Date: 
Wednesday 11 March 2015

Author

Tim Wilson, Human Rights Commissioner

On Sunday night, the Australian Marriage Forum (AMF) broadcast an advertisement against marriage for same-sex couples. The advertisement was scheduled to be broadcast on Channels 7, 9 and SBS.

The AMF advertisement argued that same-sex couples should not be able to marry under the law, because children "wherever possible" need a mother and a father. It is  hardly a new or ground-breaking argument.

AMF paid to have its advertisement aired during SBScoverage of the Sydney Mardi Gras parade because that would give it maximum attention.

Channel 7 and 9 ran the advertisement. No doubt they would have received some complaints from viewers, but it otherwise disappeared.

According to reports, AMF spent $21,000 getting the ad on the air. That is not much of an advertising spend.

The advertisement got far more than its $21,000 value because SBS chose not to run the ad.

The consequent controversy surrounding its censorship ensured the ad was replayed on many television and radio stations free of charge.

Justifying its course of action, SBS argued it "reserves the right to determine what advertisements it broadcasts". That is valid, but SBS is treading on thin ice on this decision.

SBS, like the ABC, is not any old broadcaster. It is a taxpayer-funded broadcaster. Attempts to silence unpopular views on a public platform amount to censorship.

It is difficult to imagine SBS declining to run an advertisement for reform of marriage laws in the same time slot. By declining one opposed to reform, they are being politically selective.

That does not mean SBS is required to broadcast any advertisement. If an advertisement breaks laws or seeks to harass a section of the community, it needn't be broadcast.

On social media, some people argued the advertisement was a form of "abuse". That is drawing a long bow. No one was being abused.

However, there are other words I would use. Inappropriate. Distasteful. Unconvincing.

The advertisement sought to use children to delegitimise the parenting capacity of same-sex couples. It then indirectly argued against giving their relationship formal legal recognition.

As an argument, it carries little weight. In one breathe, the advertisement claimed to be motivated to advance the interests of children, and in the next breathe used children as a political football.  

It is hard to see how the advertisement reflected well on its creators.

Censorship is never a sensible way to defeat the arguments of your political opponents. It gives it more oxygen and validates the views to their followers.

Imagine if SBS had broadcast the ad.

Viewers were choosing to watch a parade dedicated to fighting intolerance against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. It would be fair to assume the audience was pretty sympathetic to allowing gay people to be married.

During the breaks, viewers would have watched an advertisement that argued same-sex couples should not be able to get married.

It would be equally fair to assume the message would not have resonated at all. Some viewers might have complained to SBS. That would have been it.

The advertisement deliberately conflates marriage and having children. Yet, there is no requirement to have children if you get married.

Understandably, same-sex couples with children and single-parent families take umbrage. They feel it is a direct criticism of their families. They're right – it is.

But that doesn't justify the advertisement being pulled from the airwaves.

The advertisement is the expression of an opinion from a clearly identifiable lobby group. In a free society, we have to accept that not everything that is said about us, or those we care about, is going to be easy on the ear.

Tolerance isn't necessary for the opinions and views you like. In fact, that's the exact opposite of tolerance.

In response to the release of the advertisement, the alternative lobby group, Australian Marriage Equality, argued the advertisement would "actually increase support for marriage equality". They're probably right.

The latest data from pollsters Crosby Textor shows that over the past decade support for marriage for same-sex couples has risen from 38 per cent to 72 per cent. Over the same timeframe, those opposing it has dropped from 44 per cent to 21 per cent.

In short, the longer we debate whether same-sex couples should be lawfully able to get married, the more support increases for reform.

As Mardi Gras should remind us all: you don't need freedom to conform. You only need freedom to push the boundaries of social and human progress.

That means freedom for everyone to express their opinion. There will always be some push-back.

One of the reasons we support free speech for those we disagree with is precisely because the influence of their arguments is dependent on their quality.

And if the quality diminishes, so does their argument. Let 'em speak, because their motivations will become clear.

Published in: 
Canberra Times