Overtaking on the left

By Jonathan Bradley

Hints of hypocrisy have always hovered around the American Declaration of Independence’s insistence that “all men are created equal.” After all, the man who penned those words, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave holder until the day he died.

But as a national creed, this foundational myth has served marginalised groups in American society well, providing them a patriotic means to protest their ill treatment. When gay rights activists took up the marriage equality cause, they already had at their disposal a blueprint drawn up by abolitionists and suffragettes.

So when the Supreme Court announced recently that it would consider two constitutional challenges to bans on gay marriage, it took a step toward affirming the US’s original promise of equality.

The decision highlights a notable contrast between the politics of same-sex marriage in the US and Australia. For Australia, the comparison is not a flattering one.

The US Supreme Court will consider whether the Defense of Marriage Act, which permits the federal government not to recognise marriages between same sex couples, is a violation of the US Constitution’s guarantee of equal treatment under the law. It will also consider whether states like California, where in 2008 voters passed a ban on gay marriage, are permitted to reserve the institution of marriage exclusively for heterosexuals.

This decision closely follows a triumphal election day for American gay marriage advocates. The states of Washington, Maryland, and Maine voted in popular referenda to legalise same-sex marriages, while the voters of Minnesota rejected an amendment to their state constitution that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

While opposition to gay marriage helped drive voter turn-out amongst former president George W. Bush’s religious conservative base in 2004, American sentiment over the ensuing eight years shifted so decisively in favour of gay marriage that President Barack Obama abandoned his opposition to it six months before facing re-election.

Meanwhile, in Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard continues to insist marriage should be an arrangement reserved exclusively for straight couples. When the Australian parliament considered a marriage equality bill this past September, the lower house voted against the measure by more than two to one.

While nine US states and the District of Columbia recognise same sex marriage, the closest an Australian jurisdiction has come to marriage equality was with 2012’s narrowly defeated Tasmanian attempt.

It is a truism that the United States is a “centre-right nation” — and Australians are disposed to believe this as firmly as many Americans. When we gaze across the Pacific, many of us see a land of gun-toting, low-taxing, Christian conservatives who are suspicious of government, disdainful of public healthcare, and in thrall to self-made entrepreneurs. So dyed-in-the-wool is American conservatism that it’s apparently self-evident that even relatively right leaning members of the Liberal Party would be Democrats were they parachuted into US Congress.

Recent events, however, suggest the reality is more complex, and not just in regard to gay rights. In the November US election, Washington and Colorado voted to legalise — not merely decriminalise — the recreational use of marijuana. Australia never plumbed the depths the US did in its War on Drugs, but nor have we been so bold in rejecting the mistakes of prohibition.

American liberalism abounds with other instances that highlight Australia’s conservatism. While the US gives constitutional protection to free speech and a free press under its First Amendment, the Gillard government debates how it should best create new and more censorious systems of media regulation.

It is the United States that has a constitutional guarantee protecting a woman’s right to an abortion. In New South Wales, this right depends on a doctor’s decision that carrying the pregnancy to term would adversely affect the woman’s health. And it was Queensland, not Alabama, that, as recently as 2010, tried to prosecute a couple for procuring abortion-inducing drugs.

It would be unhelpful, of course, to argue that the United States is some sort of left wing paradise. The nation’s strongly individualistic streak cuts both ways; just as it tends to boldly preserve liberal freedoms, it also is sympathetic to conservatism’s more unforgiving beliefs about the duty of care society owes to its least fortunate.

Australia is less comfortable with uncompromising individualism, but on the question of same-sex marriage, we fall behind the US even on the more familiarly Australian ideal of egalitarianism.

Where the US goes, the rest of the world tends to follow — if they haven’t, as is the case with gay marriage, arrived already. The US Supreme Court’s willingness to turn its attention once more to the proposition that all Americans are created equal highlights Australia’s conservatism.

While American courts, voters, and legislators are all willing to recognise the equality of their country’s gay and lesbian citizens, Australia remains stranded on the wrong side of history. It’s time to take a step left — and toward the United States.

30 January 2013