Julia Gillard on stage at the 2010 pre-election forum held at Rooty Hill RSL in western Sydney. Picture: Cameron Richardson Source: The Daily Telegraph
Ten days out from the 2010 election, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott fronted a forum of undecided voters at Rooty Hill RSL, in Sydney’s west. It was a media circus, to be sure, but it was also mercifully unscripted, perilous for the leaders, and all too rare in our politics.
One of the moments that lives in the mind was when Janice Waters from Old Toongabbie challenged the Prime Minister on same-sex marriage. Gillard reeled off Labor’s policy and her own belief: marriage was between a man and a woman and there would be no change to the Marriage Act.
"I’m a taxpayer," the determined Waters replied. "I’m a law-abiding citizen, and I want to be able to say to that woman that I love, ‘Will you marry me?’, not ‘Will you civil union me?’ " The rousing applause that followed showed three things: an audience that felt free to stick it to the Prime Minister, a feeling there was a gap between what Gillard had just said and what was really in her heart, and some evidence that out here in the burbs, confronted with such personal ardour, folks were more relaxed about gay marriage than the woman who was seeking their votes.
Other Australian Gay Interest Stories.
Gays denied human rights The Australian, 1 day ago
Opposites could attract on same-sex unions The Australian, 7 days ago
Gay marriage debate favours ‘I don’t’ Courier Mail, 10 days ago
Labor MP facing gay marriage backlash Adelaide Now, 2 Aug 2011
Gay marriages to count in Census Herald Sun, 29 Jul 2011
After a five-week break, members and senators returned to Canberra this week for sittings. Out in their communities, they’d been talking to their constituents about same-sex marriage. A motion by the Greens’ Adam Bandt last November asked members to sample opinion in their electorates. On August 24, members will get the opportunity to share those views in parliament.
Sydney Labor MP John Murphy has already declared his hand. The member for Reid, elected five times, is firmly against amending the act. But he supports civil unions. Murphy has been denounced and assailed by his own ALP branch members and he has angered hard-line conservatives. He has wedged himself between the activists. "I just hope that people who are homosexual don’t think I’m a bigot, because I’m not. I respect them, but I’m not for moving on this."
Murphy believes the people he represents in the city’s inner west are "overwhelmingly" opposed to same-sex marriage: 60-40. "It’s a multifarious, diverse and eclectic electorate," he says at a cafe in Burwood’s Westfield mall, as Polynesian homies and Doggies fans weave around the trolleys of widowed nonnas dressed in black. He sees his mission as defending the family and the institution: "For thousands of years, marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman, predominantly for the purpose of having children."
At the eastern end of Murphy’s electorate, taking in the state seat of Drummoyne, 41 per cent of people are Catholics (the second highest concentration in NSW) and 6.4 per cent of people were born in southern Europe (the highest proportion in the state). At the western end of Reid, based around Auburn, almost one-quarter of people are Muslims (the highest rate in NSW).
Murphy says the opposition to gay marriage in Reid is not limited to religious groups. It extends across the areas of business, social welfare, education and health. "There’s a strong and silent majority of voters in my electorate who are implacably opposed to any change to the definition of marriage," he says.
"A lot of people also say to me that our government is being manipulated or driven by the Greens because this issue keeps cropping up all the time, when they believe there are far more important issues that we should be addressing; for instance, the carbon pollution tax."
His backbench colleague Shayne Neumann, the member for Blair, has picked up the same vibe on same-sex marriage in Ipswich, southwest of Brisbane. After assessing local petitions and public comments, he believes that sentiment is running four to one against gay marriage among his regional and rural constituents.
Neumann’s personal view, he says, "accords with the party’s policy and the Prime Minister’s position". Compared with the low level of public concern about the carbon tax, gay marriage has got the people of Blair worked up. "I’ve received 260 emails about same-sex marriage and only 50 emails on the carbon tax," he says.
According to lobby group Australian Marriage Equality, support for same-sex marriage is as high as 62 per cent. It’s even higher in some Liberal areas, although not in the stratospheric realm found in Bandt’s Melbourne, the inner Sydney seats of Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese or Labor’s two ACT seats. All ALP state and territory divisions, bar NSW, have passed motions supporting gay marriage. The Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young re-introduced a bill in the Senate last September to allow same-sex marriage.
Earlier this year, Malcolm Turnbull, who holds the inner-east Sydney seat of Wentworth, did a month-long survey of voters. The former Liberal leader received 4000 responses, 2333 of which were from people who were listed on the electoral roll. More than 72 per cent of verified residents agreed with the statement that "they are in favour of gay marriage"; an additional 16 per cent of respondents did not support the proposition but said they were in favour of amending the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to have their relationships recognised through civil unions.
An online survey in Teresa Gambaro’s seat of Brisbane showed 73 per cent of 1500 respondents wanted to see a change in the act to allow same-sex couples to describe their relationship as a marriage. In Julie Bishop’s Curtin electorate in Perth, almost 88 per cent of 3148 respondents to an online poll "strongly support" a change to the act to recognise the marriage of same-sex couples. Bishop, however, does not believe this is a fair reflection of the views of folk in Curtin, her staff noting the poll was targeted by activist groups.
Turnbull told the National Press Club recently that for opponents of gay marriage in his survey, "it is almost a semantic issue". "They felt that marriage defined a permanent relationship between a man and a women, and a union or a permanent union between a man and a man or a woman and a woman may be entitled to equal respect and equal protection in terms of discrimination and legislation, but was not, as a matter of definition, a marriage."
Supporters of traditional marriage held a gathering in Parliament House on Wednesday. Murphy, independent Bob Katter, Liberal Kevin Andrews and National Barnaby Joyce addressed the event organised by the National Marriage Coalition, which has vowed to keep the pressure on Gillard until December’s ALP national conference.
Last week Penny Wong and her partner Sophie Allouache announced they were expecting their first child. Murphy has a high regard for the Finance Minister and is thrilled for them. But he "respectfully disagrees" with Wong’s view on same-sex marriage. As the debate fires up in the capital, the mood in the suburbs is turning Waters’s way.