If Marriage Is So Good, Why Not Invite Everyone In?

It didn’t take much for a wave of pro-gay marriage sentiment to echo through the socially liberal wing of the Labor Party.

A Greens motion that politicians should “gauge their constituents’ views” on gay marriage (which you’d have thought was their job anyway) has led a growing list of Labor MPs to declare their support. And Julia Gillard has brought Labor’s national conference forward six months so her party can debate the issue next year.

That’s Labor. What about the Liberals?

You’d think conservative opposition to same-sex marriage would be a no-brainer. Resistance to major social reform is seen as part of the DNA of Australian conservatism. Certainly, no Liberal politicians have stuck their necks out. Malcolm Turnbull, who you’d think would be the best bet, has made it clear he believes marriage is between a man and a woman.

Yet there is a strong conservative argument for legalising gay marriage. Conservatives who decry the decline of marriage as an institution are right. Straight people have been undermining the sanctity of marriage for decades. This is a bad thing.

Marriage is a private form of social welfare. Spouses insure each other against sudden loss of income. Married couples are less vulnerable to financial stress than single people.

The benefits of marriage on mental health and wellbeing, income and happiness are widely acknowledged. Married people tend to lead more stable lives. Their relationships are more durable.

There’s justified concern Australia is losing “social capital”; that the bonds of the community are weakening. And the evidence suggests married people integrate better in communities and the workplace.

So extending the marital franchise to gay and lesbian couples would multiply the number of Australians who can join this crucial social institution, spreading the positive impact of marriage on society.

The most common conservative case against gay marriage is that the very idea is an oxymoron; marriage, by definition, is between a man and a woman. But this seems less about protecting the sanctity of marriage and more about protecting the sanctity of the dictionary.

Conservatism isn’t opposed to change. It simply seeks to make change manageable. And if the symbolic value of the word “marriage” is important, then the social benefits accrued by that symbolism should be available to same-sex couples. On the other hand, if the word is merely shorthand for a utilitarian contractual relationship between two rational, calculating individuals, then barring gay individuals from signing such a contract is obviously discriminatory.

Conservatives have one more question to be answered. Doesn’t gay marriage hurt straight marriage? That’s an empirical question we can measure.

In their book Gay Marriage: For Better or For Worse? What We’ve Learned From the Evidence, William Eskridge and Darren Spedale look at the effect that recognition of same-sex relationships – marriage and civil unions – has had on Scandinavia since Denmark introduced registered partnerships in 1989. The authors found that after nearly two decades of registered partnerships in Scandinavia, social indicators, if anything, were getting better. Total divorce rates were lower. There were higher rates of straight marriage, fewer out-of-wedlock births.

Caution is worthwhile. These changes aren’t due to same-sex unions – just because two women get married doesn’t mean you’re more likely to stay with your opposite-sex spouse. But it does suggest gay relationships do not undermine straight relationships.

In the past few years, a number of countries have adopted gender-neutral definitions of marriage. Opponents of gay marriage should reveal how they predict straight marriage will be harmed? Early indications suggest it has not been harmed.

The conservative case for gay marriage is one that respects and venerates the institution of government-approved marriage.

A more radical answer to the gay marriage question would eliminate government’s role. There are, after all, two distinct aspects to marriage in Australia. There’s the religious and cultural aspect: marriage is a sacrament, sanctified by religions, families and friends. Then there is the legal aspect: marriages are stamped and approved by the government.

Why do we need the latter? Marriage could be privatised. There’s really no need to have any central authority deciding who is married and who isn’t.

This is, of course, not an approach the Greens or the ALP are likely to adopt. Nor is it the most conservative approach.

If marriage is so socially beneficial, why not encourage as many to join it as possible? The choice is between excluding gay people from the foundation of strong families or inviting them in.