Every single English speaking nation on Earth has marriage equality. Except one – Australia. Here’s a little marriage equality 101 Australian-style (for all the international readers of the blog), to get you up to speed with what’s been happening, and where things currently stand.
House of Cards ain’t got nothing on what’s been happening politically in Australia over the past 5 years. We’ve changed leaders five times in five years. That’s because unlike the US, we vote for a political party. The party chooses their leader – not the voters. So the leadership instability is really a sign of the infighting occurring within both major political parties.
This inward political focus has meant that marriage equality wasn’t even on the political radar for a long time. In fairness, a lot of other important issues were overlooked as well. Australia is facing a transitioning economy (coming off a huge natural resources boom), structural taxation reforms, environmental challenges and health and education funding shortfalls. All of these issues have taken a back seat while our two major parties play a schoolyard game of who likes who, and who likes who more.
In the past 12-18 months though, marriage equality has come thundering into the spotlight. There are a number of dedicated organisations and activists who have fought hard to make this happen. In fairness, there are also a handful of committed politicians (on both sides) who have also worked to bring this issue into the parliament. Unfortunately, they are in the minority and their efforts have been consistently, and successfully, blocked.
Poll after poll reveals that the majority of Australians support marriage equality. So you’d think it’d be a no-brainer for politicians to pass a piece of legislation that simply changes a few words in the Marriage Act. Turns out, this is a hot potato issue that shows no signs of cooling off.
(Interestingly, until 2004, the Marriage Act didn’t make any specific mention of gender. Then prime minister John Howard saw this, thought this could potentially be an issue and hurriedly passed legislation to change the wording to what we have now, that marriage is the “voluntarily entered-into union of a man and a woman to exclusion of all others”. If it wasn’t for this, Australia would technically have marriage equality by default and we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.)
Our current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is hamstrung by one of the policies of his predecessor Tony Abbott – that of a plebiscite on marriage equality. It would appear that at this stage, that is the only way Australia may (key word here – may, not will) achieve marriage equality.
On the surface, it might seem like a national vote is a democratic thing to do. After all, this way everyone gets to have their say. Things aren’t that simple though. There are a number of issues with having a plebiscite. It will lead to a divisive and bigoted debate (the Australian Christian Lobby has already petitioned the government to scrap discrimination laws leading up to the plebiscite (not a good sign), the plebiscite has been costed at half a billion dollars and even if it were to succeed, some politicians, like Eric Abetz have already said they’ll vote against marriage equality anyway.
It’s enough to make you want to pack up and move to New Zealand!
No one knows what the future holds, but it looks like it’s going to be a bumpy ride for a while to come. My hope is that the ride is a short one. If we have to go through this circus of a plebiscite, let’s at least get it over and done with quickly.
There are two potential outcomes of a plebiscite. We either get marriage equality (which would be brilliant!) – or we don’t. If we do, my hope is that like so many other countries around the world, after a brief period of adjustment, same sex marriage becomes just as normal as well, opposite sex marriage.
The bigger issue will of course be if the plebiscite results in a victory for the no team. That would effectively take marriage equality off the table for at least 5-10 years. It would leave Australia lagging even further behind, as more and more countries move into the 21st century, and adjust their legislation accordingly.
It would undoubtedly have a negative impact on Australian society too. The gay community would rightly feel ostracised and excluded. And many straight allies and supporters would be rightly pissed. Social harmony would suffer. I don’t think there’s been a precedent for this before, so I don’t know what form this would take.
My biggest fear with all of this though, is the negative impact it will have on the most vulnerable within our rainbow community. Those who are young. Those who are struggling with their sexuality. Those with mental medical conditions. They are they ones who will need the most care and support as we potentially enter into a period of hate, fear and bigotry.
Fortunately in Australia, given our small size, we have a relatively well organised and coordinated support structure within the gay community. And ultimately, I do believe in the fundamental goodness and fair-mindedness of my fellow Australians. Whatever the future holds, I hope that we continue to treat each other with kindness and respect, until we finally (and hopefully quickly) achieve equality for everyone.