Several hundred Christians gathered in Parliament House this morning, joining such luminaries as Fred Nile for “National Marriage Day”, an event organised by the National Marriage Coalition. The Coalition is an amalgam of groups such as the Australian Family Association, the Australian Christian Lobby and the Fatherhood Foundation, led by Warwick Marsh, who was sacked as Men’s Health Ambassador in November last year after a Crikey reader tipped us off to his outspoken views on gays and lesbians.

Two gay activitists were thrown out of the Great Hall as a new version of the booklet 21 Reasons Why Marriage Matters, by the National Marriage Coalition, was launched. The original version was launched at the National Marriage Forum, also held in Parliament House, in 2004.

Except, “original version” isn’t exactly correct. 21 Reasons Why Marriage Matters wasn’t an entirely original document. The document thanked David Blankenhorn at the Institute for American Values “for permission to reproduce research material and to Bill Muhlenberg for Australian research documentation for the Australian edition.” A similar acknowledgement is in the version released today.

21 Reasons Why Marriage Matters doesn’t just use “research material” from the Institute for American Values; it copies the entirety of an American document called Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-one conclusions from the social sciences, published in 2002.

Apart from a short preface on the National Marriage Coalition, the Australian document was simply the US document with some additional “research” inserted. It even lists the same authors as the American document, with the addition of Bill Muehlenberg, former Family Association head and now “Culturewatch” blogger with a steady line in extreme right-wing views on such miscreants as feminists, Muslims and homos-xuals.

In an attempt to lend scholarly credibility to its arguments about the sanctity of marriage, the American document draws extensively on relatively recent published, and mostly peer-reviewed, research. Muehlenberg’s tacked-on “research” is primarily a collection of press clippings from the mid-1990s. One footnote draws on a reference to a Sunday Telegraph article mentioned in a Reader’s Digest article in 1993.

When you eventually track down some of the original studies mentioned, all is not what it seems. A 1997 Western Australian survey used to argue that children of sole parent families were nearly twice as likely as children of couples to perform poorly at school gets a vague reference to an Age article in 2000; if you check the actual survey you find the authors warning that caution needs to be exercised in interpreting the data due to the link between economic disadvantage and academic performance. The study also does not distinguish between married and unmarried couples.

One reference is so old and vague — an “Australian study” mentioned in an Age article from 15 years ago — as to be useless. That was for the claim that people who had remarried had a 40% higher chance of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. There’s no evidence of any such figure; recent studies from both the US and UK have suggested that the stress of marital breakdown causes a 20% increase in chronic diseases, but it’s about half that for people who remarry.

In other sections, they’ve simply lumped Australia into the United States. National studies in the US are referred to as though they’re Australian studies. The American original states “As a group, cohabitors in the United States more closely resemble singles than married people.” The local version says “As a group, cohabitors in the United States and Australia more closely resemble singles than married people.” In some places references to the US are omitted; in others they’re left in, to great confusion. “Unmarried mothers are more likely to be young, black, less educated and poor than are married mothers,” the Australian versions say. Is that a reference to indigenous mothers?

Throughout, the assumption is made that US studies apply to Australia. Occasionally, this becomes inconvenient. “Married people live longer than do otherwise similar people who are single or divorced,” the Australian version says, copying the US version. Problematically, Muehlenberg has added ABS data showing, um, “never-married women live slightly longer than married women.” The “slightly” is 4.1 years.

The new version — which like the old has been sponsored by Bicycling Australia and associated publications — retains nearly all of the text of the “original” and adds some more glossy wedding photos and a couple of extra footnotes, but retains the ancient press article-based approach to scholarship.

But this wasn’t the only document to bear a curiously strong correlation with an American publication.

In 2000, the Institute for American Values produced The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles, an extended rant against de facto couples and divorce. In 2007, at an event in — you guessed it — Parliament House, the National Marriage Coalition launchedMarriage Manifesto: Strength and Support for Australian Marriages. This time there was no reference to US research. Instead, in the Acknowledgements at the back, the Coalition said: “We acknowledge the work of The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles as part of the inspiration for this document.” According to the document, “the initial draft of the Marriage Manifesto was presented to the National Strategic mini-summit on Marriage, Family and Fatherhood held at Parliament House Canberra on Friday 10 August 2007. After much consultation with many contributors, it was officially released …”

In an astonishing coincidence, it appears those contributors came up with the same wording as much of the US original, which looks as though it has been cut-and-pasted into the Australian version, or paraphrased and reworked. Similar inspiration must have struck the British right-wing group Civitas, which produced its own version of the 21 Reasons document with no attribution to the US original.

Perhaps it was divine inspiration.

Peter Fray

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