Janet Albrechtsen: Same-sex marriage: A libertarian conservative case for voting 'yes'

If the High Court decides the upcoming same-sex marriage postal vote can go ahead this month, I will vote Yes.

Some will say that casts me as conservative charlatan, akin to finding copies of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday Paper and The Monthly in my recycling bin. Such is the sad state of debate in this country. Yet voting Yes is entirely consistent with anti-statist, libertarian and indeed conservative beliefs that the state should stay out of our personal lives. Here is the libertarian conservative case for voting Yes to same-sex marriage.

Voting No because same-sex marriage activists in politics, the media and beyond have overplayed their hand is not a position of principle. It’s a reaction rather than an answer to the broader question of whether gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry.

To be sure, a No vote is an understandable protest against the daily bullying and intimidation by the activists. If their deplorable intolerance derails a campaign premised on tolerance, this Yes voter won’t shed a tear or be surprised. Activists might want to remember that gay marriage is not a first-order issue for most people, but being told how to vote might be. Even GetUp! decided a petition to deregister a GP who appeared in the No campaign advert was reprehensible.

Voting Yes to same-sex marriage recognises that institutions evolve, social mores change and laws ultimately reflect those changes. Barely 20 years ago, being gay was still a crime in Tasmania. Divorce was once unthinkable and its introduction was loudly opposed by traditionalists, yet few would turn back the clock. When the word “marriage” was inserted into the Constitution in 1901, there was only one meaning imaginable, but not any more.

That’s the pattern of social change: robust debates, polarised positions, wild accusations flowing on both sides, then change happens and modernity adjusts.

As a libertarian, social change that enables more freedom for people to mark their relationship by marrying, to seek the stability that marriage can offer, ought to be recognised rather than rebuffed. Same-sex marriage will become law eventually because higher numbers of younger people support same-sex marriage than older people.

That generational tide won’t be held at bay. Younger members of my family, my daughters in their 20s, can’t see what the fuss is about. Of course same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, they say. To their credit, they convinced me of that.

There’s nothing wrong with being on the slow side of history, but ultimately opposing same-sex marriage rubbed up against my belief that governments have no business policing private relationships that do no harm to others. First principles of libertarian conservatives start with John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

As Mill explained, a government presuming to regulate us for our own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient to warrant interference in our lives. Who is to say what is “good” for us better than what we choose for ourselves?

“The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” wrote Mill. First principles don’t have an expiration date.

That said, I’d prefer to vote “yes, but ... ” because a Yes vote is no endorsement of how this dreadful debate has unfolded. The High Court decision to prevent Australians from deciding, by constitutional referendum, whether to alter the meaning of “marriage” in the Constitution was deplorable. So was the abysmal politicking by Labor MPs from Kevin Rudd to Penny Wong and Julia Gillard, who were all aboard traditional marriage when it suited the politics of the day, then changed their mind when politics changed, and sanctimoniously demanded we do the same in their time frame.

Tony Abbott’s plebiscite could have made sense but making it non-binding was and remains a confused Coalition political fix, not solid policy.

Saying Yes doesn’t mean sanctioning any of that history or current shenanigans. It doesn’t mean saying yes to shameful comments from Liberal politicians who say religious freedom is a separate issue. Activists made religious freedom a central issue when they tried to muzzle a Catholic priest for spreading the church’s teaching on marriage.

Saying yes to same-sex marriage isn’t a yes to rampaging political correctness either. Or illiberal curbs on free speech or doctrinaire social engineering or nanny-state interventions. Nor does it mean overlooking the intellectual inconsistency of those demanding freedom and tolerance for gays to marry but hanker for intrusive controls elsewhere, from Safe Schools dogma to workplace regulation and free-speech curbs on words that offend. Attacks on our freedom didn’t start with the same-sex marriage campaign and won’t be dealt a death blow with a No vote.

Libertarian conservatives who believe in the liberal project where individual dignity flourishes with greater freedom will regard liberty as a good reason to support same-sex marriage and an even better reason to fight against these ideological bullies and the illiberal forces.

The ABC has excelled on the bullying front. A polite reminder email from Aunty’s editorial policy manager to journalists to be impartial on same-sex marriage turned out to be pointless and provocative. Self-indulgent hosts, from Fran Kelly to Emma “Interruptus” Alberici to Joe O’Brien and more, have been in full campaign mode, their voices rising in emotion and unprofessionalism when forced to consider a view that diverges from their own. Alberici uses her Lateline Twitter feed as a campaign platform, tweeting “bravo” to those pushing for same-sex marriage. A Yes vote is no endorsement of this crude arrogance and a No vote won’t change it.

It’s the same across the left’s cultural crusades. Marxists such as Roz Ward will keep looking for ways to socially engineer society according to her LGBTI politics regardless of the outcome of the poll. Political bureaucrats in our education system will keep trying to sneak their politics into the classroom until we expose and oppose them. And angry feminists such as Clementine Ford will stay angry to earn a quid. It was reported last week that Ford was happy to take money from Aquinas College in Melbourne to deliver her gender politics spiel (what was the school principal thinking?) but refused to take questions from boys.

Ideologues on the left will keep up their attacks on churches and heterosexual marriage regardless of a No vote. Craven lawyers who decided last week to can as “political” a Father’s Day advertisement of a father singing a lullaby to a baby will still make craven decisions after a No vote.

And libertarian conservatives will still be in the trenches battling for freedoms that many on the left and some on the right have forsaken. Granting gay couples the legal right to marry is a recognition of, not an affront to, liberty even if many same-sex marriage crusaders are deeply illiberal.