Last month our social media accounts exploded in rainbows with the news that the US Supreme Court had ruled to legalize marriage equality across all states, making it finally legal for every gay person across the US to marry the one they love. And in April we saw the epic results of the referendum in Ireland, when the Irish people voted an overwhelming ‘yes' to amend the constitution to permit same-sex marriage.
These global events have left many Aussies wondering when our nation will catch up and provide full marriage rights to all Australians. Those of us in same-sex relationships or with loved ones in same-sex relationships especially can't wait for the day when we can celebrate true love with our friends and families. Any chance for more champagne and more cake is obviously a very good thing, but for many, marriage equality will also be about far more than weddings - it will broadly symbolise a clear step forward for human rights in this country.
Various polls over the last few years have consistently shown that about 65-70 per cent of all Australians support marriage equality. Galaxy Research polling from 2009-2012 shows that this figure rises to over 80 per cent for the 18-24 year old age group. So what's the real state of play in Australian politics around the issue? Why can't we have a referendum like Ireland or a Supreme Court ruling like the US? And, most importantly, what can we do to help push this issue forward?
Unlike in other countries, marriage equality is unlikely to be achieved in Australia through a Supreme Court ruling or a popular referendum. It's the Australian Marriage Act of 1961 (a law made by the Australian Parliament) that doesn't recognize same-sex marriages. This means marriage equality is best achieved through Parliament amending this act (which has already been amended a number of times, notably to recognize de facto relationships in 2009).
So the barriers to marriage equality in Australia are not just around the lack of support from Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who still publically asserts that marriage should be between a man and a woman. It's more the fact that, until quite recently, both our major parties have had outdated official stances on the issue, despite the fact that many voters, individual MPs and minor parties have been long-term supporters of marriage equality. We have already seen a number of attempts to pass a same-sex marriage bill in Australian Parliament, often introduced by minor parties or private members. These have often been unsuccessful due to major party MPs voting against them as a ‘bloc', according to their party's official policy.
Labor only changed its official platform to one of support for marriage equality under Julia Gillard in 2011. At the same time, Labor decided to allow their MPs a ‘free vote' or ‘conscience vote' if a bill to amend the Marriage Act comes before Parliament, meaning that members can vote freely on the issue according to their own personal views rather than toeing the party line. Although not officially declared, momentum has also been growing this year for the Liberals to similarly allow a conscience vote.
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Given this changing political climate, and the increasingly vocal public support of the issue in light of the US and Irish decisions, one of the best chance of achieving marriage equality in Australia so far is coming up when Parliament resumes in August. A group of MPs from the Liberals, Labor, independents and the Greens are co-sponsoring a cross-party same sex marriage bill.
But the fate of this bill is far from certain. A number of things have to happen before it can make marriage equality a reality. Firstly, the bill actually has to make it to debate in the joint party room and to a parliamentary vote. It's more likely that it will instead be referred to a much smaller selection committee of MPs, the majority of whom are Coalition members opposed to same-sex marriage. Tony Abbott has indicated that this is the likelihood, noting that it is rare for a private members' bill to be voted on. Second, if the bill does make it to parliamentary vote, Tony Abbott would have to allow Liberal MPs a ‘free vote' on the issue. Third, if this free vote were allowed, a majority of all the MPs would have to vote to support the amendment. While a clear majority of Labor members support marriage equality, it's not entirely clear which way the vote might eventually swing across the two major parties as well as minor parties and independents.
The marriage equality issue is a great example of how a slow and often complex political system, and particularly a two-party system like Australia's, can often seem to be ‘behind the times' on social issues.
While we can hope that by summer 2016 we'll all be kicking up our heels at a few gay weddings, it will take more than rainbow Facebook profiles to make this happen. And although love will eventually win in Australia, as it has in many countries throughout the the world, marriage equality also won't mean the end of campaigning for the rights of our LGBTIQ communities, at home and around the globe.
Donate, sign the pledge or find out other ways to be involved in the campaign for marriage equality at australianmarriageequality.org.
Send a letter of support for a conscience vote to your MP here: australianmarriageequality.org.
Donate to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission here: iglhrc.org.