Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/10/2010 (4105 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
CANBERRA -- Gay marriage may be so much a part of the Canadian scene by now it barely rates a mention. Down in Australia, however, the idea still inflames public opinion, for and against.
This week a ruling Labor Party senator put the subject front and centre, not merely as a social issue which the nation must, almost inevitably, confront.
Senator Doug Cameron used gay marriage as a metaphor for a worrying decline of Labor's "progressive vote.''
"If a couple want to enter into a marriage arrangement, if a couple love each other and they want a long-term arrangement, why should government stop them doing that?'' Senator Cameron, a former union hard man, pondered in his delightful Scottish burr on the national airwaves.
"I just don't understand it.''
Many Australians agree, evidenced by the surprising amount of interest the matter commanded in the Australian election campaign.
The socially conservative Opposition leader Tony Abbott was briefly trapped on a Sydney ferry in the dying days of the campaign by a politely aggressive female voter who echoed Senator Cameron's confusion.
"It just doesn't make sense,'' she kept repeating as Abbott, an observant Catholic and former seminarian, doggedly repeated his mantra: "Marriage is between a man and a woman.''
The election winner, Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, aligns her own views with those of Abbott.
Gillard's stance mirrors that of her predecessors -- deposed Labor PM Kevin Rudd and socially conservative Liberal PM John Howard, who reigned for 11 years, both oppose gay marriage.
To add weight to Labor's position, Penny Wong, a gay front bench Labor MP, supports her party's policy, arguing there are long-standing cultural, religious and historical views of marriage being between a man and a woman.
Many foreigners, Canadians included, can become confused when surveying Australia's political landscape, and not simply because of the Wongs of the world.
Politically aware visitors often assume the Liberal Party represents "liberals'' in the North American sense of the word.
In fact, only this week it took a newly elected, youthful backbencher from Australia's far north, George Christensen, to clarify the belief system of the Liberal Party of Australia (and its coalition colleague the National Party).
Many (though not all) Liberals are deeply socially conservative, opposed to abortion, gay marriage and decriminalization of drugs.
Simultaneously, as Christensen reminded the parliament, the huge majority are disciples of classic liberalism -- small government, low tax, freedom of the individual and freedom of the market place.
The Australian Labor Party, on the other hand, started life representing the interests of sheep shearers.
It went on to win power in the first part of the 20th century as the voice of the Australian working class.
In the 1960s and '70s, Labor vastly broadened its support base, becoming the party of social liberalism and attracting a following among young, well-educated professionals, many of them populating the inner cities.
Last August, as the nation went to the polls in a federal election, the Labor party watched in dismay as the metropolitan progressives jumped ship, voting in unprecedented numbers for the Australian Greens.
The Greens now have several senators as well as an MP in the 150-seat lower house and have branched far beyond environmental issues to embrace progressive themes, such as euthanasia, the more humane treatment of asylum seekers and gay marriage.
Senator Cameron, a leader in Labor's left faction, sees the writing on the wall, knowing full well that Labor's opposition to gay marriage will further marginalize the inner city in the next election, officially scheduled to take place in three years.
"I just think it is absolutely crazy for a progressive party," he said of Labor's stand, hinting that Labor MPs had been effectively gagged.
"I just don't understand it. And, to be honest, you are not allowed to speak about this in public... and I just think that is an example of where we need to change.''
The gleeful Greens, no doubt, hope they don't.
Greens leader Bob Brown, the first openly gay man in the federal parliament, can't quite believe Labor's insistence on maintaining its position in the face of gay marriage in Canada, South Africa and even the deeply Catholic nation of Spain.
He's been particularly harsh on Wong.
"To somehow excuse discrimination... on the basis of culture or heritage -- are we going to bring back in hanging?'' he asked recently.
Greens Senator Christine Milne, gazing happily at the surge of support for her once-fringe party, says Labor's problem is simple -- it tried to please everyone.
"It has tried to sit in the middle of the road and has got run over.''
Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.