That same-sex couples want to marry is a triumph of conservative values, not a threat to them.
As the greatest conservative philosopher of the 20th century, Michael Oakeshott, wrote in On Being Conservative, the disposition is to “prefer the familiar to the unknown” and is not about opposing change but the “manner of accommodating ourselves to change”.
Conservatives rightly rail against progressive attempts to use government to impose change on to society that it has not accommodated itself to.
After more than a decade of debate, many mainstream conservatives have now accommodated themselves to same-sex couples saying “I do”; and many recognise change may be positive for the time-tested institution to ensure its enduring relevance.
A 1990 Institute of Family Studies poll showed 14 per cent of Australians agreed or strongly agreed same-sex couples should be able to marry; 51 per cent strongly disagreed.
By 2004 Newspoll showed 38 per cent supported marriage, with opposition dropping to 18 per cent. A Crosby Textor poll last year showed support at 72 per cent versus 7 per cent.
Had government tried to change marriage laws two decades ago conservative opposition would be philosophically consistent. From a conservative disposition it should be equally anathema to use government to halt change that has already been accommodated, as to use government to impose change.
Attitudinal change within the gay and lesbian community has been parallel. Since the 1970s the gay and lesbian movement primarily has been fighting for “liberation”.
Legally, in the 80s the movement focused on removing laws that criminalised homosexual acts, and in the 90s and 2000s on the equal application of anti-discrimination law. Marriage didn’t enter the mainstream discussion of the gay community until the 90s, and the proposition has gained widespread support only since the 2000s.
It’s the intersection between gays and mainstream conservatives that highlights why the parliament is now seriously considering change.
In his Quadrant essay, “Why conservatives should support same-sex marriage”, John Zerilli correctly identified “gay marriage is in its essentials a conservative cause ... (and) a vital indication that the gay movement has severed ties with its (past) radical reformist liberation agenda”.
Zerilli’s theme was picked up by Jason Lee Steorts in his essay “Why we should recognise same-sex marriage” in the mainstream US conservative magazine National Review.
Steorts argues that by opposing change some conservatives have been led to become “sexual counter-revolutionaries” by discouraging the adoption of marriage, which is “a repudiation of (the) free-love ethic”. In that context, same-sex couples wanting to marry is the ultimate conservative victory.
A commentator recently described this generation of same-sex attracted youth as the “Disney Gays” because “gay is the new conservative”, where there’s an expectation of stable, enduring and idealised relationships coupled with marriage.
It is older same-sex couples who are likelier to be indifferent to marriage, precisely because they’ve lived primarily in a world where they’ve been outside social norms.
One of the great oddities of the present debate is that many conservatives are arguing for a plebiscite on whether same-sex couples should be able to access civil marriage, despite ordinarily defending parliamentary sovereignty on rights issues.
Conservatives rightly debate whether any change to marriage could lead to a slippery slope, particularly opening the door to polygamous marriage. But the two are not comparable.
Same-sex couples marrying is entirely consistent with conservatism because it incrementally enlarges the number of people who want to be held to an existing standard, doesn’t fundamentally change the structure of the institution, and enjoys societal support.
By comparison, polygamy is a radical redefinition that has long been advocated for and always lacked popular support.
The present push for same-sex marriage has gained support precisely because it is a fulfilment of conservative expectations about the role of stable relationships as an essential building block of society, and as a form of private social welfare through mutual dependency.
The shift for change is doubly powerful because the conservative view now also aligns with the liberal human rights view that values equality before the law and the preservation of religious freedom. Preserving religious freedom is primarily achieved by ensuring that only civil marriage is regulated by law and that religions can still freely practise their traditions unhindered.
Legally, the liberal human rights approach primarily values marriage as a contract. Ensuring the law is equally applied. It can be achieved by getting government out of the business of marriage or placing the civil and religious tradition on an equal footing.
For years we have been bombarded with arguments for “marriage equality”.
But it is the conservative accommodation of same-sex couples conforming to expectations of responsibility and stability that enjoys the support of most Australians.