The many myths of the same-sex marriage campaign

Two weeks ago, a relatively unknown entity on the same-sex marriage scene stepped up to the podium at the National Press Club to launch the "no" campaign. Karina Okotel, federal vice-president of the Liberal Party, was a good fit for the job - young, brown and female, she made a refreshing change from the leading spokespeople in this debate and in politics, period.

Okotel's journey from naive leftie to right-thinking conservative roused the rent-a-crowd audience, who applauded on cue with gusto. But the speech - like the "no" campaign more broadly - relied heavily on scary stories from overseas which don't withstand deeper scrutiny.

Organised opponents of same-sex marriage have largely vacated the field when it comes to the subject of marriage itself. They have preferred to leave that to the clergy, like Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who this week clumsily argued same-sex couples didn't "qualify" for marriage just as siblings or children could not marry.

Knowing Australians' support for marriage equality is broad and enduring, "no" campaigners have sought to expand the debate to more contentious parts of the so-called "rainbow agenda", like the anti-bullying program Safe Schools. Some, notably Tony Abbott, go further and paint the survey as a referendum on political correctness.

The question of marriage itself has been left to clergy, such as Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

The question of marriage itself has been left to clergy, such as Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge. Photo: ABC

It's a double-edged sword. Muddy the waters enough and they might create enough doubt to scrape a win. But it also means, by their own logic, that a "Yes" vote for same-sex marriage would be an endorsement of Safe Schools and everything else they have claimed will follow. Lyle Shelton, the most prominent "No" campaigner, conceded that very point this week.

But let's accept, for a moment, the "No" side's broadening of the debate and evaluate the merit of those claims. Do they add up?

1. Religious freedom is under threat

Senior and respected commentators, from John Howard to The Australian's Paul Kelly, have insinuated religious freedom is under threat, and that proponents of change need to spell out what legal exemptions would be in place if same-sex marriage were legalised. It is true that the exact provisions of such a bill have not been decided, and will be nutted out in a frenzied parliamentary fortnight if the "Yes" vote succeeds.

But in reality, nobody is proposing legislation that would restrict the religious. Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten have made it clear they won't countenance that. And there are already two bills drafted by Liberals - George Brandis and Dean Smith - that provide extensive exemptions for people of faith. That is before you consider the wide-ranging exemptions churches already enjoy from anti-discrimination laws (and taxation).

What we're talking about, then, is actually winding back anti-discrimination law.

At the Press Club, Okotel spoke of a Christian baker in Ireland who unlawfully discriminated against a customer by refusing to make a pro-gay marriage cake. As an example of the tyranny of same-sex marriage, however, it is far from compelling - because it actually occurred in Northern Ireland, the only part of Britain that doesn't allow same-sex marriage.

The proprietors of Ashers Bakery were ordered to pay ??500 ($855) compensation, though this could be overturned at an appeal next month. And the law they breached had nothing to do with same-sex marriage but was, in fact, a provision of the Equality Act of 2006 - which pre-dates Britain's same-sex marriage legislation by seven years.

Northern Ireland's chief justice pointed out that making a cake did not necessitate endorsing the cake's message - just as baking a Halloween cake did not mean that the baker supported witchcraft.

At any rate, bakers in Australia already have to deal with our anti-discrimination laws, which forbid refusal of service on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. It gets trickier if the customer is straight but ordering a product or service for a gay wedding. Some experts say such a person would probably be considered an agent of the gay couple, rendering it discrimination, but it hasn't been tested in court.

Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow says the existing laws are clear: "Unless you're a religious organisation, you can't refuse a service to someone because of your religious or other belief."

2. Freedom of speech is endangered

At the official launch of the Coalition for Marriage in Sydney, several speakers claimed that if same-sex marriage were to be legalised, the mere expression of the view that marriage should be between a man and a woman would become unlawful. The evidence hinged on the case of Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous, who was caught up in anti-discrimination proceedings in 2015 over a booklet titled "Don't Mess With Marriage".

The complainant, transgender activist Martine Delaney, particularly objected to claims about nuclear families being the better environment for raising kids. "Messing with marriage, therefore, is also messing with kids," the bishops wrote. Relative to some of the claims now made in the postal survey campaign, this seems rather benign and unlikely to wind up before a court - which, in fact, it never did.

Tasmania's Anti-Discrimination Commission agreed the bishops might have a case to answer and, as is customary, facilitated conciliation between the two parties. Those talks broke down and Delaney ultimately withdrew the complaint, saying she didn't see the point of taking it further. As left-wing commentator David Marr wrote in The Guardian, the church won "hands down". It was a victory for free speech, not a threat.

The heat of the postal survey has seen some exchanges fall foul of the spirit of

The postal survey debate has generated some heat on the streets. Photo: Rohan Thomson

However, the heat of the postal survey has given the "No" side some free ammunition on this point. A young party entertainer in Canberra had her contract terminated over a Facebook post opposing gay marriage. Madlin Sims, the business owner, dubbed it "hate speech" and said it didn't align with her company's brand. Sims' decision was petty, if not potentially unlawful, and fell foul of the spirit of "respectful debate".

Okotel also deployed the example of a British social work student expelled from university over Facebook posts "about marriage". In fact, the posts called homosexuality sinful and an "abomination". Whether the university was right to eject him is questionable and will indeed be interrogated in court. But these are all problems that exist already when an individual's speech comes into conflict with an organisation's values - not consequences of changing marriage laws.

US rapper Macklemore found himself at the centre of Australia's same-sex marriage debate.

US rapper Macklemore found himself at the centre of Australia's same-sex marriage debate. Photo: AP

And same-sex marriage opponents showed their own censorious side this week in calling for US rapper Macklemore to be banned from performing one of his signature songs, Same Love, at the NRL grand final. "It's interesting, isn't it," observed Brandis, "that the first person that has called for something to be banned is Tony Abbott."

3. Parents will lose their rights

The Coalition for Marriage's prime-time television advertisements concern children. They galvanise residual fears about the Safe Schools program, the anti-bullying initiative which seeks to foster greater empathy with gay, lesbian and transgender kids. Some of the program's additional resources explore ideas that challenge simplistic understandings of gender. In particular, The Gender Fairy tells children: "Only you know whether you are a boy or a girl. No one can tell you."

To some, that is a "radical" and inappropriate notion for minors to consider. For others, it's an affirmation of the simple, scientific truth: transgender kids exist.

Reverend David Kim with one of the ACT Christian Democratic Party's anti-Safe Schools signs after it had been vandalised.

Reverend David Kim with one of the ACT Christian Democratic Party's anti-Safe Schools signs after it had been vandalised. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The "No" campaign knows Australians are not as relaxed about transgender issues as homosexuality. Not yet, at least. But while it stands to reason that advocates for same-sex marriage would support Safe Schools, that doesn't make them a "package deal", as Shelton often insists.

In an interview this week, Sky News' Tom Connell put the obvious to Shelton: we already have Safe Schools without same-sex marriage. Indeed, it was subject to a review at the insistence of conservative Coalition MPs, urged on by the Murdoch press, and essentially given the all-clear. Shelton's best response was to point out that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was a prominent backer of both Safe Schools and same-sex marriage.

Okotel told the Press Club of an Orthodox Jewish school in London facing closure for neglecting to teach students about homosexuality and gender. "Because same-sex marriage is legal," she said, the authorities declared the school was failing to provide a full understanding of British values.

But a reading of the inspector's findings reveals same-sex marriage was not mentioned at all. The school was pinged for failing to adequately teach students the "personal, social, health and economic" curriculum, including respect and tolerance for people of different sexual orientation. This stemmed from legislation introduced in 2010, before same-sex marriage was legalised in Britain.

Indeed, the school also failed its inspections on a number of other counts, including facility maintenance, medical rooms and drinking water - problems which it has now rectified. But none of this made its way into Okotel's presentation.

The broader point is that Western countries have moved towards greater acceptance of LGBTI people, whether at school or in marriage laws. The Coalition for Marriage hopes for no less than to halt this trend worldwide. As spokeswoman Sophie York told the Sydney campaign launch to thunderous applause: "I truly believe we Aussies can start a push back."

4. Equality already exists

Abbott and others have argued that de facto gay couples already enjoy the same legal rights as married ones. Indeed, Labor figures also made this point when they removed discriminatory laws under the Rudd-Gillard governments. Why, then, the need to adopt the symbolism of marriage?

For the most part, federal laws do grant gay couples equal rights. One notable exception was highlighted in a recent decision of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which rebuked Australia for preventing same-sex couples who marry overseas from accessing divorce proceedings in Australia. This breached Australia's human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

There are other areas of inequality which sit just outside or adjacent to the law. The ABC's 7.30 this week told the story of Joe and Greg, a gay couple together for 14 years. Greg has Parkinson's disease, and in preparing to have his superannuation transferred to Joe, discovered his scheme did not accept "binding nominations". Instead they have to prove their relationship, and the fund will only make a decision once Greg dies.

Law professor Hannah Robert told 7.30 that although "technical equality" existed in most areas, "when it comes to actually accessing your rights, that's not necessarily the case". As she wrote for this newspaper last week: "While married and de facto relationships largely have equal standing before the law, only marriage is immediate and incontrovertible."

A marriage certificate is also easily recognised and accepted overseas in a way de facto relationships are not.

5. The 'Yes' side is rich

Shelton likes to frame the debate as a David-and-Goliath battle, especially when discussing campaign finances. Of course, both sides reckon they're David. The "Yes" campaign says its opponents are showered in money from the churches, while the "No" campaign points to corporate Australia's overwhelming support for marriage equality.

However, that support is mostly in kind rather than cash. The biggest reported donation to the Equality Campaign was a personal gift from Qantas boss Alan Joyce of $1 million. Otherwise, the campaign says it has struggled for corporate donations above $10,000. The vast majority of its money comes from individuals.

Shelton says the Coalition for Marriage has not taken money from the big evangelical groups in the US. But neither side is being transparent about how much money it has or what it's spending. And they don't need to be - this isn't an election, and even if it were, they wouldn't be required to disclose expenditure until February.

Analysis found the 'No' side had outspent the 'Yes' side on television advertising.

Analysis found the 'No' side had outspent the 'Yes' side on television advertising. Photo: Supplied

Here's what we do know about one of the "No" campaign's largest contributors, the Australian Christian Lobby. Financial documents show its tax-exempt income over the past 10 years exceeded $20 million. In 2015-16, it earned $3 million in donations, and ended the year with $1.5 million in net assets.

Part of the proof will be on our screens. An analysis earlier this month by analytics firm Ebiquity found the "No" side had outspent the "Yes" side five-to-one on television ads. Anecdotally, prime-time slots have been bursting with ads from the Coalition for Marriage. By comparison, the Equality Campaign recently crowd-funded $100,000 to return one of its ads to the screen.

The story The many myths of the same-sex marriage campaign first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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