Do symbols matter? According to the West Wing they do:

“Are we gonna stand for something, or just hang around, change the sheets for the President’s hospital bed?” asks Toby. “Should we make our stand fighting a symbol?” ponders C.J. “Yes, we should fight it! Fight the symbol, yes. Symbols matter. If they didn’t, why would you care what they say about you on the internet?” Toby replies.

This week President Obama became the first president to argue for marriage equality and, I believe, to mention gay rights in an inauguration speech. His speech is largely symbolic, for I understand that he has no real power to implement a change himself. Some would say his speech is therefore irrelevant but I’m with Toby: the symbols matter. Millions of men and women have heard their leader tell them that they are created equal.

Halfway across the globe in Australia we are stuck with a government whose policy is a ‘conscience vote’ and an opposition whose policy is… well, opposition. Neither the Prime Minister or Opposition leader supports marriage equality. A vote to amend the marriage act failed last year.

Many suspect the the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has little genuine interest in preventing marriage equality and has instead chosen it as one of the areas to differentiate her government from the ‘radical’ left wing Greens. If that is the case, she is playing political positioning with peoples hearts, hopes and dreams.

Such as strategy is not only heartless, it is also useless. She will never out-right the right-wing opposition leader Tony Abbott and you only have to look at the so-called ‘Boat people’ policies to realise this is so.

So what should she do? Fight for the symbol: Marriage for same-sex couples may be barely any different to existing civil union arrangements – but symbols matter and equal means equal. As as aside, check out Campbell Newman’s Queensland to see how  Civil unions are working out for same-sex couples in that jurisdiction. Julia Gillard should make a symbolic stand even if it she has no power to directly change the law. It would make a difference to those young people who feel they have no hope to see their government standing with them.  She could also recongise that those who care about keeping the traditional definition of marriage aren’t likely to vote for her anyway.

What will she do? I suspect she will spend the dying days of her government changing the bed sheets.


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