Why Australia can’t pass same-sex marriage even though most Australians want to
A clear majority of Australians favor legalizing same-sex marriage. Trouble is, their parliament doesn’t, or simply can’t get its act together. In the latest development in the fight for marriage equality, the Australian Parliament looks set to vote no to holding a plebiscite on the issue of same-sex marriage early in the new year.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed the plebiscite, but it has met with resistance from the opposition Labor Party. To be clear: The Labor Party supports marriage equality but argues that a public vote on it would be an unnecessarily damaging way to push the issue forward. Despite previously speaking in favor of a public vote, Labor Party leader Bill Shorten said this week that he thought a public vote and the campaigning around it would bring unnecessary harm to Australia’s LGBTQ community, adding: “Children do not need to go to school in the climate of a plebiscite and have the integrity of their parents’ relationship challenged.” Shorten’s position angered Turnbull, who said that the opposition seemed less interested in equal marriage than “in wringing every ounce of political gain out of this debate.”
The enormous estimated cost to run the plebiscite — roughly $120 million — was another issue the opposition couldn’t ignore, Shorten said. Currently, the government does not have the numbers to pass it in the Senate, but that hasn’t stopped Shorten from calling for a free vote in Parliament on the issue. Such a proposal has been rejected by Turnbull thus far.
Dr. Andrew Hughes, a specialist in political marketing at the Research School of Management at ANU, thinks this signals the Labor Party’s commitment to passing the issue immediately if elected, and without a plebiscite. “A new Labor government would start their time in office with not just an election win behind them, but a massive social progression policy implemented within the first 100 days that would be a significant hallmark for that government,” Hughes said.
Though gay rights are now increasingly protected at both the federal and state level, many attempts to introduce more progressive legislation on a state-by-state basis have encountered resistance from previous Governments — civil unions have been recognized in 5 of the 6 states, but the federal government has pushed back in the past.
Despite recent events, Australia is often thought of as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in the world, so why has the issue of same-sex marriage gone unresolved? There are a few reasons.
The marriage act of 1961 did not define what marriage was, allowing a conservative prime minister to do so later on. In 2004, without consulting the public, John Howard updated the act with a clarification. The marriage amendment act stated: “Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” This was upheld by then Labor leader Kevin Rudd in 2007: “I have a pretty basic view on this, as reflected in the position adopted by our party, and that is that marriage is between a man and a woman. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Labor Party turned toward marriage equality.
The Religion Factor
There is a small but vocal religious opposition to marriage equality legislation. While some research has shown that the majority of those who identify as religious support same-sex marriage (53 percent) and many faith leaders have publicly backed the change in law, a small group of people are still campaigning to halt its progress. The Australian Christian Lobby said it was happy with the Labor Party’s decision to block a plebiscite. Lyle Shelton, the leader of the group, said that the battle to define marriage continues on for his members.
Recently, Australian leaders have had a habit of being brutally ousted. The country has had no less than six prime ministers in nine years. Last year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was ousted by Malcolm Turnbull. The two have history — in a leadership contest in 2009, Abbott challenged Turnbull’s leadership and took over as Liberal Party leader after a party vote. Even earlier, Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister was removed as leader by her party and replaced by Kevin Rudd, a man who arguably was merely returning the favor — she had done the same to him in 2007. Given this constant uncertainty, it’s no wonder that progressive Australian leaders have lacked the confidence and political clout it would take to push through same-sex marriage legislation. Turnbull has said he would vote for marriage equality personally, but that he was elected by many more socially conservative party members who would be hard to persuade on the matter.
Professor John Warhurst, an expert in Australian politics, spoke to VICE News about what might happen next, warning that there’s no quick solution. “The most likely outcome is deadlock until the next election at least [which would be 2018 at the earliest]. The other two possibilities — that a free vote passes in the House of Representatives with the support of Liberals who cross the floor or the plebiscite bill passes in the Senate because a couple of senators change their minds — are unlikely.” Warhurst quickly added, “The PM or Bill Shorten might do a backflip in a year or two, but that is only an outside chance too.”