Q&A recap: Marriage equality debate hits new extremes

On Monday night, Q&A went deep - what is democracy? what is marriage? what is citizenship? - questions which generally fell under the unasked but more central question: what the hell is going on?

The democracy question was pegged to a survey that found a startling number of young Australians are questioning whether our system of government is really worth all the - like, you know - trouble.

The marriage question came from various audience inquisitors who wanted to know whether marriage meant nothing, meant everything, or meant Australia was being distracted on a fool's errand to find trouble where none actually exists.

On citizenship, a questioner wanted to know why we are contemplating making it more difficult to become Australian - given becoming an Australian seems the most sensible life goal of a person who wants to live in, you know, Australia.

Liberal senator Zed Seselja. Photo: ABC

Liberal senator Zed Seselja. Photo: ABC

So what the hell is going on? It's hard to tell, given the apparent mess we are making of trying to work these things out. And for clarity of opinion, if not much common sense, the modern level of public debate tends to dictate that some look to the extremes on either side for comfort.

On marriage equality, for instance, Q&A presented us with the Canberra Liberal senator Zed Seselja. Zed's opinions on same-sex marriage unfortunately only run the gamut from A to B, but within the confines of that narrow road he can drive a large cherry picker, which he uses to latch on to anything he can find to paint a picture of Sodom and Gomorrah in our classrooms should the Yes vote get up.

"So in Canada there's been a number of instances where since they changed the law to redefine marriage, for instance, parental choice has been affected when it comes to things like sex education in schools," the senator said, before moving on to a head-scratching anecdote from Britain.

"So we've seen in the UK a Jewish school which has been told unless they adopt the sort of Safe Schools-type curriculum, the gender fluidity, that they may have their registration threatened."

For this example, as with the others, he offered no evidence or indeed even made a stab at relevance. It's a sign of the times that the vague rallying cry of "Safe Schools? Run for the hills" is considered a valid stance to take in a debate over marriage, but here we are.

Where we also are is in a place where the other extreme of the meaning-of-marriage debate - get rid of it all together - starts to look attractive, given the swamp we are in arguing over same-sex unions and gender fluidity.

Israeli politician Merav Michaeli and Zed Seselja square off on the sanctity of marriage. Photo: ABC

Israeli politician Merav Michaeli and Zed Seselja square off on the sanctity of marriage. Photo: ABC

To this end, Q&A gave us panellist and member of the Israeli parliament Merav Michaeli, whose reaction to Seselja's meandering celebration of heterosexual marriage alongside his scaremongering over the school curriculum was best captured by guest host Virginia Trioli.

Trioli to Michaeli: "You didn't let Zed Seselja get through that answer without lowering your eyes. You have a jaundiced view of this institution?"

Jaundiced isn't the half of it: "It was created back at the time when we women were commodities, as were children, as were men without property and of other colours. This is not something that we should maintain in the world when we realise all of us are human beings. It is not about love.

"I realise the campaign says that love is equal. Love is definitely equal. It's got nothing to do with this institution. This was a tool that was made to dominate women for the sake of reproduction. For men to have legal custody over children which are to the largest I would say chance of certainty their own flesh and blood. This is not something we should sustain."

British philosopher AC Grayling. Photo: ABC

British philosopher AC Grayling. Photo: ABC

What to make of these extremes? Perhaps a philosopher could sort things out, and Q&A had on hand the British thinker AC Grayling, who ventured down something of a middle road that was a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.

"Philosophers draw distinctions," Grayling said.

"There's two quite different senses of the word marriage. There's the legal institution in which you invite the state into your bedroom and has decisions over your lives and it's a very sexist institution in its origins and shouldn't exist in that form at all.

"But there's another sense of the word marriage, which is the commitment that two or perhaps more, I don't know, people make to one another about pooling their resources, sharing their lives, mutually supporting one another. In that sense of marriage, what Shakespeare was talking about when he said the 'marriage of two minds', that's important to us as human beings because we care about the affections and we want somebody to love and be loved by.

"In the institutional sense, I'm against it. However, I am for same-sex marriage.That's a different thing."

Was this suggesting a Yes vote, a No vote or a rather confusing Maybe? What are Australians to make of it all as they ponder their decision at the mail box?

And what, you have to wonder, will be the final cost of this tortured debate?

To judge from Q&A, that cheque will soon be in the mail and it may or may not be blank.

The story Q&A recap: Marriage equality debate hits new extremes first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.