Australia's great tradition as a pioneer of progress is one we need to remember

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Opinion

Tony Abbott says that there is a lesson to be learned from his headbutting assault in Hobart, supposedly by a bloke supporting the "yes" campaign: "I say we should think long and hard before going down this path," said the former prime minister.

"I worry about the brave new world of same-sex marriage if this is how some of the people who are most enthusiastically working for it are behaving." Abbott's assailant says that "this was nothing to do with that", that it was "just my personal hatred" of Abbott, energised by alcohol. He agrees with Abbott's account that he was sporting a "yes" sticker on his jacket.

So he certainly wasn't helping the case for changing the definition of marriage to allow equal recognition of love between people of the same sex. How can you argue that you're an advocate for love and then commit an act of hate?

Hobart DJ Astro Labe allegedly headbutted Tony Abbott in Tasmania. Photo: Channel Seven

Hobart DJ Astro Labe allegedly headbutted Tony Abbott in Tasmania. Photo: Channel Seven

"There is not much love coming from some of the 'yes' quarters towards people who have the temerity to disagree," Abbott was quick to point out.

The "yes" campaign's spokesman, Alex Greenwich, denounced the perpetrator as a "stupid clown". If he was helping anyone, it was the "no" campaign, giving Abbott and his acolytes more ammunition to argue for the status quo. "All of us want to be decent and kind and caring and loving to our gay friends and family, but that doesn't mean that we have to agree with the activists and change a definition of marriage which has stood since time immemorial." Well played, Tony Abbott.

Except for the fact that the definition of marriage has not stood since time immemorial. In fact, the definition is always evolving. As the federal president of the Liberal Party, Nick Greiner, pointed out a few weeks ago, "Marriage is not the same as it was a century ago. The Marriage Act has been changed 20 times since it was introduced by the Menzies government in 1961."

Marital practices that Australia today finds abhorrent were perfectly legal until relatively recently. Did you see the news this week about the 35-year-old man jailed for marrying a 14-year-old girl in Victoria last year? County Court Judge Lisa Hannan told a sobbing Mohammad Shakir that "what you did was legally wrong and morally indefensible". By today's standards, that's true. But "if he'd done it in Tasmania in 1941 it would have been completely fine", points out an associate professor of modern history at Macquarie University, Shirleene Robinson. The minimum legal marrying age for females in Tasmania was 12 until it was raised to 16 in 1942. And it stayed at the age of 12 in Western Australia even longer, until 1956.

"That's probably quite shocking to people today," says Robinson. "Marriage has evolved in ways that we would now recognise as positive."

A man could rape his wife with impunity in Australia even as recently as the 1990s in some states. "The common law ruthlessly reinforces woman's subordinate position in marriage," wrote an advocate for reform, the lawyer Helen Coonan, who went on to become a Liberal Party senator for NSW. "Community attitudes and values have evolved gradually," wrote Coonan in 1980, "while the law has remained unchanged."

It was the next year that NSW made it a criminal offence to commit rape in marriage, but it was 1992 before the change was made across all states. That's not exactly ancient times - Paul Keating was prime minister, the Big Day Out music festival was inaugurated and the Brisbane Broncos won their first premiership.

Yet it was a controversial reform at the time: "Some conservatives were horrified that it could be made illegal for a man to rape his wife - 'it would change the very nature of our society'," says Robinson.

Marriage as a legal construct has evolved in many ways to acknowledge the larger changes in society, the expanding concepts of equality, the enlargement of rights. The Northern Territory's Protector of Aborigines blocked the marriage of a white man and an Aboriginal woman in 1959. The case of Gladys Namagu and Mick Daly became a famed controversy, reported around the world as the case of the "outback Romeo and Juliet".

"Across Australia black and white supporters who'd never met either Namagu or Daly held protest meetings backing their right to marry," summarised journalist Paul Daley writing in The Guardian in 2015. "In federal parliament the Menzies government, after a barrage of questions from MPs of all persuasions in support of the outback Romeo and Juliet, gave an assurance that no form of discrimination would ever be written into the new national marriage legislation."

Until, of course, John Howard wrote in a different kind of discrimination in 2004, inserting the stipulation that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. Namagu and Daly eventually had their love formalised in marriage in 1960, when the Northern Territory yielded to the changed times. Just as love between people of the same sex eventually will be recognised in Australian law.

Howard and Abbott can concoct legal and political obstacles, but, like rocks in a river, ultimately they cannot change the flow of social attitudes. Other evolutions of marriage include the recognition of women's rights to property, and changes to the divorce laws to allow no-fault divorce. "It's a positive history of an institution reflecting social change," observes Robinson. And no one today proposes that any of those reforms should be reversed.

John Howard and Tony Abbott speak of "traditional marriage", yet the greater tradition of marriage is not to freeze it in the Pleistocene Age of some imagined prehistory but to continuously adapt it to the living society in which it exists. When the "no" case uses the word "tradition" it really means the status quo. Yet the "no" campaign has cleverly staked out a monopoly on the concept of "tradition". The status quo is nothing more than a pause in the larger tradition of expanding rights.

Australia has a shining tradition of pioneering rights - citizens' rights, democratic rights, human rights. Mostly we've forgotten our own story. Mostly Australians are trapped in an amnesiac fog, a Euro-centric high school history course followed by an adult life immersed in pop-culture Americana.

Australia is a uniquely democratic creation in the history of humankind. It was the first country in the world to vote itself into existence. That was the effect of the referendum that federated the six states into a single nation. Australia invented other democratic breakthroughs, like the secret ballot, first introduced in Victoria, so that voters couldn't be "stood over" and intimidated. For many years the Americans called it "the Australian ballot".

Australia was the second country, after New Zealand, to give women the vote. But it was the first country to allow women to stand for parliament. The South Australian parliament pioneered, becoming the first legislature in the world where women could stand for election under an act of 1895, before Australia itself existed as a political entity.

Women were given the vote in Australia in 1902, a right that was only accorded to women in Britain 26 years later. Among other breakthroughs in the Australian Spring was the creation of the eight-hour working day in 1855, the result of strikes by stonemasons in Sydney and Melbourne. And Australia invented the concept of the "living wage", defined by Judge H.B. Higgins in the 1907 Harvester judgment as "the cost of living as a civilised being". This is distinct from the idea of a subsistence wage. The Harvester case has formed the basis for Australia's relatively high minimum wages ever since, much to the chagrin of industrial relations right-wingers.

These Australian innovations in the progressive enlargement of rights were all controversial at the time of their birth, yet all went on to become world-leading examples and firm Australian foundations. This is the grander tradition, not a tradition of Australia as a democratic and social museum stuffed full of mummified anachronisms from the 18th century but a tradition as a democratic and social laboratory, a pioneer in the evolution of rights for humankind.

The "no" case against same-sex marriage hopes that Australia will be captured by its ahistoric amnesia, frightened into a timid stasis under the impression that today's arrangements are somehow a sacred artifact preserved unchanged from "time immemorial", as Abbott put it.

In fact, John Howard's 2004 decision to legislate marriage as between only a man and a woman is a politician's trick to hoodwink history. The people plumping for the status-quo don't want Australia to be reassured by its proud progressive tradition. John Keane, a professor of politics at Sydney University, observes that "tradition is not just for conservatives".

Tony Abbott's headbutting didn't do anything to addle his political brain. He turned the incident nicely to argue his case. Neither should the rest of us allow it to befuddle our brains. Abbott is wrong. Marriage has always evolved with the society in which it exists, and Australia's is a society with a long tradition of enlarging the rights of its people.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.