Wel­come to the ‘No’ case

Led by es­tab­lished and co-or­di­nated con­ser­va­tive voices, the ‘No’ case breaks down into three key ar­gu­ments, un­der which sits the back­beat of ho­mo­pho­bia. Sean Kelly re­ports.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - SEAN KELLY is The Monthly’s po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tor, and a for­mer ad­viser to prime min­is­ters Kevin Rudd and Ju­lia Gil­lard.

It was a fairly stun­ning ad­mis­sion to make at the be­gin­ning of a long cam­paign. Lyle Shel­ton, man­ag­ing direc­tor of the Aus­tralian Chris­tian Lobby, was asked on ra­dio about a claim made in the first tele­vi­sion ad­ver­tise­ment pro­duced since the same-sex mar­riage postal vote was an­nounced.

Neil Mitchell: “Kids wear­ing dresses – where do you get that from?”

Shel­ton: “Well, that’s what Cella’s chil­dren were told at Frankston High School at the end of 2015 when the Safe Schools pro­gram was be­gin­ning to be in­tro­duced.”

Mitchell: “And did it hap­pen?” Shel­ton: “Well, I don’t know.” I con­tacted the Aus­tralian Chris­tian Lobby this week, to ask if I might speak with Shel­ton. I was asked to con­tact the Coali­tion For Mar­riage in­stead. This hap­pened to me a lot. When I emailed David van Gend, pres­i­dent of the Aus­tralian Mar­riage Fo­rum, he emailed me back to say that “as part of the team at Coali­tion For Mar­riage, I now de­fer to our cen­tral me­dia con­tact”. When I left a mes­sage with the Catholic Bish­ops’ Con­fer­ence, I didn’t hear from them. In­stead, I got an email from the Coali­tion For Mar­riage: “They will re­di­rect in­quiries to the coali­tion me­dia of­fice, so maybe send me some ques­tions and I’ll see if I can farm them out to a Catholic spokesper­son.”

In other words, this is a tight, dis­ci­plined, on-mes­sage op­er­a­tion. So why wasn’t Shel­ton ready for Mitchell’s ques­tion?

One pos­si­ble an­swer is that Cella White’s claims are not true. In the ad, she says: “The school told my son he could wear a dress next year if he felt like it.” The prin­ci­pal of Frankston High, John Al­bis­ton, told The Age this week: “We checked with all the teach­ers – it never hap­pened. I have never had any com­plaints that we ad­vised the boys they could wear dresses. We didn’t of­fer them that op­tion.”

This de­nial should not have been a sur­prise to any­one. In Fe­bru­ary last year, Al­bis­ton de­nied the claims to News Corp. He re­peated the de­nial to The Age weeks be­fore the ad screened. The Coali­tion For Mar­riage had time to check its facts. But when I asked if checks had been done, if they could pro­vide me with any ev­i­dence,

or any other par­ents with whom I might speak to sub­stan­ti­ate White’s claim, I re­ceived no re­sponse.

Shel­ton did even­tu­ally call me back. He in­sisted Cella’s story was true, and that the Aus­tralian Chris­tian Lobby’s Vic­to­rian direc­tor, Dan Flynn, had taken her to see Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment of­fi­cials with her com­plaints. But, sur­pris­ingly, he said, “Cella’s been cam­paign­ing on this for 18 months, and this is the first time the ve­rac­ity of her claims has been chal­lenged.” When I told Shel­ton that was not cor­rect, and asked if he was aware of the ar­ti­cles in which her truth­ful­ness had been very clearly chal­lenged, he said he had been fol­low­ing Cella’s case pretty closely but hadn’t seen them.

Dawn is break­ing over Syd­ney Har­bour. We hear one of those well-oiled male voices that nor­mally come as the cred­its roll on your favourite show: “We live in a coun­try that’s been richly blessed.”

Sec­onds later, the im­age changes. Now we’re look­ing at a home­less man sit­ting on a foot­path as peo­ple pass him by. The voice con­tin­ues: “Right now, many of the things that have made this coun­try great are un­der threat.” The cam­era moves quickly now, as it pans across head­lines: “Push for abor­tion drugs to cost less than $12.” “2014 to be the year of same-sex mar­riage.” “Aust first eu­thana­sia clinic in Ade­laide.” “No one wins when chil­dren play with gam­bling apps.” By this stage, the well-oiled voice is sound­ing wor­ried: “The ground is shift­ing, and the foun­da­tions of mar­riage, fam­ily and com­pas­sion are all at risk.”

This is the lead video on the Aus­tralian Chris­tian Lobby’s YouTube site. I’ve watched it sev­eral times now, and each time I feel a small twinge when I get to this part. There are plenty of clever de­bat­ing points and sharp at­tacks made by the lobby and oth­ers, but the video feels to me like a small glimpse of the sor­row and fear at the heart of the “No” cam­paign. I might dis­agree with many of the ar­gu­ments they put for­ward, but when I hear that “the ground is shift­ing”, I don’t feel com­pas­sion be­cause they’re wrong; I feel com­pas­sion be­cause they’re right. Later in the video, the voice prom­ises to roll back “decades of harm­ful leg­is­la­tion”. Decades? The world they pine for isn’t about to van­ish: it van­ished a long time ago.

Long-time gay rights cam­paigner Rodney Croome is well aware of the pace of change, and how dis­ori­ent­ing that might be. “I re­mem­ber at wed­dings when I was a child, all the gos­sip was about white dresses, and whether the bride was a vir­gin. I re­mem­ber my grand­mother be­ing scan­dalised when my cousin was mar­ried in a peach dress. The point is, how quickly our un­der­stand­ing of mar­riage has changed. Wil­liam and Kate co­hab­ited be­fore they got mar­ried, and no­body cared.”

While those cam­paign­ing against gay rights might not be happy about a chang­ing world, they un­der­stand that’s the ground on which they must com­pete and have duly adapted.

“The con­spic­u­ous dif­fer­ence between the ‘No’ cam­paign now and for­mer cam­paigns against gay equal­ity”, Croome says, “is that they have steered away from any judge­ment about the qual­ity or nat­u­ral­ness of same-sex re­la­tion­ships.”

Those ar­gu­ments stopped about 2004, Croome says. “Al­most overnight. They de­cided that con­demn­ing gay peo­ple wouldn’t get them any­where any­more. Aus­tralians were not scared of gay peo­ple. There were openly gay cou­ples in most subur­ban streets and coun­try towns. If you can’t fo­cus on old fears and stereo­types, what do you fo­cus on? You do your best to de­fine mar­riage as a tra­di­tional, pro­cre­ation-based in­sti­tu­tion that LGBTI peo­ple can’t be part of.”

The residue of that ar­gu­ment re­mains as a fo­cus on chil­dren. An­drew Hastie, the for­mer army of­fi­cer and con­ser­va­tive West Aus­tralian Lib­eral MP, sum­marised the po­si­tion this week: “I’ll be vot­ing no be­cause I think mar­riage as it’s cur­rently de­fined is both a public and so­ci­ety good. It’s a spe­cial union, between a man and a woman. It’s a meet­ing of body and mind. It – it be­gins with con­sent and is sealed by sex­ual in­ter­course. And be­cause the sex­ual union is at the heart of mar­riage there’s also pro­cre­ative po­ten­tial. And be­cause of that fact, it’s in­her­ently or­dered to­wards fam­ily life. Now, the rea­son why the state has an in­ter­est in mar­riage is be­cause of the wel­fare of chil­dren.”

This ar­gu­ment is un­con­vinc­ing for a num­ber of rea­sons. The first is that same­sex adop­tion is al­ready le­gal. The sec­ond is that the vast bulk of lit­er­a­ture sug­gests the out­comes for chil­dren raised by same­sex cou­ples are as good if not bet­ter than for those raised by het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples.

And so, Croome says, the ar­gu­ments have now mu­tated again. “We’re see­ing a new ar­gu­ment, about the im­por­tance of gen­der and how ‘rad­i­cal gay ac­tivists’ are sup­pos­edly try­ing to erase it. That is the cur­rent in­tel­lec­tual thrust of their cam­paign.”

This ar­gu­ment about gen­der is ev­ery­where, and is an im­por­tant log­i­cal step in the “No” cam­paign’s case. If you were won­der­ing what the con­nec­tion was between Cella White’s claims about Safe Schools and changes to mar­riage laws, this is it.

You might as­sume that same-sex mar­riage al­lows two peo­ple of the same gen­der to marry. But for many “No” cam­paign­ers, gen­der hasn’t been equalised – it’s been erased, cre­at­ing a “gen­der­less mar­riage”. This might sound like a silly word game. In fact, it’s cru­cial, pro­vid­ing the set-up for the next log­i­cal leap. Once you’ve re­moved gen­der from mar­riage, goes the ar­gu­ment, it’s not long un­til gen­der is oblit­er­ated al­to­gether. As the Coali­tion For Mar­riage has it: “Re­mov­ing gen­der from our mar­riage laws means re­mov­ing gen­der from the class­room.”

Peo­ple at the front line of this de­bate, such as Shel­ton, have been mak­ing ar­gu­ments like this for years. In May last year, he tweeted that if gen­der­less mar­riage was en­shrined in law we might well be wit­ness­ing the last Mother’s Day. Last week, Tony Ab­bott posed a sim­i­lar co­nun­drum to 2GB’s lis­ten­ers: “How, for in­stance, can we le­git­i­mately say no to gen­der flu­id­ity pro­grams like so­called Safe Schools if we’ve de-gen­dered mar­riage? If we’ve of­fi­cially sanc­tioned de-gen­der­ing mar­riage, it’s very hard not to see de-gen­der­ing come in in so many other ar­eas as well.”

In 2005 Tony Ab­bott launched a book by So­phie York, who has known Ab­bott for more than 20 years. York is a bar­ris­ter and aca­demic, and sought pre­s­e­lec­tion for the Lib­er­als in Brendan Nel­son’s old seat of Brad­field. Ab­bott pro­vided a ref­er­ence. The con­ser­va­tive colum­nist Mi­randa Devine also backed her, writ­ing that she was “part of a new breed of con­ser­va­tive fem­i­nists, gen­er­ous and warm but with courage and a steely in­tel­lect … suc­cess­ful, nor­mal and fun, with a fine mind, good judge­ment, lov­ing fam­ily and clear moral com­pass”.

Ac­cord­ing to York’s web­site, she “con­trib­utes her time and en­ergy” to the In­sti­tute of Public Af­fairs and Aus­tralians for a Con­sti­tu­tional Monar­chy, among other groups. She is also the of­fi­cial spokes­woman for the Coali­tion For Mar­riage. When I put ques­tions to the group her an­swers came back as boil­er­plate talk­ing points.

Be­fore be­com­ing the coali­tion’s spokes­woman, York spoke on be­half of Mar­riage Al­liance. The chief ex­ec­u­tive of Mar­riage Al­liance is Damian Wyld, a for­mer Lib­eral can­di­date for Florey, in South Aus­tralia. One of the al­liance’s founders is Ash­ley Goldswor­thy, a for­mer pres­i­dent of the fed­eral Lib­eral Party.

The al­liance is now part of the Coali­tion For Mar­riage, along with al­most 30 other groups, in­clud­ing the Catholic Arch­dio­cese of Syd­ney and the Greek Ortho­dox Arch­dio­cese of Aus­tralia. These groups gather to­gether un­der a ban­ner that reads, “We are the silent ma­jor­ity.”

The “No” cam­paign sees si­lence ev­ery­where. In 2015 York went in­ter­na­tional, telling the BBC there was a risk some peo­ple were be­ing si­lenced, and there­fore, “We want a safe haven for dis­cus­sion.” John P. Wil­son, moder­a­tor gen­eral of the Pres­by­te­rian Church of Aus­tralia, wrote last week that many non-church­go­ers “do not want to be si­lenced on such a so­cially sig­nif­i­cant mat­ter”. Angli­can rec­tor Michael Jensen has warned of a “new cen­sor­ship”.

This idea is present in the Coali­tion For Mar­riage’s chief slo­gan: “You can say no.” The Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives have a Face­book ad of their own, with a sim­i­lar tagline: “It’s OK to say no.”

This fear of cen­sor­ship is echoed in three other prom­i­nent strands of ar­gu­ment. The first is that Chris­tians are the real vic­tims. Croome cites im­ages of rain­bow guns and rain­bow nooses in anti-same-sex mar­riage lit­er­a­ture.

“The idea that per­se­cu­tion proves your right­eous­ness has deep roots in Chris­tian­ity and cam­paign­ers against mar­riage equal­ity are des­per­ate to tap into that idea by pos­ing as vic­tims.”

An­drew Bolt is an ag­nos­tic, but writes of­ten about the “en­e­mies of Chris­tian­ity”. Asked to com­ment for this piece, he sent his re­sponse in near-bib­li­cal prose: “I know the par­a­digm is of yes cam­paign­ers be­ing nice peo­ple who are fight­ing evil in the name of love, but from the no side it must look like an army of mil­i­tants with eyes of holy fire com­ing for them with sharp swords in their hand and no pity in their hearts, so con­vinced are they that op­po­nents are big­ots and mon­sters.”

Bolt taps into the sec­ond strand of the “No” ar­gu­ment, the idea that the “No” side is the un­der­dog: “The other side has so much money and or­gan­i­sa­tional sup­port that it put out a counter-ad in just 24 hours. There’s no way, I sus­pect, that the “No” camp has the re­sources to do the same.”

Shel­ton tells me that fi­nan­cially it is a “David and Go­liath strug­gle”.

When I put this claim to Tier­nan Brady, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Equal­ity Cam­paign, he laughs, and pre­dicts

“Yes” will be mas­sively out­spent by the “colos­sal war chest” on the “No” side.

What­ever the case, the ar­gu­ment is mak­ing its way to the main­stream press. Caro­line Overington wrote in The Aus­tralian this week that “No” vot­ers “have no glam­our and no money. It seems like a race between a whiz-bang Tesla and your dad’s old Falcon 500, and if Aus­tralia doesn’t have a tra­di­tion of the un­der­dog bring­ing it home, I don’t know who does.”

The final strand of the cen­sor­ship ar­gu­ment, and the most im­por­tant, is that chang­ing the mar­riage laws is not the end point, but the be­gin­ning of a new wave of fright­en­ing so­cial change. This al­lows the “No” camp to ar­gue is­sues that seem to have no di­rect re­la­tion­ship to mar­riage. It cre­ates the proxy ar­gu­ments on gen­der iden­tity and school cur­ric­ula. It also pro­duces the false equiv­a­len­cies with polygamy, bes­tial­ity and in­cest. It al­lows Eric Abetz to muse that a law to per­mit two men to marry might em­bolden an­other man to marry the Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge.

Much as “gen­der­less mar­riage” will usher in “gen­der flu­id­ity”, the idea is that if it is hard to op­pose same-sex mar­riage now, it will be harder soon. On his web­site, Bolt cites a sin­gle case of a Catholic arch­bishop hav­ing had to at­tend me­di­a­tion be­fore the Tas­ma­nian Anti-Dis­crim­i­na­tion Com­mis­sion – af­ter a com­plaint that was later dropped – to ask, “Will priests be pun­ished for re­fus­ing to con­duct gay mar­riage cer­e­monies?

Will de­fend­ing tra­di­tional mar­riage be made illegal?” The fact that ev­ery bill to con­sider same-sex mar­riage has granted spe­cific ex­emp­tions to re­li­gious groups seems not to mat­ter. In other ar­gu­ments, the con­cern is that once same-sex mar­riage is le­galised re­li­gious peo­ple will feel per­se­cuted for hold­ing on to and ex­ploit­ing these ex­emp­tions.

In my con­ver­sa­tion with Lyle Shel­ton, he is keen to em­pha­sise the threat of com­mer­cial sur­ro­gacy as well. It is, he says, in­evitable once same-sex mar­riage be­comes le­gal. When I put to him that I haven’t heard any­one from the “Yes” side make that case, he says, “Of course the other side don’t want to talk about it. They want ev­ery­one to think there are no con­se­quences.”




Tier­nan Brady worked on the Ir­ish mar­riage ref­er­en­dum, which le­galised same-sex mar­riage in the ma­jor­ity Catholic coun­try. He saw sim­i­lar “red her­ring ” tac­tics there, but is flab­ber­gasted at how open the “No” side is about it here. “They’re not im­ply­ing this, they are di­rectly say­ing this … ‘This is­sue is not about mar­riage equal­ity.’ ”

Brady’s right. Shel­ton told Sky News last week: “I don’t think this de­bate has ever been about mar­riage.” I asked Shel­ton what he wants peo­ple to be think­ing as they mark the bal­lot pa­per. He said: “We want them to be think­ing about the con­se­quences … This is a ref­er­en­dum on free­dom of speech, free­dom of re­li­gion, and what chil­dren will be taught in schools.”

In ex­am­in­ing the ar­gu­ments made, an im­por­tant el­e­ment can be eas­ily over­looked: ho­mo­pho­bia.

One “Yes” cam­paigner tells me that in fo­cus groups the im­age that res­onates most with peo­ple who are against change is men with chil­dren.

It is no ac­ci­dent that in 2015 the Aus­tralian Mar­riage Fo­rum, which is now part of the Coali­tion For Mar­riage, ran an ad show­ing two men push­ing a pram. The ad was broad­cast on com­mer­cial tele­vi­sion, but SBS re­fused to screen it. The dog-whis­tle was ob­vi­ous: gay men can­not be trusted with chil­dren.

David van Gend, the fo­rum’s pres­i­dent, is not just in­ter­ested in mar­riage. Last year, as Queens­land was con­sid­er­ing stan­dar­d­is­ing the age of con­sent, van Gend made a sub­mis­sion:

“It would, for the first time in our le­gal his­tory, per­mit older ho­mo­sex­ual men to sodomise school­boys with im­punity

… I op­pose this re­gres­sive pro­posal, which might serve the in­ter­ests of older ho­mo­sex­u­als to law­fully ob­tain the ob­ject of their de­sire, but does not pro­tect their school­boy vic­tims.”

That is the same van Gend who told me that, should I have any ques­tions for him, I should con­tact the Coali­tion For


Cella White, in the Coali­tion For Mar­riage ad­ver­tise­ment.

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