Charisma, vision, pluck. These, increasingly, are the qualities voters demand of an individual Western leader as our faith in traditional forms of political organisation falls apart. These are not qualities that have ever been evident in any speech, policy or gesture by the Leader of the Opposition. So, Bill Shorten should be very glad of the government’s failure to permit a conscience vote on same-sex marriage last night. The Coalition’s incapacity to act on the matter now makes the guy look almost strong-willed. I mean, how could you not when your opponent squirms out of action and instead offers the electorate the anticlimactic bother of a non-compulsory, non-binding survey conducted by post?
The votes, in any case, are in. For several years and by several survey methods, Australians have responded with overwhelming support for same-sex marriage. This is not, in my view, largely a response to the greeting card work of GetUp and Marriage Equality, whose wholesome depictions of loving same-sex couples with good dental work appeal only to this cranky nation’s small proportion of romantics. Rather, it is down to a number of factors, including nationalism. We have the world’s fifth-most-traded currency, yet cannot claim to equal the cultural values of Slovakia and Greenland!
Even in media aimed at Millennials, a demographic reportedly more invested in questions of personal than national identity, this tendency is clear. The youthful panel of The Project cheered as a visiting US relic declared that the national inaction on same-sex marriage was “below” us and that it “makes you look bad”. The publication Junkee was one of several local outlets to pronounce Australia “More Backwards Than Alabama“. For an age range apparently devout in its disposal of intolerance, such sneering comparison with a region well-known for its poverty and illiteracy rates seemed odd.
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But same-sex marriage has become an odd sort of issue for many Australians. There are those affianced same-sex couples to whom, of course, it remains straightforward. Then, there are those simple zealots who feel it is their business to defend a rather partial reading of testaments, old and new. For the majority who support the change, whether same- or opposite-sex attracted, things are, however, more complicated. The passage of this legislation means more to people than tolerance, and even more than the competitive nationalistic tolerance as was plain in the Junkee headline.
Beyond the need to see ourselves as truly liberal global players, support for same-sex marriage is derived here, as it has been in many parts of the world, from a nostalgic longing for the power of marriage itself. That power has, to state the obvious, been in steady decline.
It was in 1975 in Australia that no-fault divorce was established as legal principle. It was in 2008 that unmarried opposite and same-sex couples were afforded rights identical in law to those of married couples. States and territories are responsible for adoption legislation, and this is now available to same-sex parents in all jurisdictions, save for the NT. The dissolution of marriage is now commonplace and vows that reference “forever” are as welcome at weddings as old-fashioned pots and pans instead of gifts of disposable cash. We don’t expect these things to last. All of which is to say, culturally and legally, marriage now confers no special benefit. A special magic can be briefly returned to it, however, if it is desired by a new class of persons. Most especially a class known, however erroneously, for its fashion-forward tendency.
There is widespread hope that this gesture of inclusion will restore life to a dying institution — a bit like the naive belief that equal representation by women will transform Parliament. There is the sheer embarrassment of being a G20 nation behind the liberal times. Then, I think, there is just an overwhelming impatience. Which I share. For the sake of quality flatware, can we please make this minor legislative tweak so that (a) people will shut up about it, and (b) more genuine problems have half a chance of address.
Bill Shorten, however, can afford to be very patient. His support for same-sex marriage, and all the cultural and competitive hopes it represents, is one of the very few things that marks his difference from Turnbull. For all his referencing of “inequality”, the leader is proposing little to topple the overwhelming private debt that has largely created it. Despite his status as Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, his contributions to talk on genuine treaty have been scant. His party’s bullshit on “people smuggling” is as disingenuous as the government’s. The famous “inch” once said to divide one centrist party from another has narrowed and we are now doomed to survive within less than a millimetre of policy difference.
The eventual passage into law of same-sex marriage will, of course, bring a little happiness to a few. It will bring none to the ALP. When the matter is done, dusted and as supremely ordinary as opposite-sex marriage, Shorten’s Labor will be without its touchstone.