A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MARRIAGE EQUALITY “DEBATE” IN AUSTRALIA

by Laura Evans

Content warning: this article mentions homophobia 

It’s been quite a week in Australian politics. You might have heard that the Turnbull government (a coalition of the centre-right Liberal Party and slightly further-right-but-mostly-rural National Party) have been debating marriage equality and have launched something called a postal-plebiscite. To understand why this is a Big Complicated Deal, we have to go back to 2004.

Before 2004, the Marriage Act (1961) of Australia did not take note of gender when establishing the federal definition of marriage. In 2004, long term Liberal Prime Minister John Howard passed the amendment to the Marriage Act with the express purpose of ‘[ensuring] that same sex marriages are not recognised as marriage in Australia’. At the time, no major Australian political party endorsed marriage equality, and no party blocked passage of the bill.

The couples that had been married in the Territory had their marriages annulled

Federally, there have been no major attempts to revisit the issue until this year, despite growing popular support. In 2011, the Australian Capital Territory legislated marriage equality but a year later, the Australian High Court found the Territory’s law inconsistent with Federal law, therefore unconstitutional. The couples that had been married in the Territory had their marriages annulled, though the Territory later passed a Civil Unions Act. In 2012, the state of Tasmania (the little one down the bottom) passed a bill in its lower house to legalise marriage equality, but it was rejected by the upper house.

Between 2004 and the present, the political and social ground has shifted immensely. The University of Melbourne conducts a survey of 17,000 Australians on behalf of the Federal government each year –  in 2005, only 43% of women and 32% of men agreed homosexual couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples. In 2017, this ballooned to 67% of women and 59% of men. In 2016, the state of South Australia voted to recognise same-sex marriages conducted overseas. An increasing amount of states have voted to recognise the rights of same-sex parents through IVF (Western Australia in 2002) and adoption (South Australia, 2016). The notoriously conservative state of Queensland legislated in favour of Civil Unions in 2011. Also in 2011, the Australian Labor Party became the first major party to formally include support for marriage equality in its party platform. Notably, the Australian Greens, a minor party that consistently holds the balance of power in the Federal Senate, has voted in favour of marriage equality every time a bill has been brought before the Federal Parliament.

(Sally Rugg, Marriage Equality Rally, Adelaide, South Australia. Flickr / Jenny Scott)

Australia has changed, and the world has changed. Stereotypically conservative countries such as Ireland and Malta have legislated on marriage equality, Angela Merkel reversed a long held opposition in Germany and allowed a conscious vote which passed with an outstanding majority, and yet, in Australia, a rather peculiar position has emerged as a result of party politics.

in Australia, a rather peculiar position has emerged as a result of party politics

See, in Australia, we don’t have term limits for Prime Ministers. Theoretically, the head of a party can keep getting elected again and again and again. We’re also rather fond of just getting rid of a Prime Minister. Only four Australian Prime Ministers have begun and ended their terms as the result of an election. With this sword of Damocles hanging about, it’s little wonder Prime Ministers will twist on almost any issue in order to maintain party confidence.

In this particular petri dish that is the 45th Parliament of Australia, the Prime Minister doesn’t mind sacrificing the human rights of LGBTQI+ Australians. The current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, represents an electorate where 72% are in favour of marriage equality. So why does Turnbull, a regular attendee of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, not simply hold a vote in parliament to legislate marriage equality, when nearly 60% of the country is in favour of it?

That would be because the right wing of the Coalition government doesn’t want him to. Turnbull became Prime Minister after ousting his predecessor (Tony Abbott) in a vote of the party. After the better part of a decade deriding the Labor Party for its predilection for changing Prime Ministers as often as one changes one’s socks (alright, only twice), this was a huge move. Turnbull had to make concessions to win the votes of the conservative wing of the party – one promising not to hold a vote in parliament on marriage equality, instead upholding the party position of conducting a ‘plebiscite’. The Australian people would vote on the issue.

(Mardi Gras in Sydney Australia. Flickr / Hasitha Tudugalle)

Referendums (binding votes to change the Constitution) and plebiscites (non-binding, glorified opinion votes) tend not to go very well in Australia. There have only been three plebiscites –  1916, 1917 and 1977. Plebiscites are usually expensive, and divisive. Early modelling from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) suggested an in-person plebiscite could cost $158 million to stage.

If that’s not enough drama, step back in time to last week and meet the ‘Marriage Rebels’ –  five Liberal MPs that started agitating for a private member’s bill on marriage equality, disobeying their own party platform. The Liberal Party likes to pretend it allows its members to ‘cross the floor’ on issues of conscience, but this is rarely seen. These ‘Marriage Rebels’ (two of whom are openly gay themselves) secured a party meeting to discuss the issue on Monday, 7 August. They were outvoted by the rest of the party, who chose to stick with the plebiscite and introduced a bill to Parliament again to try and legislate for it. The bill was rejected by the Senate; many opponents argue a plebiscite will over inflate the ‘no’ vote, causing real harm to the mental health of LGBTQI+ Australians.

Plebiscites are usually expensive, and divisive.

It’s a real fear – opponents of marriage equality have already been in action conducting ‘respectful debate’, sending postcards to journalists with the phrase ‘homosexual brownshirts [sic]’, linking homosexuality to bestiality, and calling the children of same-sex partners a ‘stolen generation’. It’s both a hell of a lot of money to spend, and a lot to subject our fellow Australians to, when public support is so clearly in one direction.

When that in-person plebiscite was rejected, the Turnbull government had another trick up its sleeve. It has directed the Australian Bureau of Statistics (the same department that couldn’t run the 2016 census without the website crashing) to conduct a voluntary postal plebiscite. The government says it doesn’t need legislative approval to do so, but as of Friday, 11 August, the High Court has set a date to hear the case against halting the postal plebiscite as an unconstitutional use of funds.

Other insane facts to note about this:

  • Australians have only been given 14 days to ensure their details are correct on the electoral roll in order to get their ballot.
  • Around 13% of Australians aged 18-24 aren’t on electoral rolls, potentially disenfranchising thousands of people.
  • How many young people do you know who actually use the post? A postal ballot is in danger of skewing towards older, more conservative Australians.
  • Many Australian expats probably won’t even get their ballots, because they have to formally register an overseas address (and for example, there’s no way to input Chinese characters into the Electoral Commission website, so good luck Aussie expats in China).
  • Those Australians living in isolated and rural communities (in particular Indigenous Australians) find it difficult to get post anyway, particularly in rural areas where street addresses don’t exist.
  • There are already MPs (mostly Liberal, but some Labor) pledging to ignore the results of a plebiscite if it comes out in favour of marriage equality.
  • Former PM Tony Abbott has tried to turn this into his own little culture war, saying a vote against marriage equality is a ‘vote against political correctness’.
  • Tony Abbott’s own sister is gay, and planning to marry if marriage equality laws are passed.
  • Turnbull might have accidentally enfranchised 16 and 17 year olds to vote – the vote will apply to anyone enrolled or applied to enrol to vote. In Australia, you can apply to enrol to vote as early as 16, but not vote in elections until 18.
  • Normally, Members of Parliament are bound by the Commonwealth Electoral Act and aren’t allowed to put their names to malicious or misleading material – but because this is very cleverly ‘not an election’, these laws don’t apply.
  • A heartening fact: the Australian Electoral Commission has seen 53,000 enrolments (mostly address updating) since Monday, a general increase of 230%.
  • A disheartening fact: the Turnbull government has pledged that if the postal plebiscite fails, they won’t entertain any other forms of legislating marriage equality.

So in summary – we’re having an expensive postal survey on the rights of our fellow Australians to just get married that we didn’t ask for and don’t need to have because it’s already clear where the public stands, but one man is frightened of some other men, so we all have to go through this.

Onya, Australia.

(P.S – if you’re Australian, make sure your details are up to date with the Australian Electoral Commission, here: http://aec.gov.au/enrol/.)

Featured image via We are World Change / Youtube


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