Last Monday Media Watch got it wrong, challenging the media’s role in the marriage debate. While the program took issue with a bias in reporting towards the campaign for change, it’s clear that both sides are getting a go here. The balance might not be equal, but when one side of the issue is unable to articulate a convincing rationale, perhaps they deserve to be given short shrift.

The tide of history is moving against the conservative view; public opinion has shifted and it’s now incumbent upon those left in that camp to convince us why we shouldn’t join the UK, New Zealand, the US and many other countries in embracing such change.

Relying on religious principles just doesn’t wash in a pluralistic democracy (I’d also go on to argue that the Bible could just as effectively be used in support of the other side). The conservative camp in Australia has largely acknowledged that the division of church and state requires a secular justification for maintaining the status quo and, thankfully, God has mostly been left out of the debate. And so, while many seem to come from a place of religious conviction, they are doing their best to find logical, secular arguments in support of such views. Accordingly, four main contentions have emerged: the traditional marriage line, the slippery slope, the rights of children and freedom of speech.

Defence of the ‘traditional’ is problematic, denying our human capacity for improvement and ignoring historical evidence about the evolution of marriage. The concept of marrying an equal for love (and someone of your own choosing) is a relatively new concept. It’s a good thing that marriage has evolved to this point and it stands to reason that it may continue to develop. Had an absolute definition of marriage been concreted at some previous point in time, we could be stuck with polygamy, arranged marriages and/or gross gender inequalities. In a similar vein, Tony Abbott made the assertion that marriage has always been between a man and woman, only to be debunked by ABC Fact Check.

The slippery slope argument can be very effective: a cursory glance at our history of voting no at referenda tells us that we can be a timid mob, easily spooked by the threat of change and its perceived consequences. But this ignores how Australia is lagging behind much of the world on the marriage issue. The vague unintended consequences of same-sex marriages have failed to appear overseas: no-one is marrying their pets, religious freedoms are still being observed and the sky has remained firmly up above. I think we can comfortably predict the situation will be the same when the law finally changes in Australia.

The emotive issue of children is the one that seems to gain the most traction. However, there is no convincing proof that a child’s development is adversely affected by having same-sex parents (in fact, the reverse may be the case). The evidence proffered on both sides of the fence here tends to be anecdotal, as is the case with Monday night’s Q&A panellist Katy Faust, an evangelical Christian who grew up in with lesbian parents. That her teenage conversion put her at odds with her upbringing must have been quite a source of personal tension; it’s unsurprising that she has resolved this by finding fault with her circumstances. Given how easy it is to find stories of happy, adjusted children growing up with gay parents, Faust’s personal story, while a boon for the conservatives, is hardly convincing.

Maybe Tolstoy got it wrong when he wrote “All happy families are alike”; happy families can take a variety of shapes, arising both out of choice and circumstance. His follow up statement does seem to be spot on though, that “all unhappy families are unhappy in their own fashion”: it’s quite possible to have an unhappy upbringing whether you’re parents are straight or gay.

1024px-Rainbow_flag_breezeBut in the context of the marriage debate, this focus on children denies reality. Children will continue to be raised by gay parents whether the marriage laws change or not. Faust herself grew up in an environment where same-sex marriage was not recognised by the law. It makes just as much sense to campaign for the banning of de facto relationships, single-parent families and no-fault divorce. In failing to recognise same-sex relationships, however, what do the current marriage laws in Australia say to children of such families? In denying their parents the choice to marry, they are second class citizens, subject to a symbolic and practical discrimination that clearly says: you’re different. Is it any wonder that some in this situation may grow up feeling a little disgruntled?

And so we are left with the freedom of speech argument that Media Watch devoted its time to on Monday; this was also articulated by Brendan O’Neill on Q&A later that evening and his column in The Australian. O’Neill inverts the dynamic and makes victims of those who would deny many of our citizens a right that most of us freely enjoy; those who hold such views, he asserts, don’t have “a hope in hell of getting ahead in public life”. Has he not noticed our Prime Minister?

The clever tactic here is to shift the focus onto the right to hold an opinion and away from articulating a satisfactory rationale for that opinion. While we debate the merits of free speech, maybe no-one will notice that this emperor has no clothes. The argument for change, however, does not take issue with someone’s right to hold an opinion, but how this opinion is imposed upon those with an entirely opposite point of view.

The use of the civil liberties argument is therefore quite a strange one. Essentially: my freedom of speech gives me the right to deny the civil liberties of others (in this case the freedom to marry). Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, but it is not an absolute right and must be weighed against other rights. Sometimes these rights come into conflict and we must choose which is more important. This is, of course, why anti-discrimination laws exist.

The air time given to activists on this issue is probably a reflection of changing public perception (with polls showing support for marriage equality at more than 70%). However, those from the conservative camp are hardly silent in the media. The Prime Minister and other prominent ministers are given opportunity to air their views on the issue almost daily. On Monday night, Media Watch was followed by Q&A, where two out of the five panellists argued in favour of maintaining the existing law. Exposure doesn’t get much better than a live national audience.

Representation may not always be evenly balanced, but both sides of the debate are certainly given air time. It does not necessarily follow, however, that affording equal weight to both sides of an issue is in the public interest (nor in the commercial interests of media outlets if the polls are to be believed). Reclaim Australia, climate change deniers and anit-vaxers all hold firm views, but strength of belief does not legitimise such opinions, which are all contrary to the public interest, and the media is right to largely ignore them.

The arguments against marriage equality just don’t add up. If you have a personal objection to the idea, then demonstrate this by not marrying someone of the same sex. Your opinion will be noted and your freedom of speech will remain intact. Meanwhile, the current law diminishes the rights of some of our citizens in a very real way. Why stand in the way of changing that?

Written by Matthew Trainor

Picture by Benson Kua