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I was recently asked about what in Australia's history could account for our failure to legislate same-sex marriage. It was not easy to answer.
How could one argue there was a strain of social or moral conservatism in Australia that could not be found, in an even more virulent form, in the history of Ireland, the United States, or any number of countries able to resolve this issue with less fuss than we have?
A conventional way of answering might be that homophobia has been especially virulent in Australia because of the distinctive patterns of the nation's masculinity.
This explanation would point to the legacy of frontier masculinity: aggressively heterosexual, contemptuous of effeminacy in men (associated with ''pommies'' and ''poofters''), hostile to lesbianism as a standing insult to antipodean manhood (''she clearly hasn't met a real Aussie bloke''), and misogynistic towards women in general - ''the doormats of the Western world'', according to feminist historian Miriam Dixson. Hard-drinking. Hard-swearing. Anti-intellectual. Matey.
Russel Ward, a colleague of Dixson at the University of New England, called this image ''the Australian Legend'', tracing its origins to the convict system and wool industry. Ward wondered aloud in his groundbreaking book whether the fabled mateship of such men was sublimated homosexuality.
That was daring for 1958, but Ward was a veteran of the Australian version of the English public school and had been employed in army psychological testing during the war. And he knew his Freud.
So, even as he celebrated the Australian virtues as embodied in his noble bushman, Ward hinted this rough and ready facade might obscure a more complicated story - as historians found in research once gay history emerged in Australia in the 1980s.
At that time the gay and lesbian movement had emerged to claim its rights. Much effort went into the repeal of old laws against sodomy, which had once been a hanging offence. Britain led in 1967.
It was five years before South Australia implemented limited decriminalisation in 1972, and more thorough legislation in 1975. New South Wales waited until 1984 and Tasmania 1997. In many jurisdictions, discriminatory age of consent laws remained, and were a higher level for homosexual sex. New South Wales only moved to deal with the issue in 2003.
Australia - and New Zealand, too - had once seen themselves as pioneers in progressive legislation, education and voting rights.
Yet, internationally, Australia now seems a laggard rather a pioneer. It is surely deficiencies in our recent democracy rather than deeper historical or cultural issues that lie at the heart of our failure to resolve the issue of same-sex marriage.
Neither major political party has a record on marriage equality of which it can be proud. A few individual politicians have been active, but the parties have notably failed to provide leadership.
On marriage equality, people who call themselves leaders have trailed behind public opinion rather than doing anything to influence it. It is dangerous for democracies when they lapse into this pattern. Citizens come to believe what is best about their country exists despite rather than because of their political system.
This attitude produces national stroppiness and erodes trust and confidence. In short, it helps generate the kind of disaffection the surveys tell us is now increasingly characteristic of Australian democracy.
- Frank Bongiorno is professor of history at the College of Arts and Social Sciences at Australian National University.