The high political stakes of same sex marriage



The same sex marriage postal plebiscite will be as intense as most referendum and election campaigns. Indeed, the special characteristics of this subject, advanced by the government as the reason for going beyond parliamentary means to resolve the issue, mean that the campaign may be more intense than most referendums have been.

John CoatesThe issue touches so deeply on our personal attitudes, culture and traditional institutions that we can expect an angry and sometimes vitriolic campaign which may severely shake up our society. The political leadership contest between Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott also means that there is a great deal at stake and personal reputations are at risk.  

This is more so than was the case in 1999, for instance, when John Howard called the republican referendum but did not support it. Howard would have survived a YES vote on that occasion as no one doubted that the process which he had facilitated was the appropriate one.

Despite being criticised by Turnbull—then Australian Republican Movement (ARM) leader—as the man who broke the nation’s heart, he could claim that the majority NO vote was vindication of his position. The then Labor leader Kim Beazley was not seriously wounded by the result as republicans were divided and the ARM took responsibility for the loss.

This time it will be different. Turnbull,in particular, has a lot riding on the outcome. The fact that he feels constrained by his official leadership position from taking to the campaign trail will not lessen his responsibility for the outcome.

If the plebiscite fails he will be blamed by the YES movement for his complicity in failing to insist on a parliamentary conscience vote which is the usual way that socio-moral issues, like abortion and euthanasia, are addressed in Australian parliaments. If it succeeds, the YES campaign, led by Bill Shorten and the marriage equality NGOs, will take much of the credit.

If the plebiscite fails Shorten will receive some criticism, either for his decision to oppose a full compulsory plebiscite or for running an ultimately ineffective campaign. But the ire of supporters of same sex marriage will not fall primarily on him. He will respond by promising a free vote in parliament if Labor wins the 2019 election. The issue will remain on the table.

A YES vote will damage Abbott’s long term reputation, but in the short term he will be credited by his supporters with having fought the good fight. A NO vote will advance his conservative credentials among culture warriors but will not return him to the Liberal leadership.


"Turnbull,in particular, has a lot riding on the outcome. The fact that he feels constrained by his official leadership position from taking to the campaign trail will not lessen his responsibility for the outcome."


His mentor, Howard, however, is risking his reputation by energetically returning to the fray after a decade out of office. He has little to gain but a lot to lose by reinforcing his conservative record of opposing change, as he did when he boycotted the parliamentary apology to the stolen generations in 2008.

The leading role that many church leaders will play in the NO campaign will add greatly to the intensity of the opposition. They played very little role in the republic referendum so they will be a virtually new ingredient on this occasion.

This time the Catholic leadership, many Evangelical leaders and the Australian Christian Lobby will comprise a substantial element of the NO campaign, alongside conservative political leaders.

There is no doubt that if the NO campaign ultimately succeeds because of a large church influence many church-going orthodox Christians will be delighted. At a time of apparent church weakness, a surprising success will be perceived as showing how church political muscle should never be under-rated. It may also strengthen inter-faith bridges with the leaders of some other faith communities.

However, a full-blown church NO campaign will have other consequences, because it will further complicate the already weak church relations with younger Australians, whom surveys demonstrate are undoubtedly pro-same sex marriage.

If the churches are on the losing side, they will carry the added burden of seeming to be stuck in the past. Win or lose, church leaders will have cemented their reputation for social conservatism.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, same sex marriage



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Existing comments

Thanks John for a thoughtful and erudite background on the broader issue around this.

Matt Casey | 16 August 2017  

Sorry, John. It's not about Turnbull, Abbot, Howard, Shorten and the churches. It's about the couples who love each other and care for their children and go to work and pay their taxes and are being treated as inferior. They have their life choice voted on by illiterates and drunks, business tycoons and flaccid academics and people who really BELIEVE that Eve was made from the rib of Adam. "Oh judgement, thou art fled to brutish beasts / And men have lost their reason."

Frank | 16 August 2017  

As a card carrying Catholic I will vote for same sex marriage. For those who think differently I respect your right to vote with your conscience. I hope and pray for respectful dialogue.

Patricia Taylor | 16 August 2017  

A thoughtful article John. It's a pity though that you chose to stay with the word 'plebiscite'. Though it may not be technically incorrect, the term affords this process a status it does not deserve. What we will get will inevitably be a non-randomised survey. Almost certainly for example, it will fall short of representing young people, many of whom will have never even bought a postage stamp. Will the results be weighted and if so how transparent will that process be? Of course none of this will impact on the politics, which your article nicely summarises.

Lawrence Moloney | 16 August 2017  

No one I've spoken to about this postal plebiscite is in favour of its implementation. Whether in favour of same-sex marriage or not, the feeling is that it is a colossal waste of taxpayer money which could be better spent on schools or hospitals. The issue should be decided in parliament by a conscience vote and this postal vote is not the next best thing. The churches have the privilege of speaking in the public square and I agree that their reputation for social conservatism will be reinforced win or lose. I think the majority of people attend church for reasons they don't completely understand. This would include young people.

Pam | 16 August 2017  

Why is this issue not being discussed in terms of marriage being a civil and/or a religious ceremony? The way a problem is defined may contain the roots of its solution.

Paddy Byers | 16 August 2017  

"This time the Catholic leadership, many Evangelical leaders and the Australian Christian Lobby will comprise a substantial element of the NO campaign, alongside conservative political leaders". What about other religions and ethnic groups: eg. Islamic and Jewish and even Buddhist? What are they saying about this issue. What do the polls say about their views?

Stephen de Weger | 16 August 2017  

"illiterates and drunks, business tycoons and flaccid academics and people who really BELIEVE that Eve was made from the rib of Adam" Frank, I thought this was meant to be a rational debate where hate speech was not appropriate.

Stephen de Weger | 16 August 2017  

@ Paddy Byers Yes, I agree wholeheartedly, Paddy. In The Netherlands, for example, couples go through two 'marriages', one with the state and one with the church (the latter, if they so choose). It has been this way also for centuries as far as I know, a true separation of church and state and one which accommodates the diversity groups within society without forcing one definition on all. Perhaps we could have a diversity of definitions of marriage, and couples could choose which definition they want to be married under. Oddly, in the end, it seems that this is more about people wanting to be accepted by the mainstream, the powers that be, but to also have the power of definition and language themselves - they who control the language, control the debate. Another pint we all to remember is that emotion does not automatically equate with reason, so while the debate will become heated, it will only do so if emotion and reason are conflated carelessly.

Stephen de Weger | 16 August 2017  

I suspect the Churches' power to influence public opinion has diminished in the light of their part in the cover-ups of sexual abuse of children. The Catholics, in particular, are doing themselves no service in their blind faith in the secrecy of the confessional. Why would citizens take any notice of their views on marriage equality?

Frank Golding | 16 August 2017  

Thanks John for this lucid, informative snapshot. However, the position of churches on gay marriage needs to be further unpacked. It needs to be understood that the Uniting Church has an accepting and affirming stance on equal marriage - as part of its internal working out of related contentious issues since the late 1990s. It was costly for the UCA to resolve nationally that self-identified gay people could be ordained in full standing. A significant proportion of membership (was it 20%?) left and major property issues ensued. Today there are various degrees of acceptance of gay people in the UCA (some genuinely warm; others chilly). Add to this the ready acceptance of gay people in other denominations with less public profile. I know many such people around the country. It is significant.

Wayne Sanderson | 16 August 2017  

Paddy is right. Civil marriage parted company with its religious counterpart decades if not centuries ago. Religious groups will still refuse to marry gay people because of their interpretation of biblical texts. In the same way they refuse now to marry people who aren't baptised for similarly arcane reasons. So what? That's their affair and a matter between them and their membership. The serious question confronting us now is one of justice. Regardless of what religions do, the state should not discriminate against a class of its citizens on the basis of their legitimate sexual tendencies, or the colour of their hair. Amendments to the Marriage Act aren't going to affect my 50-year old church marriage or anyone else's.

OldG | 16 August 2017  

It may seem pedantic, but can we please stop referring the "same-sex marriage" in some sort of false attempt at balance. What we are talking about is the right of 2 people of age to enter into a relationship recognised by the state. These people may be female, male, transgender or intersex. It is right guaranteed to all by Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Australia is a signatory, and which was properly incorporated into Australian domestic law until abrogated by the 2004 amendments to the Marriage Act. The better term to use is marriage equality.

Terry Laidler | 16 August 2017  

Patricia Taylor in her comment has aptly summed up the way things should go. They have, sadly, not. It's not so much the moral issue but the psychological ones that are causing and will continue to cause problems. I myself am glad that we are going to have a voluntary postal plebiscite. It may not be the exact way they did it in Ireland, but, apart from technical details, it seems remarkably similar. I remember, a while ago, the actress Magda Szubanski, who is in a same sex relationship, saying she did not want a referendum because she felt it would be too stressful for her. She had, like many others, thought that same sex marriage was going to be introduced earlier. I can understand how she feels. She has always been the epitome of courtesy and stuck to the point. From what I have seen of Lyall Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby, who is on the opposite side of this issue, he has also been exemplary. Others on both sides have not. This is a hot issue for many and I can understand passions becoming inflamed but there is an atmosphere of nastiness and vindictiveness around which I fear will long remain whatever the outcome. This poisonous atmosphere may well tempt many not to bother to vote or to follow blindly what the same sex marriage lobbyists or the conservative Church leaders say. I hope people think coolly and calmly and make up their own minds.

Edward Fido | 16 August 2017  

I don't trust politicians on a conscience vote. They are not the most informed people to make judgments. Further many have changed their views and it is too serious an issue to be carried by such people. An education programme between now and next election would not be out of place

Mick Jones | 16 August 2017  

"Win or lose, church leaders will have cemented their reputation for social conservatism." And given that polling shows young people very much favouring change, this looks like being a repeat of the abortion debate, where the Church pretty much lost a whole generation of young Catholics.

Russell | 16 August 2017  

Professor Warhurst is correct: politics is never, really, about only one thing. The political process -- mixed up with ideology, ambition, personalities -- inevitably plays a potent role, and this present glorified ABS "Survey" (it's neither a plebiscite not a referendum) will be no exception. Let me mention one unarguably political aspect of this looming procedure (unless the High Court agrees with the plausible that, without a Parliamentary the appropriation expenditure is illegal). The Government's bill for a "plebisite" has twice been rejected by the Senate. We have a clear constitutional means of resolving such an impasse: its a Double-Dissolution". Presumably, if this matter were really as important as the Government argues, the appropriate solution would be to go to the country and let an election settle it? Why did this not happen? Was the Government afraid that it would lost the election? The resultant situation -- whether is is one of timidity or probity -- is deeply concerning in its implication for the health not only of our political society bot for our :"Civil Society" as well. But, make no mistake: it emphasises Professor Warhurst's point -- there is a big does of politics involved.

Dr John CARMODY | 16 August 2017  

John's mention of Catholic leadership provides the only publishable opportunity in the Catholic media for this Catholic dissentient from Archbishop Fisher's view to state an opinion. Instead of focussing on the serious, adult and freedom-dependent commitments of permanence & fidelity that infuse Catholic teaching on marriage, the only official expression of the Church's view to date has been to contest both the PM's & the Attorney-General's assurances that should a bill be presented to parliament it will protect the rights of religious celebrants. The faillure of the Archbishop to acknowledge many known shortcomings in the Church's teaching on the sacramentology of marriage, coupled with the abject absence in the discourse of a Dominican Archbishop of any mention of the Natural Law, insofar as the Church is inextricably committed to its principles in both its marital and social justice teaching, represents a serious dereliction of duty on this question. Add to that the established pluralist liberal democratic view that the secularist separation of Church and State has been the device by which English-speaking Catholics have historically availed of the laws that protect their rights, and one is left fearing another nail to be driven into the coffin of our religious reputation.

Dr Michael Furtado | 16 August 2017  

One thing we see from those religious and political leaders in the NO campaign is the claim they are fighting for the protection and sanctity of marriage. Yet they only see the "threat" in gender terms. For a generation now, the marriage institution has been completely trashed in popular culture and media, Cf "entertainment" and "social experiments"such as The Batchelor, Temptation Island, The Seven Year Switch, Married at First Sight, etc. etc. These are tacitly accepted accepted by churches and politicians simply through their silence. Where is marriage valued (and defined) simply as the most loving and most committed partnership between two adults?

Kevin Wilson | 16 August 2017  

Paddy Byers asks a very important question. Why is this issue not being discussed in terms of marriage being a civil/religious ceremony? Simply put that is a sociological question. The sociological study of marriage up until the mid-1920s tended to be biased towards presenting monogamous marriage as the end product of social evolution. In more recent times (after World War 2) sociologists have harvested the more fertile field of marriage breakdown and divorce. The ideal of marriage as a compact between a man and woman for life and open to the procreation and care of children was not being realised by more and more couples. In some countries like USA 30% of marriages ended in divorce. Why was this so? This proved to be a more interesting question than why did most marriages persist. Result: marriages can be either romantic ideals or hazardous gambles. If couples (homosexual or heterosexual) want to marry - let them. If their love is strong, the marriage will last, if their love is weak, they can always divorce. One might say following the evolutionists this is where we are today. The conservatives cling to the monogamous heterosexual ideal despite the ever-increasing number of its failures.

Uncle Pat | 16 August 2017  

Should all couples who want a "marriage certificate" have a certificate from the State that is a "Civil Union Certificate " ( Not a Marriage Certificate) This would address the need for State formalities and sameness for all. And leave the State out of the religious domain . Could someone please argue for and/ or against this idea ?

Brenda | 16 August 2017  

I think your second last paragraph sums it up for me. I think the NO campaign will do more damage to religion which will be reflected in the next census. Do religious people really want to be associated with the ACL who have said that children of same sex couples are the new stolen generation? And despite Abbott, the archbishops of Sydney trying to derail the discussion by talking about freedom of religion, political correctness and so on, marriage equality is simply two consenting adults being allowed to marry. It affects no one except them, their family and their friends.

Ronson Dalby | 16 August 2017  

John, your articles usually encourage self critical political reflection on "all sides". But here the Liberal-National and Labor parties are let off the hook. It is their political cowardice that brings on this tax-payer funded brawl. These overprivileged public relations firms have walked away in bi-partisan fashion from defending their bipartisan legislation of 2004. They simply ignore the electorate’s need to have their loss of support for the Marriage Act explained. And where is the forward looking proposed legislative agenda on this matter? The survey is a public relations stunt, distracting political analysis from what they have failed to do. This over-reach of Parliamentary power to be paid for with public funds is but a search for a mandate for bi-partisan political negligence. It might be valid for any party to launch such a national survey and pay for it themselves. Then they can determine their party's policies to put to the electorate. But their instincts are so ingrained that this risky venture in political engineering risking social cohesion is a scandalous misappropriation to safeguard the entrenched electoral self-interest. The campaign pushes public government further down the populist path.

Bruce C Wearne | 16 August 2017  

For the sake of moral consistency and integrity, I'm presuming the Catholic and other churches will be prefixing their NO campaign with a call to repeal divorce and sodomy laws. And I'm presuming that an Catholic who supports the YES campaign will be barred from receiving communion.

AURELIUS | 16 August 2017  

I think we are being asked the wrong question. I think any two adults should go before a civil celebrant or registrar and state their intention to live together in a personal relationship for life and receive a relationship certificate that gives them all the legal rights that marriage bestows at present. THIS IS TRUE EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW. Then anyone with a religious belief could go to a priest or minister of religion and have them witness marriage vows and receive a certificate attesting to that.

Joan Winter OP | 17 August 2017  

Thank you Joan Winter OP for your clarification about a relationship certificate.

Brenda | 17 August 2017  

Participation in the voluntary plebiscite will be far below a representative sample of the electorate. The YES vote will win by a big margin.

Nostradamus | 17 August 2017  

I am seventy-three, my partner is sixty-six, we have lived together for thirty-five years and celebrated the occasion in New Zealand this year, a country light years ahead in respect of this issue. We live openly in a supportive Catholic community in which I am a lay minister (only mentioned because opponents of marriage equality think it is impossible to be gay and a member of the Church as if its an exclusive club, which it isn't). We will not be silenced, sidelined or marginalised. We are equal to everyone else and we demand equality, as is our human right. Whether my partner and I marry is a moot point given our age but I want my nephew to have the choice of marrying his partner – both in their twenties. I am angry we have to appease a vocal bigoted minority who see it as their business to tell us how we should live our lives. I didn’t ask to be gay (it took years to accept) but it is a matter over which I had no choice. I am now proud that God has given me this gift. Opponents of Marriage Equality ought to grow up, get a life and get out of mine.

Jeff | 17 August 2017  

You seem to think that speaking up to defend the truth, marriage and the family are far less important than avoiding the apparently ultimate evil of " a reputation for social conservatism". The churches are not political parties. They are divinely commissioned to teach the truth regardless of whether it's popular. And in any case on many if not most social issues (refugees, poverty, multiculturalism, immigration, wars, the arms trade, aboriginal development, human trafficking, care for the environment, racism, homelessness/housing, profiteering, casinos/pokies etc.) the churches are on the "liberal" side of the argument. Inasmuch as the words "liberal" and "conservative" have any meaning these days. Of course the churches were neutral in the republic debate because unlike the single-sex "marriage" concept, that didn't involve a matter of basic truth, morality and respect for human rights (especially children's rights). Despite the ARM spokeswoman's claim "we have the church on our side", when Archbishops Pell and Hollingworth supported a rebublic at the Convention. Abp Pell immediately corrected her pointing out (as he always does when speaking on matters unrelated to faith and morals) that it is purely his personal opinion and Catholics are perfectly free to disagree. (Hollingworth let it ride).

Peter K | 17 August 2017  

The uncomfortable question that now cannot be avoided is this: who would have been eligible for the proposed plebiscite before this survey was foist upon us? Citizens or those whose names are on the electoral rolls? Sorry, but this needs clarification.

Bruce Wearne | 17 August 2017  

I worry that the Yes Vote for the unnecessary, expensive, voluntary and non-binding postal opinion poll will fragment. Michael Kirby and others are calling for a boycott of the survey for valid reasons that I acknowledge, but which will leave the field open to the No-voters. Support for the republic referendum campaign fragmented on different republican models to allow the Monarchists to win. It is up to supporters of Marriage Equality not to let the same thing happen here because you can be sure the conservatives will try their very best to make a No Vote binding on the Parliament.

Brett | 17 August 2017  

The only thing that can be said about this referendum, if it survives the High Court challenge and proceeds is: 'Watch this space.' I am reminded of these lines from the song of that excellent film 'Midnight Cowboy': ' Everbody's talkin at me/I can't hear a word they're saying/Only the echoes of my mind.' Whatever happens I think we have lost any chance of working through to a genuine national consensus.

Edward Fido | 17 August 2017  

Jeff: “I am angry we have to appease a vocal bigoted minority who see it as their business to tell us how we should live our lives.” This argument might work if you were an atheist, but not as a practising Christian. I think there may be others who are bemused that an even smaller minority should make it their business to tell a religion to ignore a foundational teaching, given that the purpose of a religion is to tell people how to live their lives.

Roy Chen Yee | 18 August 2017  

Roy, I'm a practicing Christian and Catholic who also happens to be gay. Could you tell me which foundational principle of Christianity I've broken, because I've read the scriptures and Jesus did seem to mention gay people. There are quite a few foundational principals Jesus was quite explicit about that many Christians conveniently ignore when our governments break them. Jesus was more concerned about fidelity and faithfulness in relationships than simply the biological mechanics of our animal sexual urges.

AURELIUS | 18 August 2017  

Roy, it's one thing to say that nobody should tell a religion to abandon a 'foundational teaching' in respect to its own members; it's another to say that nobody should object to a religion manipulating the political processes of the state to enforce that 'foundational teaching' on everybody else.

Ginger Meggs | 19 August 2017  

33 comments already. That statistic is going to help me a lot when I go to a friend's 70th birthday party tonight. For years Sex, Politics and Religion were taboo subjects. No longer is that the case. The numbers are in. The comments on Prof Warhurst's article on the politics of the Same Sex Survey show a diversity of opinions & suggestions that would be very hard to encapsulate in a YES/NO Opinion Survey. Mr Abbott (and his supporters} was determined that if he was to lose his Prime Ministership on the basis of a succession of adverse Opinion Polls then his usurper was going to go through the same process only BIG TIME. This Survey will be assessed by future political scientists as the biggest dummy spit by a politician since the pro- Conscription Billy Hughes split the Labour 1916.

Uncle Pat | 19 August 2017  

Peter K, being 'divinely commissioned to teach the truth' might be one thing, but have they also been divinely commissioned to manipulate the political institutions, processes and conventions of the state to impose that 'truth' on non-believers? Because that surely is what Abbott, Andrews, and others have sought to do by denying the Parliament the opportunity to resolve this matter.

Ginger Meggs | 19 August 2017  

Ginger Meggs: "it's another to say that nobody should object to a religion manipulating the political processes of the state to enforce that 'foundational teaching' on everybody else." How can referring a matter to the people be manipulation when they are the moral authority that created the Parliament?

Roy Chen Yee | 20 August 2017  

Jeff, don’t let anyone tell you there is a specific “Christian” foundational teaching on Marriage Equality, or that your argument is invalid as a practicing Christian, or that your anger is misplaced. All that is just one more opinion and you've probably heard it all before anyway.

Brett | 20 August 2017  

"His mentor, Howard, however, is risking his reputation by energetically returning to the fray after a decade out of office. He has little to gain but a lot to lose...." John Howard is a lawyer and, for all we know, may be planning ahead for the questions his Maker will be addressing to him. If so, he's being eminently sensible and all professed Christians should be similarly so, no matter the side of any debate they occupy. Where moral questions pertain, the glory of a reputation is only a high stake for a small pond.

Roy Chen Yee | 23 August 2017  

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