Picture yourself at home and watching television in late 2016. Your favourite program is interrupted by a news bulletin. A breathless reporter announces: “We can now call the final tally in the plebiscite to change the Marriage Act – Australians have voted by a clear majority to allow people of the same sex to marry”. The camera scans across a multitude of jubilant people, hugging, kissing, screaming, dancing, amidst a sea of rainbow flags and banners declaring “All You Need Is Love”, “All Love Is Equal”, “It’s time for Marriage Equality”. A microphone is pointed at an excited reveler who says “this changes everything, Australia will never be the same again”.
How would you feel? If this scene makes you uneasy, brace yourself. It may be drawing closer. In a recent interview, Attorney-General George Brandis said the same-sex marriage (SSM) plebiscite will come hard on the heels of the next election, and that could mean this year.
Brandis told reporters he has rethought the subject and, “after reflection”, no longer opposes the change. Perhaps this vindicates the tactics of those traditionalist MPs who engineered the flick to a plebiscite. On questions surrounding sexual identity, our politicians are starting to look like a herd of spooked cattle.
On the other hand, Brandis also said he believes the plebiscite will be carried, which no doubt figured in his “reflection”. In this he is expressing the conventional wisdom around media and political circles. What if Brandis and the conventional wisdom are right? Many SSM opponents would argue there is nothing to lose in forcing a plebiscite. Since more MPs are drifting over to the other side, marriage reform appears inevitable if left to a parliamentary vote. A plebiscite offers at least some hope of keeping the status quo, in that a vigorous “no” campaign will expose the public to a range of arguments they haven’t considered.
What has passed for debate so far is a sham. Using their preponderant media power, the SSM lobby and broader Left have suppressed the contra case with jackboot tactics. They have shrunk, trivialised and obscured the issues at stake. A contrasting approach came, ironically, from Labor’s Joe Bullock, who recently resigned his Senate seat in protest at the ALP’s pro-SSM position. Bullock told senators,“homosexual marriage [is] a question which I regard as having fundamental significance to the future shape of our society”. He is right, even if a number of writers have received less attention for saying the same thing.
It’s often said that the impacts of SSM are largely confined to the gay community (and other groups represented by the weird acronym LGBTQI). But amending the definition of marriage will send cultural messages reverberating across society. One message is that it makes no difference if children are raised by their two progenitors (allowing for the fact that it isn’t possible in every case). This weakens the once valued link between procreation and parenthood, taking it to breaking point. Another message is that fatherhood and motherhood have no distinctive characteristics, and can be replaced by some generic concept of co-parenthood. That such values are damaging to children is consistent with a body of research, particularly children born into less affluent conditions.
These messages hasten our transition from a parent-society to a nanny-state, since failures in family formation attract rising levels of bureaucratic intervention. Forced to abandon their old dream of nationalising the instruments of economic life, the Left have turned their sights on nationalising aspects of domestic life. As Bullock and others suggest, the consequences for the economic and cultural shape of our society are far-reaching. And it’s being done to meet the demands of a group who make up one percent or less of all Australian couples. Judged purely as social policy, it’s irrational and reckless.
Whether this can be impressed on enough of the public by plebiscite day, however, is uncertain at best. After decades of media conditioning backed up by the omnipresence of gay themes in popular culture – just check the latest crop of movies and television shows – many Australians see SSM in terms of a fair go. Unlike a referendum under section 128 of the Commonwealth Constitution, which stipulates a majority of voters in a majority of states, the outcome will be decided by a bare national majority. To a large extent, in other words, it will be decided in metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne.
For traditionalists, the plebiscite is a high stakes gamble. Any calculation on the part of those who engineered it that there is nothing to lose, or it doesn’t matter, if SSM comes via a parliamentary vote or via a popular vote (followed by a parliamentary vote) may be wrong.
A people’s vote in favour of SSM will be an immense propaganda coup for the Left. They will call it a watershed in Australian social history. They will claim a popular mandate, a green-light, for the whole sexual diversity agenda, including the next phase of activism bearing on school curricula and anti-discrimination law. They will say the country consigned its Judeo-Christian heritage to history and marched into a bright progressive future. Expect to hear such claims at high rotation in the wake of a yes vote. It won’t matter much that the assertions are false. Most of the people voting for SSM will have done so for no larger social or cultural reason. It’s just that, as things now stand, the Left have enough media reach to engrave their spin on the public consciousness.
The propaganda dividends from a simple parliamentary vote would be substantial, but far more restricted in scope. After all it would be the work of politicians, more easily limited to its own terms as a legislative amendment for a specific purpose.
The MPs who conceived the plebiscite were well-intentioned and their opposition to SSM is sound. If the plebiscite fails, well and good. But if it carries, the Left will have acquired a big new club with which to bash the defenders of religious liberty, freedom of speech and parental authority. This could be the worst defeat for a conservative vision of Australia since Whitlam entered The Lodge.