Love and marriage in the time of uncertainty

October 24, 2013


Mark Kenny

Chief political correspondent


Two Lego men decorate the top of Paul McCarthy and Trent Kandler's wedding cake prior to the reception at Martin Bosley's on August 19, 2013 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Marriage equality has been caught in the gears of the political machine for years, as Australia lags behind supposedly more conservative jurisdictions. Photo: Getty Images

The low point in an adoring hour between Julia Gillard and her supporters last month came when a boy bluntly asked, ”How come you didn’t let gay people get married?”

Her subsequent dissembling distinguished itself that evening for its glaring lack of candour. At the very least, same-sex couples were owed a decent explanation as to why a socially progressive atheist prime minister living in a de facto situation had styled herself as the last line of defence for a narrow definition of marriage that was no longer reflective of the society in which it survived.

Using a child’s question to license a childishly illogical response, Gillard reached back to her nascent feminist objections to ”a white dress to symbolise virginity” and to fathers giving away daughters to other men to somehow explain why the institution was simultaneously anachronistic yet needed no reform. Come again?

There was no reference to the socially conservative right-wing unions at the heart of her power base in the ALP. No admission of a secret agreement – express or implied – with the reactionary Christian lobby to hold the line against the moral relativists and godless inner-city progressives. Just more unfathomable obfuscation.


Marriage equality has been caught in the gears of the political machine for years. The great social laboratory, as Australia was once regarded, now lags behind supposedly more conservative jurisdictions.

This week the boutique parliament that is the ACT Legislative Assembly resolved to allow same-sex marriages to take place in the capital.

The Liberals held out, choosing to ignore the will of the overwhelming majority of Australians, particularly the progressive leanings of ACT residents. There was no conscience vote granted them.

The bill passed nine to eight with the support of Labor and the sole Greens MLA, who also happened to cast the Speaker’s decisive vote.

The first weddings will happen in about six weeks.

It is a partial, but nonetheless symbolically important, development. The marriages will be distinct legal instruments from those sealed under the Commonwealth Marriage Act and will not be legally recognised beyond the territory’s jurisdiction.

The local tourism and hospitality sector is now gearing up for a business bonanza fuelled by the pink dollar. If it is anything like the existing wedding market, it will be lucrative indeed, with hetero couples now routinely spending tens of thousands of dollars on lavish ceremonies and all the accoutrements for their big day.

By some estimates, about 1000 couples have already expressed interest in travelling to the ACT to marry.

But the threshold question, before people are metaphorically carried over the threshold, is whether the laws will survive the High Court’s withering eye. And, subject to clearing that hurdle, whether the Abbott government will then seek to legislate the ACT’s laws out of existence.

Gillard had at least allowed her MPs a conscience vote when private member’s bills from the Greens’ Adam Bandt and Labor’s Stephen Jones came on. But even that came about as a face-saving exercise for the then prime minister after Labor’s national conference backed equality but agreed to make the policy non-binding on its MPs.

Once again it was a case of two steps forward and almost as far back again.

While many disparage the push for marriage equality as inherently non-mainstream, Gillard’s inability to convincingly explain her hardline stance did much to erode her credibility – perhaps even among her enemies.

It also offered cover for other union clients in the caucus and for Tony Abbott, to whom the mantle of chief resister has passed.

He has refused to give his MPs a conscience vote on previous occasions and says it will be a matter for the party room.

He hopes it won’t get that far, which is why Attorney-General George Brandis asked ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher to hold off enacting the laws pending the High Court’s deliberation. She refused, arguing that she had promised the reform in the last election and that couples getting married did so with their eyes open. But uncertainty clearly continues to surround marriage equality in Australia.

In what is perhaps a quintessential example of the awkward interface between entrenched institutional power and the personal sphere, Abbott’s own sister, Christine Forster, is among those most eager for reform.

While she hosed down talk of her brother softening his personal view, she said neither would he stand in the way of a change if his colleagues wanted it.

In the end it should be no surprise that couples are prepared to take the risk of the laws being struck out, for what is marriage if not an expression of optimism and, ultimately, of great hope?

Mark Kenny is The Age’s chief political correspondent.

The Sydney Morning Herald

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