January 28, 2016

Editor’s Note

Editor's Note February 2016

By Nick Feik

David Bulmer-Rizzi, 32, was recently killed in a freak accident in Adelaide, while honeymooning there with his husband, Marco.

The couple were married last year in the United Kingdom, but under South Australian law their marital status wasn’t recognised. Bulmer-Rizzi’s death certificate was stamped “never married”. His husband wasn’t allowed to approve the funeral arrangements because he wasn’t recognised as next of kin. It is hard to imagine the pain this caused, a form of discrimination that insisted on falsehoods even after death.

Penny Wong, the first openly lesbian Australian federal parliamentarian and federal cabinet minister, and the first Asian-born member of an Australian cabinet, knows much about discrimination and the fight against it. In the February issue of the Monthly, Australia’s most prominent political voice on marriage equality presents her most substantial contribution on the subject to date.

“The Racial Discrimination Act was enacted before my childhood migration from Malaysia,” she writes. “Discrimination on the basis of gender was made unlawful, via the Sex Discrimination Act, while I was at school.”

But the path to equal treatment before the law for gay and lesbian Australians, she says, “has been long and arduous”. One major roadblock remains: marriage equality.

As it stands, the current Coalition government policy is to hold a plebiscite, a national vote on whether to legalise same-sex marriage, after the next election.

Anyone feeling optimistic about its prospects, knowing that the majority of Australians support same-sex marriage, may have received a rude shock in recent days. Liberal senator Cory Bernardi told Fairfax: “Even if the public voted for [same-sex marriage] I wouldn’t vote for it.”

His dissent was echoed by colleague Eric Abetz, who implied he would do the same. “It would be up to each member to decide whether the plebiscite accurately reflects the views of the Australian people, whether it reflects the views of their electorates and whether it is good or bad public policy in their view.”

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with the plebiscite idea. Unless trigger legislation is passed – automatically enacting the change in the event of a positive public vote – it’s not binding and has no legislative power. (Such a trigger has not yet been presented.) In other words, if politicians won’t act according to the public’s wishes, the plebiscite is useless.

The flaw in the policy is out in the open now, and despite promises from all quarters to respect the will of the Australian majority, the roadblock has been fortified. Only political leadership will change this.

“On any moral calculus,” writes Penny Wong, “whether viewed through the prisms of individual choice, social justice, utilitarian ethics, welfare economics or effective social policy, marriage equality is both necessary and overdue.” 

This is not about partisan politics but about equal rights. Wong’s case for marriage equality is undeniably persuasive. If discrimination is an ongoing ethical concern, it demands a response.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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