorten delivered calling for an amendment to the Marriage Act to redefine marriage and validate same-sex marriage. There may be a case to be made but he did not make it. He gave some expression to the generous feelings of supporters of his bill but he offered no serious argument. Our laws should reflect, he said, a modern, inclusive Australia that says to gays: ‘We are proud of you. You are never alone. You belong.’ He went on: ‘For me there is nothing contradictory about extending love, compassion, charity and respect beyond heterosexual Australia.’ And: ‘I do believe in God and I do believe in marriage equality.’ He thinks the current Marriage Act puts the mental health of the country at risk. Two out of every five young gays, contemplating a lonely future, think about suicide. Let’s turn on the lights, he called. He ended with the famous words: ‘It’s time’.

The almost universal understanding of marriage is that it is about having and bringing up children. It is not only a matter of falling or being in love. You do not need marriage for that. But the expectation and the welcoming of children are at the heart of marriage. Same-sex couples may adopt a child or one of the partners may turn to IVF. But the opponents of same-sex marriage have, since Adam and Eve, been convinced that a child should wherever possible have both father and mother. They may be compelled, in our ‘modern, free and inclusive’ Australia, to reconsider this ancient conviction. But it is hard to take seriously a proposal like Shorten’s that ignores the issue of children entirely.


Shorten also ignored that part of the interpretation of marriage in the Marriage Act which commits the married couple to monogamy, that is, ‘to the exclusion of all others.’ Yet many conservatives believe that once you make one major change to the Marriage Act (to validate homosexual marriage) there is no convincing reason why it should not make one more change and validate polygamy. It is illegal in Australia, although recognised for the purposes of some social security payments. Some Muslim leaders regard its legalization as a natural and inevitable next step. But not a word from Shorten.

Shorten made a point of stressing that no minister of religion is obliged to conduct a same-sex marriage in violation of his creed and that no church, mosque, temple or synagogue will be obliged to consecrate same-sex marriages. That was well said, but how long will those rights survive in our modern, secular and inclusive Australia? In some jurisdictions, such as in the US, those rights have already been abolished. The issue calls for more than Shorten’s easy assurance that it can’t happen here.

How different the current argy-bargy – you can’t call it a debate – on same-sex marriage would be if Christopher Pearson, essayist and columnist, were still alive to help maintain standards of commonsense and civility. He died only two years ago at the young age of 61 but the case he made as a homosexual against homosexual marriage still resonates. Nick Cater collected most of Pearson’s articles on public issues and republished them last year in A Better Class of Sunset (Connor Court). The collection ranges from the ‘History wars’ and the ABC to etiquette and Reconciliation. Gay marriage is a minor sub-theme, although it dominates the section ‘Over the Rainbow’ about homosexuals. This is what gives weight to Pearson’s opposition to gay marriage and the ‘vulgar inevitabilism’ of the same-sex lobby. He was, he said, a homosexual of the baby-boomer generation. ‘I came out of the closet in my student days, back in 1971,’ he wrote, and since then always argued against discrimination. He advocated decriminalising homosexuality and expunging the records of those charged with repealed homosexuality offences. He insisted that same-sex partners get a fair deal on superannuation and other entitlements. He congratulated Rudd and Gillard for removing discrimination against homosexual couples from 80 laws. But he also believed marriage is essentially a heterosexual institution. He developed what is a secular equivalent to the solemnization of matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer.

The BCP says that marriage was ‘ordained for the procreation of children’. Pearson’s translation is that one of the purposes of marriage is ‘to affirm that parenthood is a big, and in most cases the primary, contribution a couple can make, both to their own fulfilment and the public good.’ The BCP says marriage was ‘ordained for a remedy against sin.’ As Pearson translated this, ‘most men are not naturally disposed to be monogamous. One of the purposes of marriage is to bind them to their spouses and children for the long haul.’ The BCP also emphasises the role of love (‘the mutual society, help and comfort in prosperity and adversity’). Pearson takes this for granted.

Pearson brought a clearer mind to marriage than does the sentimentalist-opportunist Shorten. As the more revolutionary Dennis Altman once put it, the trouble with the same-sex advocates is that ‘they are not interested in ideas.’

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