By Hugh Harris
It’s not going away… Over the weekend thousands of Australians rallied in support of same-sex marriage. Liberal MPs rueful at the farce of Tony Abbott’s stone-walling, might reflect on what a conscience vote really means. Individuals can vote freely on certain issues because of particular beliefs they hold – usually cultural or religious.
Tony Abbott has exercised his conscience, in order to disallow others from exercising theirs, as if in mockery of the very concept. This highlights the fatal flaw with conscience: if everyone acted on conscience we would have a country of 24 million Tony Abbott’s demanding respect for their own views. We’d never agree on anything and yet, some opponents of gay marriage insist the consciences of all Australians must be preserved under the guise of religious liberty. If we grant any credence to the “conscience” of one person, unaccompanied by evidence or argument, we devalue the objective good reasons why policies are implemented.
Of the 33 conscience votes in the Federal parliament many have been perceived as issues of principle. These include the abolition of the death penalty, euthanasia, sex discrimination and human embryo cloning. A vote occurred in 1973, when John Gorton proposed that homosexual acts in private should not be subject to the criminal law, and also in 1974, when the Family Law Bill allowed no-fault divorce. Decades later we look back at these two changes as measures of our progress, rather than matters of principle. Once we have moved on, the reasons for their adoption seem so obvious and apparent that we wonder why it took so long. One suspects we’ll see same-sex marriage in much the same way in 20 years.
Notwithstanding, the thwarting of the conscience vote for Coalition MPs provides a ray of hope for the stalwarts against change. If the leaders of our country can meet for a marathon six hours, hear from 90 speakers, and still resolve to do nothing it’s a good sign for the status quo. But unfortunately for them, the debate is de-facto already lost.
“De-facto” refers to holding a position in fact but not necessarily by legal right. As such, de-facto couples have the same rights in fact to marriage couples, and legal disputes are arbitrated on how “marriage-like” the relationship is. The laws on de-facto couples were changed in 2009 allowing same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.
Ah, but won’t marriage-equality opponents say there’s a big difference between a de-facto couple and a married couple?
No. They try to placate the forces for change by arguing equal rights already exist (see Rowan Dean). Also, note the following quote from senior fellow at Australian Catholic University, Kevin Donnelly: