People forget how unusual it is for Australia not to be at the forefront of progressive social change. Since the 1970s, Australia has tended to punch above its weight in terms of social justice. We were among the first nations granting universal suffrage to women, the Whitlam years saw the introduction of free university and health care, the final dismantlement of the White Australia Policy, and much more. Yet in terms of marriage equality, our legal system is now dragging hopelessly behind those of other developed nations. The recent decision by the US Supreme Court turned Facebook into a rainbow, yet the Australian government will not budge.
Recent statistics have found that 60% of Australians believe in marriage equality, and that its support is growing. The stage of convincing Australia to accept the idea of marriage equality has passed – the next stage is looking at which avenues are available for us to change the Marriage Act and grant Australians the equality that we want.
Marriage in Australia is technically more conservative now than in previous decades. Prior to 2004, the Federal Marriage Act stated that marriage was between two people – gender unspecified. It was the coalition government, in control of both Houses of Parliament, that changed it to state that marriage was between a man and a woman. Although technically marriage equality had existed up until this time, homosexuality had been illegal when the original bill was passed.
The Labor Party’s policy on marriage equality is to put the matter to a conscience vote, and agitators within the Liberal party are trying to convince their colleagues to adopt the same stance. That debate is unlikely to gain any traction while Abbott, whose stance on marriage equality has been made painfully clear, is still leader. A rough estimate found that so far 60% of currently sitting MPs would pass the amendments to the Marriage act, and 25% remain unknown in their stance. The result of this is that with the Liberals toeing the party line, marriage equality legislation will not pass through the lower house under an Abbott government.
Australia’s constitution does not mention marriage. This means that the kind of referendum recently held in Ireland could not legalise gay marriage. Although it would be possible to hold a national plebiscite vote, it would be difficult to convince the government to hold one. At the moment, the Abbott government is much more concerned with foreign policy issues and tightening security at detention centres.
I do not believe that the required amendments for the Marriage Act will take place under our current government. Our Prime Minister in particular has made it clear that he does not want such amendments to pass. I hope that Australians do get a chance to vote on this issue, or that our representatives in government will vote on behalf of community wishes rather than their own. Why should these MPs be allowed to legislate on issues that do not affect them? There are many married heterosexual MPs who will not in any way be negatively affected by marriage equality.
The legal processes are there. At the time of writing, the cross-party Same-Sex Marriage Bill is due to be introduced in August, though it is doomed to almost certain failure. If Ireland, the most Catholic nation west of Rome, can give into the wishes of their people and grant equality, what’s holding Australia back? It is time that we question our backwardness on this issue, and what it represents more broadly about our philosophy as a nation.
Words by Leah Roberts