20 September 2017

Questions of equality and simplicity

took my kids to the park last Saturday to ride bikes and kick the soccer ball. The park was littered with dozens of children and parents enjoying the spring warmth, picnic rugs sprawled across freshly cut grass. And amongst the crowd were two men in their 20’s laying affectionately in each other’s arms, kissing (a lot) and chatting to each other as they scrolled and swiped their phones. I intermittently watched this scene for almost an hour as people passed by. I was curious to observe any reactions people might have to this demonstrable display of affection. Thankfully, no one harassed them, they weren't taunted or bullied, the police didn't come and move them on.

Of course, you’ll always get some people being cruel, rude and ignorant towards others - for all manner of reasons. And that is never acceptable. But don't you think Australia is changing and on the whole, we've become a far more tolerant, accepting nation around people who are same sex attracted? I believe so, and I am grateful for that change!

Only a few decades ago, homosexuality was a taboo topic and ‘coming out’ was newsworthy. Today most of society doesn’t bat an eyelid. People who are gay confidently hold some of the highest positions in government and corporate sectors without fear of limited opportunity e.g. MP Tim Wilson and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.

Registered same sex de-facto couples and their families have the same entitlements as registered opposite-sex de facto couples thanks to the governments same sex reform package which passed parliament in November 2008. According to the Department of Social Services website, this reform removed discrimination against same-sex de facto couples and their families in areas such as taxation; superannuation; social security and family assistance; the PBS and Medicare Safety Net; aged care and veterans' entitlements; immigration and citizenship; child support and family law (1). Not withstanding there are still inconsistencies across states that will be fixed, the legal status of same sex couples who wish to register their relationship is in place.

So, what of discrimination or equality? These are two very popular words at the moment. Is equality only reached when all differences among people are erased? And if that’s the case, what happened to the push for diversity? And if ‘diversity’ is of such a high value today, is there no place for the appreciation of a diversity of ways that people can express and equally validate their relationship? Or does that fall into the realm of discrimination?

Discrimination is not simply that people don't all enjoy the same treatment or benefits or outcomes in life. (You may need to read that last sentence twice). This notion is both philosophically and practically unworkable because we are all different people with different skills, interests, capacities and temperaments which lead to different opportunities and outcomes in life.

Discrimination becomes discrimination when another person is treated differently for an irrelevant or ‘bogus’ reason. For example, if I was barred from becoming a Qantas pilot on the grounds that I was gay, that would be cause for discrimination because my sexual preference is irrelevant to the basic criteria for flying a plane.

So, as I think about it, the real question concerning marriage becomes this — Is the existing definition of marriage (male/female complementarity in an enduring exclusive union) of value, and worth preserving — or is this basic criterion now irrelevant? Because if this criteria is now irrelevant, then it is fair to say that any and all prohibition of people to the institution of marriage could be considered discriminatory. But on the other hand, if it is not irrelevant, then the opposite holds true.

Let’s assume for the moment that the traditional criteria is irrelevant and it’s time for change. What then should be the new non-discriminatory criteria? If the criteria is simply ‘love’ — because we are told all love is the same (which if you think about it, can't be) — then it follows that anyone should be free to marry anyone or any number of people they choose. Is that what we want?

That may not be what the current reforms are about, but logically, how could this precedent not trigger equally valid claims by other parties such as bisexuals who have two loves and wish to marry both a male and a female partner? Because the arguments are the same. Under the current reforms will we really achieve the headline goal of ‘marriage equality’, or just equality for one small but powerful minority? And who is the next minority? And at what point with future revisions will marriage become so nondescript that it ceases to be a meaningful term at all? Do we further undermine and weaken marriage by fundamentally changing its essential criteria? And why is that fair?

Some people will quickly label these questions as diversionary or fear mongering, or homophobic or irrelevant, because it’s easier to do so than to seriously address them.

Now, what if the existing heterosexual criteria in marriage that has been essentially in place across the expanse of all human history — through which we all owe our existence — is still relevant? What if that procreative function of marriage, regardless of whether couples can conceive, or even want to, is a fundamental component of the definition, and to remove it is to create an entirely different relationship category?

Could anyone seriously believe that? On a global scale — yes, lots of people. A heterosexual definition of marriage is not simply a Christian position, as portrayed in the media, but is held by the overwhelming majority of the world’s faiths including indigenous Australian, Muslim, Hindu and even Buddhism, which is at best neutral on the matter. It is equally championed by some secular and libertarian thinkers and even some quarters of the LGBTI community. This doesn't prove anything really other than debunking the notion that globally, marriage as a heterosexual construct is on the way out.

There is intense pressure to view SSM as a simple decision of promoting fairness and equality for all. That is the primary message of the ‘Yes’ campaign. But this is not a simple decision, and to say so is disingenuous. I think ‘simplicity’ is a clever strategy aimed at capturing the undecided and swinging voters (no pun intended). Are the wider implications of a change to the fundamental building block of society also irrelevant - such as the rights of a child to have the opportunity to be raised by both biological parents or the value of knowing your biological parents or grandparents?

Senator Sarah Hanson Young, at a ‘Yes’ rally last week said that ‘love is above politics’. Yes, this is true, but legislation is not above politics and this is actually about a legislative change. With regard to legislation, the attorney general’s department has advised there would be approximately 60 consequential changes across 25 Commonwealth Acts in addition to changes to state acts and anti-discrimination, charity and inheritance law. That is not simple.

Moreover, if ‘love is above politics’ then that is an ethical directive used very selectively. For example, our foreign aid budget is around 30% lower now than it was in 2013 after 4 consecutive years of budget cuts.

And what about those national values of freedom of religion, conscience and speech — and not just for religious practitioners, schools and cake bakers as popularised in the media; but for anyone at all who holds traditional views? Given that no actual legislation can be provided for these human rights — how can we know that it’s simple or fair for all regardless of their views?

Only 7 years ago, Labor’s position was not supportive of SSM. Now, by 2019 the Labor party will mandate that it’s MPs must affirm the party position on marriage to retain their preselection. By inference, people of devout faith who hold traditional views about marriage are no longer welcome in the party. Is that equality?

In the corporate sector, we are seeing company boards and CEO’s somewhat opportunistically marketing their stance on SSM and leaning on their employees to tow the company line (which has nothing to do with the terms of their employment). Last week small business owner Madlin Sims sacked a staff member because they expressed in social media that it is “ok to say no”. Similarly, people have been forced to resign from boards (e.g. Mark Allaby) and, like the cover photo I snapped of Martin Place yesterday — apparently, the City of Sydney Council is all voting 'yes.' Sports bodies like the ARU have declared their positions on behalf of all their code’s players (note the public backlash against Israel Folau for expressing his personal views). The same applies to Margaret Court who faced calls to have her name struck from the arena named in her honour; to Dr Pansy Lai who faced a petition to have her deregistered as a GP; and to Coopers Beers who were boycotted to the point of its survival for its “keeping it light” campaign. And then there is Catholic Archbishop Julain Porteous who was hauled before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission simply for expressing basic Catholic doctrine on marriage to his church community.

As noted by Professor of Law at Sydney University, Patrick Parkinson, ‘the issue is not so much the individual instances but the silence of our political leaders on the most fundamental breaches of religious freedom. We are not sufficiently shocked by this.’

I know, I know, that’s not we are voting on. But does anyone really know what we are voting on? I want to believe the best from our leaders but verbal assurances around the fundamental freedoms that we have in Australia aren't the same as legislation.

So, the silly postal survey is asking a simplistic question whilst offering no substance or detail. I guess all my rambling is just to say I don’t know how I feel about that. I liken it to voting on the introduction of GM (genetically modified) food with all it’s unknown implications by being asked ‘do you like to eat?’

I don’t believe these are homophobic questions nor am I homophobic for asking them. I have several people in my life who are gay and I think they are all great people who I value. No these, in my mind at least, are just valid questions to a very complex matter that we really have no clarity on at this stage. Some will protest that these kinds of questions or concerns are a diversion tactic away from the ‘real issue.’ But then again, maybe calling it a diversion is in itself a diversion from other ‘real issues’ that are actually interrelated.

I can certainly acknowledge the deep desire of committed same sex couples to want freedom to formalise their relationship and I have absolutely no desire to demonise them or that desire, nor traffic fear on this topic. But I also want us to champion the other freedoms that we value in our brilliant nation.

Stepping back from all this ‘logic’ — I feel disappointed that the answer to all this tension and pain is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’; a winner and a loser. That just doesn’t seem to be the way of Jesus. So, I wonder if there is a third way; a way of grace; of honour; and of reconciliation. I’m up for that conversation.

I hope that whatever comes, we will look back in a decade or two and be in a better place.