‘Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one’ – Inspector Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry), The Dead Pool, 1988.
First published September 26
And so it goes with same sex marriage in Australia. For those who may be interested – and I don’t expect anyone to be waiting with bated breath for yet another point of view on this topic – this is my opinion.
First, we are governed by a parliament whose main claim to fame is paralysing ineptitude. We elected them, and pay them, to govern us, hopefully for our collective benefit – not to have them waste unconscionable amounts of time, money and other public resources asking us what we think about stuff.
The ‘plebiscite’ – or decree of the common people – upon which we are expected to vote, sometime in the next six weeks, is a cynical joke being played on a gullible public. I wish it were not so.
I wish we all understood it is a scornful device, designed to distract us from the many failings of our elected representatives – to take our attention from the rising cost of living, the failing health and education systems, and the plethora of lies and obfuscation we are fed by a government intent on selling us out to the big end of town. Big, dirty, Indian-owned coal mine in Queensland that needs a billion-dollar injection from Australian governments to be even remotely approaching profitable - anyone?
But, we’re falling for it. We’re taking positions in opposing camps, and the ‘campaigns’ on both sides are getting nastier by the minute. All for the sake of a ‘vote’ that will mean nothing – the government has no obligation to adhere to the ultimate result.
If the ‘No’ vote is successful, I suspect the status quo will remain and the matter will be shelved for another few years. If the ‘Yes’ vote wins out, the plebiscite will likely be declared unrepresentative, and compromised by the vote tampering we already know is happening. They will say it is statistically useless – it fails to meet the basic requirements of a random, representative survey - and they will be correct. And, we’ll be back to square one.
Second, advocates for same sex marriage refer to the better, more immediate legal rights available to married couples. This is true – once married, an individual has many legal rights in respect of their spouse, including rights of inheritance and decision-making on their behalf.
However, these rights can, with a modicum of careful planning, be equally available to unmarried couples, whether same sex or heterosexual - bearing in mind that issues with regard to these matters are not the sole province of same sex couples.
The interests of the children of ANY union, for example, will always be dealt with under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth). Inheritance can be assured with a properly drafted will – something every adult should have. Rights in respect of decision making can also be protected by Powers of Attorney, Enduring Powers of Attorney and Enduring Powers of Guardianship - again, documents that all committed couples should have in place.
The down side of legal marriage is that it is often far more difficult to extract oneself from a failed marriage, than it is to leave a civil union. Legal divorce proceedings can be drawn out, tortuous affairs that leave everyone involved – the couple and any children they may have – permanently traumatised. Everyone, that is, except their lawyers, who are mostly very well compensated.
Without the need for a 12-month period of separation – a time in which bitterness and resentment can grow and fester into a wound that never truly heals – unmarried couples have the option to get on with their lives with greater expediency and far less legal bullshit.
Whilst many married couples divorce amicably, many don’t, and those 12 months can be an opportunity for one or the other, or both, partners to engage in a pitched battle of wills, using anything at their disposal, including their children, to ensure a ‘win’.
Third, marriage itself, as an institution, has historically been a constraining relationship for women. From the time, in the relatively recent past, when a married woman could not borrow money without her husband’s approval to today, when women are often financially, and logistically far less able to fight for their rights when a marriage ends. A man with the benefit of an uninterrupted career and no children to care for has it all over a woman struggling to keep a family of dependents together, while she works to support them. Some men step up and ensure their children’s welfare after divorce, but many don’t. And women are left holding the baby, and the mortgage, and all the responsibility.
There is no reason to believe that same sex marriages will be immune to these problems – that they will not fail, that there will be no imbalance of power within them, or that the people involved will behave with complete fairness and decency if they end. Approximately one third of heterosexual marriages in Australia currently end in divorce, and the median length of a marriage in Australia is 12 years. No evidence suggests same sex marriages will be significantly different.
Fourth, the debate has been further confused by the intrusion of transgender voices – loud, insistent voices that hold great sway over the politically correct neo-liberals amongst us. (No doubt the government is secretly doing handstands over their involvement – after all, transgenderism is even more polarising than same sex marriage).
For example, Greens politician Janet Rice clearly believes her marriage to trans-woman Penny Whetton to be a same sex marriage – see http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/the-subversive-marriage-of-janet-rice-and-penny-whetton-20170921-gylw77.html. But it isn’t. Although her partner has transitioned, he was born male and has not changed his birth certificate. Rather than being part of a ‘subversive’ union, as she claims, she’s just a regular woman in a legal marital relationship with a man. She isn’t a lesbian, and he isn’t gay. They have no skin in this particular game.
Finally, if the issue is a matter of freedom of choice for couples of the same biological sex, which I believe it is, the government should follow what is clearly majority public support for same sex marriage, and pass the appropriate legislation. If same sex couples want the benefits, and the potential negatives, of legal marriage, why can it not be facilitated by our political masters? Practically, such relationships will be no different to heterosexual marriage – assets may be accumulated, children may be born, there may be problems, and they might end – and the law can deal with them in exactly the same way.
For those couples – whether same sex or heterosexual - who choose not to marry, the law also provides a variety of safeguards.
But, rather than taking a simple initiative, as they do with other legislative matters, politicians of all colours are behaving like scheming, craven manipulators – point-scoring at every opportunity, and inciting a divisive debate among the populace entirely for their own self-interested purposes.
And, so I ask three questions – why are we allowing them to do this?
Why don’t we tell them to take their idiotic plebiscite and shove it?
Why don’t we instead campaign for a single, uniform legislative regime for relationships that not only gives freedom of choice to all couples, but also deals fairly and dispassionately with everyone, both while the relationship exists, and if, or when, it ends.
*Bronwyn Williams is a retired lawyer and social worker.
• Simon Warriner in Comments: … I see this plebiscite as an admission of utter incompetence by the government, plain and simple. Mine will be returned, unticked with that message written on it. I suggest others do likewise. Useless, incompetent individuals are using this issue to stoke the fires of identity politics. It is a nasty game they are playing and it will end in tears, and far worse before it is over.
• Bronwyn Williams in Comments: #10, #11 Clearly you have a problem extracting the point from this opinion piece, so perhaps you can follow this simple allegory. Imagine you have a farm paddock, cared for by a manager you selected, and who you pay. On one side of the paddock there’s a huge pile of ruined crops, the fences are broken, and the cows have long since left to go jump over the moon …