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Real equality must frame marriage debate

By Martin Hanson - posted Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Australians want their own say on marriage. The political establishment says it's a "no-brainer" on the basis of equality and human rights, and that it's "inevitable", but has avoided principled in-depth discussion, despite holding the opposite view just two election cycles ago. Meanwhile, those opposed still haven't yet addressed the issue of equality.

By having a deeper and longer discussion Australians are clearly saying they want to be sure that any change will not affect our common democratic belief that we are all "created equal". They want the question properly put:

Should a free society based upon human equality view the sexual union of a man and woman in a marriage relationship as a pre-eminent expression of human sexuality worthy of special recognition in its laws, or not?


The marriage definition came to us in the great democratic reforms of the 1800s that also abolished slavery and child labour, allowed wives to own property, gave women and poor people the vote, and facilitated trade unions and religious freedom. In defining marriage, English judge James Wilde also wrote of a wife's "social equality with the husband" and how she stands "upon the same level with the man". Adapting Wilde's wording, Australian law defines marriage as:

the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

Let's look at it more closely.

It's important to realise that you don't need a wedding to have a marriage. Registration of the marriage is simply a voluntary public declaration about the relationship. Many couples in a relationship that fits the definition of marriage don't register it at all, which suits them just fine. The definition describes the relationships we recognise as marriage, not just their registration.

Also well-known is that people aren't perfect, and some marriages fail, but our mistakes don't destroy the desire for permanence.

Regarding exclusivity, it's clear that polygamy is incompatible with equality.


Then there are three main points to consider regarding union.

Firstly, it's true the starkest differences in humankind are between men and women. This sexual difference, the everyday reality of our bodily structure and function, has ramifications on virtually every level of life. It's a source of both wonder and bewilderment to either sex.

Secondly, it's because of, not in spite of, those stark differences that marriage can produce wonderful union. In a marriage, the man and woman strive to be understanding, to know what makes their spouse tick, but they can never really grasp what sex is like for each other, because they are so different. Yet they are equal and in union. This great leap into the mystery, wonder and bewilderment of union with one of the opposite sex makes what they have something very different, special and unique.

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About the Author

Martin Hanson is a member of the Australian Labor Party and is the convenor of

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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