In the midst of a brutal campaign, it is tempting to wonder: where are the better angels of our nature?
On Monday, Q&A provided the answer: those angels have taken up residence with the public figure whose profile requires her to call on them more often than most.
“Right now she is finding and firing with her most potent voice”: Magda Szubanski on Q&A. Photo: ABC
Magda Szubanski has been many things in public life. But right now she is finding and firing with her most potent voice, in a campaign that can seem so unnecessary and even cruel that to maintain decorum in the midst of the maelstrom appears a demand on discipline beyond the reach of many.
But not for Magda.
There she was again on Monday, dealing with the slings and arrows – the slights against her and the sleights of hand by those on the other side – with grace and calm. She marshalled facts with feeling, letting nothing slide and laying everything out, including the personal experience that drives her but which she never allows to emerge as fury.
She was tested from the git-go, with a question that went right to the “both sides are nasty” plane of false equivalence. The question: “Why can’t I have a right to my view without being branded as a hater or a bigot?”
You want to see those better angels at work? Here they were.
“You totally do and I wouldn’t brand you as a homophobe,” Szubanski began, admitting that at a time when she was “unresolved and probably not comfortable with myself, I might have voted no, too”.
But, she gently reminded him: “There’s been viciousness on the extremes of either side??? I think we have to try and establish and expand the moderate live-and-let-live middle ground really.”
Szubanski’s fellow panellists on this marriage equality edition were two churchmen – Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies, a No advocate, and the prominent Catholic advocate for a Yes vote Frank Brennan – and Karina Okotel, friendly face of the No campaign and vice-president of the federal Liberal Party.
Okotel is a challenge in this debate: an all-smiling and apparent voice of reasonableness adept at speaking out of both sides of her mouth like the lawyer she is. Szubanski was there to catch the words whichever side they flew from. It was not always easy, as when Okotel tied herself in knots on her position on gay couples raising children, dire warnings about which are a key plank of the No campaign.
Tony Jones to Okotel: “I’ll quickly bring you up on something. You’re perfectly happy for children to be brought up with same-sex parents? That’s no problem?”
Okotel: “Why not? There are good parents who???”
Szubanski, like the rest of us, was confused.
Szubanski: “You say the problem with marriage is it will lead to problems with children. That vulnerable children are threatened??? that’s what you’ve said. That that’s a consequence.”
Okotel: “That’s very different to parenting and being raised by same-sex parents.”
At which the audience could be heard guffawing, with Szubanski confining herself to a look of bafflement.
Okotel reinforced whatever it was her point was: “Absolutely.”
Szubanski: “I don’t understand it.”
Okotel: “I might need more than a minute to explain this.”
Szubanski: “I’m not that stupid.”
It was an issue that wouldn’t go away, as Jones returned to it again in an effort to make Okotel make sense. It was a losing battle.
Jones: “Just to confirm then??? you actually have no problem whatsoever with gay people bringing up children?
Okotel: “No. I don’t have any issue with gay people parenting.”
Jones: “Only if they’re married?”
Okotel: “No. I don’t think that homosexual people should be married because when you???”
Jones: “But is the problem with them bringing up children only when they’re married?”
Okotel: “I don’t understand.”
Jones: “Is it a problem of them bringing up children when they’re married?”
Okotel: “Sorry, I don’t understand your question.”
Jones: “So there’s no problem with people getting married if they’re gay and bringing up children as far as you’re concerned?”
Okotel: “I suppose why I don’t understand your question is people bring up children all the time who are not married, whether they be straight or married.”
Jones: “I’m confirming that’s your view?”
Okotel: “I don’t have an issue with people parenting in a relationship or unmarried relationship, straight or whatever, as long as they’re good parents.”
Dear Karina. You might want to explain that – whatever it was – to Lyle Shelton.
But let’s give the last word to Magda, who delivered perhaps the most emotional punch of the night in taking on Anglican Glenn Davies on the role of the church.
Szubanski once more showed her rare skill at marrying the personal and the political.
“I accept the church will never marry me. That grieves me in ways you will never know. I’m the one in my family, when I buried my parents I organised every detail of the masses, I wrote the orders of service, I put the pall over my mother’s coffin,” she said.
“Now I accept the Catholic Church will never marry me, but you won’t even let me marry outside the church??? Why should you have the right to tell me or any other person, straight or gay, what they do in the civil domain?”
Davies: “I don’t think the views expressed have been telling anyone what to believe. I won’t tell you that either, OK? That’s not my job.”
Szubanski, summoning those better angels, restrained herself.
It was enough to retort: “You paid a million dollars to fund the No campaign.”
Amen and goodnight, bishop.