Where the people go, the leaders will follow
There are many good reasons to oppose Tony Abbott’s plans for marriage reform but a fear of ordinary people is not one of them

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In the Age today, Sarah Gill argues flatly that marriage equality should never be put to a popular vote. Why? She notes the enthusiasm of Scott Morrison, a hardened opponent of equality, for a constitutional referendum, and draws the obvious conclusion: Morrison links marriage reform with constitutional change because he calculates a referendum will fail.

No doubt, Morrison is being disingenuous and tricky. But his advocacy of a procedure weighted to protect the status quo (successful referendums require a majority in the majority of states) scarcely indicates he is convinced that public sentiment favours his cause.

In that respect, he probably reflects the sentiment among the Liberals as a whole. Parliament could – and should – legislate marriage equality at once, rather than continuing to kick the issue down the road, and Tony Abbott’s determination to discover some new mechanism to prolong the debate suggests not so much a commitment to the popular will but a natural inclination to frustrate it for as long as possible. Indeed, Abbott now seems to be acting on what we might call the Mr Micawber principle: hoping that something will turn up to make the whole unpleasant business go away.

Or, to put it another way, the problem with the Liberal response – indeed, the response of the whole parliament – is not an excess of democracy but a shortage of it. The inability of parliament to deliver a modest and overwhelmingly popular reform demonstrates the utter paralysis of the political class, something that’s becoming a defining feature of our age.

Given that context, Gill’s argument seems both quite odd and rather unsettling in its casual elitism.

She implies that putting questions about minority rights to the vote is wrong in principle, since it relies on “an often fickle process of public inspection that might, capriciously, either advance or hinder the cause, depending on the prevailing mood of the community”.

That’s all very well – except that, against the caprice of the public, she’s contrasting the good sense of politicians. And let’s remember how we got into this mess in the first place.

The current debate is only necessary thanks to John Howard, who, back in 2004, inserted a clause into the Marriage Act to exclude same-sex couples and ban them from adopting children. The Liberals’ discriminatory legislation was immediately supported by the ALP, with Nicola Roxon announcing Labor’s support for “promoting the institution the of marriage between men and women and as a bedrock institution for families”.

Noting the parliamentary consensus, Howard crowed, “Nobody can say [the amendment] is being used as a wedge, nobody can say it’s a diversion, everybody can say it’s a united expression of the national parliament and therefore of the will of the Australian people.”

The current marriage laws were imposed on the nation only 11 years ago, not as a result of the ignorance of the great unwashed, but as a parliamentary manoeuvre by the very people Gill thinks will protect us from the hoi polloi.

“Why,” asks Gill, “would we imagine that popular sentiment is always the best guide of what is right, or just, or acceptable?”

The short answer is that we shouldn’t. Obviously, at various times, all kinds of bigotry have been publicly acceptable in Australia. But what follows from that?

Almost without exception, the major advances for the rights of sexual minorities have had nothing to do with benevolence of politicians and everything to do with the efforts of those that politicians despise. The 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York – generally identified as the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement – were led not by Malcolm Turnbull but by hustlers, drag queens and street kids – disreputable queers of the type who would never be allowed anywhere near Tony Abbott.

Today, even the most conservative politicians scramble to get their endorsements onto the program of the Sydney Mardi Gras. But that event, too, began with a thousand protesters parading down Oxford Street in 1978 chanting “Ho! Ho! Homosexual!” (This was an echo of the Vietnam-era chant about Ho Chi Minh.)

When the marchers were brutally bashed by the NSW police, how did the Sydney Morning Herald, that voice of respectable liberalism, respond? Did it denounce the violence? Did it issue a resounding declaration about the rights of minorities? No, not so much. Rather, it published a list of the names, ages, occupations and addresses of all those arrested, in an open invitation for employers to victimise them.

Gill draws an analogy with racism. “The growing antipathy to slavery played a significant role in its abolition across western Europe and the Americas,” she says, “but – let’s face it – that was only after hundreds of years of the diabolical practice.”

In fact, slavery wasn’t brought to an end by the judicious deliberations of William Wilberforce or Abraham Lincoln or whichever other notable comes to mind. The single most important development in the long struggle against that evil practice was the successful revolution in Haiti, a heroic black rebellion that spurred abolition in Britain and that thereafter haunted the nightmares of slaveholders across North America.

That’s worth emphasizing, because, when we’re talking about overcoming bigotry, the means are as important as the ends. The long grassroots campaign for marriage equality – the demonstrations, the public meetings, the petitions and so on – has forced a debate about same-sex rights, a debate conducted in suburban homes and workplaces and social gatherings.

Indeed, the changing climate on same-sex marriage provides a pretty good illustration of how the elites tend to follow the masses rather than the other way around. Every poll now shows a clear majority for reform, so much so that parliament’s incapacity to reflect the popular will has become a scandal. Abbott’s ongoing manoeuvring is, of course, shameful. But, one way or another, same-sex marriage is coming, and it’s quite wrong to conclude from the Liberals’ desperate shenanigans that we need politicians to defend us from the people. On the contrary, this whole affair illustrates that it’s the people who will deliver us from the politicians.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Melbourne editor, writer and broadcaster.

@Jeff_Sparrow

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