Equal Marriage: A failure of political leadership pt 2

I ended my previous post on this topic on a very pessimistic note. I wrote: “Instead, it appears that LGBTI couples will need to wait another eight years or more before being able to walk down the aisle. Let’s hope that, by then, the major political parties are led by people who understand what leadership means.”

I believe this pessimism is justified because, if we look past the failures of the current crop of political leaders (Gillard, Abbott and Truss), there is little evidence to inspire confidence in the next generation. None of the most likely candidates to replace the leaders of their respective parties is, right at this moment, both advocating a yes vote on marriage equality and actually committed to voting yes. That’s right, none of the seven people who are generally considered ‘next in line’ is committed to delivering marriage equality through both words and actions.

There are three who have already committed themselves to voting against marriage equality. The first is no surprise – the future leader of the National Party, Senator Barnaby Joyce. Joyce addressed the annual anti-gay hate rally at Parliament House in 2011 (organised by the Australian Christian Lobby and the Australian Family Association) and claimed, in his usual incoherent manner, that legislating for same-sex marriage would somehow limit the ability of his four daughters to enter into opposite-sex marriages.

Joyce said, “We know that the best protection for those girls is that they get themselves into a secure relationship with a loving husband, and I want that to happen for them. I don’t want any legislator to take that right away from me.” Leaving aside the complete failure of Barnaby Joyce to learn anything from multiple waves of feminism (women can exist without husbands, it has nothing to do with ‘his’ right), it is also devoid of logic, given extending the right to same-sex couples does not affect the right of opposite-sex couples of marry if they so choose. Finally, Barnaby Joyce fails as a human being – if he is the father of four daughters, then surely he must contemplate the possibility one (or more) of those daughters may be a lesbian and wish to enter a same-sex marriage.

The next ‘future leader’ is someone who really should know better. Joe Hockey is supposedly a moderate within the Liberal Party (whatever that means in 2012), and some in the LGBTI community had speculated he may indeed vote for change. However, Hockey cruelled those hopes on ABC’s Q&A in May this year when he said that, after having children, his view on same-sex marriage had changed. He will now vote against marriage equality because he believes that children deserve the right to a mother and a father.

That rationale is almost as lacking in substance as Joyce’s, given that many heterosexual people have children outside of marriage, many opposite-sex married couples choose not to have children (or can’t because of age or infertility) and many gay and lesbian Australians are already having children. It also deliberately mischaracterises the nature of marriage in contemporary society, which has evolved such that it is now the recognition of a loving relationship between two people, nothing more and nothing less. So those hoping for leadership on marriage equality should look elsewhere than the member for North Sydney, whose views have recently regressed instead.

The final leadership contender to have already stated unequivocally that they will vote no on equal marriage is Wayne Swan (and for those thinking he is not a genuine leadership contender, please note he is still the deputy leader of the ALP, deputy prime minister and treasurer, and historically leadership challengers have occupied at least one of these positions). Sadly, despite discovering the power of arguments based on economic justice earlier this year (especially in his attacks on the mining magnates), Swan appears to have little understanding of the meaning of social justice. If he did, he would be supporting the rights of his LGBTI constituents and the principle of equality – instead he is supporting fundamental discrimination against a group of Australians simply on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Shame.

There are three other leadership contenders who, at the time of writing (Wednesday 22 August), have not declared a position on same-sex marriage: Julie Bishop, Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten. One, two or, if Abbott allows a conscience vote, potentially all three could end up voting in favour of equality. That would obviously be a good result numerically, because even if equal marriage is likely to be defeated this year, less momentum will be lost if the result is at least close.

And yet, by failing to adopt a public position, by failing to advocate for change, each has also failed to demonstrate the qualities most desirable in a leader. Irrespective of their reasons for staying quiet (and especially with Rudd and Shorten it can be viewed through the prism of their desires to assume ALP leadership later this year, and consequently not wanting to ‘offend’ the Catholic Right of the caucus), by doing so they have effectively abdicated their responsibility to help achieve progressive social reform and thereby make Australia a better place.

That sentiment might sound a bit ‘pie in the sky’, but, as I wrote in my previous post on this topic, these reforms are usually won when true leaders stand up and be counted, when men and women of substance put forward the case for change and prosecute it until victory is achieved. It is not as if Bishop, Rudd and Shorten could claim to be surprised that same-sex marriage is a public issue either: it has been on the agenda ever since Howard amended the Marriage Act in 2004 (indeed, Rudd and Bishop were already members of parliament at that time).

Equal marriage has also been one of the most discussed issues during the life of this parliament, with Adam Bandt’s successful motion that House of Representatives MPs should consult with their constituents on this issue, the vigorous debate in the run-up to and at ALP national conference in December 2011, and particularly now with three bills already tabled in Parliament seeking to implement this reform. And I am sure that each of them would be aware of the large number of constituents writing to them on this issue (on both sides of the debate), on top of the record number of submissions to the House of Representatives and Senate committee inquiries earlier this year.

In short, there is absolutely no excuse for Julie Bishop, Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten to have not adopted a public position on this issue. Their failure to say or do anything to help achieve marriage equality can be interpreted to mean that they simply do not care enough about LGBTI equality to take a stand. While others inside the Liberal and Labor parties have been fearless advocates, Bishop, Rudd and Shorten have been cowards. Enough said.

There is of course one last member of the current generation of major party leaders to consider: Malcolm Turnbull. As with most things Malcolm, his position on same-sex marriage is more intelligent and articulate than most, but ultimately he remains a politician of words not actions.

In early July, Turnbull delivered the Michael Kirby Lecture in which he eloquently made the conservative case for recognising same-sex relationships as marriages, equal to and no less than opposite-sex marriages (an edited extract of his speech was also published in the Sydney Morning Herald the following day). In doing so, he demolished the religious arguments against change and showed that it was bigoted to believe that LGBTI Australians should accept their status as second-class citizens. Turnbull even announced that, if the Coalition were to adopt a conscience vote on this issue, he would vote in favour of equality.

But that ignores the fact that Tony Abbott has ruled out a conscience vote and, in those circumstances, Turnbull has made clear he would follow the party line and vote against same-sex marriage. Which means that, no matter how nice his words are in support of change, Turnbull’s only ‘action’ will still be to vote against LGBTI equality. Despite being the only one of the current generation of leaders to publicly advocate legislating for same-sex marriage, Turnbull has nevertheless failed this test of political leadership.

That might sound like a harsh judgement. After all, he would have to go to the backbench in order to vote yes, and that is obviously a massive price to pay for any politician. Indeed, Australian Marriage Equality appears to give Turnbull a ‘pass mark’, listing him as a supporter on its website. But in my mind a supporter is not just someone who mouths the words – they also demonstrate their support through their actions, and that is something which Turnbull refuses to do in this case.

By contrast, I suspect he probably would move to the backbench if the vote was to deny Jewish people rights on the basis of their religion, or Indigenous Australians on the basis of their race. It is just that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and bisexual Australians don’t seem to count as much (something which I hope LGBTI residents of Wentworth remember at the next federal election).

Turnbull’s vote against equality means that the failure of this generation’s political leaders on same-sex marriage is complete. Including Gillard, Abbott and Truss, none of the ten leaders or alternative leaders of our major parties have both advocated for – and committed to vote for – equal marriage. Six of them (including Joyce, Hockey and Swan) have announced they will be voting against LGBTI equality. Three (Bishop, Rudd and Shorten) have refused to indicate which way they will vote and have effectively abdicated from the responsibilities of (moral) leadership. Only one, Malcolm Turnbull, is currently advocating for a Marriage Act which does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and even he is voting no.

That is why, even though it might be pessimistic to think Australia might not achieve equal marriage until next decade, it may also be the only realistic view. Maybe by then we will have the real leadership required to deliver this reform. In the meantime we are forced to imagine what that leadership looks like.

One thought on “Equal Marriage: A failure of political leadership pt 2

  1. There is obviously some debate about who might be considered ‘next in line’ to assume the leadership of their respective party. For the National Party it is fairly clear cut – Barnaby Joyce (once he has taken over the seat of Maranoa from the incumbent, Bruce Scott). In the Liberal Party, there is general agreement that the two most likely replacements are Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey. I have included Julie Bishop because she is the current Deputy Leader and could be a compromise candidate should neither of the other options be palatable within the partyroom to replace Abbott. For the same reason I have included the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Wayne Swan, even though there is only a small chance of him moving into the lodge. Instead, as is widely speculated, the main alternatives are a return to Kevin Rudd or the rise of Bill Shorten.


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