There is an iconic piece of 1960s TV footage from the civil rights movement in America, where a burley police officer raises his baton threateningly over the head of an anti-segregation campaigner in Selma, Alabama, when the protester looks the cop right in the eyes and says: “Go ahead and hit me, the whole world is watching.”

And so it is that in Sydney this Saturday, the policy police in the ALP will be confronted with the civil rights movement of the new century: equality for gays and lesbians.

Having created this segregation when it joined with John Howard in 2004 to stop gays from getting married, Labor is now confronted with the stark contrast between its current policy position and the views of the electorate, which have changed hugely in seven years.

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Kevin Rudd reached out to the religious right in 2007 by affirming this pact with prejudice, and Julia Gillard re-affirmed it in 2010 to secure her hold on the Lodge.

Since 2004 the Labor Party has ignored this issue, treated it as a low priority, scuttled its progress and wished it would all just go away. Now it finds itself swamped by the issue with such intensity, even the prime minister herself is in the humiliating 11th-hour position of personally phoning delegates to try and shore up the numbers to stop equality happening on Saturday.

Labor has utterly failed to comprehend that this is not a Left issue, an inner-city concern or a Greens agenda. This issue is now main stream and cuts right across political parties, age, gender and electorates. By naively thinking that gays are just a small percentage of the community (true enough), it failed to appreciate that the neighbours of same-s-x couples, their friends and families also care deeply about equal rights. This isn’t about the gay lobby; it’s about your brother, your daughter, your cousin, your friend, your co-worker. It’s about Australia and fairness. It’s about our future as a country and how we define ourselves as a nation.

As campaigners get tantalisingly close to the prospect of this reform actually becoming reality, opponents of equality are becoming more shrill, desperate and dishonest. And as with this debate in the US, the pretence of objectivity normally used by opponents of reform is giving way to expose the religious bigotry that really underlies their position.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the opinions and editorials increasingly pouring out The Australian.  For whatever reason, News Limited has been waging war against gay marriage for a few years. There have been seemingly endless columns and negative references from regular contributors such as Miranda Devine, Christopher Pearson, Janet Albrechtsen and Greg Sheridan, while in past few days  we’ve heard (again) from Angela Shanahan (fear mongering about slippery slopes, polygamy and freedom of speech), Dennis Shanahan (exasperated that the ALP is taking up this “non-issue”), and senior editor Paul Kelly (who tried to play it down, muddy the waters with unrelated parenting issues and made fictitious claims about threats to religious freedom).

Without a hint of irony, The Australian would have us believe that same-s-x marriage is a very low priority for a tiny percentage of the population and a major distraction in the nation’s body politic. Despite this, it feels the need to rail against the topic almost every week, with yet another column or editorial on this “non-topic”, which is in fact convulsing around the globe and supported by 60% of voters.

In reality, these are not “opinions” published in The Australian; these are orders being barked to the Catholics in the Labor Party. News Limited is trying to wag the dog, but even here it seems to be failing, such is the momentum behind this reform. For those at The Australian who truly believe their anti-gay rhetoric, it must be utterly bewildering to see what’s really happening out in the electorate. I can only encourage them to get out more.

While Gillard is pressing hard for a conscience vote, in truth there is no such thing. It’s a Catholic vote. It’s a mechanism in the Labor Party to allow those who refuse to separate their personal religious beliefs from their public obligations to get away with it. It’s an escape clause. Just as the Vatican holds its unique and contentious seat on the United Nations, so too it holds a place in Labor’s federal caucus, represented by the Shoppies Union.

And therein lies the hypocrisy from those who oppose equal marriage. Namely, the minority group pushing this issue on the electorate are not the H-O-M-O-S-E-X-U-A-L-S. It’s the reactionary Catholics and other fringe church groups, all of whom say they will vote for Gillard’s Labor if it maintains the ban on gay marriage, but who in fact won’t do so in a pink fit and never have.

The vast majority of Labor branches, Labor delegates, Labor voters and Labor members support marriage equality. A Catholic minority in their party does not. And yet on that basis, Gillard is seeking to allow a “conscience vote” such that this minority position will destroy the reform sought by a majority.

Ultimately, this issue isn’t about gay marriage, it’s about the separation between church and state. It’s about whether we live in a secular society under civil law, or a theocratic society under biblical law. This is why it’s an issue. A huge issue. Massive.

Last week , the activist group GetUp! released a beautiful and short film on YouTube to help this campaign. The result has been phenomenal. Within 48 hours it was the most-watched GetUp! advert of all time and the fastest trending clip on YouTube, not just in Australia but around the world. It went viral with amazing speed, already notching up more than 2 million hits and raising more than $60,000 in donations. It has drawn the attention of the world to this weekend’s conference with delegates now being lobbied by everyone from Human Rights Watch to Irish Labour MPs and Amnesty International.

The movingvideo cuts through all the crap and speaks directly to the heart. It demolishes all the arguments against equal marriage with a simple message about love, life, family and freedom. The message is so universal, no words are spoken. So astonishing is this message of hope emanating from the land Down Under, that internationally all eyes will now be on the Labor conference this weekend at this turning point in our history.

So, as Labor party delegates face this issue on Saturday, confronted with the opportunity to delay or defeat an end to this segregation, I say: “Go ahead, the whole world is watching.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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