Commentary | 17 October 2017

Same-sex marriage: What company does Australia want to keep?

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Why would the head of a foreign policy think tank pipe up on the issue of marriage equality?

I tend to stay in my lane. I usually confine my public comments to international politics, not Australian politics.

But it is incumbent on all citizens to have a view on an issue as important as this.

I believe Australians should vote Yes for reasons of both fairness and freedom.

I have been married for 17 years. I know the joy, companionship and sense of completeness that a happy marriage can bring. How could I vote to deny these blessings to fellow Australians on the basis of whom they love?

It is a foundational principle of democracy that all citizens should be treated equally. To depart from this principle requires a compelling reason. In the case of marriage, there is only an appeal to tradition.

The case for change on the ground of fairness is powerful. But as conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens argued when he was in Australia recently as a guest of the Lowy Institute, there is also a strong case based on freedom.

As Stephens said on Q&A, people have a right to pursue their own happiness. The government ought not interfere in such an important and personal decision. By what right do the No advocates presume to meddle in the way others live their lives?

Perceptions of Australia

The second reason for me to speak up is that our stance on marriage equality is connected to our place in the world.

Our marriage law is certainly not a foreign policy issue. But it does affect perceptions of Australia in the international community.

All the countries with which we habitually compare ourselves have introduced marriage equality. All the other countries in "the Anglosphere", so beloved of conservatives – the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and even Ireland – have done so. Almost every country in western Europe has too.

Do we want to stand with the UK and the US on this issue, or with Russia and China? What kind of company do we wish to keep? And if we seek to hold back the liberal tide, how will our friends and allies regard us?

The most important reason to introduce marriage equality is to give our fellow citizens the respect they deserve. But we should also be concerned with the respect our country receives abroad.

Finally, voting Yes could be a small step towards fixing our broken politics.

In recent years Australia's politics have become smaller. In the quarter-century that followed the election of the Hawke government in 1983, Australia enjoyed stable and effective government under three prime ministers. The situation today is very different. In the past five years, we have had four PMs. None has looked comfortable for long. None has served a full term in office.

Today governments spend their time in survival mode. Politicians have become more skilled at opposing than governing. Vested interests are off the leash. The conventions that once governed political behaviour have broken down. The political system has somehow lost its capacity to solve problems.

Climate policy is one example. A generation ago Australia might have led the world in finding a market solution to the problem of reducing carbon emissions. It was the kind of thing we did well. Yet in the past decade, climate politics have helped to destroy several prime ministers and opposition leaders.

Religious freedoms

Marriage equality should have been an easy problem to solve. The advantages of the change are significant and the risks are small. Public opinion has swung heavily in favour, so reformers are pushing on an open door. The legislative change required is minor. If the Parliament were allowed to do its job and members given a free vote, as Angela Merkel allowed in Germany, then marriage equality would probably pass. MPs would be able to move on to address other issues. But the toxicity in Canberra will not allow it.

The naysayers tell us that granting gay and lesbian couples the right to marry would threaten Australia's religious freedoms. They dispense distractions like this in the way that a warplane dispenses chaff to distract radar-guided missiles. They stir up fear of change just as their counterparts did during the republic referendum campaign.

Yet the sky did not fall in on America, Britain or France when they provided for marriage equality. Is Australia uniquely incapable of protecting marital freedom and religious freedom at the same time? How low an opinion of our country do the No campaigners have?

To reject their tactics would also be to reject the negative politics that have held Australia back for a decade. If we can get this done, we may surprise ourselves with what else we can get done.

This process presents us with a choice that goes well beyond the narrow terms of the question printed on the survey. Does Australia want to be a small country, clinging to the past, hobbled by a lingering meanness of spirit? Or do we wish to be larger than this: a big country, with a generous debate, confident in our future and ready to take our place among the leading democracies?

I hope Australians vote yes – and in great numbers.

Michael Fullilove is the executive director of the Lowy Institute. This is his personal view.