Tony Abbott’s Conscience and the Rainbow Sails in the Sunset

hughharrisBy Hugh Harris




It’s not going away… Over the weekend thousands of Australians rallied in support of same-sex marriage. Liberal MPs rueful at the farce of Tony Abbott’s stone-walling, might reflect on what a conscience vote really means. Individuals can vote freely on certain issues because of particular beliefs they hold – usually cultural or religious.

Tony Abbott has exercised his conscience, in order to disallow others from exercising theirs, as if in mockery of the very concept. This highlights the fatal flaw with conscience: if everyone acted on conscience we would have a country of 24 million Tony Abbott’s demanding respect for their own views. We’d never agree on anything and yet, some opponents of gay marriage insist the consciences of all Australians must be preserved under the guise of religious liberty. If we grant any credence to the “conscience” of one person, unaccompanied by evidence or argument, we devalue the objective good reasons why policies are implemented.

Of the 33 conscience votes in the Federal parliament many have been perceived as issues of principle. These include the abolition of the death penalty, euthanasia, sex discrimination and human embryo cloning. A vote occurred in 1973, when John Gorton proposed that homosexual acts in private should not be subject to the criminal law, and also in 1974, when the Family Law Bill allowed no-fault divorce. Decades later we look back at these two changes as measures of our progress, rather than matters of principle. Once we have moved on, the reasons for their adoption seem so obvious and apparent that we wonder why it took so long. One suspects we’ll see same-sex marriage in much the same way in 20 years.

Notwithstanding, the thwarting of the conscience vote for Coalition MPs provides a ray of hope for the stalwarts against change. If the leaders of our country can meet for a marathon six hours, hear from 90 speakers, and still resolve to do nothing it’s a good sign for the status quo. But unfortunately for them, the debate is de-facto already lost.

“De-facto” refers to holding a position in fact but not necessarily by legal right. As such, de-facto couples have the same rights in fact to marriage couples, and legal disputes are arbitrated on how “marriage-like” the relationship is. The laws on de-facto couples were changed in 2009 allowing same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.

Ah, but won’t marriage-equality opponents say there’s a big difference between a de-facto couple and a married couple?

No. They try to placate the forces for change by arguing equal rights already exist (see Rowan Dean). Also, note the following quote from senior fellow at Australian Catholic University, Kevin Donnelly:

“Also ignored, for all intents and purposes, is that gays and lesbians already have the same rights as de-facto heterosexual couples. Commonwealth legislation was introduced under the then Rudd government, as noted by the Parliamentary Library:

(It) significantly changed the legal status of same-sex couples, recognising them on an equal footing to de facto couples…”


If same-sex couples currently enjoy the same rights as married couples, then what exactly are they railing against?

And isn’t it puerile to deny same-sex couples the same title whilst busy arguing that they already have the same rights? We can’t have marriage equality because we’re already equal?

Objectors who make the “no-discrimination” argument corner themselves into merely defending the use of the word “marriage,” a classic reification fallacy: treating a word or an abstract concept as though it’s real.

As Shakespeare helpfully intoned, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

There’s no use in lamenting social changes which have already occurred.

Not only do claims of “no-discrimination” ring hollow, they contradict the other objections to same-sex marriage.

“What about the children?” Since same-sex de facto couples can legally parent children, the question is moot.

“Marriage should be between a man and a woman.” Acknowledging that de-facto same-sex couples can do all the same things as married couples spotlights the contradiction. Logically, if marriage “should” exclude same-sex couples, then “marriage-like” de-facto relationships should too – but alas, look at the rainbow sails in the sunset.

Since this boat has sailed the focus shifts to spurious semantics.

Of course, they’re saying “what are the gay people complaining about?” A nice response from Alan Jones:


My view is that when people find love, they should be able to celebrate it. And they shouldn’t be discriminated against according to the nature of that love.

To deny people the recognition for a relationship which is based on love is to deny, in my opinion, one of humankind’s most basic, elusive qualities.

We shouldn’t be frightened about celebrating the love of one person for another.”


It’s about acknowledging and recognizing the relationships of same-sex couples.

The arguments against equality are confusing and contradictory largely because they arise out of unstated religious advocacy against the rights and acceptance of gays. Whilst no doubt most Christians, the majority of whom support same-sex marriage, have no issue with gay rights, the clamorous Christian lobby protests on the basis of the roles set out for men and women in the Bible. But relying on shibboleths so far removed from contemporary values would be counterproductive. So by stealth they’re reframed, vaulting the word “marriage” above all others so it stands alone in the English language as the only word which cannot change, ignoring how it has changed again and again over the years.

We must have our principles, but at what cost? Reason will eventually prevail in this debate. If Tony Abbott remains a captive of his conscience, and fails to provide certainty on this issue, then the road ahead will be paved over same-sex land mines. The promise of an interminable debate on a social issue already decided in all but name is the unwelcome, divisive result. Barring a free parliamentary vote or a plebiscite, the next election may well become a de-facto referendum on the topic. And according to the polling, the conscience of the electorate won’t be kind to Abbott.

It’s quite possible Australian voters have more love and empathy for same-sex couples than they do for either major political party. Same-sex marriage will happen, and very soon after we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.



Hugh Harris is a freelance writer who owns a blog called The Rational Razor on philosophy, and rational thought, and is a member of the Rationalist Society of Australia.

Hugh is a contributor to the ABC, U.S. online mag The Daily Banter, the Rationalist, the Australia Times, and Secular Web.

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