The Prime Minister, asked recently whether she would support same-sex marriage, replied that she is ‘on the conservative side of that argument’, claiming that she opposes gay marriage on the grounds that marriage as it stands – that is, the John Howard version as reflected in his amended Marriage Act – is part of the Australian culture that got us to where we are now. This statement is a veritable anthill of contradictory messages, but for the sake of argument, let’s starts with the PM’s recent trip to the US.
On her first prime ministerial visit to Washington Ms Gillard was accorded all the respect, dignity and hospitality that any visiting head of state would expect. She met with President Obama at the White House and addressed a sitting of Congress – only the fourth Australian prime minister to do so. She accompanied the President to a school and fielded questions about such vital international and bilateral concerns as vegemite and aussie rules football – all exceptionally good PR and promoting Australian culture to American kids whose only knowledge of Australia is that it’s a landlocked country with some very high mountains. The visit, by all accounts, was a diplomatic success, even if some of the more obsequious sentiments expressed in the PM’s congressional address did cause many Australians to choke on their breakfast.
Ms Gillard did not, however, travel alone to the US. She was accompanied by her partner, the First Bloke, Mr Tim Mathieson. It is usual for the spouses of Australian prime ministers to travel on official visits, and indeed, there are usually formal programs scheduled for the spouses of both leaders. Janette Howard and Laura Bush had a friendship that reflected that of their husbands; Therese Rein, herself a successful businesswoman, put her career on hold to undertake the role of First Lady, which included accompanying husband Kevin Rudd on his state visits. Michelle Obama accompanies the President on his state visits and uses the opportunities in other countries to promote those issues about which she has a driving interest and prominent role. This was also the case with Hillary Clinton in her role as US First Lady. On each state visit the spouse had an official program with the host’s spouse. But not Tim Mathieson. When questioned about the lack of attention to Ms Gillard’s spouse, US officials were quick – a little too quick – to explain that it had nothing to do with the fact that Gillard and Mathieson are not married or that their marital status, or lack thereof, might offend the delicate sensibilities of conservative Americans, it was just … um … an oversight and, well, Mrs Obama probably had better things to do.
The point here is that Ms Gillard does not have the sort of traditional domestic arrangement expected of leaders of national governments. Heads of government usually come with spouses to whom they are married – usually wives. Even the (female) President of Iceland has a wife. So for Julia Gillard to announce that she is of a conservative frame of mind when it comes to marriage and upholding traditions, and therefore gay marriage is off the national agenda, simply gives the lie to her own choices.
My second point is that, while her defacto status may not be usual among world leaders, it is broadly representative of the Australian community at large. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only 52% of people who identify themselves as being in a ‘couple relationship’ are married. Which means, if my mathematics is correct (never a certainty) that 48% of people in couple relationships are unmarried. Furthermore, around 35% of children are born out of wedlock, presumably meaning that a lot of those unmarried couples don’t find it necessary to get married simply because they’re having a child. If traditional marriage is what got us to where we are, as Ms Gillard states, then there’s a lot of people out there who got off the national train at a different station. Whether she likes it or not, and whether the Americans can cope with it or not, the choice made by Ms Gillard and Mr Mathieson is squarely in line with about half of Australia and it’s that, just as much as traditional marriage, that has got us to where we are now.
It’s unclear where her opposition to gay marriage comes from. She has certainly never shown or even implied any opposition to homosexuality per se and as an atheist she can hardly claim any religious opposition. Repeated polls have shown that a majority of Australians are in favour of equal marriage rights for everyone. Public rallies are calling for it – and not only in the ACT and not only attended by gay people. Marriage is not, as the right-wing Christian lobby might like to tell us, something sacred that should be restricted to heterosexual couples. Marriage is a legal commitment. Of the 52% of people in couple relationships who have chosen to marry, only about 50% chose to marry in a church. In a secular society marriage is a secular institution and should be the right of anyone who wishes to make that particular commitment.
I have straight and gay friends who want to marry, and straight and gay friends who have no intention of so doing. The problem is, only the straight ones get to make that choice. It’s time Julia Gillard looked at her own life choices as an example and started to represent equality and end discrimination for everyone. Not just unmarried female heads of governments.