It's no surprise that the Prime Minister is considering reforming access to government benefits for same-sex couples. Based on his own brand of conservatism, John Howard should support equal recognition for same-sex couples.
In 2005 Howard gave a speech to launch the publication The Conservative. He articulated his interpretation of conservatism, its values and how it is held in Australian society. The Prime Minister discussed the role of institutions and said conservatives "believe that if institutions have demonstrably failed, they ought to be changed or reformed".
There is little doubt the institutions charged with respecting the legitimacy and choices of same-sex couples have failed them.
Government institutions are perpetuating discrimination against same-sex couples in superannuation law, Medicare payments, migration law and taxation.
Liberal values and a belief in small government should promote downscaling these benefits, but if they are to be available, they should be provided without discrimination.
In the same speech Howard confessed to being a "profound opponent of radically changing the social context in which we live". It would be hard to argue that providing access for benefits to existing relationships would radically change the way homosexual or heterosexual individuals live their lives.
Same-sex relationships are an irreversible feature of Australian society. If there were a radical change in our social context that recognised same-sex relationships, it happened years ago when Will & Grace gained a prime-time television slot. Howard aligned his personal values to the values of average Australians: "[We] live in a classless society [where] a person's worth should be determined by a person's character and hard work."
Those Liberal MPs pushing for reform have shown that, as yet, the PM's words have not been put into practice. Warren Entsch became the proponent for equalisation of government benefits to same-sex couples following a constituent complaint from a gay military serviceman denied resettlement benefits for his partner. This example should directly offend Howard's ethic. Perhaps most poignantly, Howard articulated his strong belief "in the concept of mutual obligation, the reasonable expectation of a society built on individual achievement that, having given a fair go, they will return the compliment".
Same-sex couples have paid their taxes, taken responsibility for their lives and are active contributors to society. Unlike other debates in society, the lapse in mutual obligation in this debate is not on the individuals. The Government cannot say the same for itself.
Howard also professed his support for the institution of the family because it provides emotional support and reassurance as "the best social welfare policy that mankind has ever devised".
The Prime Minister's interpretation of the family was traditional, but that needn't mean its social welfare capacity doesn't apply to other mutually supportive relationships outside his model. Pushing gay rights is hardly Howard's wheelbarrow, but the move to provide government benefits to same-sex relationships shouldn't cause social conservatives discomfort.
The Liberal Party is a combination of two distinct political traditions, liberalism and conservatism. Whether conservatives believe sexuality is by choice or design, respecting individual choices is a shared position of conservatives and liberals. Still, this action may seem surprising in light of Howard's efforts to overturn the ACT civil unions bill. It shouldn't. The ALP used the gay community as patsies to try to retrieve its credibility on gay issues.
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