Vol 11, Issue 8
In the years since the Howard Government passed the Marriage Amendment Bill 2004, the issue of same sex marriage has become increasingly ubiquitous in Australian politics. Despite progress having been made for gay and lesbian Australians -- for example, the legal recognition of same sex de facto relationships in 2008 -- it remains that a marriage in Australia can only be entered into by a man and a woman.
Since 2004, no fewer than 17 bills in support of same sex marriage have been tabled in Parliament. Eleven of these bills were tabled in the last five years. Frustratingly, despite public support and parliamentary support for same sex marriage, no progress has been made. This can be partially -- but not totally -- attributed to the Coalition, the Labor Party, and the Greens viewing this issue as a political point scorer. Having followed this issue for a number of years, it is apparent that there is very little cooperation between parties to make same sex marriage a reality in Australia. If all parties truly had the wellbeing of gay and lesbian Australians at the forefront of their minds, they would cooperate with each other in order to pass the bill.
The Labor Party has supported same sex marriage since 2011. Between 2011 and 2013, the Gillard government oversaw five same sex marriage bills, all of which were either discharged or did not pass a parliamentary vote. During this time, Kevin Rudd came out in support of same sex marriage, yet did nothing about it during his brief renaissance as Prime Minister. Despite this, since 2013 the Labor Party has rebranded itself as the party for same sex marriage, promising to amend the legislation within the first 100 days of election.
The Greens have tabled several same sex marriage bills, particularly during the Gillard years. In doing so, they did not seek to discuss these bills with either major party, the support of which is crucial for bill passage. The fact that they made no such effort renders their same sex marriage bills as mere political stunts with no hope of passing a parliamentary vote.
The Turnbull government claims it was re-elected with a mandate on a same sex marriage plebiscite. However, the Coalition did not run the plebiscite as a major policy, and it cannot be said how many people who voted for the Coalition did so because of or in spite of this policy. Furthermore, public surveys suggested that the majority of respondents, including the majority of Coalition voters, did not support a plebiscite. For transparency’s sake, I do not think a plebiscite is a good idea as I believe it is a waste of time and money to tell us what we already know, which is that the majority of Australians support same sex marriage. That said, I believe in pragmatism and think the plebiscite was handled poorly by the other parties. There was a window of opportunity for Labor and the Greens to work with the Coalition and improve the plebiscite. However, instead of doing this, they dug their heels in and opposed it completely. This is despite the fact that as recently as 2013, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten stated he was “completely relaxed” towards the idea of a plebiscite. Before the failure of the plebiscite, the Turnbull government declared that it would not consider any other options in the event of the bill not passing, and has since made good on its word and done nothing to advance same sex marriage. We are now nowhere closer to having same sex marriage than we were a year ago.
In 2016, upon the defeat of the plebiscite bill, Attorney General George Brandis decreed that the Labor Party had “driven a stake through the heart of marriage equality”. This was a simplification at best. Same sex marriage should not be a partisan issue, and no party should make a claim to have any more connection to the issue of same sex marriage than another. In contemporary public discussion of same sex marriage and the plebiscite, Senator Brandis has been held up by some as an opponent of same sex marriage legislation. And yet, in 2004 Senator Brandis abstained from voting on the Marriage Amendment Bill. This is but one example of how the same sex marriage debate does not fall neatly into the narrative of the Coalition as the opponents and the Greens, and increasingly the Labor Party, as the champions. Historically, there have been gay and lesbian MPs and senators from all sides of politics. An early example is Don Dobie, who was the Liberal member for the New South Wales seat of Cook from 1966 to 1996. Whilst Dobie did not publicly identify himself as gay, he lived openly with his male partner, Dr George Burniston, from the 1950s until Dr Burniston’s death in 1992. Another early example is former South Australian Labor Premier Don Dunstan, who had two heterosexual marriages during his early life and from 1986 until his death in 1999 was in a relationship with a male partner. Like Dobie, Dunstan did not publicly identify himself as gay or bisexual. Former Greens leader Bob Brown was openly gay at the time of his election in 1996. Labor Senator Penny Wong was appointed as the first openly gay cabinet member in 2007. Since then, we have seen many more gay and lesbian parliamentarians. This is, of course, not including those who came out after retiring -- such as Neil Brown, former member for Menzies and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, who came out in 1996; or Neal Blewett, former Labor member for Bonython, who came out in 2000 -- or those who are yet to come out. These parliamentarians demonstrate that gay and lesbian people align themselves all over the political spectrum. To suggest otherwise would be naive. To suggest, as some do, that a person’s sexuality should dictate their political views is patronising and ignorant.
We are in a ridiculous situation in Australia where the majority of the public support same sex marriage, the leaders and deputy leaders of all three major parties support same sex marriage, and yet nothing is being done about it. Meanwhile, countries such as Ireland, where there is no separation between church and state, and the United States of America, which tends to be more socially conservative than Australia, have legislated for same sex marriage. The Labor party may have driven a stake through the heart of the plebiscite, but the plebiscite was not the only way to legislate same sex marriage. The Liberal party can’t claim to have unequivocally advocated for same sex marriage legislation. We have a rare opportunity for the bipartisan passing of a policy which is popular and will have a positive effect on the lives of many Australians. Same sex marriage and the lives of gay and lesbian people need not be caught in the crossfire of party politics and political game playing.
Ruby Bell is a second-year JD student
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