My father was one of the most conservative men you could possibly meet. He didn’t like unions and Bob Hawke, was for a time a member of the Liberal Party, before loud young men started going to meetings and had some colourful phrases to describe the Aborigines who received preferential treatment in Gove, where he managed a work camp for the bauxite mine there. He did, however, have great respect for individual people and hence had the skill of being able to talk to anyone, no matter their position in life. He also had a profound respect for institutions. This is why he spent a decade working as a social worker / youth centre manager for the YMCA in South Melbourne – in the same street where Father Bob Maguire currently plies his outreach trade, Montague St. Like Father Bob, he had a terse realtionship with the officious nature of head office in Melbourne – and had a similar faith that the institution had the capability of helping the people of the area.
This respect for people and institutions led him in his later years to become a civil marriage celebrant. To his way of thinking, he didn’t want to make money from it (he charged just the fee imposed by the government), and he didn’t want couples to continue to live outside the institution of marriage. If they weren’t getting married in a church, it might as well as be him that gets them to sign the papers. And so they did – many couples who liked his formal air of an old school Minister.
It is for this reason that I see the act of marriage as more a conservative civil social act than a religious ceremony. It is a way of encouraging couples to formalise their connection to society as well as formalise the bond between two people. This leads to various conservative married couple activities like raising children, buying houses in the suburbs and the rest. So, when people cite the religious reason for blocking same sex marriage, I see it as invalid, simply because marriage ceased to be a religious activity when civil celebrants like Dad could do it. Churches can do marriages, have nuptial masses and the like, but the actual act of marriage is a civic activity.
Similarly, when people like Julia Gillard and Barry Cohen cite vague tradition in their argument against same sex marriage – I think of the variety of people and lifestyles that Dad married and wonder whether anyone has a “traditional” anything anymore. I remember the couple who both had significant intellectual disabilities who got married – with the support of their families – and think of a time when “traditional” society and institutions would have opposed such a union. For Dad, the joy the act brought the couple and their families was worth becoming a celebrant.
In addition, we had traditions in this country like smoking advertising, driving without seat belts and no random breath tests. I’m pretty sure men like Cohen would have thought nothing of those traditions before society realised that we needed to move on. Using the “we’ve always done it that way in the past” argument is a cop-out, because it’s arbitrary and counter – intuitive.
The Waleed Aly definition of conservatism encompasses the idea that true conservatives weigh up new ideas and ways of thinking and include those that make sense for the conserving of society’s balance. Hence Malcolm Turnbull’s support for an ETS. The same rule should apply to same sex marriage. It is essentially a way to apply socially conservative ways to the way same sex couples act in society. Julia Gillard doesn’t understand this because she is, I believe, a conservative by construction, rather than by nature. Her pronouncements on same sex marriage, like her recent comments about welfare recipients, ring hollow because she has moved away from her better instincts and is just attempting to neutralise Tony Abbott.
Barry Cohen, along with Tony Abbott and Paul Keating (who, according to Cohen’s article, opposed the decriminalisation of homosexual activity) I believe have possessed and, in the case of Cohen and Abbott (we don’t know about Keating these days) a reactionary, instinctive mistrust of homosexual men rather than present any cogent, logical approach to the question of extending the institution of marriage to same sex couples. Mind you, I also suspect my father would not have been so enlightened as to support such unions – I remember the time when he hired pot plants out to the Westpac in Oxford Street and was disturbed by the men holding each other’s hands outside. That kind of shift in attitudes has been left to his son.