Sunday, 4 December 2011

Gillard wants to change marriage laws cheaply

Australia is holding its breath. For some reason, marriage equality as an issue possesses a gravitas and import far beyond that of any putative consequence which could derive from a change to the Marriage Act. Rainbows have always enthralled humankind, especially in the aeons before the scientific revolution allowed us to explain why they occur. Nowadays for, example, we understand why a person standing at the very end of a rainbow cannot see the rainbow itself. Before the Enlightenment, this phenomenon would have been a matter of philosophical speculation. Now it's just a matter of physics. As an optical illusion, a rainbow cannot, ultimately, be a threat, but many take gay marriage as such. Some, like those who spoke at the Labor National Conference against changing the law, have exceptional influence over government policy. The silent majority - whose disfavour some of those people fear because it can impact on the polls and on election outcomes - watch and wait, but the polls taken so far show us that most Australians favour a change to the law.

Julia Gillard - who personally opposes changing the law - knows this. After the drama of the conference session ended, Adelaide senator Penny Wong - who is gay and is currently expecting her and her partner's first child - gave Gillard a fillip:
''I think it says something of the measure of the woman that she's allowed the conference to do what it wanted to do, which is to have a full and frank debate.''
But Gillard is hedging her bets, in the most brutal fashion. Many in the gay community are angry that Gillard has only allowed a conscience vote on the floor of the House, which means that a Labor member of parliament will be allowed to choose his or her own way of voting when the matter is brought forward in parliament. The Liberal opposition will vote as a bloc against changing the law.

This is why we had the strange events in the Labor National Conference where the vote as to how to vote in Parliament - which was carried in favour of a conscience vote by a majority of 208 to 184 - was given more weight than the vote to change the party paltform itself. This latter vote was undertaken on voices only. Which means that the voices 'for' must have been clearly superior to those 'against' the motion. In other words, the party clearly wanted to change its stance vis-a-vis gay marriage, it just doesn't want to change the law just at the moment.

"Change is long overdue," said Wong, but it will have to wait for another time, and another opportunity beyond the expected introduction of the relevant private member's bill - which will fail to achieve its goal since the Opposition will vote along party lines and not with a conscience vote - until the law actually changes in Australia. It's all very confusing for those who regard politics with only the periphery of their consciousness. Gillard allowed the Labor Party to make up its own mind as to how its platform should be written, but then took away the relief that so many seek by mandating a conscience vote in Parliament when the bill finally comes before the House.

Then again, this kind of crabwalk behaviour has served the prime minister well in the past, even from the very beginning when she had to struggle to gain support from the Independents and the Greens to form government. In a sense, it's perfect politics. By hedging her bets, Gillard makes sure that the entire community is brought along with her. The criticism she attracts as a result of her decisions yesterday can be redirected so as to neutralise attacks from the religious Right. So Labor does not have to expend too much political capital while winning this fight. It's probably Classic Gillard.

Nevertheless, in five years time when gay marriage is an entrenched reality we'll look back and wonder what the fuss was all about. Once we stand, finally, at the end of the rainbow we'll have forgotten the brouhaha that changing the law entailed, and we will all treat the right of homosexuals to marry as a given.

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