Marriage equality: out of the bars and onto the streets

February 3, 2012
Equal marriage rally in Sydney. Photo: Peter Boyle

This year, the rules of the game have changed drastically. The ALP now supports marriage equality, and the Greens submitted its Marriage Amendment Bill 2010 to a senate inquiry on January 26.

The problem is the numbers in parliament. The ALP has allowed a conscience vote, which means its MPs can vote against party policy, while Liberal Party members are required to vote against marriage equality. 
In November last year, Australian Marriage Equality commissioned a Galaxy Poll that showed 80% of Australians, and 76% of Liberal voters, want the Liberal Party to allow a conscience vote, which would potentially allow the Greens’ Bill to pass.

Should we therefore ease off from the demands of the campaign, and negotiate a truce with conscientious Liberal Party MPs?
I want to be blunt about the political situation in the campaign. We have now reached a point were the right to marry is being sold out to parliamentary interests. 
The ALP is not a friend of this campaign, let alone the Liberal Party. 
In the past, both have opposed marriage equality whenever it threatened their parliamentary privileges.  
In fact, ALP-dominated organisations such as the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) opposed marriage equality in the past. At Sydney’s Fair Day in 2007, New Mardi Gras organisers called security and then police to have a pro-equality banner removed from the Fair.
But 2007 was a turning point in the campaign. A Galaxy Poll was released showing, for the first time, majority support for marriage equality in Australia.

The GLRL changed its position, and supported the Greens’ Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009 against the ALP.
When the GLRL eventually supported the campaign for full equality, the ALP employed more evasive tactics. In 2009 it addressed the “HREOC 58” laws which were identified by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission as financially disadvantaging same-sex couples. 
In practice, the changes meant many disabled and/or elderly gay, lesbian and bisexual people were declared dependent on their spouses and lost their pensions. They were given the financial burdens of marriage, without marriage equality. 
In 2010, the Gillard government surprised many of the ALP’s left wing by opposing marriage equality. In the context of the far-right’s vicious and misogynist “Ju-Liar” character assassinations, it would have been politically disadvantageous for the prime minister to take a political u-turn on this. 
Therefore, when 10,000 marriage equality protesters showed up to the ALP conference in December last year, the conference decided to support marriage equality, but with a conscience vote allowing individual MPs to opt-out.
This decision had two effects. First, it shifted the political pressure back onto Abbott without forcing Gillard to embarrass herself. Second, it meant that any marriage equality bill does not have the numbers to pass into law. The government has improved its position by denying us equality once again.
Some ALP MP’s came outside to the rally and took over the stage, presenting themselves as heroes of the campaign — even though they had just played us like a deck of cards.
An eight-year campaign on the streets has won us all kinds of victories. We have seen a massive shift in both public and partisan support for marriage equality. These victories belong to the people, not the parliament.
There are those who would say the movement should keep lobbying, writing letters and schmoozing politicians, while holding extravagant fundraising dinners. This is like a fish trying to play poker with sharks. 
Instead, what we are damn good at doing is mobilising people onto the streets and demanding equality. That’s what got us this far, and that’s what will take us over the finish line.


Great, more gay parades. How about a binding plebicite based on a democratic vote? Would you accept it if it were a "No" vote?
Seeing as polls repeatedly show, and have done for some time, a sizable majority in favour of equal marriage rights, I don't think the question of "accepting a 'no' vote" is that likely to arise. But a binding plebiscite would be a useful and democratic way to proceed. If, somehow, the vote was "no", equal marriage campaigners would continue to seek to change people's minds through peaceful campaigning in an attempt to win majority support. If it was a "yes" vote, no doubt anti-equality campaigners would seek to do the same, even if such a thing would be a futile attempt to turn back the tide of history. But if you don't like gay parades, I hear Saudi Arabia is entirely free of them.

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