The flawed logic of Bernardi’s slippery slope – why not marry a corporation?

After inflammatory comments by Liberal MP Cory Bernardi, tensions ran high in parliament about the issue of marriage equality. AAP

Having characterised advocacy for same-sex marriage as part of an attack on “our enduring institutions”, Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi has warned that recognising same sex relationships through marriage will lead to demands for the legalisation of bestiality. His comments led to his resignation yesterday as parliamentary secretary to Tony Abbott.

One response to that “slippery slope” argument – that same sex marriage will be followed by laws allowing you to marry your favourite dog, cat, budgerigar or ferret – is to say “so what?”. After all, it’s very difficult to find literature in which people advocate marriage with animals. Such advocacy appears to be restricted to teenagers seeking to oblige the readily offended but who don’t plan to enter into a relationship with man’s best friend.

As one of my law students commented, marriage with animals isn’t an issue, because contemporary marriage involves consent. Animals, children and people in comas cannot consent, therefore no marriage.

It’s useful to recognise that marriage is meaningful to people both gay and straight. Marriage is also a legal construct. Contrary to glib assertions of its timelessness, it is culturally and temporally contingent.

Somewhat inconveniently for people who rely on religious authority or claims of “enduring institutions”, marriage in the past hasn’t always required meaningful consent. Religious texts feature marriages involving minors, along with horrors such as divinely-sanctioned infanticide, slavery and ethnic cleansing.

Marriage has involved polygamy – and continues to do so in parts of the world that are distinguished by religious fervour and adherence to particular dogmas about what is right, natural and proper. Enduring institutions aren’t what they’re held out to be.

What’s fascinating about slippery slope arguments in Australia and the US is the absence of rhetoric about marrying persons who are inanimate. Why bother to marry a dog – cute but short-lived and not a legal person – when you can marry a corporation? Surely, if we are on the slopes, sliding to perdition, we’re headed to marriage with companies.

Companies are legal persons. They can legally enter into relationships. They have agency and responsibility. Most conveniently, they can live forever. And, of course, some of them are wealthy. Bill Gates will grow old and grey, and eventually become worm food. Microsoft, barring bad decisions by its managers, will be forever young and beautiful. Just the person to marry if you’re worried that your spouse won’t last much longer than the toaster or the bridal bouquet.

The notion of marrying a company – and hitting the jackpot through a divorce settlement – is of course an absurdity. There’s no reason to believe that Australian law will change to allow people to marry a corporation or other non-human legal person.

Equally, there’s no reason to believe that recognition of people with a same sex affinity will result in people marrying animals. It won’t result in legal encouragement of zoophilia. Senator Bernardi’s rhetoric is either disingenuous or worryingly naive.

It’s repellent because it serves to legitimate more vulgar expressions of hate-speech and the sort of venomous trolling that has disfigured discussions about discrimination against gay people on The Conversation.

What’s sad, and for many people ultimately repellent, is that Bernardi wasn’t sanctioned for rhetorical excess that verges on hate-speech. He was condemned by Mr Abbott for breaching party discipline. It’s apparently fine to treat Australia’s gay and lesbian people as second-class citizens, just as long as you don’t sing out of tune.

We can construe Bernardi’s comments as an exercise in political dog whistling – the insinuation or statement that passes over the heads of many Australians but resonates in the hearts of people with particular values. Those values, although not explicitly voiced by people in both the Labor Party and Coalition, are disquiet about economic/cultural change and anger at people who “look just like us” but are in love with the wrong person and therefore should be punished through a civil disability.

Sadly, many of those “wrong” people simply want what the Senator holds so dear. They don’t want to marry Spot, Fluffy or Rover. They don’t want to hitch up with IBM or ExxonMobil. They want full legal recognition of their personal commitment to each other: the recognition that we call marriage. And they want to live without the hate that leads to sorrow, death and the closet.