A scourge of Western democ­racy is poi­son­ing same-sex mar­riage de­bate

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - GREG SHERI­DAN

John Howard has ex­posed the fatu­ous­ness of Lib­eral min­is­ters who have said a Yes vote would not have wide­spread con­se­quences for re­li­gious free­dom.

This has been a seis­mic week in the de­vel­op­ment of Aus­tralia’s po­lit­i­cal cul­ture.

John Howard’s in­ter­ven­tion in the same-sex de­bate was his most dra­matic and pas­sion­ate since he left the prime min­is­ter­ship in 2007. He ac­cused the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment of not tak­ing re­li­gious free­dom se­ri­ously and con­demned it for not pro­duc­ing the bill it would put to par­lia­ment if the Yes vote wins. He ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of triv­i­al­is­ing re­li­gious free­dom and de­manded it clar­ify how it would pro­tect “parental rights, free­dom of speech and re­li­gious free­dom” if the Yes vote passed.

Howard’s in­ter­ven­tion ex­poses the ut­ter fatu­ous­ness of Lib­eral min­is­ters who, un­til yes­ter­day, had gen­er­ally claimed a Yes vote would have no con­se­quences for re­li­gious free­dom be­yond need­ing to en­sure re­li­gious min­is­ters did not have to of­fi­ci­ate at gay wed­dings. In re­sponse to Howard, Mal­colm Turn­bull and Bill Shorten were forced to ac­knowl­edge that there would need to be some ex­tra pro­tec­tion for re­li­gious free­dom. But min­is­ters still spoke as though the main is­sue was cler­ics of­fi­ci­at­ing at wed­dings.

Let’s be very clear. That is about the least likely threat to re­li­gious free­dom aris­ing out of this process. The threat to re­li­gious lib­erty is much more per­va­sive.

Le­gal­is­ing same-sex mar­riage will vastly in­crease the power and propen­sity of all forms of anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion leg­is­la­tion, and at­ten­dant gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda bod­ies, to ha­rass re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions on the ba­sis that their tra­di­tional teach­ings con­sti­tute dis­crim­i­na­tion.

This is al­ready hap­pen­ing. Much of it will hap­pen un­der state laws. It is ab­surd for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to ig­nore the in­ter­ac­tion of fed­eral and state laws.

A sense of this has caused Tony Ab­bott to go so far as to ar­gue for the abo­li­tion of the Aus­tralian Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion.

Al­though Howard is a pro­po­nent of the No case, he pointed out what should be the ob­vi­ous path for Lib­er­als sup­port­ing the Yes case.

The Lib­eral Yes cam­paign­ers should prom­ise to en­act this on­bal­ance sen­si­ble re­form and at the same time se­ri­ously strengthen Aus­tralia’s pa­thet­i­cally weak re­li­gious free­dom laws.

This would be le­git­i­mate in prin­ci­ple and also would be pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cally. It would be true to Lib­eral val­ues, help with the Lib­eral base, and di­vide La­bor and Yes case pro­po­nents be­tween moder­ates and ex­trem­ists. The Lib­er­als would ful­fil their his­toric role of in­tro­duc­ing in­cre­men­tal re­forms sen­si­bly with bal­anc­ing safe­guards.

In­stead the gov­ern­ment’s at­ti­tude is one of com­plete, heed­less sur­ren­der: if we just give in on this is­sue as quickly as pos­si­ble we can get back to the economy and na­tional se­cu­rity.

This whole episode shows how com­pre­hen­sively illthought-out and un­pre­pared the main­stream Lib­eral ap­proach is to what will be an ever grow­ing dy­namic of iden­tity pol­i­tics in Aus­tralia, as has hap­pened in every other Western coun­try. This dy­namic threat­ens to bit­terly, need­lessly di­vide our cul­ture, dam­age our pol­i­tics and over­whelm the Lib­eral Party, which seem­ingly can­not make the most el­e­men­tary cal­cu­la­tions of prin­ci­ple and pol­i­tics.

Un­like Howard, I sup­port the Yes case, for two rea­sons of prin­ci­ple and one of prag­ma­tism.

The first rea­son of prin­ci­ple is that once so­ci­ety and the law recog­nise, as they do now, that gay couples can have chil­dren, in­clud­ing through adop­tion, then the most im­por­tant peo­ple in this dis­cus­sion are those chil­dren. They ben­e­fit if their par­ents’ com­mit­ment to each other has the le­gal force of mar­riage.

The sec­ond rea­son of prin­ci­ple is that the so­cial con­sen­sus that mar­riage is be­tween one man and one woman for life has sub­stan­tially bro­ken down. There­fore it is not the role of the state to en­force it any longer. The Chris­tian churches have every right, through per­sua­sion and ex­am­ple, to try to re-es­tab­lish

that con­sen­sus. But the ar­gu­ment against en­forc­ing it is very strong.

The third and prag­matic rea­son for sup­port­ing the Yes vote is that it is much bet­ter for this re­form to be car­ried out by a cen­tre-right gov­ern­ment that can also en­shrine se­ri­ous pro­tec­tions for re­li­gious free­dom. The ut­ter clue­less­ness of the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment on these mat­ters is dispir­it­ing.

Iden­tity pol­i­tics is a per­va­sive and gen­er­ally de­struc­tive force around the Western world. It is the idea that your po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion, and your po­lit­i­cal and even moral worth in some cir­cum­stances, is de­fined by some el­e­ment of your iden­tity, such as race, gen­der, re­li­gion, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or what­ever, rather than by the be­liefs and com­mit­ments you en­ter into.

The thrust of lib­er­al­ism in the 19th and 20th cen­turies was to try to achieve a civic equal­ity in the treat­ment of ev­ery­body, to be colour blind, iden­tity blind, as it were, in civic mat­ters.

The de­struc­tive­ness of iden­tity pol­i­tics is that it poi­sons re­la­tions be­tween hu­man be­ings by claim­ing that his­toric in­jus­tices re­quire civic in­equal­i­ties to rem­edy them to­day. This re­quires that some groups be clas­si­fied as vic­tims and oth­ers as vil­lains.

Last week fur­nished an in­ter­est­ing US ex­am­ple. In a Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for an Ap­peals Court judge, Amy Coney Bar­rett, lib­eral Demo­crat Dianne Fe­in­stein crit­i­cised her be­cause she was a prac­tis­ing Catholic. Fe­in­stein com­mented: “What­ever a re­li­gion is, it has its own dogma. The law is to­tally dif­fer­ent … in your case the dogma lives loudly within you and that’s of con­cern.”

This arose be­cause Bar­rett had writ­ten of the eth­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties of pro­nounc­ing in a cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment case be­cause she op­posed cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. One op­tion for judges would be to re­cuse them­selves. But Bar­rett wrote ex­plic­itly: “Judges can­not, nor should they try to, align our le­gal sys­tem with the church’s moral teach­ing when­ever the two di­verge.”

But be­cause Chris­tian­ity is cast by iden­tity pol­i­tics as the vil­lain, Bar­rett was con­sid­ered prima fa­cie un­fit be­cause she is a con­sci­en­tious Catholic.

You can see some­thing of the same im­pulse in the grotesque mis­use of the term “white Chris­ten­dom” by the nor­mally sen­si­ble Stan Grant in his re­cent con­tri­bu­tion to the his­tory wars.

Iden­tity pol­i­tics is dev­as­tat­ing Western po­lit­i­cal cul­tures in sev­eral ways.

One, be­cause it re­quires a vil­lain, and the vil­lain is nor­mally some ver­sion of “white Chris­ten­dom”, it in­evitably pro­vokes white iden­ti­tar­ian pol­i­tics as a back­lash. Two, be­cause it wants to re­make the pub­lic soul, rather than mere pub­lic pol­icy, its de­mands can never be sat­is­fied. This ide­o­log­i­cal ten­dency was ev­i­dent in Hil­lary Clin­ton’s em­brace of “un­con­scious bias” in last year’s elec­tion. Ac­cord­ing to this, even white folks who re­ject racism at every point of their lives are still in­her­ently racist be­cause they suf­fer from “un­con­scious bias”. Three, iden­tity pol­i­tics tries to make client groups feel good be­cause the broader so­ci­ety apol­o­gises to them, thus the busi­ness of apol­ogy has to go on for­ever. The apol­ogy is like a drug of ad­dic­tion. A lit­tle is good at first, but then more is re­quired, then more and more for­ever.

And four, be­cause the cham­pi­ons of iden­tity pol­i­tics, al­most al­ways com­fort­able mid­dle-class ac­tivists, see them­selves as fight­ing against hor­ren­dous his­toric evils, they recog­nise no bounds at all of mod­er­a­tion in their lan­guage or re­spect for peo­ple who con­sci­en­tiously dis­agree with their pro­pos­als.

Thus Ben­jamin Law, in most re­spects a good and tal­ented fel­low, could tweet that he would “hate-f..k” coali­tion MPs to cure them of their ho­mo­pho­bia. Imag­ine the so­ci­ety-wide and jus­ti­fied core melt­down there would be if some ad­vo­cate of the No case said he would be happy to have rough sex with sup­port­ers of the Yes case to show them how good straight sex is. Even typ­ing the words is un­seemly and makes you squea­mish.

The point here is not to make a mar­tyr of Law. He is a main­stream fig­ure but not cen­tral. The point is to il­lus­trate where iden­tity pol­i­tics al­ways goes, and al­ways goes wrong.

That Law can­not see how pro­foundly of­fen­sive his com­ments were, that they im­plied a com­plete lack of re­spect for hu­man be­ings who dis­agree with him, il­lus­trates the toxic power of iden­tity pol­i­tics. In his Quar­terly Es­say, he quotes Vic­to­rian Premier Daniel An­drews as say­ing “ex­treme Lib­er­als” who op­posed the Safe Schools pro­gram were not of­fended by the pro­gram but: “I just think they’re of­fended by the kids who need it”.

An­drews is nor­mally a sen­si­ble per­son, moder­ate in his lan­guage. But his ac­cu­sa­tion, that un­named Lib­eral politi­cians hate gay kids is out­ra­geous and so grave that it should be made with the great­est cau­tion. Sim­i­larly, Law says un­named politi­cians “seem to loathe their queer con­stituents”. Can Law, or more im­por­tantly An­drews, re­ally be­lieve they are help­ing any gay teenager who may feel psy­cho­log­i­cally vul­ner­a­ble by falsely telling them that a large co­hort of politi­cians hates them?

There are two ways cen­treright par­ties can make a real mess of iden­tity pol­i­tics. One is to get so hos­tile to its man­i­fest dis­hon­esty and bul­ly­ing that they take it out not on the ex­trem­ist ac­tivists but on some of the peo­ple they claim to rep­re­sent, es­pe­cially by fail­ing to en­act rea­son­able re­forms that may help any dis­ad­van­taged per­son. The other way is sim­ply to sur­ren­der to iden­tity pol­i­tics in the hope that pre-emp­tive ca­pit­u­la­tion to an ever in­creas­ing iden­tity pol­i­tics agenda will buy them the peace to win po­lit­i­cally on is­sues where they are more com­fort­able.

Alas, there is no coward’s refuge. They will just lose de­ci­sively to the left or they will be dis­placed by more mil­i­tant and far less re­spon­si­ble al­ter­na­tive forces on the right.

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