Like most students, I had a part-time job while I was at the ANU, although mine was slightly unusual. Throughout the long, balmy summer of 1977 I worked in a popular picnic area kiosk some 20 miles outside Canberra, serving chips, soft drinks and gelatos to hungry daytrippers. The gelatos often had dog hairs in them, which wasn’t surprising. My boss concocted the frozen mixture in cylindrical vats in the toilet block behind the shop. He also slept there. In a bed. With a large black labrador. Whose name was Lust.

They both popped into my mind the other day, for some odd reason.

It was the response to Senator Cory Bernardi’s comments that were more revealing than what he actually said, proving that Australia has now either entered a wonderful new phase of political enlightenment and tolerance or is hurtling back into an era of stifling political correctness and intellectual intimidation.

It depends, of course, on how you interpret his remarks. It also depends on how you view the gay marriage debate. And, I guess, what you think of relationships between people and animals.

For my part, I’ve always seen gay marriage as either a question of semantics (how does a secular, pluralist, sexually diverse society choose to define the word ‘marriage’?) or an emotional argument (‘why can’t I marry the person I love?’). As far as legalities are concerned, provided a civil union between two people of the same sex affords precisely the same legal rights and responsibilities as traditional marriage, then I don’t really buy the ‘discrimination’ argument — but then again, I’m not the one being discriminated against, so perhaps that’s my own shortcoming.

Nonetheless, I struggle to pinpoint the precise reason why Cory Bernardi’s comments caused such a kerfuffle, leading to his resignation from the shadow front bench,  a public dressing-down by his boss, a humiliating reception in the UK and spiteful and nasty condemnation from all sides of politics and the media.

From the ferocity of the howls of protest, most people who hadn’t actually read or heard his remarks for themselves would conclude that the Senator had suggested homosexuality was akin to bestiality.

Had he done that, I would agree wholeheartedly with all those who expressed disgust at his remarks. But he didn’t say that. The neat media conflation and headline ‘Bernardi “links” gay marriage to bestiality’ did the trick. From there on in, it was open slather.

To draw such an interpretation from his remarks shows a deliberate desire to distort and misrepresent them.

Here’s what he actually said:

The next step … is having three people  that love each other be able to enter into  a permanent union endorsed by society,  or four people.

In terms of the ‘emotional’ argument, he’s right. As everyone from Penny Wong to the young kids on Q&A have repeatedly stated, anyone should be able to marry the person they love. And those people who genuinely wish to declare their love and commitment to more than one person? Logically, if that’s how they feel, why should they alone be excluded from using the ‘m’ word? Why just couples? Isn’t that discriminatory?

There are even some creepy people out there who say that it’s OK to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals. Will that be a future step?

OK, here’s where the Senator — referring to comments by Q&A favourite Professor Peter Singer OA — switches from the ‘emotional’ or semantic to the ‘legal precedent’ or ‘slippery slope’ argument, and raises the ante. He qualifies his query heavily, with the use of the words ‘some creepy people’, and phrases it as a question. But it is perfectly legitimate to raise potential precedent-setting ramifications of any legislation, no matter how extreme or absurd is your example. That’s what the Senate is there for; to ensure that such concerns are debated and allowed for.

In the future, will we say: ‘These two creatures love each other and maybe they should be able to be joined in a union?’

Again, the question itself is inoffensive, unless of course you decide to conflate it directly with homosexuality, which Bernardi didn’t do. His link is with the word  ‘marriage’.

I think if we’re going to redefine marriage… there will be another call to include  a broader system.

Bernardi’s two very specific questions are easily answered, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong to ask them.

It is the job of the Senate to be the House of Review; to look at the ‘bigger picture’ that may have been overlooked in the cut and thrust of debate in the House of Reps, and to scrutinise proposed legislation for potential flaws, unforeseen legal precedents or long-term consequences.

Bernardi may hold primitive, vile, bigoted beliefs for all I know. But he didn’t express any. He may be a clunky communicator. But there’s no law against that. His questions might have been dumb, but that doesn’t mean he should be silenced. His so-called offence was superimposed upon his comments by his political foes, from both sides of politics.

Remove the hysterical knee-jerk over-reaction — on a par with the hardline Islamic response to the ‘offence’ caused by cartoons and dodgy home-made movies — and the sensible response to Bernardi’s questions from those determined to get gay marriage legislation through Parliament would be: ‘No, Cory, because this is what the redefinition of the word “marriage” will be and here’s the definition of what “love” is. See? Nobody’s marrying their  pet poodle.’

Parliamentary legislation is, ultimately,  a matter of precise legal definitions to ensure that the intent of a bill becomes its reality. The devil is in the details. It is unconscionable of those within the Labor party who failed to vote for same-sex legislation and the Liberal party who opposed it to attack Bernardi for questioning the details. That’s his job. To savage the Senator for causing offence to same-sex couples is duplicitous, and requires an unfair and (I suspect) inaccurate interpretation of his beliefs. Yet that is how lynch mobs behave, rushing in to crudely demonise and discredit people for raising perfectly legitimate — even if somewhat silly — questions.

Far more offensive, ‘vile’ and hypocritical are those who pretend to support and sympathise with same-sex couples and their desire to get married, yet voted against the legislation to allow them to do so.

As for Lust, I’d love to know what he’d make of all the fuss.

Rowan Dean is associate editor of The Spectator Australia and a columnist with the Australian Financial Review.

Tags: iapps