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Eclipsing the religious right

By Rodney Croome - posted Friday, 4 May 2012


Historians will look back at this year’s two parliamentary inquiries into marriage equality as the beginning of the end of the religious right's disproportionate influence on Australian politics.

On April 13th the Senate marriage equality inquiry announced it had received 75,000 submissions with 44,000 or almost 60% in favour.

As if to confirm this wasn't a fluke, figures for the House of Reps inquiry were released ten days later: 277,000 survey forms were sent in with 177,000 or 64% in favour.

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To put this in perspective, the next largest parliamentary inquiry on any other issue was about the 1997 Northern Territory euthanasia bill. It received 12,500 submissions. The 2009 climate change inquiry received 8000 and the Sydney airport noise inquiry 5000.

No longer can politicians declare there is general indifference to marriage equality or that parliament is wasting its time debating the issue.

That said, I was astounded by the pro-marriage equality figures.

For most of my career advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights the religious right has always been able to muster far larger responses to parliamentary inquiries.

This time around they even made a special effort, with Victoria's Catholic Bishops calling on 80,000 parishioners to respond to the Reps inquiry - a dubious use of their authority which failed dismally.

So what has changed?

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Marriage equality is obviously engaging a large numbers of Australians who would not normally take part in a gay rights campaign.

I suspect this is because it speaks to heterosexual people about the kind of nation they want to live in as much as the narrower question of how gay people should be treated.

This is reflected in the words of those cultural icons who have recently spoken in favour of marriage equality.

From Jimmy Barnes through Magda Szubanski to Hugh Jackman, they have all dwelt on the link between marriage equality and Australian identity.

But it's not all about the issue.

A well-developed campaign involving both social media and community meetings across the nation was the key to mobilising such large numbers of people.

The same techniques can be applied to any social justice or human rights issue from a charter of rights to reproductive rights.

There is no longer any excuse for advocates in these areas to be out-done by the religious right.

Moreover, if social media and community campaigning can generate such an unprecedented response to two inquiries, it can change voting intentions.

The hundreds of thousands of Australians who have engaged with the marriage equality campaign, and now feel part of a movement for positive change, will keep an eye on who supports equality and who doesn't, right up until they mark their ballot papers.

This is probably why Australian Christian Lobby spokesperson, Jim Wallace, is so angry.

Suddenly, the conservative Christian constituency which federal politicians have kowtowed to at every opportunity and which Wallace purports to speak for has been eclipsed.

Seeing what is afoot, Wallace has dissed the result of the marriage equality inquiries as "simplistic polling" that "cheapens" democracy, even though he crowed about how "the people have spoken" when a 2009 marriage equality inquiry received more submissions from his side.

He has attacked advocates for being deceitful, and has manufactured marriage equality bogeys out of thin air, even though he regularly complains about the low quality of the marriage equality debate.

No wonder a number of religious leaders have distanced themselves from him.

The current marriage equality inquiries have shifted the debate on that issue, confirming its place at the centre of Australian politics and identity.

Just as importantly, the inquiries have seen a shift in the balance of power in our political system away from the religious right toward the sensible, pragmatic centre.

That is why, long after everyone's forgotten about Peter Slipper and Craig Thompson, the current marriage equality inquiries will be seen as a turning point in Australian political history.

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About the Author

Rodney Croome is the National Convenor of Australian Marriage Equality and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2003 for his gay rights advocacy. He is co-author of Why vs Why: Gay Marriage.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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