It’s politicians not punters who lost their nerve on gay marriage

Sydney’s Mardi Gras festival featured many campaigners for gay marriage. AAP/Greg Wood
Australia used to be one of the most tolerant places in the world. In the 1980s when the spectre of HIV and AIDS reached around the globe, the government funded campaigns to raise awareness of the virus in the gay community. But now the United Nations has highlighted concerns that Australia isn’t recognising the human rights of gay people.

After finishing my undergraduate studies in the late 1980s I spent some months living in London. Mrs Thatcher was in her final term of office although nobody, least of all Mrs Thatcher, appreciated that. In 1988 she seemed unassailable, despite the distant rumblings of the poll tax. By then, Thatcher had re-made Great Britain into a neo-Victorian image of hard-edged capitalism and punitive morality. My most vivid memory of London in 1988 is the colonies of homeless people huddling under railway bridges. Australia seemed a long way away.

Likewise gay life in London seemed foreign. The Conservative Government’s response to AIDS was not as criminally negligent as the Reagan Administration, but it was hardly progressive.

Egged on by rabidly right-wing tabloids, the Thatcher Government passed the notorious Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act which forbade local authorities from promoting homosexuality, or publishing material that might promote homosexuality.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, the Federal Labor Government and the larger state governments worked closely with gay communities to contain the spread of HIV.

These partnerships – which included the funding of explicit safer sex material – set the global standard for enlightened government-sector response to HIV/AIDS. Many of the gay men I met in London spoke enviously of Australia. It wasn’t just the good weather; those I spoke to were convinced that a better gay life could be lead in sunny, tolerant Australia. The annual Mardi Gras Parade, in the heart of inner-city Sydney, simply confirmed their wistful evaluation.

Fast forward to 2011 and a starkly different picture emerges on gay rights: on the key issue of gay marriage Australia is lagging not only Great Britain but a sizable portion of the world. The Blair Government introduced civil partnerships in 2005; the current British Conservative-Liberal coalition is toying with extending that to marriage.

At the latest count 10 countries have legislated gay marriage, and we are not just talking the usual liberal North European suspects. Spain, Portugal, and Argentina, deeply Roman Catholic countries ruled by dictators in the recent past have gay marriage. A nation that almost went bankrupt in the GFC, Iceland, can afford gay marriage.

And Australia? In the 2010 Federal election both major parties categorically ruled out gay marriage. One of the most memorable moments from a mediocre election campaign was the father of a gay son haltingly demanding gay marriage on the ABC’s Q&A during Tony Abbott’s appearance. Even civil unions appear a bridge too far for both parties. Any hint of legally sanctioned civil unions by territories and states has been unceremoniously squashed by the federal government.

Any doubt that Australia had fallen behind the pack dissolved earlier this year when the United Nations periodic global review of human rights cited Australia’s tardy response on gay marriage as concerning.

How did this happen? How did Australia go from a world-leader on gay issues to a recalcitrant laggard? Remember that in 1993 Australia officially sanctioned gays in the military, the same year the Clinton Administration introduced the disastrous compromise policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

And in 1994, whilst the hapless Major Government in Britain choked (sometimes literally) on its back to basics values campaign, Paul Keating and John Hewson were formally welcoming another Mardi Gras season.

There is no simple answer to this reversal, but one related phenomenon is obvious: the election of the Howard Government in 1996 and the corresponding collapse of confidence and faith in a progressive social agenda within the Australian Labor Party.

One of Howard’s key campaign themes in the 1996 election was that the Keating Government had lost touch with the interests of everyday, average Australians and was a willing captive of noisy, demanding minority groups.

In apparent contrast, Howard promised to govern “for all of us”. The sub-text, as a number of commentators noted, was clear: Howard would not be beholden to those groups beyond mainstream Australia. It was not that Howard was especially hostile to gays and lesbians – he just wasn’t much interested or sympathetic.

Gay rights, along with a broader progressive agenda, stalled under the Howard Government as Australia slumbered through a decade of economic growth.

I interviewed a well-known gay activist during the final years of the Howard reign, and his frustration was palpable. He recounted a meeting in Canberra with one of Howard’s advisers around the issue of relationship recognition. The message was clear: the Prime Minster knows what you want and you are not going to get it.

The bigger failure, however, was the timidity of the ALP. The landslide that swept Paul Keating from power scarred the party. Big, Keatingesque vision became unpopular; those on the right of the party bought the line that they had been held hostage to minority groups and found a happy and lucrative perch in the Murdoch press expounding this analysis. The uneasy policy position of gay marriage in Labor circles should be viewed through this larger prism of caution and progressive retreat.

Neither Rudd nor Gillard have been willing to touch gay marriage as an issue. Rudd, I suspect, partly for religious reasons and Gillard through electoral fear. True, she has given the nod for gay marriage to be debated at the next ALP National Conference; a nice shift from a few years ago when even within the gay community ALP members did their best to close the issue down.

But I doubt Gillard herself will budge on gay marriage, certainly not since her recent coming out as a social conservative. Furthermore, after the carbon tax u-turn she needs to demonstrate some consistency with her promises to the electorate, and gay marriage will amply provide her with that.

The most annoying feature of the gay marriage debate is that the generosity of the populace now outstrips our politicians. The latest opinion poll indicates about 60% support for gay marriage, although a very vocal religious minority implacably oppose it.

I doubt many of that minority will vote for a Gillard Government, but they will make a huge din. What the gay marriage debate needs is a political leader willing to stare down the opposition and restore Australia’s reputation as a leader in gay rights. It will be a while yet before gay activists internationally gaze longingly at Australia