Following a Church service in Canberra this morning, as part of the commencement of the new Parliament, Anglican Minister, Ian Powell, asked Bill Shorten a question about his use of language in describing opponents of same-sex marriage.
Mr Shorten was clearly not prepared for this conversation, and to be honest, I felt some sympathy toward Mr Shorten as I know I’d feel taken back by a surprise question. The scene looked a little awkward for both men, with Mr Shorten being curt in his responses, and Ian Powell sounding nervous. Then again, politicians are used to street QandA, and an opportunity presented itself for a member of the public to ask a valid question to one of our nation’s leading political figures.
It should be said, the man who approached the Opposition Leader isn’t a right wing liberal leaning conservative, but someone who likes Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. He was respectful of Mr Shorten and gently spoken in his tone.
Rev Powell said, “You described people who weren’t in favour of changing the definition of marriage as ‘haters who come out from under rock’. Can I ask you not to speak like that?”
Mr Shorten has made such remarks. Following the horrific massacre in Orlando, he said,
“We’ve seen two terrible events in the last week have shown that hate and terrorism does exist in modern societies.”
“I don’t want to give haters a chance to come out from under the rock and make life harder for LGBTI people or their families, to somehow question the legitimacy of their relationship.”
Bill Shorten initially responded by suggesting he was being taken out of context, and then he qualified himself again by saying,
“People of faith can be opposed to marriage equality, but some people who object to marriage equality do have homophobic attitudes,” he said.
I think it is only fair to take Mr Shorten’s comment at face value, and assume he genuinely believes that not everyone who opposes SSM is hateful. That is pleasing to hear, mainly because it’s true; indeed, probably the overwhelming majority are not phobic. Unfortunately, however, and Ian Powell is picking up on this theme, the rhetoric that the Australian public is hearing from Mr Shorten (and others) overwhelming insinuates that any and all discussion about marriage will lead to hate and bigotry.
Mr Shorten has previously used lines including,
“When I see people hiding behind the bible to insult and demonise people on the basis of who they love, I cannot stay silent. I do not agree.”
And of the plebiscite, ‘it will just be “a taxpayer-funded platform for homophobia”.
I don’t think Ian Powell’s request is so outrageous. Is it too much to ask our national leaders to tone down their rhetoric on the marriage debate? Bill Shorten has been mild compared to some other politicians and public figures, but nonetheless, it is simply counter productive to continually insert the words ‘hate’ and ‘phobia’ into every public statement about marriage.
Leaders have not only an opportunity, but a responsibility to set the tone of public discourse, demonstrating that Australians are capable of debating even the most sensitive issues and yet remain friends. Instead of jumping into the mud with those who are truly derogatory, could we not instead aspire to that line from The West Wing, spoken by the President’s Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry?
“We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.”