A good place to understand what’s at stake in Parliament’s same sex-marriage fiasco is this video of B.A. Santamaria.
Santamaria, the leader of the anti-communist National Civic Council, is enjoying a moment in the sun right now, courtesy of a biography by one of his acolytes, the professional filing cabinet Gerard Henderson.
People of a certain age might remember how Santamaria benefited from the patronage of Sir Frank Packer, who allocated free airtime on Channel Nine so a generation of kids tuning in for the wrestling first had to endure Santa’s little homilies on Point of View.
In this episode, Santamaria, on a media platform given to him for political propaganda, rails against the use of the media as a platform for political propaganda. More exactly, he attacks the ABC.
One recalls Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (For extra deja vu, wait for the denunciation of David Marr at about the five-minute mark).
Yet what jumps out most from this peculiar time capsule is Santamaria’s denunciation of the ABC’s attitude to homosexuality — or, as he puts it, with pursed-lip disapproval, “aberrant sexual practices”.
No beating about the bush here — no anecdotes about Italian fashion designers or folksy tales about how “some of my best friends …”, etc. Instead, Santamaria declares, with another little moue of distaste, that the broadcaster’s support for the same-sex partners of its staff amounts to “subsidies for sodomy”.
Compare that to, say, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison on the ABC’s 7.30 last night.
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Morrison’s a devout Pentecostal and a stalwart opponent of nuptials for teh geys. But rather than lecturing the national broadcaster about sexual aberrance, he stressed the necessity for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, on the basis that politicians should not impose their views on the population.
“Our view is,” he told Leigh Sales, “that the Australian people should decide [the fate of same-sex marriage], not politicians, not judges, but the people of Australia.”
In other words, Morrison not only chose not to assert the immorality of same-sex marriage, he also implied that it would be wrong for parliamentarians to articulate any position on the issue at all.
The shift from Santamaria’s confident universalism to Morrison’s shame-faced relativism is really quite remarkable — but it’s not difficult to understand. From the vantage point of 2015, Santamaria comes across not as a straight-talking champion of the silent majority, but as a complete weirdo — less moral compass than homophobic old creep.
In 1981, the US Republican strategist Lee Atwater gave a candid interview in which he explained his party’s “southern strategy”: that is, its attempt to win white voters from the Democrats in the former slave states via coded racial appeals. “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger’.” he explained. “By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”
Substitute “sodomite” for “nigger” and “religious freedom” for “states’ rights”, and you get some sense of where the Liberals are at, though not as the result of a conscious strategy so much as an ever more ragged attempt to navigate between the lingering homophobia of their activist base and the increasing sexual liberalism of the Australian population.
Yet the Point of View clip also demonstrates another key difference between politics today and politics 30 years ago.
Even from this segment, you get a sense of Santamaria’s political confidence, the sense of conviction that led him to take on the entire labour movement with his anti-communist crusade.
By contrast, the train wreck over same-sex marriage reveals the strange paralysis that’s gripped parliamentary politics, with both parties seemingly incapable of delivering even a seemingly inevitable and overwhelmingly popular reform. Abbott’s proposed plebiscite provides the most striking illustration — essentially, the Liberals want the public to resolve the Coalition’s intractable internal disputes — but Labor’s shenanigans over same-sex marriage since 2004 (when it voted with John Howard to define marriage as heterosexual) reflect a similar dynamic.
Santa might have been skin-crawlingly creepy, but he knew what he stood for and he was prepared to fight for it. And that now seems as anachronistic as his sexual politics.