Controlling the message

The Australian’s Paul Kelly has written a stunning article about the Government, the Greens and the gay marriage debate. Helpfully, Grog’s Gamut delivers a thorough WWE style smack down of the argument and (lack of) logic which sits behind it.

However it’s a good example of how Government is heavily influenced by ‘stakeholders’ with an agenda. Good public policy is not the central issue in this debate. Nothing more illustrated this than a paragraph in Kelly’s article:

The history of this issue and the aggressive same-sex recognition stance of the ACT assembly suggests it would be delusional to think any extra freedom accorded the territory on this issue will not be fully seized at some stage.

There are a two concepts wrapped up in this paragraph which both relate to a central point – that the Government has literally lost control of this debate because they opted to delay action until the next ALP conference.

Getting back to Kelly’s paragraph. The first issue is how Kelly asserts the ACT assembly has been aggressive in it’s attempt to recognise same-sex marriage. This pure assertion is not backed up by fact. While the ACT Government did attempt to legislate in 2006, the issue has transformed from a same-sex debate into a broader discussion about territory rights. This is where the aggression comes into the environment. Some would say rightly so. The push to introduce same-sex civil unions (as outlined by Kelly) occurred in 2009. This bill came into effect because of negotiation, consultation and concessions. This is not typically aggressive behaviour, but entirely consistent with the political constraints placed on minority (and territory) governments.

The aggression arrives from the contempt which the ACT receives from the very people who fly-in, fly-out and dictate terms to over 300,000 Australian citizens. And this contempt is bi-partisan. As anyone who listens to 666 radio will know, the only two Government’s to bring in euthanasia laws were Liberal territory governments. Jon Stanhope has fared no better than his predecessor when trying to legislate on social issues. The aggression of the current environment clearly stems from this inability to represent constituents as opposed to any aggression from a ‘pro’ same-sex marriage stance.

Kelly’s description of the current debate can only occur because of the inability of the Federal Government to deal effectively with the issue. The ACT Government does not have the office of the Prime Minister to frame this debate. The Federal Government does. By putting off this debate and hoping for it to go away, ideologues such as Kelly are free to ‘fill the vacuum’. Unfortunately this shapes future policy direction. By the time the ALP actually have the argument at conference, the public will have been influenced and opinions will have been transformed.

The second issue is more stunning in it’s gumption. I would like to know when granting “extra freedom” for a substantial population of Australian citizens has become a negative for society? Freedom is a pretty important value to many Australians. Sure, we are not like American’s who will froth at the mouth for the ‘freedom’ to protest at funerals.

In this context though, freedom is related directly to electoral systems and democracy. We who live in the ACT vote every four years. In fact, there is an election in 2012. Yet according to Kelly, even if all three established parties were to include a same-sex marriage in their policy platform, the legislative body should not be allowed to represent the views of the electorate.

Extending freedom is always harder than taking it away, especially in heavily democratic liberal societies. Perceived protections by formal, structured institutions means citizens of these societies often think freedoms cannot be taken away. Yet think of the security laws imposed in the wake of September 11. Think of Mamdouh Habib, David Hicks’ control order or even the proposed internet filter. Extending freedom often involves a fight against the established order, against tradition, against history. There is nothing to compare it to, no way to promise what will occur.

For some reason the Government cannot stand up and make it’s voice heard amongst the chatter. Andrew Leigh and Kate Lundy can do more. They are my two local members. And while I am sure they are shouting in the party room, a couple of dropped hints in the media will help combat vicious opinion calling for restrictive freedoms for Australian citizens.

Paul Kelly might think this is scary. It might offend his sensibilities. This is no reason for the silence we hear from the Federal Government. The true delusion is any attempt to take away the democratic rights of Australian citizens because of their geography. This is a simple argument to make despite what three senators from other states might think.

The longer the silence, the more strength Kelly’s argument gains, hiding his real agenda – an aggressive anti same-sex marriage stance.

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