The Age / MelbourneThe
past
few weeks have seen a veritable rainbow flurry of activity
around the issue of
same-sex marriage in Australia. As promised prior to his recent
election, Adam
Bandt – the first member of Australia’s Legislative Assembly to
hail from the
hard-left, environmentalist Greens party – wasted no time in
introducing a
motion on the theme of marriage equality, as the Greens continue
their push to
have gay marriage recognised under Australian law

Bandt’s
motion itself was strangely toothless, simply directing MPs to
gauge
constituents’ views on same-sex marriage, and to report back to
parliament. As
has been pointed out by various prominent commentators, this
amounts to no more
than directing politicians to do their ordinary job of
representing
constituents.

Nevertheless
the issue has once again consumed headlines and parliamentary
sitting time, and
has exposed a deep rift within the governing Labor party.
Unfortunately, amidst
all of the overblown media hoopla – including interjections from
one of
Australia’s most famous gay exports, actress Portia DeGeneres
(nee De Rossi) –
the quality of the debate has at times been less than robust.

Such was
certainly the view of same-sex rights campaigner Professor
Kerryn Phelps, who
authored an
opinion
piece
arguing that the case put forward by defenders of
traditional
marriage is devoid of substance. To some
extent, Professor Phelps is right: too many opponents of
same-sex marriage seem
to think that mere assertion is sufficient: “marriage is between
a man and a
woman because that’s just how it is”. However a
closer inspection of the case for same-sex marriage reveals it
to be equally
lacking in intellectual rigour.

Indeed,
although the human-rights based arguments of the likes of
Professor Phelps are
neat, and on the surface, quite convincing, I’m not convinced.
To the contrary,
when I hear activists passionately arguing in favour of same-sex
marriage, I
feel like I’ve walked in on a conversation half way through. Or rather,
it’s like starting a logical syllogism from the middle, without
bothering to
test the premises. In the same-sex marriage debate, everyone
seems to assume that marriage is somehow valuable,
but no one in the same-sex marriage camp is bothering to explain
why.

We need to
go back to the beginning. Before you start telling me that
refusing to
recognise same-sex marriage is a breach of human rights, you
need to explain
what you understand marriage to be, and why you think it’s a
good idea in the
first place. You need to explain what the key characteristics of
marriage are
(or should be), and why each of those characteristics is
essential. You need to
explain why you think it is appropriate that marriage should
form part of our
legal framework at all. 

In short,
you need to justify – from scratch – this strange public
institution by which
you would have two persons publicly promise to remain
exclusively faithful to
one another for their entire lives, for better or for worse. In any
other context, such an all-encompassing promise would be
regarded with
suspicion, incredulity, even cynicism. In this debate, we can’t
keep ignoring
the proverbial pink elephant in the room.

From a secular point of view, marriage is
looking
decidedly dishevelled. Lifelong? Not in the age of the pre-nup.
Exclusive? Er,
no; apparently having an affair can be good for you and your
spouse. For better
or worse? Thanks, but an e-divorce sounds more convenient. Under such
strain, there seems to be a stronger case for giving marriage
the flick, rather
than expanding its scope. Even more
perplexing is the fact that the push for same-sex marriage draws
heavily on the
efforts of the socialist left. Reporting on a same-sex marriage
rally in August
last year, Melbourne’s daily broadsheet The Age relates:

Radical Women spokeswoman Alison
Thorne told the Melbourne rally that
marriage was an oppressive institution designed to condemn women
to lives of
slavery, but same-sex couples should nevertheless be equally
entitled to it (August 2, 2009).

At any
rally of this kind, you can rest assured that groups like
Radical Women and the
Socialist Alliance will be front and centre. And yet marriage
(as we know it)
has no place in the socialist worldview. Our good friend Mr Marx
saw fit to
stick the boot into marriage right there in his Communist
Manifesto. Things
haven’t changed.

According
to the socialist left, marriage is a fundamental element of the
capitalist,
patriarchal hegemony, and must therefore be abolished. So why is
the socialist
left pushing for the enlargement of an institution to which it
has always been
vehemently opposed? It doesn’t add up.

Or perhaps
it does. See, the expansion of marriage begins with same-sex
couples, but it
doesn’t end there. After all, why include only couples, but continue to
discriminate
against intimate groups of three or four or ten or more? Why
exclude
non-exclusive relationships? Why discriminate against
impermanent
relationships? Are the polyamorous less human than their
monogamous
counterparts? No? Better include them too, then.

Following
the logic of the marriage equality lobby, marriage is bound to
become so
all-inclusive that it loses all meaning. What’s the point? The
institution
disappears in a puff of indifference. (And here we begin to see
the canny
strategy of the socialist left).

Meanwhile
no one is talking about why marriage exists as a public, legal
institution in
the first place. No one is asking why the state cares whether
two people make
the highly suspect promise of remaining exclusively faithful to
one another for
better or worse,
until one of them dies.

Dr Phelps
argues that marriage “is about the right to have your
relationship legally
recognised, your next of kin status respected in a medical
emergency, your
children’s inheritance rights protected.” But are these rights
really what’s at
stake here? Can’t they already be quite easily protected through
other legal
avenues?

From the
perspective of traditional marriage, the legal institution is
not a matter of
individual rights. It is simply the means by which a community recognises that, in the
context of one
particularly unique kind of human relationship, lifelong,
exclusive fidelity
stands to benefit the community itself

Which kind
of relationship? The conjugal relationship between a man and a
woman. In the
colourful history of our species, only this kind of relationship
has had the
inherent characteristic of producing offspring. Meanwhile, over
time, many
communities all over the world have noticed that there are
significant benefits
for children, and for the community at large, when the
participants of such a
relationship remain exclusively faithful to one another.

The legal
institution has nothing to do with the rights or dignity of the
individuals
involved. To put it crudely, the legal institution of marriage
is about
recognising the social utility of permanence in heterosexual
relationships,
given their inherently procreative nature, and encouraging such
permanence. This recognition has worked its way into our
legal
framework, but it is intellectual laziness to assume that the
time-tested
social utility of exclusive, lifelong fidelity in one kind of
relationship will
necessarily be applicable to every kind of relationship.

The case for same-sex marriage must be made
from scratch.
To date, no such effort has been made. Dr Phelps
accuses marriage traditionalists of relying on “the vibe” to
state their case.
She should be wary of relying on the equally puerile maxim:
“they have it, so
we should have it too.”

Tim Cannon
is the
national research officer for the Australian Family
Association.

At the tender age of four, and to the great surprise of his parents, Tim Cannon boldly declared two goals in life: to play cricket for Australia, and to become the pope. Needless to say,...