Does the fight for same-sex marriage have an unexpected ally? One might be disappointed that the Labor party voted to permit a conscience vote on the issue of marriage equality at the weekend, but I would strongly urge those who feel as though all is lost to consider that perhaps it is not the defeat they might think it is. Australia may yet see marriage equality in the very near future — due in no small part to the support of a number of forward-thinking Liberal MP’s.
After all, the right-wing of the political spectrum, which the Coalition traditionally occupies, does not consist entirely of social conservatives and Christian fundamentalism. Indeed, many inside of Abbott’s own party — and many of his MP’s — fit the definition of a ‘fiscally-conservative social-liberal’ — also known as a libertarian. These libertarians — some of whom are very powerful inside the Liberal party — may force Tony Abbott to allow his MP’s to hold a conscience vote of their own.
Libertarianism has at its core a fundamental belief that the rights of the individual are paramount above the rights of religion, government or any other organisation — that people are at liberty to do and say as they wish in so long as this liberty does not impact negatively on the liberty of others. It is straightforward to acknowledge that marriage equality is in fact then a very libertarian notion.
Now, in the past, social conservatives (and homophobic pseudo-‘libertarians’) have attempted to use a ‘loophole’ by arguing that children raised by homosexuals are at some sort of disadvantage and thus gay people do not have the right to a liberty that harms others; however, modern studies have shown quite plainly that this ‘danger’ to the child simply does not exist in any widespread fashion.
In Australia, it is already against the law to discriminate, bully or harass homosexuals — and by extension their children — and this has led to a steady decline of homophobia in schools and greater acceptance of same-sex relationships amongst young people. Rather, it is arguable that teenage same-sex attracted children are more likely to fall victim to self-harm because their relationships will always be invalidated by their inability to marry.
So, with the once vaguely-rational ‘issue’ of the ‘rights of the child’ removed, it has since become very difficult for social conservatives to mount any convincing argument with which to sway their libertarian colleagues. Feeble attempts at ‘slippery-slope’ arguments — typically involving pedophilia and zoophilia — fall in a heap in the face of the simple common sense that children and animals cannot give legal consent. Polygamy is similarly negated by the fact that by definition only one individual can possess the ability to exercise the absolute will of another, as granted by marriage.
And, as an individual already holds certain legal and moral rights and responsibilities with respect to immediate family members, the risk of the legalisation of incestuous relationships is non-existent.
It is due to the inability to mount a realistic argument against marriage equality that, after the Liberal Party of Canada legalised same-sex marriage and then lost the subsequent election, the Conservative Party of Canada upon forming government was forced to hold a conscience vote regarding the repeal of the prior government’s amendments to the Marriage Act — a vote that failed, causing the Conservatives to break a ‘crucial’ election promise. (By the way: that same party is still in power today, and has just become the ninth longest-serving government in Canadian history.)
It is important to remember that, unlike Labor, although Coalition MP’s can be directed to vote as a bloc, an individual MP does not risk expulsion from Caucus if they do not do as they are told by the Leader of the Opposition. This means that despite Tony Abbott’s conservative rhetoric, those more libertarian-minded MP’s can still stand for marriage equality at the time the numbers are counted even if the public face of the Coalition is strictly against the notion up to the last second before the vote is called, as happened in the Canadian Conservative-led parliament.
It is also important to realise that it is unlikely that Tony Abbott will risk fracturing the Liberal party by attempting to mandate any special privilege toward his own position by threatening his libertarian colleagues — one of whom is his chief rival, Malcolm Turnbull. He is almost certainly not going to put his leadership on the line, nor risk disunity within his own party, over his conviction that marriage is strictly meant to be between man and woman. A conscience vote will permit him the luxury of being able to absolve himself of criticism both from his libertarian members and his conservative-Christian ones.
But it could be a nail-biter. If Tony Abbott is smart, he will wait until the last possible moment before making any announcement regarding a conscience vote — even as late as the morning of the day the vote is held. If those who support marriage equality are equally intelligent, they will mount pressure upon those more socially-liberal Liberals and keep it there up until that very same moment. The battle is still quite winnable — it happened in Canada and it could just as easily happen here in Australia.
Melody Ayres-Griffiths is a Canadian Australian permanent-resident married to her Australian wife under Canadian law.