I like going to the ice-cream shop. Or the gelataria (because, apparently, it’s better for me). Or even the frozen yogurt. I love looking through the myriad of options on display and marvelling at the creativity and variety of choice.
I love it even though I (thoroughly steeped now in middle age) go back to the same old choices; pistachio, straciatella and the occasional cheeky mint choc chip. I grimace as my children contemplate the wonders of a bubblegum and finally we all make our choice and walk away with our rainbow of flavours.
In many ways the ice cream shop is a microcosm of our modern Australians society. A huge range of different options, most of us quite settled in our choices and yet constantly engaged with a regular introduction of new flavours. It’s a rich tapestry that I’m keen to continually embrace; it makes for fantastic neighbours and awesome food. More importantly it’s the basis of a mature society – we’re all different and we all get to make different choices.
Which is why I’m pretty appalled by what happened in the Australian parliament last night. As Senators debated into the late evening we saw amendment after amendment to the Smith Same-Sex Marriage Bill get squashed by a consistent bloc of “yes” voters, including what was clearly a whipped position from the opposition on what we had previously been told was a free conscience matter.
So what were these amendments?
- Making sure a public authority cannot act against an individual or a business (or refuse to continue to employ them or use their services) simply because they hold a certain view on marriage (88M).
- Protecting the right to not be forced to act contrary to conscience, including being required to publish or disseminate a statement or opinion (88P)
- The right for a religious body or organisation to refuse to participate in something on the basis of their clear belief about marriage (88Q)
- The right for parents to remove their children from school classes which will be teaching contrary to their own beliefs on marriage (88R)
- The right for a (military) chaplain or equivalent authorised officer to refuse to conduct a ceremony (they are officers of the government).
- The right for a charity to retain it’s status even if they have a “traditional” view on marriage (5A)
Following on from these we got some even blander amendments from the “yes”-voting Attorney General:
Nothing in this Act limits or derogates from the right of any person, in a lawful manner, to manifest his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
That got voted down, despite the AG at times appearing to believe that “religious observance” stopped at the church door. It got voted down. This was followed by an amendment that sought to protect the right of civil celebrants to refuse to conduct a marriage on conscience grounds. The debate helpfully extended the underlying issues from simply being about religious conviction to any philosophical conviction. As Senator Canavan put it,
There are other Australians who may not have a religious point of view, but who may have a conscientious point of view that marriage should be between a man and a woman. I repeat this from earlier in the debate: even those of us who do have a religious view, we often, and I put myself in this category, have arguments about our views. My view is that the definition of marriage shouldn’t change. I don’t base that on religious views alone, and I certainly don’t prosecute it on religious grounds. I prosecute it in public policy debates and with secular, widespread reasons about why the existing institution has been, and is, a good foundation for family units and for our civil society.
Senator Patterson then outlined the double-thinking of opponents of this amendment:
Spiritual categories of beliefs, religious beliefs, are very important and very worthy of protection, but other beliefs that people sincerely and deeply hold are no less worthy of protection. Yet that is a position that, presumably, many atheists on the other side of the chamber are advancing: that their own beliefs, their own views, are somehow inferior and less worthy of protection than those of people who hold their beliefs based on religious values. I think that is a very strange position for a modern, secular, left-wing political party to take, and yet that is what we’ve seen here tonight.
The amendment also failed to pass. You can read the detail of the entire debate in Hansard.
Now what is the point of taking you through all this? Well I hope it’s fairly obvious. Over the past few months the marriage debate has included those in the “yes” camp telling us that religious freedoms wouldn’t be impacted. I imagine that a good number of the 62% who voted in favour voted with this in mind. They simply wanted to extend marriage to same-sex couples but also wanted to protect freedom of conscience. On the other side of the debate at 38% of voters who were told in no uncertain terms from the Senate floor last night that their position held in good conscience had, effectively, no protection in law – especially (and ironically) if it wasn’t a sincere religious one (as most of them will turn out to be – let’s face it, I reckon it’s realistic to assume that most of those 38% are religious devotees).
Since the debate over the same-sex marriage began in earnest we’ve been told repeatedly that this is all about diversity, that we need to embrace the rainbow with it’s variegated offerings. We were mesmerised at the window by the increase of choices on offer. But now that we’ve arrived at the counter we’ve discovered that those who dressed the window are only serving a bland vanilla.
Oh, and the name of the Bill? Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill. You can’t make this stuff up.