Same Sex Semantics in Australia

In the next few days legislation will be tabled in ACT (Australian Capital Territory) parliament recognizing under law civil unions, marriages, between two people of the same sex. Such legislation was introduced in 2006 only to be vetoed by then Prime Minister John Howard. As a federal territory, and not a state, the federal government has the ability to intervene in the processes of the democratically elected ACT government. Using such powers Howard squashed moves to make into ACT law the ability for Gay and Lesbian couples to enjoy full legal recognition of their relationship including financial and spousal rights previously denied gay and lesbian couples.


With the removal of John Howard and the election of Kevin Rudd, the ACT parliament has again tabled laws that recognize gay marriage. This is where it gets interesting for the new government. At the moment Prime Minister Rudd is enjoying surging popularity after his apology to the Indigenous Stolen Generation, continuing a honeymoon period with the electorate. His apology touched many Australians who finally heard the words ‘sorry’ be used by a sitting Prime Minister for the horrible crimes committed to Aboriginal families. While not perfect such words finally swept away the semantic games that the Howard Government had played for the last 11 years. People have praised Rudd for his earnestness, his compassion, his use of strong, clear language when he gave the apology on behalf of parliament. Come one week later and it seems that the Rudd government is quickly becoming entangled in a semantic knot that could very become to Rudd what ‘sorry’ was to Howard.


Upon being asked about the institution of marriage in October last year, Rudd said-


“When it comes to respecting same-sex relationships I understand the absolute important of that – absolute importance,” he said.

“But on the institution of marriage I think it’s important that we articulate a clear view on that."


“But on the institution of marriage itself our view is this – it’s an institution between a man and a woman and that’s just been our traditional continuing view.’ (The Australian, Oct 23 2007)


And this seems to be the response from both sides of parliament- that the term ‘marriage’ can only be applied to a union between a man and a woman only. Then the semantic tap dance continues in that equality of rights for gay and lesbian couples under the law is not what Rudd or the Opposition are having trouble with as such, its how one goes about enshrining those rights, and what one calls such an accord- dare I say ceremony- that’s making politicians stutter and fumble.


So on the one hand Rudd respects and understands gay and lesbian relationships- as long as you don’t call it a marriage. Sounds an awful lot like the semantics of the previous government that expressed "its deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices" but could not utter the symbolic word ‘Sorry’ and in doing so maneuvered itself so far into a corner that it left no political room to change their approach, leaving Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships to fester for a decade.


One of the key reasons for Rudd’s word play is that such policies and views were in part to ensure the support of the tiny but seemingly influential Australian Christian lobby. As seen tonight on ABC’s Lateline www.abc.net.au/lateline Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby seeks to ensure that Rudd maintain his election promise to keep up the name game in regards to marriage, or should we say civil ceremony, or perhaps civil partnership? Whatever one may call it underneath such rhetoric there seems to be the aim, and so far its been successful, to deny homosexual couples the same recognition under the law as other citizens. The reasons for Jim Wallace and the Christian Lobby’s rejection of such rights are obvious, stemming from conservative interpretations of the Bible and a desire to maintain society along such ‘good old fashion values and morals’.


That semantic games played seek to hide the fact that a portion of the population are discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality, that loving caring couples are denied the same rights and protections under the law that all other Australians can enjoy. Such games reveal the government’s recognition of the inherent bigotry of its position and thus it attempts to masquerade it. The Rudd government, beholden to the Christian lobby, is trying at the moment to have its cake and eat it too. In doing so it hopes to appease the Christian Right while appearing more open on the topic then previous governments. The latest introduction of ACT Civil Union/Marriage bill offers a challenge to the new Rudd government to continue to act on the good faith so many Australians seem to have placed in it as a government for new beginnings. Let’s hope that unlike the previous government’s handling of ‘Sorry’, gay and lesbian couples and all Australians won’t have to wait 11 years before politicians stop playing semantics when it comes to recognizing same sex marriage.

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