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.