Australia becomes the second country to back marriage equality by popular vote. The issue was put to the Australian electorate through a plebiscite, with 61.6% voting for equal marriage. And still, it’s clear this journey is not over yet.
The Australian electorate have backed same-sex marriage through a national postal vote survey with a turnout of 79.5% (12,727,920). 7,817,247 Australians voted yes (61.6%) with 487,398 no-votes (34.4%). The estimated cost of the plebiscite was under A$100m to carry out via postal vote. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the result was overwhelming and that it was the job of Parliament to deliver the verdict of the Australian people. He added that he wanted to get the legislation passed before Parliament went on Christmas recess and reinforced Australia as the nation of freedoms and mutual respect.
This has been a long road for Australia. Back in 2004, under Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, marriage was enshrined in the Australian constitution as a union between a man and a woman. Since then there have been 22 failed attempts in Parliament to overturn and replace this legislation in favour of marriage equality, mostly through private members’ bills.
During the 2013 Federal Elections, newly returned Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a vote on marriage equality a manifesto pledge. He was defeated by Liberal Tony Abbott who had made his position clear that he supported marriage between a man and a woman only.
Fast-forward a few years and Abbott was ousted by party rival Malcolm Turnbull, a supporter of marriage equality. He promised a referendum on the issue during the 2016 Federal Elections. Whilst new Labor Leader Bill Shorten was in favour of marriage equality, he and his party wanted the vote to be carried out in Parliament without the expense of a national referendum, and that in short it was a delaying tactic to the issue of marriage equality to appease those within the Liberal Party.
Turnbull won a majority of just one seat in the election and as promised put forward the legislation which would allow for a referendum. This bill was passed by the House of Representatives but then fell short in the Senate by 33-29, apparently scuppering any hope of a referendum.
But then Warren Entsch proposed a national plebiscite. This differs to the proposal put forward by the Prime Minister (a referendum), because the result would not be legally binding and, contrary to usual Australian electoral law, it would not be a compulsory vote. This became the proposal that was adopted after a second attempt to pass the referendum through the senate ended in failure with a tie of 31-31.
The Government directed the Australian Statistician, head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, to survey the views of all Australians on the electoral roll via post on the issue of same-sex marriage. The Government argued that this meant there was no need for further votes in Parliament on the nature of the vote, whilst this still meant the legislation for marriage equality would need to be put to Parliament.
There was opposition on both the legality of the vote and the high costs – a predicted A$122m. The courts ruled unanimously against the legal challenges. So the vote proceeded as planned. On 12 September, surveys began to be sent out with the question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” Australians were advised that responses received after 6pm on 7 November 2017 would not be counted.
Whilst the survey was being carried out, the wording of the proposed bill, should a yes vote be successful, had not been agreed upon. The Attorney General proposed to amend the definition of “marriage” and replace “man” and “woman” with “two people”. Critics argued this wording was in contradiction to the wording of the question in the plebiscite vote of “same-sex couples”.
Liberal Senator Dean Smith had drafted a bill prior to the vote and argued it was balanced, protecting the rights of same-sex couples and of the religious freedoms of those celebrants who carried out civil marriages. It would also allow religious organisations the right to refuse their services for same-sex services. The bill was backed by the Labor party yet conservative members of the Liberal Party argued up to 100 amendments would be needed.
Fellow Liberal Senator James Paterson, a supporter of marriage equality proposed a rival bill which contained protections for those wishing not to carry out same-sex services based on religious or conscientious beliefs. These protections would be extended to the private sectors and businesses within the marriage industry the right to refuse their services. Turnbull has declined to support such a bill which discriminated against same-sex weddings.
The vote has been divisive, at times aggressive, and has dominated the national agenda. It became a debate framed around two poles: one arguing for equal rights, the other resisting what it saw, variously, as over-political correctness, a threat to “child safety” or an attack on religious freedoms.
Many have likened the divisions to that of the UK’s own Brexit vote. Falsehoods have been published as facts with personal attacks lodged against public figures on both sides. Notably, former Labor PM Julia Gillard announced she was backing marriage equality after having voted against a private member’s bill whilst Prime Minister. This sparked a backlash with people arguing that she could’ve done something whilst in office. Former PM Tony Abbott’s family was notably divided. Abbott stuck to his principles, whilst his openly lesbian sister was in favour of a yes vote alongside one of Abbott’s daughters’.
Unlike the referendum in Ireland, same-sex marriage doesn’t quickly become law. The issue is returned to the Australian government and legislatures with a strong and definitive answer on the issue. The ball returns to them to create and pass marriage equality legislation but with the Prime Minister standing firm that his MPs will be given a free vote on the legislation this could prove difficult, especially with an unofficial deadline of before Christmas.