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Substance and symbols

May 1st, 2008

I don’t have much comment on the government’s measures to remove a wide variety of discrimination against same-sex couples, except to observe that this ought to put an end to the canard that the Rudd government is “all about symbolism”. This is an issue where Howard tried hard to push the symbolism of gay marriage as a wedge, and deservedly failed.

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  1. Nick Melchior
    May 1st, 2008 at 18:27 | #1

    But perhaps he only failed because Rudd is as conservative on the marriage issue as him? Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted about the changes coming, but it’s a shame that we have to continue with this particular piece of discrimination.

  2. Steve Hamilton
    May 1st, 2008 at 21:26 | #2

    I’m not so sure about substance; seeing Mcclelland squirm and flounder on the 7.30 Report last night, after being asked point-blank by Kerry O’Brien why it wasn’t discriminatory to dissalow same-sex couples from marrying makes me wonder. The man is officially Australia’s Attorney-General; if he isn’t able to directly address this most fundamental of questions, then I’m not really sure that he’s worthy of the job. Say what you want about Ruddock, but at least he didn’t shy away from a fight when asked similar questions.

    The overwhelming impression I get from the Rudd Government (and this is weakly related to the substance vs. symbolism issue) is that they are largely still behaving like an Opposition. I don’t think they should be given “a chance”, as some commentators have called for. They’re not working at Woolies; I don’t feel that a new Australian Government is entitled to, nor should expect a probationary period.

    All I’ve heard is a whole heap of “this is what’s wrong” and “this is what’s missing” and “this is what is needed”, rather than “this is what we will do/are doing to solve the problem”.

    I’m not entirely sure when their probationary period will be over in the eyes of the Australian people; when will the point come that they have to stop promising, and start truly delivering?

    And as a sidenote, I’d just add that it could be clearly argued that this enhanced rights for same-sex couples decision is hardly “substantial”. To the contrary, it really is just another example of the symbolism that Rudd is famous for. After all, what did it cost? Would it have been a difficult decision? Were there really any potential losers as result of the change? Now, if they introduced same-sex marriage, that’s a whole different ball game, but they fell a long way short of that. And after all, this very same policy action was promised by the Howard Government during last year’s election campaign. They don’t get a Gold Star from me for this relatively small gesture.


  3. May 1st, 2008 at 21:59 | #3

    Is there much more than symbolism in these reforms? Superannuation, medicare, social security. I read that their cost to the government will be $400 million over 4 years – hardly a big deal.

    On the big issues Rudd ducked it – no marriage, no gay adoption of kids etc.

    Not that I am criticising Rudd. It seems to me reasonable to use the word marriage in a particular way without its meaning being bent to include relations between same sex couples.

    It also seems to me better if adopted kids have a mum and a dad – particularly when there are a shortage of kids that hetero couples seek to adopt. A positive – if fairly weak – case for discrimination.

  4. Ian Gould
    May 1st, 2008 at 22:21 | #4

    As others have said, if anything Rudd has delivered a symbolic slap in the face to gays by denying them equality before the law with heterosexuals.

    Howard (I believe) had already made some gestures towards removing some of the discrimination in the Superannuation.

    Rudd has simply followed suit, hoping to appease gays without alienating socially conservative Labor voters.

  5. jack strocchi
    May 1st, 2008 at 22:50 | #5

    Rudd’s sop to the gays indicates that his govt is primarily concerned with symbolic gestures and token handouts to special interest groups.

    He backs away from any kind of hard political fight against entrenched powerful interests. Why bother, he can coast off the largesse accumulated under Howard’s eleven fat years.

    I actually hope he legalises gay marriage, as this would be a move towards integrating a minority group which has had some problems recently into a mainstream lifestyle. But he does not want to alienate the Christians who feel somewhat persecuted by the media-academia complex.

  6. TerjeP
    May 1st, 2008 at 23:49 | #6

    In our constitution marriage is a federal responsibility. I think it is a cop out to say they will get the states to set up registers that parallel marriage for same-sex couples. It is also inefficient. The federal marriage register should be open to same-sex couples. Or else it should be closed down entirely.

    It would have been better that civil society owned the word marriage and if it had no real legal standing, however that horse bolted eons ago.

    I wrote a piece on this topic for the ABC during the last election:-


  7. Michael Norrish
    May 2nd, 2008 at 10:17 | #7

    The really symbolic moment will come when the federal government overrides the ACT’s attempt to pass a civil union bill, as looks possible.

  8. Andrew
    May 2nd, 2008 at 12:47 | #8

    Sorry JQ – I think you’ve got this one really wrong. Far from ending the ‘canard’ – this is another great example of Rudd’s symbolism. It goes hand-in with the Apology and Kyoto. Doesn’t cost the government anything (well not much) and doesn’t really tackle the big issues like do we want to allow gay marriage or not?

    I think Rudd’s going great so far – he’s managing to largely satisfy the left that he’s changing things with his symbolic gestures – but the reality is he’s continuing the great legacy of centre-right politics in Australia. It was started by Hawke/Keating with their reforms in the 80s – a short hiatus while Keating explored his arty side in the early 1990s, continued by Howard in the 1990s, another short hiatus in the mid 2000s when Howard lost his way too far to the right, and now it looks like being resumed by Rudd.

  9. wilful
    May 2nd, 2008 at 16:07 | #9

    Terje, I entirely agree. The simplest thing to do would be to repeal the marriage act in it’s entirety.

    Steve hamilton, the reason MacLelland wasn’t able to answer the question honestly is because you aren’t allowed to say “it’s the religious votes” out loud.

    Harry Clarke, there is no evidence to suggest that hetero couples are any better or worse than gay couples at parenting. The only remaining reason is prejudice. I wish people would just say that, rather than attempting to beat around the bush.

    As for ‘media-academic complex’, oh my…

  10. May 2nd, 2008 at 16:27 | #10

    Wilful, I agree that my thinking is that male-female unions, rather than homosexual sexual unions, provide a better basis for parenting.

    I admit all – I have not collected data on this claimed fact.

    For millions of years men and women have engaged in a joint productive enterprise called parenting. Gay couples have not.

  11. Ian Gould
    May 2nd, 2008 at 17:23 | #11

    HC: For millions of years men and women have engaged in a joint productive enterprise called parenting. Gay couples have not.

    Actually HC an introductory course in anthropology will demonstrate that humans have engaged in an enormous range of child-rearing strategies.

    These include, for example, the Spartan practice of removing male children from their mother’s care at age six or earlier; group care in which all adult members of a tribe are regarded as parents of all children; and child-raising by matrilinear moeities with little or no male involvement as practised by the Melingkabau of Sumatra.

    The limited evidence we have on the apparent practice of de facto gay marriage in medieval France suggests that male couples could and did adopt children.

    We also have the evidence of hundreds of thousands if not millions of children successfully raised by gay couples of both sexes over the past thirty or forty years.

    Gay marriage is legally acknowledging what is already the reality – and making it easier for gays to care for their children.

  12. Geoff Honnor
    May 2nd, 2008 at 18:18 | #12

    “This is an issue where Howard tried hard to push the symbolism of gay marriage as a wedge, and deservedly failed.”

    Worked a treat from what I can see, John. Not only is marriage protected from “mimicry,” as McLelland so memorably put it, even the relatively innocuous “civil union” construct that the ACT is proposing is verboten.

    Not that I’m ungrateful for the 100 amendments to existing relationship-based entitlement….:)

    “For millions of years men and women have engaged in a joint productive enterprise called parenting. Gay couples have not.”

    Harry, I’m a gay man and the proud father of a 21 year old daughter For millions of years, Harry, d

  13. Geoff Honnor
    May 2nd, 2008 at 18:26 | #13

    Sorry, I didn’t properly edit my last comment. I was going to tell Harry that I’m the proud father of a 21 year old daughter who appears to have developed into a remarkably well-adjusted human being – despite the apparent drawback of gay parentage.

    She’s in her penultimate year of a law degree and is interested in “Human Rights Advocacy” – but I can assure Harry that her aspiration has nothing to do with me…:)

  14. May 2nd, 2008 at 19:25 | #14

    Why are you so very defensive Geoff? I did not deny that gay people could make good parents. I simply said that ‘my thinking is’ having a mum and dad provided ‘a better basis for parenting’. I’ll emphatically stick with that, Ian Gould’s silly historical counterexamples motwithstanding.

    My claim is particularly true when there are fewer kids than parents seeking to adopt kids.

    In defending the traditional family I am not being anti-gay. I am simply saying that having a mum who gives birth and who brings up a child with her marital partner makes natural and common sense.

    For a young child having both male and female reference points seems sensible. It is certainly the reason Kevin Rudd made the decision he did and why it was backed up by the other half of Australian politics as well.

  15. Geoff Honnor
    May 2nd, 2008 at 20:08 | #15

    “Why are you so very defensive Geoff? I did not deny that gay people could make good parents. I simply said that ‘my thinking is’ having a mum and dad provided ‘a better basis for parenting’.”

    In this instance, Harry, there was a Mum and Dad, neither of whom were heterosexual. I’m sorry if I appeared defensive. My intention was to offer an
    alternative point of view.

  16. Ian Gould
    May 3rd, 2008 at 08:01 | #16

    “I am simply saying that having a mum who gives birth and who brings up a child with her marital partner makes natural and common sense.”

    Only to a person raised in a society where that’s the norm.

    People from the other cultures I’ve already mentioned may see things differently.

  17. Alison Alloway
    May 7th, 2008 at 22:28 | #17

    I’d like to believe that all “mums who give birth” make good mothers, however it just isn’t so. I’d also like to believe that the majority of paedophiles aren’t men, but the reality is they are, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
    In the majority of cases of children being locked away for years, the jailer has been a man. When looking at violent crimes against children, a far higher percentage of men are the perpetrators.
    For these reasons, I would be uneasy at the thought of gay male couples easily adopting children but very comfortable with gay women.
    In my experience, it would be highly unlikely to find two women together abusing a child.

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