The High Court’s recent overturning of the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws represents a mere speed bump in the march towards fully recognising gay and lesbian couples. Contrary to the hopes of the Abbotts and Bernardis, conservative crusades against the present momentum will fail spectacularly. But hanging over the scene are the reactions, explicit and otherwise, of Australia’s ascendant Asian neighbours. Through a combination of preoccupation and neglect, Australia seems focused on economic and often superficial political relationships at the expense of potential social clashes.
In an increasingly rights-oriented developed world, Western governments like Australia’s erroneously believe that intellectual debates about fairness and equality will filter into developing nations. Julie Bishop chastised China over its air defence zone and encouraged diplomacy, only to receive verbal missiles from Beijing in return. Burma, which successive Australian Prime Ministers have taken to task for its authoritarianism, is still overly influenced by the military. The list of rebuffs is extensive. Asia, with its own history, values and processes, is clearly still reluctant to listen to Canberra’s advice on domestic and foreign policy. It is even less likely to follow its social example.
Given the disdain with which many Asia-Pacific nations regard homosexuality, Australia’s steady embrace of gay rights presents an even greater challenge. Bilateral relations thrive on commonalities, which explains why trade has helped foster Australia’s now vital strategic partnerships with many Asian nations. Social sensitivities require just as much respect and should not be underestimated. The importance of supporting gay rights in Australia does not negate the need to walk a fine line in dealing with nearby nations far less supportive and even oppressive of sexual minorities.
The dilemma is most evident in the complex relationship with Indonesia. Australia’s more liberal society, European population and historical Christianity have always differentiated it from the world’s largest Muslim nation. By legalising gay marriage in the coming years, Australia will be further distancing itself from Indonesia’s conservative social mores. This only increases the necessity of engaging Indonesia and nations such as Malaysia in other arenas to compensate.
One of the masterstrokes of the Howard government, funding Indonesian religious schools and many other endeavours after the 2004 tsunami, helped plug the gaps created by diplomatic tussles over East Timor, asylum seekers and constant Australian collusion with the US in the War on Terror. It also showed how two countries with often different value systems could work together in humanitarian arenas. The Abbott government’s opening plays, already riling Jakarta with spying scandals and asylum seeker standoffs, compare unfavourably. Outreach policies are at present scant.
Asia’s burgeoning population and might, economic and otherwise, make action even more urgent. Any influence Australia can exert in the area of gay rights may be limited or demand long-term patience. The game is always one of catch-up. For all the animosity sometimes exchanged between individual Asian nations, Australia is still the predominantly white, pro-American sore thumb. As essential as gay rights are, enshrining them in law is not something Australia can do without looking (and planning) beyond its shores.