When the current self-appointed standard-bearer for the conservative cause Eric Abetz came into Parliament in 1994, he set his sights on legislation the then-Labor government was looking to implement to override the Tasmanian Liberal government’s refusal to decriminalise homosexuality. It passed, but before that happened, Abetz was there to put out a press release stating: “Federalism perverted to allow sodomy and incest”. 

“In this, the international year of the family, Labor is telling Tasmanian families that their value system is wrong.”

What was an argument against decriminalising homosexuality was couched in terms of the federal government overriding states’ rights, but the intention was clear. In 1997, Abetz was back again, arguing against equalising age of consent laws because homosexuality should be deterred at all costs.

“I believe that homosexuality is an undesirable activity. It is, I submit, an appropriate aim of the criminal law to encourage young persons not to engage in such activity especially in that phase of their life where young people are developing,” he said.

“I do not know how many people believe that it is a desirable outcome for young people to engage in homosexual activities … To have an age of consent of 16 years, especially for young men, I believe, leaves them too vulnerable to predatory males. It is for this reason that the policy position of the Model Criminal Code in dealing with heterosexual and homosexual activities is misplaced. The quality of the two acts, I submit, are substantially different.”

It was couched in terms of child protection but was obviously thinly veiled homophobia.

Now, as gay rights are much more accepted in Australia broadly, and Abetz is entering the twilight of his career, the conservative senator’s language has changed, and softened. In an interview with Sky News this week, Abetz said that what people want to do was a matter for them. But he was still there to argue that more should be said about people in same-sex relationships who then go on to be in heterosexual relationships.

[Pansexual’s labyrinth: Abetz lost in a bewildering maze of queer theory]

For the subject matter Abetz was brought on to discuss — the latest corporate bid for pink dollars in rings developed by Airbnb and others with a tiny gap to denote the lack of marriage equality — he could barely muster an argument against it except to suggest Christians opposed to marriage equality might feel “uncomfortable” if the rings were offered to staff and suggesting the “PC” campaigning would lead to higher costs for Telstra or other pro-equality customers.

Marriage Alliance’s Sophie York (who might still be a plant by pro-marriage equality people) made an even more ridiculous argument that in addition to “bullying” anti-gay workers, the gap in the ring might represent an OH&S issue in the workplace.

These are the arguments those opposed to marriage equality are left with. If you have followed the marriage equality debate since its inception, you will notice that we are long past the days of most people quoting Bible verses about sodomy and fire and brimstone. The fact that Eric Abetz’s brief dalliance in the language of sexual fluidity (but gender fluidity doesn’t exist in Abetz’s world, thankyouverymuch) was greeted with much mockery suggests that the debate has moved on.

The Australian Christian Lobby is now forced to complain about the “rainbow agenda” of everything but marriage — surrogacy, freedom of speech and Safe Schools — all of which have nothing to do with marriage equality.

The ACL and Marriage Alliance complain about the Coopers boycott resulting in the company putting a statement on the record about being supportive about marriage equality, but they both signed up to the Cape Town Declaration last year — an initiative of the right-wing National Organisation of Marriage — which includes a call to boycott businesses supportive of marriage equality:

“We rededicate ourselves to honoring, restoring, and protecting these truths. We commit, where possible, to refuse to deal with corporations that deny them.”

[Nine things we learned in Senate estimates, including Abetz declaring war]

The ACL and Marriage Alliance were also fully supportive of the Catholic Church bullying Telstra into not promoting marriage equality in exchange for its business — until Telstra backflipped. Why no outrage about all this bullying? It’s because they will not win. They could boycott every business calling for marriage equality, but what phones would they use? What internet service provider would they use? Where would they stay on holidays? Which airline would they fly?

So they stick to symbolism. Rings, rainbow flags, departments marching in Mardi Gras. So affronted by the acceptance of LGBTI people, we are at the point now where even visibility of same-sex relationships leads to complaints from the conservatives of people feeling bullied. The Australian this week has a piece complaining about a Magnum ad depicting a lesbian wedding, and the Australian Christian Lobby targeted the Volley shoes company for an ad depicting a scantily clad same-sex couple. It has a long history of opposing any ads with gay couples showing any sort of intimacy. Because visibility brings acceptance, and they lose.

There is also no fight too minor for them, now. The Australian along with the ACL have been running a campaign on a couple of LGBTI activists on Twitter directing tweets at certain brands associated with people working for the Australian Christian Lobby. The national broadsheet devoted several front pages of its agenda-setting news coverage just two people on Twitter tweeting at a few brands as reprehensible bullies trying to silence others. The big red EXCLUSIVE marks every article simply because no one else is engaging in their culture war.

For Abetz, it must be about setting a legacy. His frequency and apparent enthusiasm to engage in these debates as a backbencher can only mean he wants to be remembered as a Christian warrior in the dying days of religious freedom. For most, however, he’ll be remembered as the guy who complained about rainbow flags and wanted more reporting on gay people turning straight.

Peter Fray

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