This review appeared in Policy magazine in Spring 2010.
In many Western countries, marriage is a subject of passionate political contention. Gay marriage triggers controversy wherever it is proposed. Conservatives suggest ‘covenant’ marriages with stricter obligations than imposed under current marriage law. Religions and cultures that permit men to take multiple wives challenge monogamous marriage. Participants in these debates disagree on much but concur on one thing: the state should decide what marriage means.
Tamara Metz questions this assumption. In her book Untying the Knot: Marriage, the State, and the Case for Their Divorceshe argues that a liberal state should not determine which relationships count as marriages. Disputes over how to define marriage show that there is no consensus on its meaning. The state should see marriage in the same way it sees religion, another subject on which agreement seems impossible, as a private matter in which governments should not interfere. There are other ways of promoting long-term relationships and protecting the parties to them.
Liberal thinkers on marriage
Core liberal ideas suggest that marriage and state should be separate, but, historically, leading liberal thinkers have not called for their separation. Metz shows that while John Locke—a leading liberal figure on the separation of church and state — and John Stuart Mill both applied liberal principles to marriage, neither saw a clear dividing line between marriage and the state. Both assumed that marriage, unlike religion, would be ‘established’ — an institution officially recognised and regulated by the state.
The moment on Insiders this morning when new NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson is torn between the Labor line on gay marriage and the life chances of his gay son. He says the right thing in the end, but his initial equivocation was painful to watch:
BARRIE CASSIDY: Just a couple of quick questions and quick answers. You’ve dealt with marijuana and a little more directly than Bill Clinton.
JOHN ROBERTSON: Look it’s a federal issue.
And I have a son who’s openly gay. Obviously I think he is a wonderful person.
But it’s a matter for the Commonwealth.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Do you support his right to marry?
JOHN ROBERTSON: Well I see him as a person who is a genuine person who can make a contribution to our society. He’s bright, he’s intelligent.
And to be blunt I think people should have the same rights.
Today’s Essential Research survey reports a drop in support for gay marriage since November 2010, from 53% to 49%. Those against are up from 36% to 40%.
The margin of error for a poll like this is about 3% in either direction, so it is possible that there is no real change. But this does seem to be the first poll for several years that has found minority support for same-sex marriage. While the demographics of opinion on this subject leave little doubt that there is an emerging clear majority view in support of same-sex marriage, the campaign for it may experience a few short term ups and downs.
I’ve often disagreed with social democrats about privatisation, but it is not often that I do so to oppose a privatisation proposed by a social democrat. But that’s my response to an opinion piece in yesterday’s Weekend Australian suggesting privatisation of marriage, written by Tim Soutphommasane.
Tim’s argument seems similar to that of Tamara Metz in her book Untying the Knot: Marriage, the State and the Case for their Divorce, which I reviewed in Policy late last year.
As opposed to the libertarian view that marriage should be done via contract law, Tim and Metz see the need for specific legal relationships applying to domestic relationships. I largely agree with this part of the argument; people should not be able to contract their way out of all the obligations attached to partnerships and especially parenting. With contract, too many people will not make them, or will make contracts that are one-sided or fail to foresee future issues. ‘Off the shelf’ legal arrangements can deal with these problems. Continue reading “Should marriage be privatised?”→
Following up on the social capital theme, there have been some more results released from the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009, including a question on loneliness.
Most people never feel lonely or feel lonely less frequently than once a year. However about 18% feel lonely daily or weekly. In a different question on the same subject, 22% agreed or strongly agreed that ‘loneliness has been a serious problem for me at times’.
Though so far this is causing Labor most grief, Peter Hartcher argues in the SMH that it may eventually be more troublesome for the Coalition.
This is because while Labor voters clearly support gay marriage, Liberal voters are fairly evenly divided. In this poll Coalition voters were 51% against /42% favour. But in the Essential Research poll earlier in the month they were even at 45%/45%, and in the Galaxy poll last month 48% favour/ 46% against.
The Coalition members who spoke in the debate on Adam Bandt’s motion last week reflected this balancing act, supporting just about every aspect of gay equality except marriage.
There were differences in the questions, with Galaxy prefacing its question by telling respondents that gay marriage already existed in other countries. Perhaps that helped sway respondents without strong views. Continue reading “And more gay marriage polling…”→
A favourite theme of some expat gay friends living in London is how much more progressive Europe is compared to Australia on gay issues. The latest trigger was this story about how, allegedly, straight male UK uni students are now happy to kiss each other on the lips.
I’m quite willing to believe that London, or at least central London, is the gayest place on the planet. But just as data is not the plural of anecdote, a lot of well-tolerated gay men in a concentrated space doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about attitudes overall. So I went looking for some comparable survey evidence.
The latest survey on gay marriage finds 62% of voters in favour and about a third against. This is pretty much unchanged from last year. The issue has gone up the political agenda, thanks largely to the Greens (how I hate to say anything nice about them…), but so far opinion is not moving much.
But the demographics of this issue remain very striking, and look to be a case of demography as destiny in public opinion. The case against gay marriage seems lost. Eventually politics will catch up with opinion, so I think it now a case of when we get gay marriage rather than if.