Another Threat To Equal Marriage In Australia
As of last Wednesday in Australia, a huge blow has been struck to marriage equality. The House of Representatives voted 98-42 against the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill, which would have removed Australia’s ban on gay marriage, and is one of four bills gradually being introduced focusing on same-sex marriage rights.
The current state of gay marriage rights within Australia forbids anyone of the same gender to be married, the 2004 Marriage Amendment Act going so far to define marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” This isn’t where the discrimination ends, however. The definition goes on to state “Certain unions are not marriages. A union solemnised in a foreign country between: (a) a man and another man; or (b) a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.”
Even worse, every marriage celebrant or minister must say these words, or something to that effect, in every single marriage ceremony for it to be legally recognised. So, not only are same-sex couples barred from being able to celebrate their love in the same way heterosexual couples are, they have to have it actively thrown in their face in every wedding they attend. This image alone accurately represents the position of LGBTQ* people in Australia.
As for bills supporting gay marriage and the rights of all LGBTQ* people, there have been many. The Same Sex Marriages Bill was aimed at reversing the setbacks caused by the Marriage Amendment Act, and to eliminate the discrimination it was clearly intended to create – it has been stalled indefinitely for six years so far. In 2003, the Australian Democrats (now holding no seats in parliament, meaning there is not a single democratic representative in the entirety of Australia) tried to introduce the Sexuality and Gender Identity Discrimination Bill, attempting to give LGBTQ* citizens equal access to basic rights like equal welfare benefits, superannuation, etc – things taken for granted by almost every other person in Australia. This bill was unsuccessful. Following this, there were two same-sex marriage bills introduced to Tasmania – in 2005 and 2008 respectively, both failing to progress past introduction to parliament.
All of these bills were introduced by the only left-wing parties in Australia, the Democrats, now obsolete, and the Greens, who hold only a small percentage of parliament. These parties are unable to compete with our other two parties: the Liberals led by Tony Abbott (despite the name, they are far-right conservatives and Australia’s answer to Republicans), and Labour headed by Julia Gillard, the current party in power. For more information about Australian politics, I covered a lot of the basics in a previous article.
For some background, here are some statistics on how Australian citizens (read: not the government) actually feel about gay marriage:
- 64% of Australians actively believe gay marriage should be legal
- 53% of Christians support marriage equality.
- 81% of 18-24 year olds support same-sex marriage.
- 75% of all people polled believe that it is inevitable it will eventually be legalised.
Clearly, the Australian population wants equal marriage. But why aren’t our voices being accurately portrayed by the politicians elected by us?
The debate surrounding a conscience vote is highly applicable to the issue of marriage equality and the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill. In a conscience vote, representatives are allowed to vote with their conscience, instead of being forced to align with their party leader, which is the regular practice in Australia. If representatives were allowed a conscience vote over this issue, many people hope the result might differ.
While it may seem instinctive to allow a conscience vote on a topic as sensitive and individually varying as equal marriage, the controversy is somewhat understandable – Australia has only held 33 conscience votes since 1949. But ultimately, these representatives hold the lives of thousands of Australians in their hand. If there was ever a time for a conscience vote, it would be now, and it would be for same-sex marriage rights. A conscience vote was allowed for the death penalty, for outlawing gender discrimination, and for removing the legal barriers to divorce. Even legalising same sex relationships allowed a conscience vote – so why not validating them?
And most Australians agree. 81% of people believe that allowing our representatives a conscience vote is the only appropriate way to move forward with this decision. However, Tony Abbott has barred the Liberal party from doing so for the Marriage Equality Amendment Act 2012. In the words of one state’s opposition leader:
[if they] were given a conscience vote, they would all vote against the move anyway.
Ironically, Liberal senator Sue Boyce has bravely come out in public support of equal marriage, even saying “gay people are just people”, one of the most logical things a Liberal party member has ever said about equal marriage.
With a conscience vote, only 34 of the 72 representatives prevented from voting with their conscience would need to vote for it to pass. In all likelihood, there is an even larger amount of people in the Liberal party that feel the same as Sue Boyce – but not all of them are brave enough to come out in support of it with a leader that will not allow them to vote with their own values. When asked for a comment before the vote, Senator Gavin Marshall agreed:
Despite the Coalition’s historic opposition to gay rights, it is my strong hope that a sufficient number of coalition members will be able to look beyond their party’s prejudice and join with the majority of ALP parliamentarians in finally correcting this injustice.
On a state by state basis, Tasmania is well on its way to legalising same-sex marriage, along with South Australia. In all other states, bills are being introduced and shot down as soon as possible, because politicians believe that equal marriage rights are not in the public’s interest, despite how many surveys and studies show otherwise.
Countries that have legalised same sex marriage include the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland and Argentina. Parts of Mexico and the United States have also legalised same-sex marriage. Even amongst these countries, Australia prides itself on being a happy, relaxed and carefree country – but that claim is baseless when a large portion of our population are denied their rights to being happy, to being able to love, marry, and live equally among the rest of Australians.
Many politicians have used their religious denomination or beliefs – as well as those of the Australian people they supposedly represent – as a basis for their bigotry. Australia is 61% Christian, and it has been shown that more than half of Christians believe marriage should be legal here, truly adhering to the love thy neighbour commandment. The Bible is used as a basis for many conservative politicians to be openly discriminatory, but we have other laws denouncing things that the Bible has celebrated, like polygamy and child brides. It’s time that even religious politicians learn to be more like the Christian Australians who believe that everyone should be equal.
There are so few legitimate barriers to same-sex marriage being legalised in Australia. Equal marriage is welcomed by people from all walks of life, and only a small percentage of Australians actively oppose it. Why are our politicians so behind? Obama has now come out in support of same-sex marriage, why can’t Julia Gillard? Does Australia really need these politicians that don’t represent our interests, and even worse, openly discriminate against our LGBTQ* population? The short answer is no, we do not.
For now, we can only hope that this behaviour stops soon. We can keep signing every petition we can find, go to every pride parade, harass our local politicians with angry e-mails, continue to be loudly in support of gay marriage, and most importantly, vote for a party that cares about gay rights – the Greens.
Written by Jessica Bagnall
Jessica is a student from Brisbane, Australia and Feminspire staff contributor