Australia’s tortured path towards same sex marriage

By Richard Snow

240px-Rainbow_flag_and_blue_skiesLast week Australians voted, 61.2 percent, in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. The result was greeted with cheers and tears of relief at ‘yes’ campaign events across the country. But the vote was actually a non-binding ‘survey’ carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics – a method used in no other country. The vote did not validate a proposed law already tabled in the parliament, as might have been the case in an American-style ‘ballot initiative.’ Nor did it amend the constitution, as Ireland’s vote did. How did Australia chose to use such a strange method to endorse gay marriage?

Australia’s last prime minister, Tony Abbott, was a staunch catholic. He had been elected in 2013 on a platform which opposed gay marriage. Numerous public opinion polls, however, showed the public supported legalising gay marriage.  Abbott didn’t want to legalise gay marriage and lose the votes of his conservative supporters in the parliamentary party, but he didn’t want to reject the idea outright, for fear of losing votes with the public. So Abbott did what many politicians do: he kicked the can down the road. In 2015 Abbott said that the issue of legalising gay marriage would be dealt with by holding a plebiscite in the next term of parliament. The people would get to vote. Now to be clear, this wasn’t necessary. There is no definition of marriage in the Australian Constitution, as there was in Ireland, so parliament could have simply legislated. Abbott just didn’t want to deal with the issue.

In September 2015, after 30 opinion polls in a row showed Tony Abbott trailing the labor party leader Bill Shorten, as preferred prime minister, one of Abbott’s opponents within the Liberal party, Malcolm Turnbull, challenged him for the party leadership. Australia operates a British style system, where the prime minister is normally the leader on the floor of the house of representatives of the party or coalition that has a majority in the house. So, win the party leadership, win the prime ministership. That’s what a prime minister is. But here’s the catch: Turnbull was a much more centrist person that Abbott. He has long favoured marriage equality. To get the last few votes he needed from conservative MPs, Turnbull had to promise not to change Abbott’s position on gay marriage.

In July 2016, Turnbull fought and won a general election. The government prepared to hold the plebiscite. However, legislation to hold the plebiscite (and give the Australian Electoral Commission the authority to spend the money to conduct it) was blocked twice in the senate, by a combination of those opposed to the plebiscite because they were opposed to same sex marriage, and same sex marriage advocates who found the idea of a plebiscite offensive, and were demanding that the government just get on and legislate.

The government came up with a ‘tricky’ idea. Instead of asking the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct the plebiscite without legislative approval, it would ask the Australian Bureau of Statistics to conduct a ‘survey’ on attitudes to same sex marriage.  The AEC needs specific legislated permission to hold an election or a plebiscite. The Bureau of Statistics can hold a statistical survey on any matter it chooses. And so a ‘postal survey’ was born. Pro-same-sex marriage groups who still didn’t want a ‘survey’ tried to block the process in the High Court, but failed. The ‘survey’ went ahead.

The results were announced on 14 November 2017. Australians voted 61.2 percent ‘yes’.

Now the matter needs to be actually legislated, because no specific legislation has yet been tabled in the parliament. Debate began the next day in the senate. Current debate is over whether there should be a ‘cake exemption’ for private businesses who don’t want to provide cake, florist, or photography services for gay weddings, but the idea seems to have almost no support.

It’s been a convoluted process, but it should be law by Christmas.

~ ~ Richard Snow is a former economist now studying International Relations at La Trobe University.

Sun 12 noon.

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