Bill Shorten calls for ‘marriage equality’ but he is not prepared to give other Australians an equal right to state their opinion

There is a limit to how much diversity we can take, even in the tolerant, generous and inclusive land that Bill Shorten calls home.

“Every Australian no matter what their faith, country of birth or their gender should believe that their background is as equal as every other Australian,” Shorten told parliament earlier this month.

The construct “as equal” has an Orwellian tone. “Equal” is an adjective that cannot be graded; things are alike in quantity, degree or value, or they’re not. All animals are equal in the socialist dystopia Animal Farm until the pigs start holding whips in their trotters and some animals become more equal than others.

Equality is a fluid concept in the minds of progressives such as Shorten. Hence the Opposition Leader has a lot to say about “marriage equality”, as he fashionably calls it, but he is not prepared to give other Australians an equal right to state their opinion.

“Marriage equality is an act of justice, too long delayed and denied,” Shorten wrote in Fairfax Media newspapers last Thursday. He objects to putting the matter to a plebiscite, however, because it would provide “a platform for people to attack, abuse and demean Australians on the basis of who they love”.

In other words, all Australians enjoy an equal right to free speech except the ones who disagree with him. When Shorten rolled out the same ill-judged argument in parliament, Malcolm Turnbull gave him a withering stare.

“He thinks so little of the people of this country that he does not believe we are capable of having a civil debate on a matter of this importance,” the Prime Minister said. “He is so frightened of public debate that he wants to shut the people out. Let me tell you, I have great faith in the decency, in the common sense, in the humanity and in the wisdom of the Australian people, and, if there are unruly voices heard, they will be drowned out by the common sense.”

The Left has been obliged to adopt weaker and ever more ridiculous arguments in its desperation to retain the moral high ground on rainbow politics. Avoiding a $140 million plebiscite is apparently a matter of fiscal discipline. No doubt this amount will be added to Labor’s puny column of “saves” in its election manifesto.

Penny Wong claims the plebis­cite is pointless because “we already know what the Australian people think”. We also know what they think about her leader: only one in five prefer him as prime minister. Why waste money on an election when we could outsource democracy to Newspoll for less cost?

Tony Abbott’s gift of a plebis­cite is probably the least worst way to resolve this conundrum. A more confident Labor leader would have adopted it magnanimously in an act of bipartisanship. Instead Shorten has succumbed to progressive populism.

He is playing a delicate double game. Writing for Fairfax Media in July, he acknowledged “some people, particularly people of faith, take a different view” and pledges “to build support by common ground; through consensus not coercion”. Last week he ­accused same-sex marriage opponents of “mal­icious homophobia”. He stigmatises honestly held opinions as a neurosis; upholding traditional marriage is mad as well as bad.

The trivialisation of mental illness does not stop there. Hateful abuse unleashed by a plebiscite would be damaging for youth mental health, writes Shorten. His evidence? Two in five young gays “have thought about self-harm or suicide”.

Of the many factors that increase the risk of mental illness — family history, drugs, social isolation, long-term unemployment, broken families, inadequate self-esteem — Shorten isolates one as an excuse to curb free speech. It is difficult to see how slagging off opponents of same-sex marriage as gay-haters will enhance Shorten’s chances of securing a popular mandate at the next election. Identity politics is best left to protest parties such as the Greens.

Outside the inner city, the political class’s sudden obsession with gay marriage must seem strange. Why has it suddenly become the burning moral issue of our time? Why should it take precedence in debate over, say, the injustice of indigenous ill-health? What puts the assumed rights of gays to tie the knot ahead of the right of an Aboriginal child to a decent start in life?

One wonders what Chris Bowen’s constituents might make of it all in the western Sydney seat of McMahon. Tanya Plibersek’s electorate of Sydney was home to 2068 male cohabiting couples on the night of the 2011 census. In McMahon there were just 25.

Shorten’s contempt for the honestly held views of those who have arrived at different conclusions than he has betrays the shallowness of the progressive debate. Respect for diversity should not be restricted to race, religion or sexual orientation. It should allow for a plurality of opinion. If Shorten wants to protect the social fabric and avoid discordant debate, why would he be going out of his way to politicise the issue? If he is seeking a civilised debate, why does he start by demonising his opponents as loathsome bigots?

Nothing could be more divisive than denying ordinary Australians the right to air their concerns about the impact a change in the law might have on children, families and religious freedom. If those fears are as groundless as same-sex marriage advocates think, they should relish the debate. If their opinion is right, silencing their opponents denies them the opportunity to exchange error for truth.

The contrived nature of the arguments employed to justify gagging public opinion serves to underline their weakness. The self-styled defenders of tolerance and diversity are displaying the same closed-minded prejudice they profess to despise.

Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre.

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