Australia’s leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, introduced a bill changing the definition of marriage into Federal Parliament this week. For politically complex reasons, it was only a private member’s bill, even though nearly all of his Labor Party colleagues support same-sex marriage. Because the Government controls the legislative agenda, the bill will probably never be put to a vote.
However, the speech that Mr Shorten delivered as he introduced the bill exposes some of the weaknesses in the gay marriage argument and deserves some comment.
Most of it was marriage equality boilerplate. Reserving marriage to one man and one woman:
Is un-Australian: “How can we call ourselves the land of the fair go if we discriminate against our citizens on the basis of who they are and who they love?” (If I love my sister, may I marry her, please? Better still, both of them!)
Causes gay suicides: “A ‘no’ campaign would be an emotional torment for gay teenagers, and, if one child commits suicide over the plebiscite, then that is one too many.” (Evidence, please! How many committed suicide in Ireland during its referendum campaign? Hint: a number between none and zero.)
Like all boilerplate, these claims are mostly hot air. But Mr Shorten did make two interesting contributions to the debate which deserve more scrutiny.
First, he said that Parliament was fully competent to administer a redefinition of marriage:
In 115 years of our democracy 44 parliaments before us have declared war, negotiated peace, signed trade deals, broken down the White Australia policy, opened our economy, floated our dollar, built universal superannuation, passed world-leading gun control and legislated several changes to the Marriage Act without recourse to plebiscite. And, of course, they have done all of this with no recourse to a non-binding public vote. How can we look Australians in the eye and say that a piece of legislation three pages long—a straightforward change, which a majority of members in both houses support—is too much for us to handle?
These achievements, obviously, are true and admirable. Well done, Parliamentarians! Each and every one of you should get a chocolate frog!
Except that little business of creating the White Australia policy in the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act before you broke it down. You can make mistakes.
Furthermore, you can’t redefine gravity or the value of π. You can’t abolish the crime of murder. You can’t sell people into slavery. You can’t abolish a mother’s obligation to care for her child. These are pre-political realities; they existed before the Australian Constitution, before the Magna Carta, before kings and kingdoms.
Technically, the claim that Parliament has the power to amend the Commonwealth Marriage Act of 1961 is correct. Technically, it would also be possible for Parliament to decree that women could only bear children after purchasing a licence. Technically, according to the legal theory of its absolute sovereignty, Parliament, like King Canute, could decree that the tide must stop. But it cannot decree that a redefined marriage will have all the social advantages of traditional marriage.
If Mr Shorten believes that Parliament can redefine marriage, he must do us the kindness of setting out exactly what Parliament can never redefine.
Second, as a divorced and remarried man with two step-children, Mr Shorten declared that his own experience of bigotry and discrimination gave him special insight into the suffering of LGBTI people:
I live in a blended family. I have step-children, who I love as my own children. Part of the reason Chloe and I chose to remarry is because we wanted a sense of formal equality between our other children and their baby sister. And, of course, from time to time you still hear people talking about the superior moral value of a traditional family. It is a narrowness I have learned to live with.
There you have the strongest argument for gay marriage: we’ve already trashed traditional marriage (“the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”), so why not let gays and lesbians have it? As former Liberal Senator Amanda Vanstone once said, “Marriage long ago stopped being to the exclusion of all others and for life. If we don’t care about those two elements being disregarded by so many, why should we care about the ‘between a man and a woman’ part?”
The fact of the matter is that the traditional family is superior. Forget about moralizing: focus on psychological welfare, standards of living, educational attainments, and abuse statistics. On every count, statistics show that children are better off if they are raised by their biological parents in an intact family unit.
Yes, there are different models of modern marriage. Traditional marriage is the Premium version. Only qualified people can use it and it’s hard yakka — but it works. What Mr Shorten is selling is the Fremium version. It’s free; it’s open to everyone — but it’s buggy, doesn’t work, and is easily hacked.
Which do Australians really want?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.