Barack Obama’s comment this week that he supports same-sex marriage caused a lot of people to use it to argue that Julia Gillard should do the same. I found this rather embarrassing. I don’t like arguments of convenience, even when I support the objective. “Gillard support same-sex marriage cos Obama,” is not a valid argument.
Obama’s point of view is not exactly a bold piece of leadership. Since marriage in the U.S. is a state issue, short of an overreaching executive order, there is nothing Obama can do about it either way. However, his opponent, Mitt Romney will now have pressure on him to make a statement. He has recently said that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman, which must be slightly uncomfortable, given that his grandfather believed that marriage was between a man and a dozen or so women.
That is not meant to be a cheap shot against Mitt Romney for his faith and nor should he be expected to answer for the lifestyles of his ancestors. The broader and more important point here is that the so-called “definition of marriage” has always been fluid and a deeply personal thing. Government has no place defining marriage as anything.
Now where are the libertarians when you need them?
There is a lesson that Julia Gillard can take from Obama though. Obama is almost alone among Democrats in that he knows there are people who will always vote for him, he knows there are people who will never vote for him, and he knows there are people who want to vote for him under certain circumstances. He also understands that there are people who are vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage, there are those who passionately support it, and a whole lot who really aren’t bothered either way.
Now let’s take a closer look at some of those demographics. Let’s consider the faction that vehemently opposes same-sex marriage. At the risk of stereotyping, I don’t believe there are whole lot of Obama voters in there to begin with, so he has nothing to worry about there. The people who are always going to vote for him are most likely the ones most passionately in favour of same-sex marriage. Obama’s biggest challenge is winning back those who were energised by the 2008 campaign and were left disillusioned by what happened afterwards. This might just help towards that.
So, is it a shameless vote grab? Well, you have to remember that the point of democracy is to win votes and you do that by giving people the representation they want. There is nothing wrong with trying to get people to vote for you. It’s all a question of how you go about it, and if this a grab for votes, then it’s one that costs nothing and hurts no-one.
This brings us back to Julia Gillard. With the exception of a slight blip during the Rudd years, the ALP has spent most of the last sixteen years trying to appeal to people who hate them. It’s never going to work. And in trying to appeal to Liberal voters, traditional Labor supporters have deserted them in droves in favour of the Greens. Labor has blindly accepted the Liberals’ narrative that there must be a budget surplus at all costs and it’s only the loose coalition with Greens and independents that has forced Labor to be Labor during this parliament.
In Australia, as in the US, there are those who argue passionately for same-sex marriage, there are those who argue just as passionately against it and there are whole lot who really aren’t that fussed. Then there are those who have no political or religious affiliation at all but follow the rule that was most succinctly put by Monty Python all those years ago: No Poofters!
How would these groups react to prime ministerial support of same-sex marriage? Well, most of those who think it would be the end of civilisation as we know it are 2GB listeners who were never going to vote Labor anyway. Most of those who aren’t bothered either way aren’t going to change their vote over it whichever way they swing. Most of those who want it are probably split between Labor left, Greens and ex-Labor voters who have drifted to the Greens. Union Labor people who are of the No Poofters persuasion will have to decide whether they want to start treating gays as people or whether they’d prefer Prime Minister Tony Abbott and WorkChoices 2. The worst case scenario for Labor if they support marriage equality is that they lose a few old-Labor Catholics who will probably go back to the DLP. It would also put pressure on the Liberal party to either agree with Labor or explain why the party of personal enterprise thinks that not everyone is equal under the law.
Where Gillard should follow Obama’s lead is not in supporting marriage equality just because Obama’s so cool, but to stop trying to appease people who hate her and see where the electoral benefits are.