After an eleven-year fight, the Australian government has recently come under intensified pressure to let LGBTI couples marry.
The success of marriage equality in Ireland and then the United States has made Australia more isolated. It seems clear that the marriage equality campaign is going to win. Nevertheless, the government is still trying to stall marriage equality.
Many blame the Liberal Party. It is true that Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s desperate measures to suppress the conscience vote show just how homophobic the party is. But the Labor Party should not be let off the hook.
Labor decided against binding its vote at its national conference, reasoning that this would encourage the Liberals to allow a free vote within their own party. Realistically, the Liberal Party under Abbott was never going to allow a free vote.
The ALP national conference decision was a betrayal. Maybe equal marriage could have won by now if Labor had bound its vote. This would have put even more pressure on the Liberals to cross the floor, which could have made the numbers to win.
Marriage equality is not a complicated issue. The government just needs to put a bill and pass it.
Even though it is mind-numbingly simple, the government is trying to make it look complicated. It is putting forward a series of parliamentary manoeuvres to delay the inevitable. First a conscience vote, then a plebiscite, and now a constitutional referendum. None of this is necessary.
Several bills for marriage equality are already before the parliament, including Warren Entsch’s cross-party bill which has just been tabled. The government just needs to pass one of them.
To make sense of all of this you need to understand the difference between a plebiscite and a referendum. A referendum asks the people about a change to the constitution. A plebiscite asks about legislation that is not in the constitution. A referendum binds the parliament to make the change but a plebiscite does not. With a plebiscite the government can ignore the people’s vote. But a plebiscite for marriage equality would put substantial pressure on the government, particularly if it is accompanied by mass organisation.
Calling for a plebiscite or referendum is a delaying tactic. But we should not be afraid of either. If it comes to a people’s vote, we will win.
Yes, the republic referendum in 1999 made many people wary about referenda. And yes, the Christian right and the Murdoch press will throw everything they can into a campaign to swing the vote their way. But the difference between marriage equality and the republic is that a grassroots movement for marriage equality has been gathering steam for the past eleven years. We would probably win a referendum on the back of unstoppable people power. That is what happened in Ireland. It can happen here too.
Some people in the queer community do not want a referendum or plebiscite because of the impact that the anti-marriage equality campaign could have on our vulnerable youth. This is not something we can take lightly. Life in the queer community can be harsh.
Anti-equality forces have recently put together a “Marriage Alliance”. So far it does not look good for them. Channel 7, Channel 10, NOVA and 2DayFM have refused to run their ads. Media outlets that have run their ads have been bombarded with complaints from the public. The “Uluru bark petition”, which was recently brought to parliament by Aboriginal elders in favour of marriage discrimination, has been slammed by Aboriginal activists across the country. A “Blak Pride Glitter Petition” is now on change.org to better represent Aboriginal Australia.
It is infuriating that the government keeps delaying marriage equality. But let’s not despair. While we are angry, let’s get organised. There is a real opening here to build this campaign into a genuine mass movement.
Let’s draw the whole community into political activity, and broaden out the core of committed activists. Let’s bring together the broadest possible alliance of organisations and political forces. High school students have an important role to play here. This has been a long fight and some of us are tired, but they can bring fresh energy into the campaign.
Together we will fight, and together we will win. And maybe it is better that we have to fight every inch of the way. If marriage equality was handed to us on a platter we might get complacent.
Delaying marriage equality is cruel and dangerous, particularly for the message it sends to our vulnerable young people. At the same time, nothing is more dangerous for the queer community than inactivity.