Aboriginal elders Pepai Carroll (left) and Yuminia Ken with the Uluru Bark Petition against same-sex marriage in Parliament House

Fifty years ago, Australian civil rights activists Charles Perkins and Joyce Clague were fighting a heroic battle to achieve equal rights for indigenous Australians.

These fearless freedom fighters led the campaign to have indigenous Australians recognised in the national census — a goal that was achieved with the 1967 referendum on indigenous rights.

Perkins and Clague were not only eloquent orators; they were fighting for a cause that was genuinely one of the biggest social justice challenges of their time.

Their words gave expression to basic egalitarian ideals that were gaining traction in democracies across the world.

The civil rights movement of our own time is remarkably different. Same-sex marriage — not the decaying social infrastructure in indigenous communities, nor “closing the gap”, but same-sex marriage — has dominated the 2017 media cycle, and the leaders of the Yes campaign are desperately trying to convince the nation to abandon a heteronormative conception of marriage (or, at least, to allow a change in the legal definition of marriage).

Ironically, some of the most prominent advocates for change are quintessential representatives of the white establishment. Among the champions of the movement are Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, an Irish-born multi-millionaire, the caucasian US rapper Macklemore, Xavier College alumnus Bill Shorten, and an army of main-line Protestant pastors.

The Waspish character of the marriage equality movement might be seen as mere “quirk” of the otherwise countercultural LGBTQI coalition.

But I want to suggest there is a slightly more pernicious power at work, namely, an indirect suppression of the views of ethnic and cultural minorities. The real minorities in Australia — migrant communities, religious minorities, and indigenous Australians — are being subtlety treated as culturally “backward” and having their voices ignored by their supposed advocates in the public domain — the Left.

Despite the media grandstanding of gay and transgender members of the indigenous community, scores of Aboriginal elders have spoken out against same-sex marriage, claiming it is fundamentally opposed to indigenous community praxis.

Speaking to AAP recently, Peter Walker, an Aboriginal elder from NSW, said that “the sacred and traditional union between man and woman is deeply part of our ancient and continuing culture across all of our communities”.

In 2015, Walker and dozens of elders from the indigenous community presented a bark petition (above) backed by more than 46 indigenous groups and clans that urged members of federal parliament to oppose same-sex marriage.

Another elder (a member of the Yolngu community who wishes to remain unidentified) told me over the phone that same-sex marriage is a “no-goer” in traditional Aboriginal communities: “Our way of life, our own perception of marriage will be damaged by a change to the definition of marriage.”

Yet media coverage has focused entirely on the perspectives of indigenous Australians who have been enculturated into white, postmodern, politically correct culture — such as the fringe group The Tiwi Island Sistagirls.

The establishment has glibly dismissed what is probably the majority indigenous viewpoint as Christian-influenced bigotry — a claim that, in the words of indigenous former senator Joanna Lindgren, is “both ignorant and patronising”.

The reality is that the denizens of the Left, usually so quick to celebrate and defend indigenous cultural norms, have bastardised their perspectives on the issue into a media narrative palatable for an inner-city audience.

In 1967 we voted to include indigenous people in the census; yet in 2017, it’s proved politically expedient to cut their voice out of public discourse.

Asian migrants are also among some of the strongest opponents of same-sex marriage in Australia. UTS sociologist and ethics affairs expert Andrew Jakubowicz predicts that at least 60 per cent of Australians with Asian heritage will vote No in the survey.

Among those with strong religious conviction, the No vote will be significantly higher. The Sydney Chinese Christian Churches Association recently wrote to 50 of its members churches telling pastors to use their Sunday sermons to preach against gay marriage.

Yet rather than canvassing opinions in the Asian community on same-sex marriage, the media focus has been on pillorying Asian advocates for traditional marriage, such as Chinese GP Pansy Lai.

A petition was posted on the Get-Up funded website CommunityRun to have Lai’s medical registration reviewed after she appeared on a Coalition for Marriage advert; the petition was taken down after dozens of complaints.

Israel Folou, a devout Christian of Tongan descent, controversially voiced his opposition to same-sex marriage on Twitter last month, only to be summarily chastised by Twitterati and slammed by several sports journalists.

Rather than acknowledging alternative cultural perspectives, the establishment perspective is that minorities need to “unlearn” their religious and cultural prejudices.

Indeed, the University of Sydney — the place of departure for Charles Perkins famous 1965 “Freedom Bus” — has recently rolled out its so-called “unlearn” curriculum. Students are being encouraged to abandon “established” and “accepted” beliefs — such as the heteronormative view that marriage is between and man and a woman.

The campaign for same-sex marriage is underpinned by a neo-enlightenment narrative according to which marriage equality is the inevitable outcome of liberal democratic discourse. Yet there’s a risk that we lapse from this grandiose vision into a downright prejudicial exercise of white male (or white female) privilege.

A cynic might argue that the new white establishment have consciously manipulated the discourse, and turned the real disenfranchised voices in society into the 21st century’s “White Man’s Burden”.

Perhaps this is hyperbolic. And sure, we need to fight against prejudice, and this includes prejudice against homosexuals — this is a genuine civil rights cause.

But the claim made by ethnic and religious minorities and the indigenous community is that we don’t need to redefine marriage to end prejudice against LGBTQI members of society. And this deserves a better hearing.

The great irony of the same-sex marriage postal ballot is that, 50 years on from referendum on indigenous rights, a No vote to “marriage equality” is starting to look like Yes vote for minority rights.

Xavier Symons is a Research Associate at the Institute for Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame Australia and deputy editor of BioEdge, also published by New Media Foundation. This article was originally published in the Daily Telegraph. 

Xavier Symons

Xavier Symons is a bioethicist at the University of Notre Dame and a 2020 Fulbright Future Postdoctoral Scholar.