Same-Sex Marriage in Australia: A Step Forward


If Catholic Ireland has just passed a referendum to allow same-sex marriage, and by such a large margin, why won’t a largely secular Australia, people are asking. But in Australia, politicians are not just divided on whether same-sex marriage should be allowed, but by the process governing how this should be decided.

The vote had barely been announced in Ireland when questions were being asked in Australia: When will we have a vote on same-sex marriage? Prime Minister Tony Abbott (a Catholic) quickly squashed the idea, keeping away from the problematic question of same-sex marriage, to say, legalistically, a referendum is not preferable. Australian referendums change the constitution. Do we want to do that? No, he says.

“Under the constitution, questions of marriage are the reserve of the Commonwealth Parliament,” he told the press in Brisbane Sunday. He said that it could come before federal parliament if MPs wished for the matter to be raised. Abbott is opposed to same-sex marriage. “Inside the Abbott family I’m probably the last holdout for the traditional position.” Abbott’s sister is gay.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Reigniting Debate

But politicians from the Coalition, the Opposition, the Greens and the Democratic Liberals have all this week reignited the same sex marriage debate in Australia. The Greens plan to bring a Senate debate on its marriage equality bill in June and has set a November date for a Senate vote.

Independent Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, formerly of the Palmer United Party,  and Liberal Australian Capital Territory Senator Zed Seselja both support a referendum on same-sex marriage, whilst not supporting same-sex marriage itself.

“If you’re going to go down the path of pushing for such a fundamental change, then perhaps a referendum is the right way to go,” said Seselja. “It shouldn’t come down to our conscience, it should come down to every Australian’s conscience and how they want to vote,” said Lambie, who also said she believes “marriage stays between a man and a woman.” Lambie is betting that an aging and conservative population will oppose any such referendum. “I don’t trust them (parliamentarians) to make that decision,” she said.

The last referendum held in Australia was in 1999 on whether to become a republic and to insert a preamble into the constitution. They were not carried. In fact, the Australian Electoral Commission has published the result of every referendum held since Federation in 1901. A quick glance tells you two things: The majority of moves were not carried and most were more legislative than emotive issues.

The Greens wish to see a bill passed by the end of the year. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young has pointed out that there is nothing in the constitution to prevent same-sex marriage. She is right.

Rodney Croome, of Australian Marriage Equality, said in a statement released as the last of the ballots in Ireland were being counted, that a referendum would be “costly, polarising and unnecessary given the High Court has already removed all constitutional obstacles to reform.” It is a matter for the Upper House of Federal Parliament to decide.

Increasing numbers of Liberals, including Malcolm Turnbull and Simon Birmingham are in favor of a conscience vote. The latter said, “A number of others are privately indicating to me that they support a conscience vote, that they’re open to seeing change to the legislation around marriage and I think that’s really positive.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten tweeted, “Time for Australia and our Parliament to embrace marriage equality. Congratulations Ireland” and later asking, “why is Tony Abbott stopping Australia becoming a more modern nation?” Shorten too wants to see a vote in Parliament. Democratic Liberal (a Libertarian-esque small party) Senator Richard Leyonhjelm, who has been pushing his own private member’s bill through Parliament, said, “Still the government is saying a man can’t marry a man and a woman can’t marry a woman, all we are saying is get the government out of it.”

An earlier editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald by George Williams, the Anthony Mason Professor of Law at Sydney University, has essentially pointed out what Abbott has said: There is no need to change the constitution. His reasoning is that the Australian constitution, unlike the Irish or the American, is not a values-based document. ”Our constitution does not set out the importance of the family, or the role of women in society. While it mentions “marriage,” it does so only by way of stating that the Federal Parliament can pass laws on the subject. The Australian constitution also does not officially protect freedom of speech, for example.

Though a Same-Sex Marriage Bill was defeated in the New South Wales parliament in 2013, voting was very close at 21 to 19. Opinion polls, though famously fickle and oft unreliable, have estimated that three-quarters of Australians might be in favor, however.

Currently gay couples and singles may adopt and foster in most states. Commercial surrogacy is not allowed but that goes for heterosexuals also. Same-sex unions in Australia fare the same as de facto relationships under the law and couples can access domestic partnership registries in four states and have access to superannuation. What the Irish vote has done is push the issue back into the political and public consciousness; there is talk a decision may be made before the end of the year.

Conscience Vote

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, from South Australia, told The Diplomat via email that he believes a conscience vote is the way to go as it will be far quicker. “A referendum vote could be a couple of years away, whereas a conscience vote on Marriage Equality could take place in a matter of weeks. If the conscience vote fails then a referendum needs to be pushed for.”

Despite Abbott’s push to focus back on the budget, interest in the marriage equality issue is growing and moving fast. “This is an issue that transcends (fortunately) the 24-hour news cycle,” said Xenophon.

And now it appears this is the way it will go. As Opposition Leader Bill Shorten signaled that he would introduce his own private members bill to the House of Representatives, in the hope of forcing debate, the prime minister paved the way on Wednesday for a conscience vote within the Liberal Party. That could see the issue of marriage equality put to a vote around August this year.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief