Australia said yes to same-sex marriage. Why did it take so long?
On 15 November Australian Bureau of Statistics chief, David Kalish, revealed the result of a postal survey for the vote on same-sex marriage.
“61.6% of clear responses were yes”, he announced. In total, 79.5% (12.7 million) of voting-age Australians took part in the survey.
“Australians voted ‘yes’ for fairness and they voted ‘yes’ for love,” said Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
This historic outcome means that the process to legalise gay marriage is now formally underway in the Federal Parliament. Lawmakers introduced a bipartisan-supported bill that could officialise the vote by the end of the year.
But why did it take so long for Australia to catch up with other countries? (Belgium’s parliament, for instance, was the first to allow gay marriage back in 2003.)
In Australia, homosexuality was still considered a criminal act in 1980. Only in 1981 was it decriminalised in Victoria, followed by the Northern Territory in 1983, New South Wales in 1984, Western Australia in 1990 and Tasmania in 1997.
In 2004, facing increasing legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and Canada, former prime minister John Howard introduced the Marriage Amendment Act, which defined marriage as a “union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”.
However, since 2007, gay marriage is known to have majority support among Australians. That year, a Galaxy poll commissioned by the progressive political movement GetUp! found out that 57% of the citizens believed gay couples should be allowed the same legal rights as heterosexual partners.
In 2013, according to a Pew Research survey, 79% of Australians said homosexuality in general should be accepted by society. However, that same year, when conservative Catholic and former priest trainee Tony Abbott became prime minister, the path to the political acknowledgement of gay rights seemed to stall.
Abbott (whose sister Christine Forster was at the time engaged to her female partner), pushed by his ministers, announced that the question over same-sex marriage would be “a people’s decision” and decided to hold a national vote either through plebiscite or constitutional referendum.
In September 2015, after taking over as prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull was determined to hold the plebiscite, but in November 2016 and August 2017 his proposition was blocked by the Labor Party and the Greens. These opposition parties considered the plebiscite a waste of money, pushing instead to legalise marriage equality by means of a parliamentary vote.
Finally, Turnbull’s government presented the £122m voluntary postal plebiscite, retaining initial commitment to hear the voice of the Australians before facilitating any bill.
The three-month survey campaign saw the bizarre reaction of religious institutions such as the Australian Christian Lobby, who claimed that marriage equality could negatively influence the education system, leading schools allowing boys to wear dresses.
On the other hand, many same-sex supporters were frustrated by the way the government handled the issue. They believed it should have been Parliament’s decision, since the institution already had the power to legalise marriage equality anytime through the passing of a bill reflecting the previous polls’ results.
A few days after the results were announced, treasurer Scott Morrison called on Parliament to protect religious freedom and to offer reassurance to people who voted No in the survey. He called for parents to have the option of taking their child out of classes when “objectionable” subjects – at odds with their beliefs – are discussed. He also wants to protect the freedom of expression for those who believe in marriage purely between a man and a woman.
As the controversies pile up, the road to a bill still seems beset with hurdles.