The Greasy Pole

Something old, something blue
Julia Gillard has changed her mind on same-sex marriage. But has she reformed?


Exactly how late did Julia Gillard change her mind on same-sex marriage? You could measure it as “six years after Dick Cheney” or “two years since leaving office”. But here she is in My Story, a book released less than a year ago: “My views are not that same-sex marriage is too radical. If anything, the vision is not radical enough.” What has happened since then? What has happened since 2011, when she said that her position flowed not from radicalism but “from my strong conviction that the institution of marriage has come to have a particular meaning and standing in our culture and nation and that should continue unchanged”?

There are few clues in yesterday’s speech at the College of Law and Justice in Melbourne. Gay rights don’t get a mention, and nor does love, or equality, or human rights and dignity. There is no searching of soul or conscience, no journey, not even the obligatory “conversations with family and friends”. Exactly what has happened in the past few years to cement Julia Gillard’s conversion is a complete mystery.

But we do know the concern driving her to speak. It’s not personal, or ethical. It's procedural and parliamentary. Her immediate concern isn’t same-sex marriage itself, but the prospect of a plebiscite on the issue.

I am genuinely troubled about this proposal’s potential long-term ramifications for our democracy and its capacity to sustain reform. Indeed, I am so worried, that as a former prime minister, I feel a responsibility to respectfully lay out a case for rejecting this …

It’s not exactly “I Have a Dream”.

In fact, Gillard’s speech could have been delivered verbatim at a very different event held the same day. The National Reform Summit, aka Reformfest 2015, heard many talks on an identical theme. Her gay marriage speech runs through almost every item in the template: the world is changing rapidly. People, especially working-class men, are threatened by these changes. They blame politicians for them. Technology has made media more rapid and more shrill. This has reduced public confidence in politicians further, and made reform (whatever that is) impossible.

Reform is a word that appears with monotonous regularity in My Story: “the real-world impact on our capacity for reform is too serious” … “reform is harder” … “how can it [reform] settle emotionally and intellectually when the media blow up every problem”. And it is the great principle of reform, not reflection, that has finally forced Gillard’s hand on same-sex marriage.

What exactly reform means beyond “policy provisions the public don’t like” is never really clear. But whatever it is, it’s vitally important. The Reform Summit got everyone from unionists to Nick Cater to support it, in principle, even if they held opposing views of what it actually is. It was an exercise in political class solidarity, against the Know-Nothing people.

Ironically, same-sex marriage provides one of the very best examples of why this public-bashing argument is ludicrous. It should be the easiest kind of “reform” imaginable. There is no complex legislation, no policy engine to build. Polling shows a crushing community consensus for change, even in regional areas. The media pressure against equality evaporated years ago, even among hard-line conservatives. And even with this massive tailwind, Gillard herself still managed to stall and then nosedive.

It’s tempting to see the argument in the speech as a piece of projection. The same-sex marriage debate is exactly what Gillard describes: a panicked group of insecure, semi-skilled men delaying the inevitable, as their traditional source of power and meaning collapses around them. But those blokes are her former colleagues in parliament and the union movement, not tradies wondering where the neighbourhood went.

A plebiscite does feed the idea that parliament isn’t reflecting the people’s will. But why would it feed it so much more than a political party that lags a generation behind the views of its supporters? When it comes to internal “reform”, the kind the ALP desperately needs to be more representative, Gillard the moderniser suddenly becomes Gillard the Luddite. It’s telling that the Reform Summit wasn’t organised by political organisations, but by two newspapers. That’s a real sign of how hollowed out traditional political structures have become, when the press feels it has to step in as a kind of policy donor.

Australia is well on track for a decade of political turmoil and toxicity, and the chief players can’t even work out why. Politicians are still somehow surprised that when they lie, and then lie about that lying, public trust in them starts to corrode. In years to come, post-mortems on this period will examine small but tell-tale lesions on the body politic: the day Kevin Rudd asked a focus group to determine the true beliefs of the ALP. The time Tony Abbott sought to bomb Syria over a by-election. This soulless, mendacious conversion is another minor mark of that decline.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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