Beyond hypocrisy to absurdity: the fortunes of same-sex marriage

Rainbow Heart HandsDisaffection with Australian politics seems visceral and entrenched. An Essential poll in late June found that only 25% of those polled had trust in the federal parliament. Discussing this poll, Michelle Grattan referred to a “jaded” and “jaundiced” electorate. Well she might.

What makes this assessment of Australia’s political culture even more damning is that in the late 1990s Grattan had already observed “growing distrust of and disillusionment with governments and governance” and a “crisis of cynicism”. While such sentiments are consistent with research and polling the world over, Australia’s current malaise might be in a class of its own, and for reasons that aren’t hard to understand.

Take the issue of same-sex marriage. Here we find the absurd – the deep, French existentialist kind of absurdity – on full display as nowhere else in Australian political life. It is just one of many examples of farce that makes it immediately obvious why Australians feel such estrangement from their political system.

Australia is ready for the change
The arguments have been aired. The debate has been won. There’s no outstanding or compelling reason why one part of the community should be discriminated against. So much for theory.

But the practical obstacles have also been removed. While the High Court held that the ACT’s marriage equality legislation was unconstitutional, it also made it unambiguously clear that the constitution does not prevent the Commonwealth government from legislating with respect to same-sex marriage.

As for the public mood, electoral support is at an all-time high. In the latest poll by Crosby Textor – the same pollsters used by the Liberals – 72% of Australians want same-sex marriage legalised. Fully 77% are in favour of the Coalition granting a conscience vote on the issue.

The poll canvassed almost every age group and significant demographic, including those identifying as religious. This change has majority support across all demographics. Overall, only 21% of respondents opposed same-sex marriage.

A Nielsen poll only a year ago had support for same-sex marriage at 65%. Barely a day before these results were released, Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm had already raised the stakes in an ideologically provocative appeal to “true” liberals in the Parliament.

Arguing that it’s not the job of governments to define relationships and a “bizarre misappropriation of power” when they do, Leyonhjelm is angling for a conscience vote in the Liberal Party. Leyonhjelm is prepared to leverage his own vote on other measures the government might need his support to get through, such as temporary protection visas, to make it happen.

Citing public support only when it suits
If it looks like the stars are aligning for same-sex marriage – particularly in view of Ian Thorpe’s highly publicised interview on Sunday, bringing with it critical momentum – one still cannot overlook and much less dismiss the deep malaise in public confidence, nor the Abbott government’s expert hand in prolonging it.

Far from vindicating the status quo, the fortunes of same-sex marriage serve only to underscore its farcical potential. For instance, it’s well known that prime minister Tony Abbott has an inexplicable obsession with the carbon tax. And despite only a slim majority of Australians in favour of its repeal, Abbott cannot help but repeat again and again how important it is to “axe the tax”.

Where’s the same vox pop enthusiasm when it comes to same-sex marriage? He can’t fall back on anything like the majority position on same-sex marriage to support his ad nauseam whining on the carbon tax.

As we speak, there’s more popular support for the prime minister’s sister’s wedding than for a repeal of that loathsome carbon tax. Indeed, there’s more support for her wedding than there is for his own government and his leadership. And he must know this.

So Abbott’s simply playing politics. At the very least, he’s an old-fashioned, Machiavellian-style hypocrite, appealing to “the people of Australia” even as he holds them in contempt.

Government of the absurd
There’s more to this situation than hypocrisy. Australian political culture has actually managed to transcend the domain of the merely hypocritical. Leyonhjelm’s foray into the subject this week draws the ludicrous out of the ridiculous. The Liberal Party’s rhapsodies to free speech, free markets and free this and that are just so much tinkling cymbal.

For a government to prattle relentlessly on such subjects and still assume the moralising posture of late Victorian High Tories shows what a fatuous administration it is. It’s beyond hypocrisy. A merely hypocritical politician will finesse his or her duplicity with a Machiavellian show of sincerity. It’s good to be virtuous; it’s more important to appear to be virtuous. The Prince, chapter and verse you might say.

All this is familiar. The vulgarity and anti-intellectual bravado of the Abbott government is already legendary. Think of cuts to health and education, secrecy on the high seas, the constant denigration of the public sector, which is especially jarring considering that every last one of these small-government zealots holds up a pan to the public purse.

But what makes this government altogether surpass our best estimate of chicanery is its very absurdity. Australians overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage. It’s hard to imagine any other issue on which such a vast majority would be forthcoming.

The argument has been won. The High Court is on side. All true liberals agree. Make no mistake. Today is the most absurd moment in Australia’s history, and its leader the concentrated essence of this absurdity.

Beyond hypocrisy to absurdity: the fortunes of same-sex marriage
John Zerilli is Tutor in Law and Philosophy, PhD Candidate at Australian National University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.