Following a trend set in the US, Australia’s conservative governments have gained short-term electoral advantage from stirring up resentment against misunderstood minorities and driving a wedge between them and the mainstream. In 2001, children overboard, detention centre escapees and the Tampa crisis were used to demonise refugees. Will gay marriage be the next Tampa? All the conditions are right for Howard to use a strident anti-gay marriage campaign to win the 2004 election.
George Bush is only one of Howard’s friends who would encourage such a campaign. Even less gay-friendly Howard prot?s include George Pell who is leading the Vatican charge against gay unions, the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallis who is actively campaigning against equality at a state level, and anti-gay MPs like Bill Heffernan, Ross Lightfoot and Eric Abetz, who have relished the havoc wrought by anti-gay wedge politics in their respective states.
They’ll all be advising Howard that marriage is an issue of great symbolic importance to conservatives which will hopelessly divide the ALP and the queer community. They’ll be hoping that any positive message both groups issue about the need for equality in practical, bread-and-butter matters like superannuation will be lost in the din.
They’ll be pointing to how effective the coalition’s campaign against single and lesbian IVF mums was, and digging out polls which, in the wake of high-profile debates about gay clergy and parenting, show resentment amongst right-of-centre voters about homosexuals going too far.
Most of all they’ll be noting with glee the likelihood, within the next few months, of Australian gay couples married in Canada, the Netherlands or Belgium returning to Australia and asking courts to recognise their unions.
The need to protect traditional marriage from activist judges by pre-emptively tightening up Australia’s foreign marriage recognition laws (which are some of the most liberal in the world) will be the hook from which they hang their poisonous plans.
Current government rhetoric is a sign of things to come. Whenever gay rights are raised, be it in superannuation or veteran’s affairs or employment discrimination, Howard, Abbott and Ruddock’s increasingly common reflex is to bring the discussion back to marriage protection just as their only response to the complex issue of refugees is to talk border protection. Add the fact that Dubya’s preparing his own election wedge campaign against gay marriage and the question becomes not whether Little Johnny will follow suit, but when?
Opinion leaders in the ALP and the media agree that gay marriage is in the Howard government’s sights. The only group that hasn’t woken up to the danger, and the opportunities, is the LGBT community.
It’s time to start preparing for a debate that will set us back a decade if we stuff it up, or catapult this country to a new stage of gay acceptance if we handle it well. In either case, 2004 may well be the biggest gay year Australia has ever seen.