Framing the Debate: On the Same-Sex Marriage ‘Vote’

First published in New Matilda, here.

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Well, it’s happened. Australia is united. It’s only taken 230 years, and it may not last beyond September, but for now a kind of consensus reins. Everyone, it seems, from the hairiest leftist to the drippiest liberal to the hoariest Tory, agrees that the same-sex marriage survey is a crock. A laughingstock. A shemozzle.

Sure, they express it in different terms – ‘This process is a joke’ … ‘The survey wasn’t our first choice’ … ‘It was Bill Shorten’s fault’ … ‘Look over there!’ – but the underlying sentiment is the same. This process is the political equivalent of Laurel and Hardy trying to deliver a piano. It’s a tunnel-boring machine to crack a nut. A waste of money. An offence against reason.

But, here we are; it’s the process we’re stuck with, and so far most supporters of marriage equality appear to be able to combine their contempt for it with a determination to win the bloody thing. Early suggestions of a boycott have faded, partly because the SSM movement lacks the internal organisation to make such an approach effective and meaningful. There’s still the High Court challenge, of course. But my feeling is that the majority of Australians are reconciled to this survey occurring, even if they’re unhappy about it.

That leaves us with the issue itself, and on this – as predicted – our sunburnt country is rather less united than it is on the question of the vote/survey/serving suggestion devised by its adamantine leader. Indeed there have been angry noises from both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns, with each side accusing the other of intolerance, bigotry and general shittiness. Kevin Andrews tried to lighten the mood by comparing same-sex relationships to the rapport he has with his cycling chums. And Tim Minchin added a touch of humour. But really it’s been a bad-tempered affair. Perhaps Specsavers ambassador Ian Thorpe can bind the nation’s wounds. We’ll see.

In the meantime, and in the spirit of self-criticism, progressives might like to consider the terms in which they are making the case for ‘yes’. Not because they’re any worse than conservatives in the shittiness stakes. And not because they lack good arguments. But because the ‘vote’ is going to be tight (what with the remaining boycotters and unregistered/postally challenged millennials) and at the moment they’re doing their best to lose it. Or rather some of them are doing their best to live down to the timeworn stereotype of the knowledge-class liberal as arrogant and elitist. At the risk of giving ammunition to the enemy, it seems to me that some progressives are giving ammunition to the enemy – a fricken North Korea’s worth.

Of particular concern is the genre of ‘arguments’ about what the debate is not about. Shrinking violet Sam Dastyari was at this on Q&A this week, telling Anglican rector Michael Jensen that the SSM debate wasn’t about religion, and there have been similar positions taken in outlets as diverse as Mamamia and The Conversation. But by far the most significant intervention (one already savaged by Guy Rundle in Crikey and Helen Razer in Daily Review) was from Guardian Australia’s Lenore Taylor, who, in a remarkable editorial, listed all the ‘spurious’ arguments to which the once-great liberal organ would not be giving any space. As Taylor puts it at the top of her piece, ‘running both sides of the actual question is not the same as running “both sides” of all the other spurious “questions” the anti-equality case is setting up as obfuscations’.

Taylor then goes on to dismiss a whole range of arguments about SSM, from the notion that it has some bearing on religious freedom to the idea that the marriage equality movement is some kind of land-grab in the culture wars. The notion that one could have a broadly traditional or religious objection to SSM is dismissed, ex cathedra and in advance, as simply unworthy of consideration. As for arguments about Labor hypocrisy and whether or not it could or should have changed the law when it was in power: those, too, are dismissed out of hand.

Now many of the arguments cited by Taylor are, in my opinion, flawed, and some are downright ludicrous. But the ‘gatekeeper’ attitude evinced in this instance is arrogant and counterproductive. Clearly the Guardian Australia’s editor is responding in part to Tony Abbott’s attempt to widen the SSM debate to encompass ‘free speech’, ‘religious freedom’ and ‘political correctness’ – an intervention even The Australian’s Chris Kenny thought was, well, a little bit mad. But this kind of highhanded attitude plays directly into the hands of cultural conservatives. We know that the modern Guardian franchise considers itself a frontline fighter in the war on post-truth and fake news – a commission it takes as seriously as its campaign against genuinely leftwing politics. But to mount guard over an issue in this way, and to insist on what the ‘actual question’ is, is to confuse an editorial stance with a craven attitude to public debate. It’s also a really, really bad look.

Part of the problem here, I suspect, is that progressives take a very different view of ‘bigotry’ than many of the people who sit outside the knowledge class where such cultural politics tends to take place. On Q&A Jensen asked Dastyari if he thought it was possible to take a position against SSM and not be bigoted, and Dasher responded that he thought it was. But everything in his subsequent comments suggested that he thought the very suggestion that the Marriage Act should stay as it is was silly and insensitive. Similarly the folk at Mamamia furnished its readers with some ‘ammo to fire back at your bigoted great uncle’ in the SSM debate. Nor did Minchin pull his punches, describing opponents of SSM as ‘homophobic’ and as ‘bigoted cunts’.

Now it’s an article of faith in progressive politics that one can be prejudiced without realising it: that exclusion and discrimination are incubated and spread through language, media, institutions etc. And so they are. But for the notion of bigotry to carry any force it needs to be separated from such questions of prejudice. The other day a senior relative told me she’d be voting ‘no’ on the grounds that SSM was contrary to her feeling of what a marriage is. I imagine I may be able to convince her that her view of marriage is as out-of-date as that tin of shortbread at the back of her pantry. Or even that her view of marriage is one shared by the same-sex couples who desire it. But I’m not going to convince her that she’s a bigot. Nor would I want to.

Infuriating as this might sound to those same-sex couples who just want to marry, there is a wider politics at play here, and it has to do with the fact that social liberalism is now as mapped into the status quo as economic liberalism is. Meritocracy, abstract rights, formal equality: these things are now entirely mainstream, and progressives need to be cognisant of this fact, especially in the current environment, where some voters are looking for any excuse to give the status quo a bloody nose. Too much analysis on the progressive side – and Taylor’s editorial is the summa of this mindset – begins from the assumption that there is no sensible case to be put against marriage equality, and this plays directly into the stereotype of the knowledge-class liberal as shrill and elitist. The danger is that Australians who’ve yet to make up their minds on the issue, and who may not be especially interested in it, will vote against SSM, not because they dislike the idea of it, but because they dislike the kind of technocratic liberalism evinced in the progressive media. For those who think this is unlikely I have three words: ‘Brexit’, ‘Donald’, and ‘Trump’.

God knows I’m not suggesting the Guardianistas engage their much touted empathy, to see things from the conservatives’ point of view. What I am suggesting is that they check their self-righteousness and resolve to meet such arguments as are made with careful, cogent arguments of their own, to match social tolerance with political tolerance. Unfortunately for Taylor, and for those progressives who take their rhetorical cue from her paper, everyone on the electoral roll now gets to decide what the argument is ‘about’. As a matter of practical politics, telling them that their concerns are beside the point probably isn’t the way to go.