Britain’s House of Commons voted in favour of equal marriage rights on February 5. France’s lower house approved a bill for equal marriage rights on February 12.
If these bills make it the rest of the way through their respective parliaments, Britain and France will join the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Massachusetts, Spain, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina and Denmark in having equal marriage rights.
Like the battle for women’s right to vote in the beginning of the 20th century, it’s now the beginning of a scramble for governments to join the growing club of the enlightened. Yet Australia, under a Labor government, is lagging behind.
US President Barack Obama recently declared his support for marriage rights. Then, showing hyperbole characteristic of the most powerful president in the world, he did nothing about it.
High suicide rates of young gay men bullied in toxic playground environments spurred campaigning efforts within the US. International condemnation through ‘It Gets Better’ campaigns, added to the pressure, leading to Obama’s declaration.
Australia remains intransigent. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, a self-declared atheist living in a de-facto relationship with her boyfriend, says marriage equality would offend the traditional way of life Australia holds dear. Not the tradition of killing Aboriginal people or enslaving convicts, but those quaint customs of parroting parts of the Bible that assist one’s political career.
It was the marriage-as-a-man-and-a-woman-procreating tradition that unites Gillard and the Joe de Bruyn-led, Christian right faction in her Australian Labor Party. This is the factional alliance that helped Gillard backstab the former PM Kevin Rudd in 2010 for the top position.
Gillard allowed a change of ALP national policy in favour of marriage equality the same year, but allowed MPs a conscience vote on any marriage bill. Allowing a conscience vote allowed homophobic MPs to defeat the bill.
So as country after country grants marriage equality, Australia drags its feet. The Tasmanian upper house defeated an equal marriage bill in 2011, as did federal parliament in the same year.
The campaign for marriage equality is staunch. People have mobilised for marriage rights more consistently than any social movement in Australia over the last eight years. It has changed the minds of between 5 and 8 million Australians. Barely a Q&A program passes without hard questions to ALP and Liberal MPs about their prejudice.
Last year more than 100 people in the rural town of Towoomba and 300 people in the regional town of Albury-Wodonga rallied for equal marriage. In the two bastions of homophobic ideas — rural Australia and churches – a majority of people support equal marriage rights — 58% and 53% respectively.
But the movement faces challenges. In this election year, economic insecurity will cause large swathes of disenfranchised working people to be convinced to vote for the conservative Liberal Party.
If Tony Abbott wins the election, as the polls are suggesting, the movement will have to re-inspire people to continue the grassroots campaign under a Liberal government. Equally, if Gillard wins the election, the movement will have to strengthen itself and broaden its support base to finally make marriage equality a reality.
The more conservative wing of the movement is pushing for the Liberal Party to allow a conscience vote. This is an ineffective strategy. Appealing to Abbott — who has built a political career out of stubborn homophobia and sexism — to display any kind of “conscience” around queer rights is not likely to work.
The movement should demand Liberal Party MPs cross the floor — like Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan did in August 2006 against the Liberal Party’s attempt to force all asylum seekers to be processed offshore.
If the Labor Party voted according to their policy, instead of allowing a "conscience vote", we would have won marriage equality by now. A conscience vote hasn’t brought us over the line.
In the end, the ALP and the Liberal Party will be defeated on this issue through protracted mass activity and the realisation that they will be made to pay a heavy political price for their prejudice.