1. Analysis of the speeches of the eight Legislative Councillors who recently opposed the Tasmanian Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012 shows that at most five spoke against the concept of allowing same-sex marriage at this time in general. These five were Tania Rattray, Dr Vanessa Goodwin, Adriana Taylor, Ivan Dean and Rosemary Armitage. (Of these, in Rattray's case the evidence is arguable and limited.)
2. The remaining Legislative Councillors to vote against (Paul Harriss, Jim Wilkinson and Greg Hall) did not indicate an explicit view for or against federal marriage equality, but expressed reservations about the concept of state-based legislation and/or its delivery.
3. The defeat of the bill cannot therefore be interpreted as a rejection of the concept of marriage equality by the Upper House, and represents only the rejection of a given state-based proposal.
4. Every MLC arguing against the bill argued that it was a federal issue, and every MLC arguing against the concept generally supported the idea of marriage as being only between a man and a woman.
5. Other common arguments against the bill included the risks, success chances and costs of a High Court challenge, the bill being a second-rate version of the concept, that the bill would not end discrimination, and that the State Government lacked a mandate.
6. Some MLCs voting against the bill made extremely unsound arguments about public opinion. This suggests a need for politicians to be better briefed on how to (and especially how not to) understand and measure public opinion.
(Skip to the bottom if you wish to know my own views on the issue before reading the main part of this article, though they should become obvious soon enough!)
On 27 Sep 2012 the Tasmanian Legislative Council, by a vote of 8-6, rejected legislation passed by the Tasmanian House of Assembly (along party lines with one exception) to create a state-based version of same-sex marriage.
For those unfamiliar with the Legislative Council, it is the upper house of Tasmanian Parliament, a 15-seat single-member chamber elected on a rotational basis with six-year terms and two or three seats up for re-election every year. The LegCo is extremely powerful, being able in theory to send the Lower House to an election by blocking supply without facing one itself. LegCo elections have tight restrictions on spending and tend to be low-profile affairs often dominated by issues more relevant to local councils, and Legislative Councillors are often current or former local government figures. Parties usually perform poorly in LegCo elections. While Labor nearly attained control of the chamber during the early 2000s, they now have only a single formal member, as does the Liberal Party. The remaining 13 MLCs are all "independents", although some have connections or former connections to some political party or other. The chamber has a reputation for tending to be conservative, although less so than in the past.
The Legislative Council debate, which was the most heavily lobbied debate in the Council's recent history, was complicated by the presence of three different issue sets:
* whether same-sex marriage was a good idea at all
* if so, whether it was acceptable to legislate for same-sex marriage on a state basis at all
* if so, whether the bill before the Council was an acceptable way to do so.
Anyone who voted yes to the bill would have answered "yes" to all the above. But just from the information that someone voted against, it is not possible to tell which of the above three points they said "no" to. Hence this article.
The debate itself took most of two sitting days. Over 101,000 words were spoken in the process, including almost 1000 in interjections. The President of the Council, Sue Smith, did not speak except to set directions for debate and impose order. The most prolific speaker was the mover of the bill, Ruth Forrest, who contributed 20,764 words in two speeches plus 704 in interjections. (Despite having two bites of the cherry, Forrest was also the only MLC to frequently use interjections to debate issues or challenge speakers.) Other long speeches came from Mike Gaffney (in favour, 15,536 words), Ivan Dean (opposed, 9712) and Tony Mulder (in favour, 9385). The shortest comments came from opponents Rosemary Armitage (2271 words), Vanessa Goodwin (2635) and Greg Hall (2821). The MLCs most likely to use long words were Valentine (in favour, 4.844 letters per word), Rattray (against, 4.837) and Gaffney (4.82). The MLC using the shortest words was, to my surprise, Jim Wilkinson (4.23) followed by Mulder (4.42). (By comparison, my most recent articles averaged 4.80 and 5.01.)
Issues Cited By Opponents of the Bill
The following tables break down the issues which I believe each opposing MLC supported as arguments against the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012. Practically all of these arguments were challenged by MLCs supporting the bill, and I have not prepared a breakdown of their arguments since it is the nature of opposition that interests me most.
It is not easy to compile a classification of this type, not only because of the huge volume of material, but also because of the vague language often used in discussing issues, and because some of the MLCs did not stick to a clear position on specific aspects. Some MLCs also expressed themselves in a way that I read as implying a given position without quite spelling it out, or by approvingly citing an email they received from someone else. Some others read emails into Hansard while indicating they did not necessarily agree with them. The most difficult arguments to categorise, by a long way, were those by Paul Harriss. Harriss often used rather measured and cagey-sounding language to argue in a roundabout way that something was a legitimate concern, the impression being given that he agreed with that concern although it often wasn't explicit. I have tried to be quite careful with this classification - after hearing most of the speeches and reading them all three times - but there may very well still be errors or omissions, and there will certainly be classifications that are debatable. (If anyone has an issue with the accuracy of my summary they can contact me offline or leave a comment.)
I have given a rating of "No" where an MLC clearly rejected a given argument against the bill (as opposed to just not mentioning it). For instance, while arguing against the bill in many ways, Adriana Taylor said her own electorate was evenly split and had it come down to just popular support she would have voted in favour. In the case of Harriss, the "no" for the argument that marriage would be threatened actually comes from this moment in Jim Wilkinson's speech:
WILKINSON: As was stated by the honourable member for Huon, two or three weeks ago we sat down and we discussed a number of things. We discussed looking at what marriage really is. Do you believe that if this bill becomes law, it in any way will devalue marriage? That was one of the questions we raised. Both of us came to the conclusion that no, it won't devalue marriage. It can only add to it.
As far as I know Mr Harriss has not challenged this account.
In the table I use ME (for "marriage equality") as the abbreviation.
Note that you can always click on these tables for a larger and easier to read version:
(OK, the last one there was a facetious and flippant inclusion of course, though Taylor did mention this claimed incident rather pointedly in her speech.)
A few classifications deserve further comment.
In the case of Tania Rattray, the only statement in her speech that seems to me to imply opposition to same-sex marriage generally is:
RATTRAY: On behalf of my electorate, I support that history has upheld the concept of marriage being confined to a union between one man and one woman and to alter that would need majority support from all Australians.
Considering this together with Rattray's comments on a referendum, I take her to be at least expressing the view that the Federal Parliament was right to vote down federal same-sex marriage in its recent vote, in the absence of proof of majority support (eg via referendum). I am assuming that she does not accept the consensus of recent reputably conducted opinion polls as sufficient evidence on that score.
In the case of Dean, the last listing in the first category refers to him approvingly citing a document from Dr Christopher Middleton which contained the following massive non sequitur (which it displeases me to deface the internet by quoting at all; I do so for study purposes only) :
Marriage is simply the term that applies for heterosexual couples in a formal legal union - the Oxford Dictionary definition. Same-sex couples do not qualify for this as they are biologically incapable of reproduction without recourse to outside agencies.
In the case of Wilkinson, I have put "Yes * 1000" in the "Cost of challenge" row in honour of the following astonishing gaffe:
WILKINSON: What would I do if it was my money that I was paying out? Would I take that risk? If everyone in Tasmania was asked to pay $1 000 to fund this case, you could ask yourself what they would do.
He told us how long it would take to prepare the case, and how much it would cost and his best estimate was between $400 000 to $500 000, which I think was mine as well.
Mr Wilkinson did later admit that math is not his strong suit, but I suggest it takes something special in that regard to divide half a million by half a million and come up with a thousand as the answer!
It surprised me that the speech by Adriana Taylor, who was never considered especially right-wing or socially conservative in her successful tenure as Mayor of Glenorchy, was the one that most stridently opposed same-sex marriage in general. Possibly Taylor was saying things some other MLCs also thought but were far too cautious to spell out, but her speech deserves at least two Bernardis out of five for blatant wedge material like the following:
TAYLOR: In the Sydney suburb of Lakemba is the biggest mosque in Australia. The Muslims who form the congregation there accept sharia law and under that system of law men can be married to up to four women at a time, and they do. There are, I am told, many such family groupings of one man with up to four wives and a number of children. Under the Commonwealth Marriage Act there is only one legitimate wife and the others, under our law, are recognised as single mothers with children. They receive commonwealth benefits accordingly. I am told this is an issue of concern to the relevant government departments, but there is no solution unless our Marriage Act is changed to allow a man to have multiple wives.
It is no coincidence that the Muslim community, which condemns homosexuality, is making no comments on this bill. If we can change the meaning of marriage once, we can do it again. In fact, I cannot see any difference in the arguments they give us. The Muslim community could reasonably argue that such a change is wanted by a significant minority, will not cause any harm to anybody else, and it is a matter of discrimination.
(I find the first paragraph interesting if correct but I do not endorse the second in any way. - KB)
Both Taylor and Rosemary Armitage also invoked what I take to be the "Julia Gillard argument" on the issue. (I could, and at some stage may, write a whole article on the curious mystery of the Prime Minister's stated reasons for opposing same-sex marriage and the strange reaction I've received from some on the left when I've tried to explore this.) Suffice to say that this is the argument that says that we should recognise same-sex relationships through some new institution that is called something other than "marriage", though no-one can find a name for it to replace the hopelessly bureaucratic "civil union". Apparently, when we get this right all negative stereotypes about same-sex couples resulting from them not being permitted to marry will magically disappear and nobody will think it is anything like apartheid in the slightest.
In general, it is impossible to determine whether a politician believes every argument they employ, and it is likely that not all politicians in such a debate employ every argument they believe. None of the eight MLCs who voted against explicitly stated that they voted that way to avoid losing their seat, but those who intend to stick around for a while are likely to have considered the impact on their chances of re-election, and even on their chances of needing to face a competitive opponent.
Comments Made on Public Opinion
There were many comments made about the measurement of public opinion in the course of the debate. Here is one from Adriana Taylor:
TAYLOR: I also want to address the issue of opinion polls and majority opinions. What do the opinion polls say? Both sides of this debate are saying that the majority of Tasmanians and the majority of Australians support their views on same-sex marriage. They cannot both be right. There seems to be merit in a referendum on this issue, or canvassing the issue at election time.
But after stating that she wanted to address the issue of opinion polls, Taylor made no real attempt to do so. She simply asserted that both sides claimed majority support and then concluded it was all too hard and a referendum was needed. But it is not too hard: it is possible to examine the opinion polls that have been conducted and, with the assistance of expert guidance on which polls are reliable and which are not, to work out which way the wind is blowing. All recently conducted published polls that have been collated through proper random sampling methods (and without the use of distorting methods such as biasing preambles) have found that Australian support for same-sex marriage greatly exceeds opposition, and many have put support around 60%. This is true both of polls commissioned by groups like Australians for Marriage Equality, and polls conducted without being commissioned by a pro-SSM client.
As an example of the kinds of "polls" that can be scraped together to support the other side, I give you the Member for Windermere: