Marriage of Equality is a Core Value for All to Hold Dear

19 November 2011

Sydney Morning Herald

When my parents married in 1967, Australia was still dismantling the White Australia policy. While a marriage between a Chinese man from Malaysia, and an Australian from the Adelaide Hills was not illegal, it was certainly unusual. Nevertheless, bans on inter-racial marriage were not unknown in Western democracies of the time. That year, the US Supreme Court struck down laws in various American states prohibiting interracial marriage. Changing laws didn't change public opinion; a year later 72 per cent of Americans remained opposed to interracial marriage.
Australia has its own share of history in a similar vein. One hundred years ago, the federal parliamentary leader of the ALP, J. C. Watson, outlined his view on interracial marriage: "the objection I have to the mixing of these coloured people with the white people of Australia lies in the main in the possibility and probability of racial contamination '' He went on to state "the question is whether we would desire that our sisters or our brothers should be married into any of these races to which we object."
In today's Australia it seems extraordinary such prejudice was once widely accepted. But these references are less important for what they convey about the past, than what they tell us about today. They remind us how much change is possible, that prejudice dissipates. Most of all they remind us how powerful the principle of equality is.
Like many, my belief in equality led me to join the ALP. It is this belief that drives my advocacy for equality in relation to marriage for same-sex couples, and for a change to the party platform at next month's national conference.
Our platform is the statement of Labor's principles. In its current form it perpetuates unequal treatment of some Australians solely on the grounds of their sexual orientation. In this, it makes clear not all Australians are equal. I believe change is needed.
Our party's belief in justice and fairness was forged in the experience of working people, but has grown to encompass the aspiration of equality for so many Australians. It is Labor governments which finally abolished the White Australia Policy; which legislated against discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, age and disability; and a Labor prime minister who first spoke to both the men and women of Australia. It is this Labor government that removed discrimination against same-sex couples in more than 80 areas of the law - reforms of which I am deeply proud.
This heritage is consistent with my view that a conscience vote should not be Labor's answer to the calls for equality within the party and the wider community.
Equality should not be a matter of conscience; it should be reflected in Labor policy.
A conscience vote in the Parliament does not change ALP policy, and it is the party's platform which needs to change. A conscience vote is not a substitute for reforms to the platform which are long overdue.
I understand some Australians question why this issue is deserving of further discussion at next month's national conference. For some, this issue may not be a top priority. But for the people it affects - it affects them deeply. It goes to the core of how they define themselves, and their most intimate relationships. That is why the Labor Party is having this debate. Because equality is a core Labor value.
Leaving aside all the noise in this debate, I believe it comes back to a simple proposition of equality. Is it reasonable to deny rights to some Australians only on the basis they are not heterosexual? Can we justify valuing a relationship less, in law and in practice, solely on the basis of the genders of the partners?
Surely Australia has reached a point where we can value relationships by markers such as respect, commitment and love. I have no doubt our laws will one day reflect this.
And the arguments for inequality that ring loud today will seem distant and unfamiliar. As alien to our values, to Labor values, as the other prejudices we have left behind.