According to the Australian Government, gay is to marriage as hairdryers are to bathtubs. They just don’t mix.
This raises pertinent questions about how liberal and democratic our society is. Currently, 64% of the Australian community supports marriage equality, as demonstrated by a Galaxy poll conducted earlier this year. Over the past year a large number of rallies in support of marriage equality have achieved huge attendance, and on August 11 a National Day of Action was held. Large corporations have added their voices to the debate, with Telstra, QANTAS and the Commonwealth, Westpac and National Australia Banks giving open support for marriage equality.
Unfortunately, as indicated by the Government’s failure to legislate equal marriage, those in support of equality have no authority over the issue. Parliamentarians are not listening to the voice of the people, and are consequently failing in their obligation to legislate representatively. When it becomes vastly apparent that we have a double standard of rights depending on whether an individual loves someone of the opposite gender or the same, the basis of liberalism in this country starts to be undermined. ‘Fairness and Equality for Most’ doesn’t have a particularly nice ring to it.
In late September of this year, the Marriage Equality Bill was presented to the House of Representatives, backed by Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese. The Bill, premised on the grounds that free speech should extend to equal marriage laws, was voted down by 98 MPs. Only 42 MPs supported the legislation.
Frustratingly, many ministers who voted against the Bill support marriage equality, but their parties do not. Allowing a conscience vote on this issue has been hotly debated for this reason. For example, Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull has previously spoken in support of marriage equality. However, Tony Abbott prevented a conscience vote within his party, indicating that not only are major political parties failing to listen to members of the electorate, they are also failing to listen to members of their own caucuses.
A separate bill on the same issue was taken to the Senate on the 20th of September and also rejected. The private bill, this time supported by a two thirds of Labor backbenchers (who were allowed a conscience vote), was voted down 41 votes to 26. Despite expectations that a self-confessed atheist and unmarried woman would be more sympathetic to the demands of the LGBTI community, Julia Gillard was among those to vote against the bill. Equal Love convener Ali Hogg responded: “The voting down of this bill is an insult. It is an indictment of both major parties, neither of which has proven themselves allies of LGBTI people. We might expect nothing better from the Liberals…but the fact that the ALP has also failed to throw its weight behind equal rights, and has instead helped to maintain homophobic discrimination as law, is nothing less than shameful.”
The importance of legislating equal marriage cannot be understated: according to studies by the University of Minnesota, 28% of queer-identifying male youth said they had attempted suicide, compared with 4.2% of their heterosexual counterparts. Legislation would reduce discrimination between heterosexual and homosexual couples, and officially recognise the validity of homosexual relationships.
Many oppositional voices come from the religious right, their argument being that marriage between two individuals of the same sex is tainting the sanctity of marriage, and that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ to begin with. However, Australia is a nominally secular state, and as such our Government should not base important social issues on theocratic ideals. Not all people in Australia are religious, many are religious and still believe in equal marriage (53% of people who supported marriage equality in the aforementioned Galaxy poll stated their religion as Christian), and for those who do not believe in it, they retain the right not to engage in it.
Currently, gay marriage is legal in 11 countries – the first to make the decision was the Netherlands in 2001. The US is also making progress, with Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and the state of New York all legalising marriage between same-sex couples.
So why oh why, Ms Gillard, have we still not taken the obvious leaps forward? Openly gay comedian Josh Thomas appeared on Q&A in June of this year to share his thoughts; “I think the reason why Julia Gillard… isn’t giving us gay marriage is because she doesn’t think it’s a priority… This is not a controversial issue. 64% of people want to see this; 74% of the Labor party wants to see this. The stance at the moment empowers homophobia and it needs to change.”
These comments were echoed a few months later by Labor Minister Penny Wong on the same program. After a question was posed to Joe Hockey as to why he considered his family more valuable than a ‘non-traditional’ family, Ms. Wong responded; “The first logical point is that marriage hasn’t been the pre-requisite for children. It’s sad that families feel they have to justify who they are.”
South Australia is currently spear-heading the next attempt at developing legislation in support of gay marriage. A Private Members Bill, supported by Labor Premier Jay Weatherill, will be presented to Parliament early next year.
Legislating gay marriage is an issue of basic rights. If passed, it will have minimal effect on those who do not give their support and life changing consequences for those who wish to marry their partners but are currently unable to due to a conservative and greatly unjust understanding of marriage.
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