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Marriage Equality: A History of Avoidance

How did we end up determining civil rights via a voluntary survey, again?

Australia is going to have same sex marriage sooner or later. That’s not a bold activist statement either: it’s simply a fact. And sure, it’s about love and about respect and about human rights and about refusing to cater to bigotry, but it’s also cold economic sense.

Too many other countries – including the ones from which we have the highest level of immigration and skilled labour, as well as reciprocal visa arrangements – recognise same sex marriage, and thus if we want to keep getting top level programmers, scientists and CEOs of national airlines we’re going to need to recognise their marriages. No-one wants to move their entire life and family to a new country to be told their spouse is now legally considered their housemate.

And the United Nations is currently petitioning Australia over recognition of marriages performed overseas, since couples who wed in other countries (where one is American and the other Australian, for example) can’t currently divorce because Australia refuses to recognise their marriage in order to end it, and this is a violation of human rights.

And that’s leaving aside the fact that there’s literally no argument against extending marriage rights to all citizens, which is why those groups vehemently fighting against change aren’t arguing about it: they’re coming up with entirely different excuses.

It’s political correctness, as former PM Tony Abbott has explained. It’s an assault on free speech! It’s a slippery slope to legal pedophilia and bestiality! It’ll lead to people marrying their dads! Their sisters! The Harbour Bridge!

Oddly, none of these horrifyingly silly outcomes have occurred in the UK, the US, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Belgium, Argentina, South Africa, Iceland, France, Uruguay, Norway, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Brazil, Luxembourg, or Colombia – or even the Netherlands, which has recognised marriage equality for 16 years with no obvious negative consequences. Germany, Malta and Taiwan are presumably at the same risk of bridge-marriage and parent-wedding and yet they’re presently set to ratify their own legislation.

Yet Australia is still pretending that this is a hot button moral issue rather than a fairly dull bureaucratic change. So how did it all come to this? Let’s take a quick stroll down idiocy lane.

This festival of dumbarsery began in 2004 when the government of John Howard decided to change the wording of the 1961 Marriage Act because it didn’t specify that the people being married could not be of the same gender. At the time the UK were legalising same-sex unions, and then-Attorney General Philip Ruddock wanted to get the jump on it here before Australia’s gay folks started getting uppity ideas about their own civil rights. Thus a line was added to make marriage “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. And thus was an entirely avoidable political problem created.

In 2010 the Labor government of Julia Gillard could have passed marriage equality, when Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young introduced a bill amending the Marriage Act. However, it was voted down. The Gillard government at least acknowledged that the parliament was the place to settle the issue – a point made crystal clear in 2012 when the ACT briefly ratified same-sex marriage only to have the High Court overturn the legislation on the grounds that defining marriage was the exclusive preserve of the federal parliament.

But the national hunger to make a small and easy change to the Marriage Act into an ideological nightmare didn’t really hit high gear until 2013 when the Coalition government of Tony Abbott won power. During the election campaign Abbott had insisted that same sex marriage was a matter for the party room to discuss. And then his first 18 months were spent ensuring that the party room didn’t have that discussion.

During that period three private members bills were prepared – one by Labor, one by the Greens, and one by Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm – all of which were angrily rejected by Abbott on the grounds that, as he put it at the time, “if our parliament was to make a big decision on a matter such as this, it ought to be owned by the parliament and not one particular party”.

And so his own backbench took him at his word. Legislation was co-sponsored by Queensland Liberal-National MP Warren Entsch and Labor’s Terri Butler, and seconded by Liberal Teresa Gambaro, Labor’s Laurie Ferguson, Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent MPs Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie.
And then suddenly it wasn’t all about this decision being owned by the parliament and not one particular party: it was about having the decision not made by the parliament at all. Suddenly we needed to have a plebiscite instead: a non-binding, non-compulsory national vote.

The appeal of a plebiscite for Abbott was obvious: they don’t work. There’d been three in Australia’s history: two failed during World War One (to make conscription the law and to increase Australia’s commitment to overseas theatres of war) while the third was a multiple choice vote for Australia’s National Song in 1977, won by “Advance Australia Fair”.

So that was Abbott’s position: there would be no vote on the matter, including this joint legislation, during this term of parliament, but he would consider the result of a “people’s vote” during his next term of government.

Of course, after a successful leadership challenge there was no new term of government for Abbott – but after the government of Malcolm Turnbull scraped into a one-seat majority in the ill-chosen 2016 double dissolution election, the new PM who personally supported marriage equality had several difficulties making it happen.

One was that the conservatives in his party, most obviously Abbott, vehemently opposed a free parliamentary vote. Second was that the secret Coalition agreement which laid out the requirements for the support of the National Party supposedly specified that any progress on same sex marriage would put the Coalition at risk (an empty-sounding threat given the difficulties in disentangling the combined Liberal-National Party in Queensland, who had merged in 2008).

And the third was that the unpopular plebiscite wasn’t going to pass the Senate in any case: an attempt to get it through in November 2016 was blocked by Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch. Another try in August 2017 similarly failed.

A private members bill from Liberal backbencher Dean Smith looked like a way to get things over with, but instead of shrugging and figuring this would end the matter, the government instead went for Plan Stupid.

Plan Stupid is a voluntary postal ballot, costing an estimated $122 million, administered not by the Australian Electoral Commission but by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and paid for with the discretionary funds from the finance department for “urgent and unforeseen” contingencies, thereby avoiding the need for legislation to approve the necessary funding.

Oh, also technically it’s not a vote or a plebiscite because the ABS has no authority to hold elections: now it’s a survey.

A voluntary one.

Through the post.

But at least that’ll settle the matter, right? Yeah, about that: If the voluntary postal survey returns a “yes” vote, then and only then will the parliament hold a conscience vote, exactly as they could right now. Those parliamentarians which morally object to the idea of two ladies getting married will be free to ignore the result and vote no, as if the survey never happened at all.

And that’s where things are: at the ABS, fresh from the debacle that was the 2017 census, has been rushed into handling a statistically-dubious voluntary survey on same sex marriage which parliament can ignore.

Regardless, the future is clear: marriage equality will happen, and it’ll do nothing but bring happiness to people.

And when our children ask why it took Australia so long to do something so obviously easy we’ll shake our heads and say, “Honestly, kid; it’s a long, stupid story…”

From issue #791 (October, 2017), available now.