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Same sex marriage down under?

Nick Bryant | 02:13 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

Outside of New Year's Eve and the occasional Olympics, Australia lays on no greater spectacle than the Sydney gay and lesbian mardi gras. From the famed Dykes on Bikes, who always begin the parade with the throttled roar of their Harley Davidsons, to the surf lifesavers in their skimpy Speedos, it is at once fabulously global and quintessentially antipodean. Leather, spandex, make-up, sequins, metal studwork, false eyelashes, feather boas and eighties dance moves have rarely been put to such creative use. It is like watching 100 Kylie Minogue concerts all at the same time.

Along with all the camp revelry, a political message usually runs through the parade. This year, it was the call for same sex marriage in Australia. Of the 130 floats that paraded through the streets of Sydney, over a dozen were centred on the theme of equal rights for same sex couples - "total equality" to quote that new Aussie hero, the speech therapist Lionel Logue at the start of The King's Speech. Many couples dressed as brides and grooms. Giant puppets of Julia Gillard wearing a wedding dress and Tony Abbott in a swimming costume were also carried through the streets. Both are opposed to same sex marriage: Abbott, a strict Catholic, on moral and religious grounds; Julia Gillard, an atheist, probably for political reasons. Same sex marriage does not play well in the socially conservative marginal constituencies of the suburban fringe that usually decide Australia elections.

The subject is particularly germane because the Greens are pushing for the federal government's power of veto over laws passed in the territories - that is to say the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory - to be watered down. In what The Australian newspaper has called a "stalking horse for gay marriage law reform", it would pave the way for same sex marriage in the Australian Capital Territory. The move from the Greens shows the power at the moment of its leader, Senator Bob Brown, Australia's most influential homosexual. It also illustrates the difficulty that Julia Gillard faces in appeasing her de facto coalition partners, the Greens, while at the same time shoring up Labor's blue collar base.

But let us stick to the ethics. Gay and lesbian groups claim that the present laws discriminate against them because they are predicated on the view that their relationships are, by definition, inferior. This, at a time when gays and lesbians have been granted a much fuller menu of economic and legal rights equivilent to those enjoyed by opposite sex couples. At the moment, civil unions are available in the ACT, Tasmania and Victoria, but campaigners want Australia to join the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain and Canada, along with a number of other countries, in allowing sex same marriages.

Opponents believe that marriage is an institution only for heterosexual men and women, and that to extend it to same sex couples would undermine a sacred union. To many, it violates biblical teaching and would condone behaviour that they consider morally reprehensible. They would consider it a cardinal - and carnival - sin. Doubtless there are many who believe that a same sex relationship is inferior, and that this should enshrined in law.

Some of those who are sympathetic to the idea but nonetheless oppose it claim the Australian community simply is not ready to countenance same sex marriage. This seems to be the position of many Labor front-benchers, especially in inner city constituencies harbouring a large number of gay and lesbian voters, who are worried about remaining politically viable both locally and nationally.

Australia sets great store in its much-vaunted egalitarianism, but on this issue it collides with its social conservatism. In the same sex marriage debate, which will win out?

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