Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

A long few months
The “respectful debate” on marriage got off to a bad start


Sometime between yesterday and today, Malcolm Turnbull changed his tune on the ability of Australians to conduct a respectful debate.

Yesterday, he was unequivocal. “Do we think so little of our fellow Australians and our ability to debate important matters of public interest that we say: ‘You’re not able to have a respectful discussion about the definition of marriage’, which is a very significant, important, fundamental element in our law and in our culture? Australians are able and have demonstrated that they can have a respectful discussion.”

Today he had switched to the view, more obviously true, that “In any debate there will be statements made that are offensive, which many will regard as extreme, which many will regard as wrong.”

He went on, “I can tell you, in this debate, I will be encouraging Australians to vote yes … Others will encourage them to vote no. And I urge every participant in the debate to act with responsibility and respect for those on the other side. But how they act is a matter for them … and they will be judged by Australians as will their arguments.”

Finally, he reached the point of mockery of Labor for raising the issue: “You can’t have a parliamentary election they’ll be saying next because … someone will say something outrageous and unfair and cruel and wrong about a candidate.”

Turnbull is correct that outrageous and unfair and cruel and wrong things are said about candidates all the time. But candidates know this when they choose to stand for parliament. The terms are set. If they would prefer to stay out of the arena, they can.

The children of gay parents don’t have that choice.

It took less than a day for it to be made clear that the coming debate over same-sex marriage – which will now take place around a postal plebiscite, the Senate having effectively rejected the plebiscite again – would be far from respectful. Fairfax reported that former Liberal MP Chris Miles is intending to print many copies of a leaflet he has distributed in the past. That leaflet reads, in part, “Married biological parents have a better record for providing safety and development of healthy, well-adjusted adult children. They minimise abuse and neglect of children.”

Got that? These fliers will explicitly say that the children of LGBTQ parents are more likely to be abused, neglected, unhealthy and unsafe.

Arguments about children, not always with such sharp edges, have long haunted this debate. John Howard, speaking on his amendment to the Marriage Act in 2004, said “it is far better that children be raised in a married home with the benefit of both their mother and their father”.

Now remember that in a public campaign for a postal plebiscite, lasting two months, there are likely to be fliers, newspaper ads, television ads, billboards, all putting forward arguments like this. Many won’t be that nasty, but will imply similar things. Some, no doubt, will be nastier still. You don’t think these will find their way to the playground? 

Senator Penny Wong said today, “Have a read of some of the things which are said about us and our families and then come back here and tell us this is a unifying moment. The Australian Christian lobby described our children as the stolen generation. We love our children. And I object, as do every person who cares about children, and as do all those couples in this country, same-sex couples who have kids, to be told our children are a stolen generation. You talk about unifying moments? It is not a unifying moment. It is exposing our children to that kind of hatred.”

But even leaving children aside, the prospect of this plebiscite is awful.

In an election, many issues are canvassed. In this nationwide vote, there is just one question that will be up for debate: should same-sex couples be given a right that straight couples already have? That is a two-month-long national debate around one group of people.

Imagine if the entire nation was about to vote on whether or not the residents of your suburb deserved a particular right. Whether giving that right to you and your neighbours would hurt children, would undermine society. Imagine you faced two months of people saying hurtful things about you, in the most public way possible, because of a public vote you had not even asked for.

Tony Abbott, clearly having had his Weetbix, was up and about today as well.

“I say to you if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote no, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.” 

For all those who assume the “yes” vote will win because polling shows most Australians support marriage equality, that paragraph should cause you to think carefully. It’s not just the fact that the victories of Donald Trump and Brexit, and the near-victory of Jeremy Corbyn, surprised everyone, though that should be enough. It’s that all of those campaigns were framed as uprisings against entrenched elites. That is exactly what Abbott is doing here.

Abbott, by the way, trivialises notions he pretends to hold dear in linking them to his cause. This has nothing to do with religious freedom or freedom of speech – there will be religious protections built into any marriage bill. But that doesn’t subtract from the effectiveness of his deceptions.

Remember, too, that a postal plebiscite means young people, who are more likely to favour same-sex marriage, are less likely to vote – as Turnbull himself once warned

But these arguments are well-rehearsed and have no chance of affecting events now. Challenges to the postal plebiscite are on their way to the High Court [$]. If they do not succeed, the vote will go ahead.

There are talks of a potential boycott of the plebiscite by pro-equality campaigners. As bad as this plebiscite will be, I can’t help but feel that these offensive arguments by Miles and the rest should be met with money and energy and advocacy. And that, given a vote is going to happen, a winning vote would be far better than a losing one. But this is a tentative view, and I’ll be doing a lot of listening in coming weeks.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be a long few months.

In other news


Debt. Recovery.

A parliamentary committee’s report on the Centrelink robo-debt debacle makes for damning reading

Alex McKinnon

“A disturbing number of #NotMyDebt submissions mention depression, anxiety and severe mental-health conditions being exacerbated by the robo-debt system. ‘Tired of this system, suicide is a common thought,’ reads one. ‘I once even wrote a suicide note that mentioned the government can have their wish, they can take this money from my cold dead hands,’ says another.”  READ ON


It’s time

The case for marriage equality

Penny Wong

“Most people recognise what our marriage laws don’t: gay and lesbian Australians are just like everybody else. The challenges of parenting we experience – the sleepless nights, the struggle to find child care, the angst over schooling – are the same. Our relationships are like other relationships. Our desire to make a public and lasting commitment to the woman or man we love is the same, too.” (February 2016)  READ ON


Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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