On November 15, the results of the Australian plebiscite on same sex marriage (SSM) were revealed: 61.6 percent of Australians voted “Yes” in support of changing the existing marriage law to legally recognize same-sex couples’ right to wed. While the plebiscite was a non-binding vote, a bill in support of change was introduced in the Australian Senate shortly after the results were released. As of this writing, it’s expected SSM will be legal in Australia before year’s end.
This vote has some substantial implications for Australian foreign policy. While SSM changes to domestic law in Australia are likely to occur with little fuss (as has been the case when SSM was introduced elsewhere), Australia’s unique identity in Asia will now see lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) rights form a greater part of its “soft power” and diplomatic efforts within the region.
Australia and SSM: Late for the West but Early for the East
An overview of SSM globally illustrates that Australia may be late for the West, but it is early for East. Compared to the Northern Hemisphere Pacific nations of Canada (SSM legalized in 2005), and the U.S (SSM legalized 2015), Australia’s move toward same-sex marriage has been slow. This even more so when looking beyond the region to other nations with a similar liberal democratic tradition, as SSM was legally recognized in Ireland in 2015, in the U.K. in 2014, and all the way back in 2001 in the Netherlands.
Yet, within the heart of Asia, Australia’s decision is very progressive. At present, only New Zealand (SSM legalized in 2013), and Taiwan (legalized earlier this year in May) have recognized SSM. The recognition of SSM by New Zealand and Taiwan were praised by the LGBTQI community and its supporters. Just as the results of Australia’s plebiscite were held to be something of a wildcard (with a yes vote predicted, but not a sure thing), this decision now alters Australia’s image in the region.
Australia’s Asian Identity
In many ways Australia remains a unique nation in Asia, and on the global stage. A continent roughly the size of the mainland United States, with a population of 24 million it still has less people than the state of Texas alone (which holds 27 million). While the nation’s future has always unquestionably been in Asia, its small population, European origins, and close U.S. ties during the Cold War historically saw the nation have a hot and cold attitude to regional engagement.
This disconnect has been apparent beyond the Cold War not only in geopolitics and diplomacy, but even in sports and culture. It was only in 2005, for example, that Australia’s Socceroos switched from playing in the Oceania region to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
This may seem a small distinction to non-football fans or those outside the region, but the divide between Oceania and Asia is significant. Accordingly, the years since 2005 have seen Australian football become a fundamental part of the Asian region, winning the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, building a great sporting rivalry with regional heavyweights Japan and South Korea, and having fantastic matches with a number of other nations. As a result, Australian football fans are now more culturally conscious of Asia, just as Asia is of Australia.
Australia also now engages with Asian counties on global FIFA initiatives, such the anti-racism campaigns. Just as Australian football has been a key supporter of the AFC’s anti-racism initiatives, and appropriately so given the county’s multicultural tradition, in light of the SSM decision, the Australian government is now expected to be a leader on LGBTQI rights in Asia. This expectation comes at a crucial time for Australia’s identity and place in Asia as a whole.
The ‘Asian Century’ Requires a New Strategy for Australia
While for many decades Australia was seen as something of an outlier in the region — and its efforts on human rights easily dismissed by some disinterested Asian governments accordingly — the end of the Cold War saw this begin to change dramatically. The United States’ status as the sole superpower and close ally to Australia saw Canberra’s security largely guaranteed.
Within this climate, Australia formed stronger and closer relationships with Asian partners, built off the remarkable economic growth seen across the region.
In more recent years tensions have begun to rise once more. The rising power of China has added a new dimension to Australia’s regional outlook.
While Australia is engaged in a substantial force upgrade, its diplomatic and soft power fields are where Canberra has long been held to have “punched above its weight.” As U.S. President Donald Trump is at best held to provide inconsistent leadership on human rights in the region, and President Xi Jinping of China is increasingly willing to articulate a “you need not choose” alternative to the liberal order — one that seeks economic partnerships unlinked from human rights advocacy — there is today a need and expectation that nations like Australia shall play a greater diplomatic role to maintain human rights in the region, and prevent a regression.
While efforts to advance human rights can be done across a variety of fields — and here Australia’s approach to border security and treatment of asylum seekers, in tandem with the need for greater progress on reconciliation with indigenous Australians cannot be overlooked — it is also a reality that few other areas presently represent such a shatterpoint in the region as LGBTQI rights do.
LGBTQI Rights in the Asian Region Today
For all the economic change Asia has experienced in recent decades, by many measures it remains a conservative locale in the social sphere. Not only is SSM largely unrecognized across the region, but a number of nations, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and South Korea, retain the threat of criminal sentences under their national laws for homosexual acts or activities. The role of government and authorities plays a crucial role in public perceptions and discrimination.
This is illustrated in Indonesia’s recent crackdown on the LGBTQI community in the nation, which has seen support workers and resources for the LGBTQI community scattered or disbanded. With many LGBTQI communities across the world reporting lower rates of mental health and higher rates of suicide, the erosion of these resources can have especially tragic consequences.
In tandem to this, sensationalized political scandals, anti-gay film plots, and even re-education boot camps have all sought to convey an immoral aspect to same-sex attraction in the region. Beyond the cultural realm, the reported experience of being subject to violence and discrimination by many in Asia’s LGBTQI community has not only seen many gay Asians leave their local communities to seek out safety in more tolerant bigger cities, but even to leave their native countries altogether.
The potential for a domino effect here is very real, as local efforts to end discrimination in these communities and countries become quieter if there is no one remaining to give voice to demands for LGBTQI rights. This applies not only to communities within one nation, but to nations across the region.
While Taiwan may have celebrated SSM’s legalization on May 24 of this year, the PRC government’s May 26 shutdown of Rela, a dating app for the country’s lesbian community, was seen as a response to Taiwan’s decision, and a step backwards for the country’s LGBTQI community. The potential for further developments in this sphere to be “two steps forward, one step back” appears very real.
The Task Ahead for Australia as an Advocate for LGBTQI Rights in Asia
If there is a small silver lining that can be taken from this picture, it is that there are a number of areas where Australia’s vote could be a stepping stone to greater tolerance and change in the region. For the Australian government particularly, it can build on previous work.
While it is only now with the SSM plebiscite that the Australian Parliament is expected to legislate for SSM, within the wider government Australia has been seeking to grow its advocacy of LGBTQI rights for many years now. In 2012 the Australian Human Rights Commission indicated its view that the right to marry should be made available to the LGBTQI community. In 2013 then-Foreign Minister Bob Carr indicated the Rudd government’s intention to make LGBTQI rights “a core foreign policy priority.” This came alongside the government’s ongoing condemnation of extreme anti-gay laws and practices in Russia, Uganda, and Nigeria.
Before the SSM plebiscite, Australia’s efforts for the LGBTQI community in the foreign policy sphere were somewhat muted. While advocacy for LGBTQI rights could still be pursued, it was easy for other Asian governments to ignore such overtures from Australia while it did not recognize same-sex marriage. Simply put, how can you talk the talk if you don’t fully walk the walk?
Now as Canberra is set to recognize SSM, its voice will be stronger. Still, the direct impact of Australia’s diplomatic efforts is likely to be limited. One does not need to go far to see a contrast in attitudes toward the LGBTQI community — while Darwin and Kupang may be only 500 miles apart, for example, in recognition of LGBTQI rights Australia and Indonesia sit at a great distance. Jakarta’s outlook here is representative not only of Indonesia’s perspective, but that of many Asian nations.
At present, many in the Indonesian government regard greater recognition of LGBTQI rights as a product of the “Western agenda.” SSM accordingly is a considerable source of tension in a country with a strong religious tradition. While any legalization of SSM remains a long way away, even limited efforts to quell discrimination against Indonesians who identify as LGBTQI, alongside stopping harassment of the LGBTQI community by authorities, have been difficult, as recent months have seen the public caning of a male couple, alongside mass arrests at locations frequented by members of the LGBTQI community.
The Indonesian experience is broadly illustrative of the two central fears that exist within Asia surrounding greater recognition of LGBTQI rights. The first is that LGBTQI rights are held to be a product of Western thought, and that this accordingly poses a threat to non-Western historic traditions and cultures. In a region where many nations retain raw wounds from the pain of colonialism‚ and bitter memories of being told their historic cultures were somehow inferior‚ social structures are guarded very carefully‚ with suspicion toward significant change.
Where May This New Foreign Policy Be Seen?
The diversity of views on LGBTQI issues within the Asian region mirrors the diversity seen within the Asian-Australian community, with emigrant Filipino, Chinese, and Vietnamese communities all having been key target groups of both the Yes and No campaigns.
This vivid political diversity across the Asian region — where the cultural differences between nations like Japan and China, and Thailand and Indonesia are far more pronounced than the differences between the United States and Canada, or New Zealand and Australia — means it is not yet clear what long term impact Australia’s SSM decision, or greater advocacy for LGBTQI rights could have. Nonetheless, there are three key areas that shall be important to watch.
Alongside Australia’s now expected legalization of SMM, Asian nations like Thailand and Cambodia are seen as the next likely candidates for SSM recognition. Potential reforms in Hong Kong, and possibly Japan – which at present recognizes non-legally binding same-sex relationships within a number of Tokyo districts — shall also be watched with interest. There is also potential for reforms in nations where SSM is not technically illegal, but comes with far greater legal complexity and problems than a heterosexual marriage would.
Beyond this, while there has historically been little acknowledgement of individuals who identify as LGBTQI within anti-discrimination treaties, the UN has affirmed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) among others, which exist in accordance with recognition of LGBTQI rights.
Having won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in October, Australia will be at the forefront of any reforms within this area over the next three years of its term. This area could not only see solid progress made to end specific practices like jailing gay Asians, but also pushing for a broader end of greater tolerance.
Asia Will Be Watching Australia’s SSM Legalization
Finally, there will be ongoing interest within the Asian region of the Australian government and wider public’s conduct in the lead up to Australia’s legalization of SMM. While it’s expected SSM will be legalized, there remains an ongoing debate surrounding potential religious protections to be sought with the change, and this could become rancorous.
Before and after the SSM plebiscite results were announced, a number of members of the No campaign indicated they would accept the result in good faith, and not resist the Australian public’s will. Any efforts to obstruct that would be very divisive in Australia, and harm Australia’s capacity in Asia advance greater efforts to end discrimination and persecution of Asia’s LGBTQI community.
Just as the majority of Australians took the view that SSM should be legalized to better recognize the rights of individuals without disrupting social harmony, so too shall a number of LGBTQI individuals and communities across Asia be looking to cite Australia’s experience as evidence greater recognition of LGBTQI rights pose no danger to a nation or its citizens.
Ultimately, Australia has always been a nation that prides itself on the national values of “a fair go” and “mateship.” At its best, that has meant a nationwide recognition that Australia’s citizenry is diverse, with a shared commitment to build on that diversity rather than be divided by it.
The Australian public illustrated its belief in that ideal with the SSM marriage plebiscite. It now has a chance to make a unique contribution via its foreign policy to the wider debate in Asia and — while observing every nation’s right to make its own laws — help foster a culture for a more inclusive Asia.
As a nation that historically often felt excluded and left out from the Asian community of nations in which it rightfully resides, Australia can surely draw inspiration from that experience in its foreign policy efforts in pursuit of a more inclusive and LGBTQI-friendly Asia.
Ed Kennedy is a journalist based in Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @Edkennedy01