The issue of marriage equality is steadily gaining traction among the Australia population. Seventy-five percent of Australians expect same-sex marriage to be made legal a 2011 Galaxy Poll found.
The same research said 62% of Australians support marriage equality; the number is as high as 80% among younger people. The poll also said 78% of Australians believe there should be a conscience vote in parliament on the issue.
Since 2001, 10 countries have passed laws to recognise same-sex marriages. A further two, Israel and Mexico, recognise same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.
Additionally, the US does not recognise same-sex marriage federally, but couples can legally marry in six states and in Washington DC. The state of Maryland recognises same-sex marriages from elsewhere.
As of June 2011, 12 US states prohibit same-sex marriage under statute and 29 under the states’ constitutions.
In Australia, Socialist Alternative equal marriage spokesperson, Sarah Garnam, believes that that the issue is long overdue, because most of the population have supported it for at least two years now.
She told Green Left Weekly: “The rallies have been getting larger, the frequency of them has increased and they have been happening in more states and [also] smaller cities such as Ballarat and Wollongong — so there is definitely widespread support for it.”
Father Bob Maguire, a Melbourne-based Catholic priest and Triple J radio presenter, also spoke with Green Left Weekly to explain his thoughts on the equal marriage debate.
“Why couldn’t everyone be happy with a nice civil union [that grants the same legal protections as conventional marriage],” he said.
“The answer to that from the gay community is ‘no it’s got to be marriage’. As soon as you drop that word ‘marriage’ everyone is running to the barricades,” he said.
“We should call it ‘gay marriage’ to differentiate between traditional ‘marriage’ and then everyone should be happy. It really is just semantics,” he said.
Section 51(xxi) of the Australian Constitution gives the government the right to legislate with respect to marriage. The Marriage Act 1961 has had few amendments made to it since its inception.
The notable exception is a 2004 amendment by the John Howard Coalition government, which sought to define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman, thereby removing the ability of Australian courts to define the act to include equal marriage.
An additional purpose was to prevent lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGTBI) couples adopting children from overseas countries under arrangements involving multilateral or bilateral treaties.
The lower house of parliament is finely balanced, but on this issue it is not the Greens and independents that hold the balance of power. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) is the party in the middle of this divisive issue.
With the 74 members of the Coalition united against it, the biggest hope is for the ALP to change its policy and vote with the Greens for marriage equality.
The ALP’s current policy is that marriage is between a man and a woman, but pressure is building ahead of the party’s national conference in December to reverse its stance.
Some media reports have speculated that ALP factional heavyweights are trying to stitch up a deal to allow a conscience vote in parliament on the issue.
Garnam told GLW: “I think that there are lots of indications that the plans for a conscience vote will not actually lead in a positive direction. So it’s the Greens and the Labor Left that are putting forward their desire for a conscience vote and I think that a conscience vote is a total dead end.”
Should a motion for a parliamentary conscience vote be approved at the ALP national conference, it would make it very difficult for the legislation to pass.
Some of the right faction of the ALP are unlikely to vote for marriage equality if given the option of a conscience vote.
The other option is to force a vote at the National Conference. Supporters of marriage equality would likely win a vote here, although it is expected to be close, thereby changing the national policy platform. In theory, this would allow the Julia Gillard government to begin a new narrative about same-sex marriage.
Some Labor figures worry that if the motion is voted down at the conference, the ALP will lose members.
But in notable progress, all ALP state and territory divisions, bar NSW, have passed motions supporting equal marriage.
However, polling shows the Coalition in a comfortable position to win the next election. The latest Morgan face-to-face poll, released on August 26 with the large sample size of 1526, shows a two-party preferred lead of 58.5% to 41.5% to the Coalition.
If this result was to be repeated as a uniform swing at an election held now, the ALP would be left with a mere 34 seats — leaving the Coalition likely to be in power for at least two terms.
Ultimately, this narrows the window for the passage of equal marriage legislation from sometime between the first parliamentary sitting of 2012 and the next election, due in August 2013, for it is difficult to see the Coalition passing any such reform to the Marriage Act.
Although Garnam acknowledges that the movement is rapidly gaining support and momentum, she said there is no place for complacency: “I think that the idea that it is inevitable is really wrong, because if the ALP loses office any time soon, then there is no way it will ever happen under [Tony] Abbott.”
Maguire, while not a supporter of equal marriage, made the crucial point about improving the quality of political debate on equal marriage.
He told GLW: “We should calm down with the harsh language because the gay community deserves respect and civility ... because this is a brand new day and we need to learn a new language and the creation of the new language is not going to be helped by the persistence with the old language, which is not suited to facilitate this discussion.”
Maguire also said that “more education is needed and I think that we have to talk for another 12 months [on the issue]”.
Forty organisations have backed the call by Sydney activist group Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) for a protest outside the ALP national conference in December.
CAAH activist and Socialist Alliance queer rights spokesperson Rachel Evans told GLW the protest would be a “historic chance” to press the case for full marriage equality.
“People from across Australia will attend,” she said. “It’s crucial we come out in force and challenge Labor to end a policy that institutionalises homophobia and treats LGTBI people as second class citizens.”