Tony Abbott recently returned from a trip overseas and an interesting visit with Barack Obama, but this news is being eclipsed by a letter written by a young boy named Orlando Burcham. The young man’s mother is gay and had to travel to New York in order to marry her partner, a situation the kid thought was unfair and deserved to be brought to the attention of the highest authority. The prime minister, however, is notorious for his opposition to gay marriage despite his own sister being gay and partnered. Young Orlando had set himself the big task of helping the politician understand why this opposition was wrong and “pathetic.” Out of a sense of fairness for everyone and love for his mother, he gave the Australian prime minister a piece of his mind, receiving only a form letter in response. For many gay rights activists in Australia, seeing Tony Abbott get schooled on the issue by an 11-year-old kid was a sign of hope for the future. For Abbott himself, the situation may point to a larger political problem.
Kids writing to political leaders usually makes for a cute story. A short, personal response and the occasional signed picture make the kid happy and make the politician look good. That kind of thing is standard public relations for many political figures. Barack Obama, who just had a visit with the Australian prime minister, offered an excellent example of this in 2012 when he wrote a personal reply to a 10-year-old who expressed her support for gay marriage. Not only did he write it himself, but he answered the child’s question about what he would do if he was teased for having two dads. According to the American president, the best way to act is “to treat others the way you hope they will treat you.” Not only did this personal interaction with the 10-year-old create a heartwarming vibe for people who read the story, but it made the president look like a nice guy.
The “nice guy” effect cannot be underestimated in a political context. Voters do not like to feel like their politicians are heartless or above human emotion. Being personable to voters is often part of politicians’ efforts on campaign trails and they have employees who specifically focus on public relations. In this case, Tony Abbott seems to have forgotten that important rule and opted for political posturing at the expense of everything else. In his formal response to the passionate letter from Orlando Burcham, he looks distant, unemotional, and almost callous towards a young kid.
Orlando’s letter, though, was the exact opposite of impersonal. The young writer said he wanted to know why the prime minister opposed gay marriage. He appealed to the “millions” of people who want to get married in Australia and cannot because of the current state of the law. To support his case, he offered the extremely personal example of his mother and her partner travelling to New York in order to marry. With the clarity of youth, Orlando wrote, “You were elected to represent our country, not yourself. Just because you think it’s wrong, does not give you the right to make it illegal. Doesn’t our opinions matter to you [sic]?” One of the opinions that Orlando seems to think should matter is his own which is that his mothers should be able to get married in their own country.
Beyond the issue of gay marriage, Orlando’s letter really poses the question, “Does Tony Abbott care about Australians’ opinions on gay marriage?” Abbott’s form letter sent in response to Orlando was so impersonal that it would seem he does not mind the disagreement. That is easy to do when faced with a non-voting 11-year-old boy. But the prime minister is out of step with more than just the middle school contingent. A 2013 poll conducted by the ABC recorded that 52 percent of Australians overall did not believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Another 12 percent were neutral on the issue. This represents a majority of people who, if they do not support marriage equality, at least do not oppose it politically. It is with these people that Abbott is in disagreement on the political stage.
Furthermore, there is a contingent of people within his own Coalition who do not support the heterosexual definition of marriage. The poll recorded around 32 percent in this group, which represents a not insignificant portion of Coalition voters. Orlando’s mother, Cordelia Troy, is herself a member of the Liberal party and has been active politically, even having met Tony Abbott at one point. People like Cordelia and those polled show that the issue of marriage equality is far from settled even among the conservatives of Australia.
For the Aussie prime minister, however, the matter is clear cut. As he said in the form letter sent to 11-year-old Orlando, Abbott and his government “support the existing definition of marriage.” According to the Marriage Act from 1961, marriage in Australia is “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” There is little room for interpretation in that definitive statement and Abbott does not seem inclined to change that.
The letter in which Tony Abbott gets schooled by the 11-year-old on the issue of gay marriage points out just how important this is for many Australians personally. His mother had to spend a lot of money in order to travel to New York in the United States where gay marriage is legal. For Orlando, this is a deeply personal issue, but he also pointed out that Abbott’s family is also affected by the lack of marriage equality. The prime minister’s sister Christine is gay and has a partner that she cannot marry under current Australian law. For Orlando, the issue is not legality, it is compassion. “His sister is gay,” Orlando says. “What kind of brother is he?” The young man knows exactly where he stands, just like Abbott does. He supports marriage equality because he supports his mom.
The 11-year-old boy is not the only kid to take the prime minister to task over gay marriage, though. A four-year-old girl also sent him a letter on Disney princess stationery. Her message, written in multi-colors, asked Abbott to “let boys marry boys and girls marry girls if they love each other or they’ll be sad forever.” Stories like these pose a problem for Tony Abbott. Already his budget is being labeled by political opponenets as unfair and callous towards vulnerable groups, such as pensioners, students, people with health problems, and the unemployed. Cuts to programs, medicare, and education expose the vulnerable to harmful effects. Now, he faces the problem of seeming not only dismissive of LGBT couples, but of children. Abbott may someday face the problem of political changes to marriage law, but right now he has a problem with being impersonal and distant. People may be okay with political jargon directed towards adults. Children are another matter.
Australians face a host of political issues that are more important than gay marriage. The budget that the government wants to put in place is already being hammered for its seemingly unfair cuts and measures that harm the disadvantaged. These are the problems that are taking precedence over gay marriage, and perhaps rightly so. But a letter from 11-year-old Orlando Burcham took the prime minister to task over the issue. It is not gay marriage that is most visible in this instance, but the form letter response that Orlando received. Full of pat responses and political answers, the letter adds to Abbott’s problem of looking careless of people’s individual situations. Ultimately, that image may be more important for Tony Abbott politically than the fact he got schooled on gay marriage by a passionate 11-year-old.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury