Ad hoc arguments against civil unions

My friend John Heard is always quick to jump on any suggestion of gay marriage or civil unions; so much so that two op-eds on the subject this year have had to be qualified by subsequent blog posts (here and here).

Labor is not, as John now concedes but claimed in his Australian op-ed this morning, about to introduce civil unions in breach of an election promise. What it is planning to do is move towards relationship registers and remove various forms of discrimination against gay couples, as set out in the ALP platform.

The problem with John’s anti-civil union/gay marriage stance is that though his position on this issue is essentially the Catholic one, that’s a hard argument to make in a minority Catholic country with a strong tradition of secular politics.

So he is forced to adopt various ad hoc arguments that provide no solid basis for an anti-civil union/gay marriage argument. The problems of ad hocery are well-summarised in this passage from today’s op-ed:

…the ACT model …includes a marriage-mimicking ceremony and gives all the rights and relief currently offered to married people, mostly parents, to overwhelmingly childless, relatively affluent same-sex couples.

It is also unnecessarily costly, sucking up significant government expenditure on changes that will benefit, if the mere 100 couples that have availed themselves of the Tasmanian same sex couples’ registry and the 1000 “unionised” gays in New Zealand are anything to go by, a tiny minority of Australians.

But the arguments that few gay people want to participate in civil unions and that civil unions will be very costly are in serious tension with each other. If John is right that few people will people will go through civil union ceremonies than the financial cost won’t be very high.

Further complicating his argument, most of the cost to the public purse will come from not from civil unions but from ending petty discrimination in a range of areas of government policy, which Labor is committed to doing, and which John is not opposing in his op-ed.

As well as attacking Labor, John argues against the idea that ‘progressive’ social policies are the way to restore Liberal fortunes. I think this is broadly right in a purely electoral sense. As he says, Howard battlers did not switch to Labor because they had changed their minds about gay marriage.

But I also think that it is pretty clear that we are seeing a structural shift in opinion on gay issues, driven both by people changing their minds and by younger more ‘progressive’ voters replacing older more ‘conservative’ voters in the electorate.

There is a clear majority (pdf) for removing petty discrimination against gays in government benefits and, while not yet a clearly majority (I’d want repeat polling on the survey in the link), already more people are in favour of civil unions than are against them. As opinion shifts, the electoral case for Howard’s conservatism on this issue will become weaker, unless a strong policy case can be made for the status quo (perhaps plus relationship registers and less some existing discrimination).

John repeats the claim that civil unions or gay marriage will somehow harm heterosexual marriage. I’m still struggling to see the causal mechanism by which this could occur, and John doesn’t elaborate. So I don’t see any substantive policy (as opposed to political) reasons against civil unions or gay marriage.

Without bringing in religion, we are left only with definitional disputes – marriage to date has always been between a man and a woman, so it must always be that way in future. That seems to Rudd’s view at this point. I’m not convinced by this, but I can at least see the argument. That’s why we should start with civil unions – a trial in a relatively small place like Canberra is a good federalist option – and progress to marriage once we have seen how they work.

39 thoughts on “Ad hoc arguments against civil unions

  1. There must be some safe political room for movement because Tasmania has a sort of register (I think it can be any two people in a close relationship) and it seems well accepted by Tasmanians and the sky didn’t fall in. Ditto New Zealand. Maybe the first term goal should be to remove discrimination, while having a committee look at models for registers, unions etc., for action in a second term of government.


  2. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for your email mate.

    To clarify:

    1. I have no problem with many of the reforms you mention, and I have written publicly to support changes to judicial pension schemes, etc:

    2. The Prime Minister’s office responded to, inter alia, my piece, a piece by Jim Wallace and some gracious (given the circumstances) lobbying by a diverse range of family-keen, centrist voices. There was also the matter of an election promise. The link posted to the blog was not, therefore, a qualification. Rather, it was a sign that the Rudd Labor Government is open to common sense. So too, John Roskam at the IPA in that first instance. It is good to find ostensible adversaries lining up behind the family. Long may the major parties support such a humane position.

    3. We’ve had this out before, but you’re right. I don’t have a libertarian case against ‘gay marriage’, but on your own analysis, I probably don’t need one:

    4. Certainly, it is a little rich to dismiss the rest of the electorate’s rejection of ‘gay marriage’ as a ‘Catholic argument’. The case for marriage is written in human nature, it is reiterated by biology and demonstrated every time a family flourishes to the edification of the C/commonwealth. Asking for a major premise to conclusions type valid argument is a category mistake, and at least like asking for an ontological proof of human (not G-d’s) existence: i.e., redundant/impractical. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just that it isn’t called for in an op-ed.

    5. I argued against Stanhope’s scheme because it is back-door ‘gay marriage’. You know that I support limited civil unions, indeed have argued in the Catholic press and elsewhere that if people feel the need for some limited reform, it could be along the lines of the SA model:

    6. I won’t tie up your comments box. Thank you for your interest. We can all agree that the family is worth securing. I trust in your ability to read facts through the spin. I usually find your statistical/literature reviews enlightening.

    I invite your readers to join the discussion on the DREADNOUGHTERS ‘Facebook’ group:

    or send me an email, I always reply.

    All best,

    – JH


  3. Even bringing in religion you’re left with definitional disputes.
    Marriage as discussed by Jesus seems to transcend legal institutions (Matt 5:31-32, 19:3-9). But the problem is, even if God-given institution ought to be expressed legally, marriage in an Australian legal context bears but a passing resemblance to the Christian ideal. The institution many Christians are defending is already thoroughly secular and weak (in terms of ease of divorce).
    Another issue is that from a conservative perspective, it could be seen as desirable to help foster the less promiscuous, more socially stable parts of gay culture/society.


  4. John – I don’t think the electorate has a ‘Catholic’ view of this, though I think the strongest opponents of gay marriage work from religious perspective. I think this is a principled argument – though not principles I agree with of course.

    I suspect the general public finds gay marriage counter-intuitive, given the historical nature of marriage as an institution. But I think when we think about why we have marriage the idea of gay marriage makes more sense than it first seems.


  5. IMHO the state shouldn’t be involved in the marriage game, be it gay, straight, bigamist, religious or secular. The state should extend no favoured status to any private arrangement of domestic affairs. The most any government should permit is a register of any private contracts between consenting adults. Why anyone would want to invite the state to have a say in their personal affairs is beyond me.


  6. “The case for marriage is written in human nature, it is reiterated by biology”

    No it isn’t. Breeding yes, the formal recognition of a relationship by secular and/or non-secular authorities no.

    Both human nature in particular and biology in general are riddled with billions of examples of successful breeding arrangements that owe nothing to state or religious sanctioned monogamous lifetime pairings.

    I agree with Brendan that the state’s only involvement should be in documenting contractual arrangements, leaving everyone perfectly free to acknowledge, celebrate and endorse their choice of union in any other way they see fit. And not to tell others how they shouldn’t.


  7. “John repeats the claim that civil unions or gay marriage will somehow harm heterosexual marriage. …and John doesn’t elaborate”

    No anti-gay marriage commentator does when confronted with the question about the harm same-sex unions will supposedly do to heterosexual unions.


  8. In many historic definitions of marriage, polygamy is included. Perhaps if we want to go to historic definitions that should be legalized.

    It’s a distinct failing of the anti-gay union folk that they don’t set up fronts to push for polygamy using the argument that if you extend marriage to allow for gay unions you should allow polygamy too. The argument is pretty thin, but it would be good for Andrew Bolt or whoever to carp on about and excite his readers.

    Gay unions and marriages is an interesting wedge issue, for both sides of Australian politics.


  9. So in other wotds we shouldn’t have gay marriage because i’m opposed to gay marriages. At least just stand up and say it instead of 100 spurious arguments why.

    And if the anti-gay marriage brigade spent as much time working toawrds supporting marriage and family as they did banging on about this they might have some moral ground to stand on.

    Where these people fall in a hole is that they think a bad marriage between mum and dad who treat the kids like shit is better than a good marriage where dad and dad treat the kids well. When your conclusion is absurd, your argument is false.


  10. “The case for marriage is written in human nature, it is reiterated by biology and demonstrated every time a family flourishes to the edification of the C/commonwealth.”

    Actually John, there is a very strong case to be made that human beings are not naturally monogamous creatures. Biologically the male seems better designed to have multiple partners. This is demonstrated in the high divorce rates and instances of extramarital affairs.

    I think it’s a little disingenuous to make a statement like that and suggest it’s empirical fact. Far from it.


  11. At the risk of stating the obvious … great article Andrew. John Heard’s belief in the unpopularity of gay marriage is sadly mistaken IMHO – especially amongst under-30s.

    I really think social conservatives don’t realise the degree to which they’ve lost the debate amongst young people on the whole gay issue. Amongst under-30s, the Liberal-voting economic conservatives I know are also quite likely to know several gay friends and more than one gay couple. I went to 3 weddings in Qld this year and everytime the line about “A marriage is between a woman and a man, and a man and a woman” there were surpressed sniggers or surprised eyebrows raised in the crowd.

    One final point – the “natural” argument. The science here is firming all the time – homosexuality is not primarily a lifestyle (although of course it can be!). It’s a hard-wired attraction caused by some very specific developmental conditions relating to the amount of testosterone in the womb. Surely if we value the family we can agree that families come in all shapes and sizes.

    Or do we really believe the state should be mandating what sort of relationships people can have?


  12. Hi there,

    Nothing to add on this other than to say that I fully support you and the other posters on this one Andrew. I can say this without qualification as there haven’t been any posts supporting Beard’s position (other than his own of course).




  13. All this moaning about how conservatives can’t back up their argument that gay marriage would harm traditional marriage. Hasn’t the claim just meant that it results in marriage as an “institution” having a less specific and special character, and conservatives think that it deserves special treatment and recognition as a relationship of special character. It is true, as Andrew said in his earlier post, that the ready acceptance of heterosexual casual sex and cohabitation is the biggest harm to the special nature of marriage, but I find extremely fanciful the suggestion that to give even more forms of sexual relationships the same recognition is going to stop the “rot” that the legitimization of de facto relationships began. As Andrew tries to use against Heard, it’s not as if a huge number of gay couples seem to actually want it where it is available anyway. (Someone Google up the UK, please.) I think it would be very unlikely that gay marriage will significantly decrease the number of casual or non-married gay relationships.

    I see it rather analogous to Anglican womens’ priesthood. Telling some women they couldn’t have it made them want it on principle. They argued not giving it was hurting the church and keeping people away. But when they got it, despite keeping the small minority happy, the institution is more moribund than ever.


  14. Pardon my ignorance, but I’m at a loss to understand the difference between “ending petty discrimination”, “civil unions” and “marriage”, from a non-religious perspective. (Perhaps the institution of marriage has already suffered too great a devaluation if one needs to ask such questions?) Presumably the ending of petty discrimination with respect to a given relationship must take effect on a particular date and such a relationship may also presumably end under certain conditions. Why can’t the first date be marked by its participants as their “marriage” date and the latter as their “divorce” date? Is the difference that such dates cannot be freely chosen by the partners? Surely that’s not the thing behind all of this fuss??


  15. I’ll add my whiny voice to Brendan H. I don’t support “gay marriage”, but that’s because I think the state should stay out of private relationships, full stop.


  16. Steve, there’s a phrase much used on this blog: “correlation is not causation” which might apply to your observations re women priests and the state of the C of E.
    But when you say that “Telling some women they couldn’t have it made them want it on principle” … I wonder if you think the same was true of blacks and equal rights in the US?
    Do you regret that universities have lost the “specific and special character” they had when they excluded women as students?
    Whether it’s racism, feminism, discrimination against gays or the disabled, what’s working to change that is a deeply-held value that people should be treated equally. When prejudices are measured against that value it’s sometimes a shock to realise that what seemed natural, because it’s always been like that, needs to be changed. Some people will never get used to the change, but most, over time, over generations, do.


  17. Civil unions with attendant equalisation of financial rights and responsibilities for gays is a must. Marriage is nonsense as are rights to adopt non-biologically-related children, and all the rest of the Breeder-copying crap some of them go on with.


  18. We should tell the catholics to Get Stuffed! It is none of their bloody business. Marriage predates Jesus Christ by millennia and has always been practiced in all societies. The Catholics have their own regulations and rituals related to their concept of marriage. How the state deals with marriage has no impact on the Catholics, and if god is upset, let him deal with the offenders on Judgement Say.


  19. Steve – Whether civil unions/marriage would change the nature of gay relationships to any significant extent is an interesting issue. There were 18,000 civil partnerships in the UK in the first year of them being available, surely a small % of the gay population there. On the other hand, gay culture was largely formed around the assumption that marriage was impossible (or a sham), and that may slowly change. There is now something to aspire to that did not exist before, and role models that did not exist before.

    Rajat – But the same questions could be asked of heterosexuals. In a formal legal sense, the difference between marriage and other live-in relationships is not large today, it is the symbolic difference that presumably encourages most people to eventually formalise their partnerships. The added commitment implied by marriage is most socially valuable in providing a more stable environment for kids, but presumably still value adding for those who cannot have them, or do not want them.


  20. Well, my point is that if choice of dates for rights and obligations to commence and cease is the only difference between ‘marriage’ and what gays have or will have shortly, then why not allow gays to have it? After all, no one is arguing for gays to be eligible to ‘get married’ in a church.


  21. Marriage as defined by the state is a protection racket for a state-preferred form of domestic relationship. Being married gives you legal privileges unavailable to the unmarried. From a libertarian perspective, my agitation would be focussed on reducing the state’s involvement in all individual’s lives, not trying to increase it. It is unjust that married individuals receive favouritism before the law simply because they’re married. Equal rights for individuals, regardless of their marital status.


  22. Russell: if the regulation of marriage is all about the right to equal treatment, then I presume the State is infringing on the rights of people who want to form polygamous or group marriages, as well as incestuous ones (at least if the latter are infertile.)? (No, I am not trying to raise the slippery slope argument; just wanting to make a point about whether it is all about “equality” or not.)

    Andrew: I note from the UK National Statistics On-line story about this that the average age of the men forming civil partnerships in 2006 was 47, compared to 54 in 2005! It will be interesting to see what this means for gay “divorce”, because presumably these figures indicate that a very large proportion of the early partnerships are between couples who have been together in a long stable relationship anyway, and may be unlikely to ever separate.

    I suspect, just as a hunch, that the pattern of gay relationships will likely always be that younger men will have fun well into their 30’s until getting especially interested in having an exclusive relationship formalised. (There will be no biological clock concern that may prompt women into forcing the marriage issue.)

    If I am right (and it is just a guess), the role models you speak of are always mostly likely to be older men, often in their 40’s, who just want to settle down. I can’t see that it is therefore going to represent much of a role model at all for younger men.


  23. Steve – you are exactly raising the slippery slope argument, which skips over an important boundary.

    We’re talking about the institution of marriage, which is between two people – and saying that the two people in a marriage / civil union could be of the same sex. We’re not talking about non-existent legal arrangements, so there is no ‘equality’ being denied. If people want to make an argument for an institution of polygamy, let them make it. As far as I know, in the places that have civil unions, it hasn’t led to any blurring with ideas about polygamy.


  24. Steve – A couple of friends of mine had a UK civil partnership in their early 30s, but I suspect you are right that older is more likely. And Russell is right that gay marriage and polygamy are politically completely different issues. The pressure for civil unions/gay marriage is driven by significant changes in attitudes towards gay relationships, practical issues faced by people in those relationships, and the desire of the gay community for equality. None of those social or political conditions exist for polygamy.


  25. To make things more interesting, let’s have a look at Steve’s slippery slope argument.
    I can see serious policy reasons against incestuous relationships, let alone marriage (sexualisation of the family, genetic disorders in children, etc).
    But what’s wrong with polyamorous relationships? Russell, what is it about the institution of marriage which makes it necessarily between two people? Polygamy was part of the institution of marriage for a long time, and still is in some places.


  26. Andrew (and Russell): what I meant when denying that I was raising “slippery slope” was that I agree that in practice there is unlikely to be any quick slippery slope towards polygamy in Australia, mainly because (as far as I know) we don’t have any substantial Mormon-ish sects here who insist on it as a religious right, nor (at least not yet) migrants who feel a particular cultural attachment to it.

    But really, if you (well, Russell in particular) frame the justification for gay marriage on the grounds of “equality”, I think it is just disingenuous to deny that the same argument cannot be used with equal logic by those who want legal recognition to polygamy which is, after all, a form of marriage with an equally long pedigree. (Russell, if I wanted to bring up the silly example of marriage to animals, I would agree there is no hope for the equality argument there; but we’re not talking some wild new idea with polygamy.)

    Andrew: to say it is a completely different political issue seems to me to just mean “well, insufficient people here want that yet”, but my point is more general: why won’t an argument based on equal rights argument be available to them if (eg) sufficient migrants from polygamous cultures were here?

    If you agree that it would be, then I suppose I can say that you do concede there is something to the slippery slope argument. If you say it would be available but you expect it would be outweighed by other arguments against it, then you are conceding that equality is not the sole thing that the regulation of marriage is about, and that was my point.


  27. “But what’s wrong with polyamorous relationships? ”
    I’m a little short on experience here …. Pollyanna-mous relationships, maybe, but none of the Hugh Hefner stuff.
    Let’s just say there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with polyamorous relationships and people are welcome to them, but they’re not the sort of relationship that this community wants to privilege with legal status and benefits. Possibly because with marriage we’re aiming for the stability and security we associate with fidelity? If the committment is diluted / shared among a group, the relationship probably won’t work. (I’m old enough to remember the brave new world of hippie communes and ‘free love’ – a recipe for disintegration)


  28. Bigamy, polygamy, polyamoury, the withdrawal of all government support for marriage/families and policy changes (by coup?) that would turn religious believers into second-class citizens, bar us from debates, entrench State-sponsored atheism, etc.

    Put any one of those ideas onto a campaign platform and watch the voters run. You’d have to dig into the depths of the Evangelical-fundamentalist web to find social conservatives espousing complementary ideas that toxic.

    I reject religious fundamentalism. Andrew, I know, rejects atheist/libertarian fundamentalism. I am surprised by the unhinged responses that his otherwise very solid blog has attracted here.

    If some of the more egregious commentators ever find themselves anywhere near real voters, they should prepare for LDP-style humiliations.

    No one votes for contempt.

    – JH


  29. Dreadnaught,

    appealing to the tyranny of the majority is hardly a great arguement against polygamy etc. If we were to use this argument, then the probablility we are going to see gay marriage is approximately 100%. In addition, you seem to have written “religious believers” when I assume you mean “believers of my religion”.


  30. Steve – The social argument against polygamy is to ensure there are enough potential wives/husbands for the pool of eligible singles. The political argument for it is one of religious tolerance. However, given that polygamy isn’t likely to catch on in any big way here (1) probably isn’t a big consideration. And because as you say there don’t seem to be many people who would want it here (2) is not a big consideration either.

    On balance personally, I would not oppose polygamy for the few people who might want it. However, I would not support it like I do gay civil unions/marriage, which I think would provide real social benefits.


  31. Andrew: There are more social arguments against polygamy than that. It can be argued that polygamy leads to the mistreatment of women. Young women are often married to much older men as ‘extra wives’ and wives abused. This form of abuse occurs amongst Mormons. Also, problems of inheritance and property distribution are more severe with polygamy.

    “Won’t somebody please think of the children” is usually a cry of scoundrels, along with calls to patriotism and descriptions of opponents as evil, but in this case it has some merit. The special treatment of marriage is in part due to the state wishing to enhance the wellbeing for the next generation.

    In the context of this question, however, it is interesting. Whilst there is majority support for recognition of civil unions and marriage it would be interesting to see how much support there is for adoption, IVF and whatnot for gay couples.


  32. Do folk mean polygamy (which is generally taken to mean the right of one man to have more than one wife) or group marriage? It makes a difference. The social effects of polygamy are noxious, but one can can make a case for group marriage. Either have the major problem that they would immediately change the “contract” terms of every existing marriage.

    Unlike same-sex marriage., which merely allows couples previously excluded from marriage to also be able to get married without changing the legal “contract” terms of any existing marriage.

    The Catholic position that JH advances is based on so many falsehoods it is hard to know where to start. First, lots of societies have recognised various forms of same-sex marriage. Second, none of those societies found that such got in the way of raising children. Third, the exclusion of same-sex relationships from legal standing in monotheist societies is not some “natural” evolution. For millennia in the lands of the “peoples of the book”, if two men put up their hands and said they were in a sexual relationship they were, depending on time and place, liable to being burnt alive, buried alive, drowned, hanged, castrated, flogged, gaoled or some combination thereof.

    The exclusion of same-sex relationships from the law of relationships is based on persecution and brutality. Bigotry sanctified by longevity. A notion of the “sacredness” of marriage based on burning people alive.

    We are experiencing centuries of brutal monotheist social engineering breaking down. Excluding same-sex oriented from the law of relationships is no more a “natural” social evolution than enslaving blacks, denying women the vote or banning Jews and Catholics from political office. It is merely “natural” in the sense of “what I am used to”. And what Western civilization has been used to on this matter is contempt and oppression, leavened by brutality and sustained by lies.

    How did the Levitical prohibitions against same-sex activity get to be the only bit of the Holiness Code to make it into the New Testament. Because St Paul decided to “show off” his learning by referring to same sex activity as “unnatural”. Where did that come from? Plato’s false claim in *The Laws* that animals of the same sex did not have sex with each other married via the homicidal misogyny (see ) of Philo Judaeus (c 20 B.C. – c 45 A.D.) to the Levitical prohibitions.

    Catholics claim they are “respecting” human nature. On the contrary, they are editing it, since sexual variety is clearly part of human nature. They just don’t get to edit it as brutally as they used to.

    Whether gays and lesbians will have relationships and build lives together is not at issue. That will happen. The only thing at issue is whether they will have the equal protection of the laws in doing that.


  33. “It can be argued that polygamy leads to the mistreatment of women. Young women are often married to much older men as ‘extra wives’ and wives abused”

    Actually, there was a good case of the opposite of this in Indonesia a few months back. One of their parliamentarians had got a second(?) wife, and people were complaining about it. As it turns out, if I remember correctly, she was a single mother with 3 children. I imagine this is not the easiest thing to be in Indonesia. Is he such a bad guy for this?

    I might point out too that the idea of older (or younger for that matter) men maltreating their wives is hardly something specific to polygamy. Just open a book on social statistics and look up the prevalence of violence.


  34. Allowing men to take more than one wife
    (1) is highly unequal treatment of the sexes
    (2) severely disadvantages low income males.

    Polygamy leads to a more unequal society in quite profound senses.

    Besides, it’s a non issue. The obvious inequality is clearly offensives, there is no serious pressure for it, it potentially changes the rules for all existing marriages in a quite unequal way and the clear tendency — even in societies which permit it — is for polygamy to decline.


  35. “The case for marriage is written in human nature…”

    Hmmm – this doesn’t make much sense as an argument against gay marriage.


  36. MichealW [36]

    As Boris says, what about if we also allow polyandry? Or group marriages? This kind of gets around the unequal treatment issue.

    For those interested in the “poly” debate, I discussed this over at Catallaxy in the lead up to the election.
    Room for Poly in the LDP bed?


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