Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Gay Motion

Symbols are funny things.

Sometimes they have enormous impact because, despite being small acts, their ramifications are enormous. Think Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, or Officer Sanguinetti, the genius that imspired SlutWalk.
Rosa Parks. Picture from Wikipedia
Symbols are powerful because, as humans, we are emotional people. That is why just about every news story has a "human angle". A cut in funding for some community service may not seem like a big deal to most people - that is until the story is put next to a photo of some family who will be hurt by the changes.

In the same way, many people will often find their opinion on a topic about changing once they know someone who has first hand experience. Nothing will enliven an interest in the state of our public hospital system more than having a loved one spend the best part of a week in one, as I experienced not long ago.

In politics, however, symbols are a whole different thing.  A strong symbol at the right time can shift an entire debate in the blink of an eye. Symbols often change people's opinions or even the conversation entirely.

The rolling drama over Craig Thomson is a good example. The Coalition has been trying to use the Thomson drama to force him out of Parliament, or at the very least to tar Gillard and the Labor party as a whole as being connected to thieving, rotten, and above all dishonest unions. The electorate has already formed an opinion about Gillard's honesty that is, most likely, terminal to her prospects of leading Labor to victory in November 2013.

If the populace can be convinced to see the whole of the Labor party in that night, then no matter who is the leader next year the perception will endure.

Thomson is, in the Coalition's mind, a symbol of what Labor are really like.

One thing drastically and almost inexplicably changed the story earlier this week.  I don't know whether it was Thomson's tears during his address to the Parliament, or whether it was his courtyard interview, but the conversation shifted to his mental state. Suddenly we were talking about his mental health and looking back at a Labor MP Greg Wilton who committed suicide in 2000.
Photo from everywhere on the Internet
The damage is a long way from undone, but journos are doing less writing and talking about Craig Thomson and turning their attention to Abbott's behaviour - is he recklessly driving someone towards to severe mental harm, or even worse?

There are two enduring symbols - the idea of Thomson being a liar (best encapsulated by the Herald Sun's tacky front page) and Thomson tearing up during his speech.  Sadly for him and Labor, the former is probably the stronger symbol, which is why the Thomson issue is going to remain a millstone around Labor's neck.
Awful photoshop from the Hun
Another extremely powerful symbol that we saw come from the United States was this pronouncement from Barack Obama on gay marriage:

In the United States, unlike in Australia, the Federal government has no power whatsoever over marriage. It is entirely a matter for the States - and Obama cannot make any law on this issue.

But his words were a symbol - along with his abolition of "Don't Ask Don't Tell", it sends a signal of acceptance to the homosexual community.

Directly speaking, it won't change a thing. but a president willing to go on the record as being in favour of gay marriage is something that can fundamentally shift the debate.

This is all a very long way round to the Green's motion in the NSW Upper House on marriage equality.

Now, I'm thoroughly in favour of marriage equality. To me, if gay people want to marry... well, I like the thus picture:

I'm a Christian, and my views on gay marriage put me at odds with some people who share my religious beliefs - but that's really a discussion for a different blog.

What Cate Faehrmann (NSW Upper House member) has done is bring a motion in the Upper House on the issue.  The motion reads as follows
It is important to note at this point that NSW has no jurisdiction over this issue. None whatsoever. The Federal Constitution vests exclusive power in the Federal government to make laws with regard to marriage.  Any law that NSW passed in relation to marriage would have no validity.

This is why Feahrmann has decided to move a motion that simply "supports" marriage equality, rather than any law actually taking action - NSW has no power to do anything more than that.
Feahrmann. Image from Wikipedia
What she no doubt hopes is that this motion will spur the Federal government to take action on marriage equality.

The problem is that at the Labor National conference earlier this year the Labor party decided that their Federal policy would be that individual MP's would be able to vote "with their conscience". Whilst there is no doubt that a number of Labor members will vote in favour of marriage equality, the fact that the Coalition has not allowed a conscience vote and has dictated that all members must vote against any such bill means that it is doomed to failure.

In the event, Faehrmann's motion was passed, 22 votes to 16.  The consequence?  Nothing.
The Upper House has spent the best part of 2 days debating the issue. Both major parties allowed their members a conscience vote on the issue. The Hansard has not been published yet, so I can't share with you the breakdown as to who voted which way.

My gripe with the motion is this, however: it is a symbol. Nothing more, nothing less. No law has been changed. and no action has been taken. The NSW Upper House house simply passed a motion.

Even if the Lower House passes the bill (and the lower house members may or may not be allowed a conscience vote) all that will be accomplished is a few fairly minor articles in the media.

Nothing will have changed - but the Upper House will have spent 2 days on the issue.

Moreover, whilst being a symbol, it is not even a powerful symbol.  Do you think Tony Abbott (the man who, realistically, holds the future of the marriage equality debate in his hands as long as the present parliament persists) could care less what the NSW Upper House thinks? Of course he doesn't.

Upper House members are allowed to propose any motion that they like, and I would not be in favour of limiting motions to things that will actually have a material effect. 

But I am uneasy about the Upper House's time being wasted on a motion that is at best a symbol - and nothing more.

If Cate Faermann wants to change the law on gay marriage, then she has done the right thing by seeking pre-selection on the Green's Federal ticket.

These motions, whilst they may be a powerful symbol, accomplish precisely nothing. It is not quite, but close to the same category as the Marrickville Council's BDS campaign - also, not coincidentally, initiated by a Greens member.

Hopefully the Upper House will resume debating motions that actually matter in the near future.

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