If anyone wants evidence that Australia is not quite a post-religious country and that pious viewpoints continue to exert too much political influence, even here in the Great Southern Paradise, well here's something for you to latch onto.
The government of the Australian Capital Territory (the area carved out of New South Wales to house Canberra, the national capital) is trying to enact legislation to provide for civil unions of gay couples. However, the federal parliament has the power to block ACT legislation (indeed, it has sweeping power under the Australian Constitution to enact laws for the territories, as opposed to the states). On a number of occasions in recent times, federal parliament has moved to block or overturn progressive territory-level legislation.
In this case, the federal government led by the smiling conservative, Kevin Rudd, has been negotiating with ACT politicians. It threatened to block the legislation because it provided a form of civil union supposedly too close to mimicking marriage. Apparently, the sticking point was that the law would provide for a ceremony that Rudd and company considered marriage-like. In the face of the feds' threat, the ACT will now enact watered-down legislation.
Federal parliament does ultimately have the power to override laws enacted by the parliaments of the ACT and Northern Territory, but that power dates back to an earlier time when the territories were small in population, and weak in expertise and infrastructure. Things have changed since then, and one might question the propriety (as opposed to constitutional legality) of federal politicians interfering to overturn duly enacted legislation from the ACT parliament - if it had ever come to that. But in any case, why should the federal parliament interfere in an issue such as this - effectively to stamp its own traditional view of marriage on the ACT's local public policy? If ever there was an issue where the federal parliament should have butted out, this is it.
When the Rudd government was elected (with my vote, amongst so many others), I recall expressing scepticism to friends as to how big an improvement it would be on the reactionary regime that preceded it. My friends convinced me that I was too pessismistic, but now I wonder.
As for the broad political issue of marriage, I take the view that the state should keep out of the marriage game altogether. What sexual, domestic, and child-rearing arrangements competent adults want to enter into should be (as it by and large is) up to them. Already, the criminal law leaves these things alone - we have no laws against adultery, fornication, polyamorous arrangements, or gay sex, and nor should we. The apparatus of government should interfere only to protect the welfare, and ensure a reasonable standard of education, of children. It should not give its imprimatur to, say, the arrangements of heterosexual couples rather than homosexual ones.
If people of any sexual orientation want to have a religious wedding and be registered as "married" by their cult of choice, large or small, that should also be up to them, but the state should keep aloof from it.
On this approach, the courts would still need to settle disputes when relationships break down (if there are children involved or issues of monetary/non-monetary contributions), but there's a wealth of experience in the courts with settling such issues, and the principles wouldn't need to change in any massive way if the state stopped registering certain arrangements as "marriages". (Even now, judge-made law can deal with situations that fall outside of any legislative framework; the courts can fall back on equitable doctrines such as those relating to constructive trusts.)
My view that the state should essentially opt out of the marriage business is, however, an idealistic and long-term option. Meanwhile, since the state goes on recognising "marriages" for heterosexual couples, I don't see why it shouldn't do likewise for homosexual couples. Not doing so tends to suggest that there is something second rate about gays' relationships, and perhaps about them as citizens. It's an unneeded slap in the face.
The most that can be argued against providing by legislation for gay marriage is that if the state does not bother to provide for it, and if it gradually brings all benefits to de facto heterosexual couples into line with those for married couples, and if it treats gay couples like heterosexual de factos ... then it will, indeed, eventually pretty much opt out of the marriage game by stealth. Eventually marriage will be legally meaningless. I would respect a politician who argued for that approach explicitly in the public debates, but of course it will never happen.
But let's come back to here and now. This week, we have seen federal interference with a planned territory-level arrangement that wouldn't even be called "marriage". The feds have gone out of their way to interfere, apparently to protect the symbolism of heterosexual marriage as some kind of religious sacrament or at least something with quasi-religious significance in the eyes of the state. I think that this particular act of bastardry, as John Wilkins has called it, stinks like the proverbial dead cat. I hope it's not too much of a sign of what we can expect in future from the smiling conservative and the Labor Party crew.