It was Martin Luther King who once said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends toward justice”.
The arc of history will once again bend toward justice on Wednesday when it is confirmed that Australians have returned a Yes vote in favour of marriage equality.
My confidence about the result is not only based on polling. It’s based on history.
Progress on human rights is always moving forward. Of course, it doesn’t advance in a straight line.
People have to make it happen.
Conservative forces will always oppose progress, and reactionaries will campaign to turn back the clock.
But progressives will always keep advancing reform against those who would maintain the comfortable status quo.
And history tells us that the progressives usually win.
The suffragettes, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Eddie Mabo and Gough Whitlam — they all faced pushback.
But time and again, the weight of justice has won out and people have come to accept and even champion ideas they once regarded as uncomfortable, or even heretical.
Australians once supported the White Australia Policy. Now most of us celebrate multiculturalism.
We once refused to count indigenous people in the census or recognise indigenous land rights. Now land rights are real and our nation is moving toward recognising our first peoples in the Constitution.
In the 20th century, Australians who wanted a divorce had to hire private investigators to obtain photographic evidence of their spouses’ infidelity before the courts would dissolve their tragically unhappy marriages. Today no-fault divorce is taken for granted.
In my lifetime, working people could not afford to see a doctor if they fell ill because there was no Medicare or bulk-billing.
Progress has wiped out such injustices.
When change is about extending human rights, as is the case with marriage equality, it builds a momentum of its own.
The mistake that many conservatives make is to believe the world as it is today is the final, fully formed version of society — the culmination of centuries of human progress. Wary of anything that challenges the established order, they behave as though human progress stopped with the Enlightenment. It didn’t. Humanity keeps moving forward. People demand greater rights. And, over time, those who seek to deny them those rights run out of reasons to say no.
Two of the loudest voices in the marriage equality debate have experience of being overtaken by progress.
In early 1970s, John Howard was part of the Fraser government that abolished the Medibank universal health care system put in place by Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam.
By the time Howard became prime minister in 1996, he claimed he was a supporter of universal health care, which had been reinstated by the Hawke Labor government through Medicare.
Likewise, in the 1990s, when the Keating Labor government proposed compulsory superannuation to allow working people to retire in dignity, Tony Abbott ridiculed the idea as a con job.
Thirteen years later, as prime minister, compulsory superannuation had such broad acceptance that Abbott would have been unable to muster more than a few votes for its abolition.
Abbott was swamped by progress, just as history will sideline him over his continuing rejection of genuine action on climate change, which reached absurd levels with his claim in London recently that it is a force for good.
Over recent years the parliament has passed laws removing discrimination on the basis of sexuality for health care, superannuation, immigration, social security and more. All of these measures came as a result of progressive activism which met initial resistance.
Even earlier, the brave leaders of the gay and lesbian community such as Lex Watson, Craig Johnston, Julie McCrossin, Paul O’Grady and the Mardi Gras 78ers were vilified for their commitment to even more basic rights.
I respect the views of those who don’t agree with me on marriage equality, particularly where their opposition is based upon sincerely held spiritual views. But marriage equality is a basic human right.
Even in the unlikely event that the postal ballot returns a No vote, marriage equality will still happen.
It is inevitable.
I’m yet to meet anyone who has said, “I used to support marriage equality, but I’ve changed my mind and now I don’t.” The opposite, however, is commonplace.
After it becomes law, people will look back at the controversy of recent months and wonder why we didn’t act sooner.
On that great day, spare a thought for those courageous gay and lesbian activists who fought for law reform in past decades at great risk to themselves.
They led the way for this generation to argue for full equality.
And in doing so, they made Australia a better and more inclusive place for every Australian.
This piece was first published in The Australian on Monday, 13 November, 2017: http://bit.ly/2ABRqz7
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.
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