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Fashion in the marriage debate

By Xavier Symons - posted Monday, 1 June 2015

Debate on same-sex marriage has flared up once again in Australia, this time in the wake of a landmark marriage referendum in Ireland. A chorus of Australian politicians on both right and left are suggesting the time is right for marriage laws. In recent weeks many former staunch opponents of same-sex marriage have changed their stance, and on Wednesday Abbott suggested the Liberal Party might allow a conscience vote on the matter.

What exactly are we witnessing? On one interpretation, our politicians have abandoned old prejudices and resigned themselves to the Zeitgeist. This neo-Enlightenment narrative is writ large in the commentary being churned out by the majority of Australian media outlets.

A more accurate interpretation would attribute the shift to something all too familiar. Think about it: has there really been any 'principled change' in views on social policy? Even though I oppose same-sex marriage, I almost wish I could say yes. The sad truth is that this is something far more banal: it's another sorry story of our politicians marching in lock step to the tune of political expediency.


When one delves beneath all the emotional-cum-moral rhetoric, one sees that the bottom line in our parliament is not gay rights. In the face of aggressive lobby groups and significant media pressure, it's become too inconvenient to stick to your guns on traditional marriage. If anything, the rapid change in opinion confirms the political realist thesis: power is the end of political action. Or rather, it smacks of a deep trend in Australian politics away from consistent public policy towards politics driven by polls, sound bites and a 24/7 media cycle.

Chris Bowen, Ed Husic, Wayne Swan and now SDA-aligned Tony Burke have all changed their mind and declared support for 'marriage equality'. Key members of the Liberal party are reported to have subtly indicated their support (an omen of the likely decision of the Liberal party room to support a conscience vote on the matter).

Let's consider for a moment what's moved these figures to change their minds.

Ostensibly, they have recognized the 'spirit of the times'. Ireland's vote to legalise same-sex marriage was an epiphany. Here's Tony Burke's flash of insight: "the days when the law of Australia can limit access to marriage in ways that are so far removed from the modern community view have long since passed."

Wait a minute.

So the time for government restrictions on marriage have long since passed? Why did Tony Burke vote against the marriage amendment bill in September 2012? By long-since passed, does he mean last year? Last month? Last week? An hour ago?


Run with the logic a little. Burke is saying he has held what he now knows to be a radically unacceptable position; up until a year ago, he fervently supported the imposition of draconian laws on the community. He's suddenly realised how wrong he was. Really?

The subtext is this: pressure within the Labor party, and more to the point, increasing distance between Burke and the conservative SDA, have made it more convenient for him to support gay marriage.

What of the "modern community" view in Mr. Burke's seat of Watson? A poll in late 2010 revealed that a sizable majority of individuals in Burke's seat were against same-sex marriage. Granted, this may have changed slightly, but I highly doubt Burke has a majority in socially conservative suburbs like Lakemba and Bellfield.

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Xavier Symons is deputy editor of

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