Australians who have not yet made up their minds on same-sex marriage are now embarking on a “journey” which many politicians only recently completed. It looks like most will arrive at the same destination, but without the whiff of political expediency.
Still, despite the polls, if the journey is mismanaged the “yes” campaign could lose. To take one example, this could happen if people begin to feel that by extending marriage rights, their own right to hold private religious views will be diminished.
Or if ordinary Australians are made to feel they can’t voice their concerns without being howled down and silenced as bigots, they might deliver a Brexit-style silent revolt.
Likewise if same-sex marriage campaigners allow themselves to believe that the case for extending marriage equality is obvious and doesn’t need to be argued. It may feel obvious in the wealthy, liberal and largely white inner-city suburbs, where sexual taboos were done away with long ago.
But remember until as recently as the 1970s pretty much all sex was taboo. Even heterosexual relationships were only socially acceptable within marriage.
Unwed mothers were pressured to give up their children to married couples. No-fault divorce wasn’t available in Australia until 1975.
Before that, people would sometimes pretend they’d been adulterous to get out — ironically, the first major sexual taboos were smashed by heterosexuals who were desperate not to be married.
In 1975 the first Australian state decriminalised homosexuality. Homosexual practice wasn’t decriminalised in Tasmania until 1997.
This is shockingly recent, but it’s a good reminder that we did hold these attitudes and taboos — and that they have adjusted and changed within our lifetime.
Australia has always lagged in the Western world, possibly because of our large immigrant population, who often bring with them and maintain socially conservative attitudes about sex and the role of women, among other things.
In many non-Western countries these taboos still exist and they remain strong in many new immigrant communities.
But it’s worth remembering that we are all immigrants from a not-too-distant past.
Taboos hold us at an emotional level. Changing legislation is not enough to change people’s hearts and minds. Even when it is plainly the right thing to do, there is still a job of persuasion to be done.
It should help the “yes” campaign that it can build itself around a deeply conservative proposition to restore family values.
Campaigners must realise that just yelling louder in their existing echo chambers will have no impact.
And lashing out at people who disagree — precisely those whose minds need to be changed by the “yes” campaign — will be counter-productive.
For their part, conservatives should embrace the opportunity to broaden their base. It has been a very, very long time since part of society last clamoured for access to a conservative institution rather than freedom from one.
The conservative mindset prefers the stability of a regularised, public commitment over the less clear de facto model.
Stable domestic situations promote the wellbeing of the children in a household, as well as reducing the potential for welfare fraud.
Both of these arguments carry conservative weight, but children are a priority.
Children are increasingly born into irregular situations created by parents of all sexual orientations. Offering parents who want it a way to create more stability for children can only be a positive and is an inherently conservative thing to do. To put it another way, far from undermining it, extending marriage equality to same-sex relationships will likely make society more conservative, not less.
That said, it will be a tough time for same-sex couples between now and November 7.
It will also be tough for people who have doubts about extending traditional marriage to same-sex couples. The trolls from all sides will be out in force, trying to polarise the debate.
But there’s a silver lining.
For a couple of months, Australians will turn their minds to the topic of why extending equal franchise to people whose opinion — or in this case orientation — you don’t necessarily share is the right thing to do.
And make no mistake about it, tolerance is a two-way street.
We can’t forbid someone from being religious any more than we can forbid them fancying the same sex. A popular saying about gay marriage has been that if you don’t support them, you shouldn’t get one.
Well, the same thing applies in the other direction: if you don’t agree with the pastor, don’t go to the church. How people behave to one another when they interact is more important than what they think or even say in private. Actions trump words.
If the “yes” campaign accepts this, and engages respectfully and on a personal level to dispel doubts, we will come out of this knowing why we are a nation that extends the symbolic institution of marriage to all consenting couples.
Political correctness will have nothing to do with it.
Political correctness is the preserve of mealy mouthed pleaders doing obedience to an establishment view.
People — and politicians — who take up attitudes based on political correctness are capable of shedding them again when fashions change, or the posture is no longer useful. But an unforced and considered opinion sticks.
We all have something to gain by conducting this debate with respect and in good faith. If the goal is a freer and more stable society, for once there can be winners all around.
This op-ed first appeared in The Daily Telegraph.