Winners of vote must now govern for all
Australia’s gay marriage supporters need to extend tolerance to people who voted ‘‘no’’, writes University of Sydney law professor
It is not uncommon, after a bitterly contested election, for the victorious candidate to announce he will govern in the interests of the nation as a whole, including those who did not vote for him or her. It is typically intended as a soothing message to the country.
In the aftermath of a bitterly divisive campaign concerning same-sex marriage, Australia now needs the kind of leadership that delivers on those alltoo-often empty promises.
The two campaigns have been very different. Fundamentally, the task of the ‘‘yes’’ campaign was to get out the vote (and explain to young people what a postbox looks like). The task of the ‘‘no’’ campaign was to change a lot of people’s minds. Some of those efforts might be regarded as disingenuous; for example, the attempt to link same-sex marriage with the radical activists promoting unscientific ideas about gender fluidity.
However, other concerns are much more substantial. In many countries where same-sex marriage has been debated, there has been discrimination against those who have expressed traditional views – for no other reason than that they expressed an opinion.
Consider, for example, the case of Adrian Smith from Manchester in England. In 2011, he placed on his Facebook page a comment that he did not think that churches should be compelled to marry same-sex couples, although he did not object to same-sex marriage. His was hardly a radical view. It is accepted on all sides in Australia.
Yet he was accused by his employer, a housing association, of ‘‘gross misconduct’’ and threatened with dismissal. Because of his long service, he was only demoted; but he lost 40 per cent of his salary. There have been examples in Australia of similar repercussions against people for expressing their views.
What is remarkable about this hostility towards those who hold traditional views is that both sides of politics in Australia held those views as recently as seven years ago. Back then, it was the official policy of both Labor and the Coalition to oppose same-sex marriage.
Many people who hold traditional beliefs and values are worried by the hatred expressed towards those who express opinions that a generation or two ago were almost universally held. They worry that freedom of speech and belief are so little protected.
Indeed, anti-discrimination laws have become weapons of ‘‘lawfare’’ against people who hold religious beliefs about marriage. When the Archbishop of Hobart is dragged through a discrimination complaints process to defend a booklet on marriage put out by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, you know that the rights and freedoms for which Australians have fought and died, are now under threat from within.
Experience overseas, including in Canada, England and New Zealand, does not provide any reassurance that fundamental human rights to hold dissentient views about marriage will be protected.
A lot of the concerns people have are not even about same-sex marriage itself. They worry about the rapid secularisation of society and the shift away from Judaeo-Christian values. The redefinition of marriage is the most visible symbol of this. People worry about agendas to remove religious freedom provisions in antidiscrimination statutes that have long provided a balance between competing human rights.
So what is to be done after yesterday’s announcement of the outcome of the survey? Somehow, the Coalition needs to agree on a private member’s bill that will give effect to the outcome. That is easier said than done.
Dean Smith and some colleagues in the Liberal party have worked out a bill that seeks to ‘‘allow equal access to marriage while protecting religious freedom’’. It was circulated to MPs in August. The effect of it is that celebrants will not be compelled to solemnise marriages against their beliefs. For the most part, religious bodies will not be compelled to allow their buildings to be used to solemnise same-sex marriages. Labor supports this bill.
However, it does not go far enough. The postal survey debates have thrown up wider concerns about freedom of speech and belief in relation to marriage. If equality is to be ensured, there is a need for protection from discrimination for people who hold traditional beliefs. Freedom of speech about marriage needs to be reaffirmed.
That means, for the leaders of the ‘‘yes’’ case, a willingness to be magnanimous in victory and to reassure those who are unsettled by the pace of social change, that their fundamental rights and freedoms will be respected. It also requires those on the ‘‘no’’ side to be gracious in defeat and to acknowledge that a bill enacting same-sex marriage should be passed before Christmas.
Finding the way forward will require nation-healing leadership, first from those in the LBGT community who have led the campaign for marriage equality; second, from members of Parliament who will need to find common ground across the political divide.
All parties have political incentives to negotiate solutions to the issues about freedom of speech, religion and conscience that have arisen in this debate.
The question is whether they can rise above their differences to govern for all Australians, including those who haven’t voted for same-sex marriage, and navigate through Parliament legislation that will equally protect the human rights of all.
❚ Vote report, B1
An artist paints a pro-gay marriage mural on a wall at Melbourne Central in the leadup to the gay marriage referendum.