The long, winding road to marriage equality

The politics of marriage equality in Australia have been nothing less than confusing.

It was hard enough to keep up when things were only happening every week or so, but the last few days alone have been a whirlwind of political activity that still (somehow) seems to be going nowhere.

At the moment it’s likely that postal plebiscite will go ahead (in which case, ensure you are enrolled so that you can vote: click here for more info) but if the last few days have been any indication, anything could still happen.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and a little lost, don’t worry. Here’s everything you need to know about what’s been going on happened, and where we’re headed from here.

To start from the very beginning, Australia had no outright ban on same-sex couples marrying before 2004. The Australian Constitution, in Subsection 5 (xxi) uses the word ‘marriage’ but doesn’t define it.
In 2004, as vocal support for same-sex marriage was just beginning to pick up, the federal parliament changed the Marriage Act to define marriage as;

“The union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

This explicitly made same-sex marriage against the law.

Towards the beginning of this whole debate, there was talk of a referendum, like the one Ireland had, to change the wording and allow same-sex marriage.

But that’s actually not necessary in Australia. The wording which defines legal marriage in Australia is only in the Marriage Act, and not the constitution, which can be changed with a simple parliamentary vote by elected officials.


Which is, of course, the rub.

People who have a strong view on this issue one way or another argue that everyone deserves to have their say on something that would fundamentally change a cultural institution.

This is where the idea for a Plebiscite comes from, and the promise of a plebiscite was part of the Coalition’s platform when they were voted in at the last election.

Others, (usually pro same-sex marriage) argue that ordinary citizens shouldn’t decide the rights of a minority, particularly when it’s not a legal necessity.


Referendum: a compulsory national vote, which is required to change anything in the constitution. A referendum must have a double majority to pass. The result is legally binding.
Plebiscite: a national vote to gauge national opinion on an issue. The Parliament is not legally bound to its result.


Both some same-sex marriage advocates and the Labor Party argue that a national vote will expose LGBTQ Australians to harmful, even hateful rhetoric.

Young LGBTQ Australians are already six times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.

A bill to conduct a plebiscite passed through the Coalition-majority Lower House in November last year, but was blocked in the Senate when Labor, the Greens, Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch voted against it.

Last Week, Liberal senator Dean Smith released a bill to his party to legalise same-sex marriage through a parliamentary free vote, rather than taking the issue to a plebiscite.

However, during a special meeting on Monday, Turnbull’s government decided to stick with the party’s position on which they were elected, and moved to introduce another plebiscite bill.

That bill was again shot down by the same groups who rejected the first one.


In order to get around the parliament, the Federal Government have now turned to a postal vote, which is to be conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics at a cost of $122 million.

They can do this without parliamentary support by having the Federal Finance minister, Mathias Corman, simply give the funds to the ABS.

So if the result is a “Yes” majority, a free vote will be held in Parliament.
Members will not be bound to the result of the postal vote, but Prime Minister Turnbull has said he expects a bill will pass if it’s clear that’s what the public wants.

If the result is a “No”, the government will not assist any of its members to put forward a private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage, and will direct it’s party to vote against any bill introduce by Labor or the crossbench.


So what will the postal vote mean for me?

The vote will be voluntary, mailed to your house, and all you need to do is mail it back before the 7th of November.

Ballot papers will start going out next month, and a result is expected on the 25th of November.

However the ballot will only be mailed to you if you are on the electoral roll, so ensure you are enrolled, and your address is up to date so whoever is living in your old house can’t vote for you.

This is very important for young people, who are the largest demographic to be un-enrolled, (the current estimate sits at 279,000 people under 24) and typically have a low turnout at voluntary votes.

At the last national plebiscite, only a third of young voters, aged 18-25, cast a vote.

The last day you will be able to register to vote is August 24.


But that’s not all

There is currently a court challenge against the postal survey in progress, led by Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) other same-sex marriage advocates.

They argue that Mathias Cormann does not have the authority to appropriate funds for the postal vote, and that the asking the ABS to gather an “opinion” rather than its usual “statistical information” is unconstitutional.

The High Court today agreed to hear the challenge on September 5 and 6, with a directions hearing to be held on Thursday, a week before the postal vote is set to begin.

The government has also indicated it intends to hurriedly have a bill passed to stop “hateful” advertising material being distributed alongside the ballot papers, which may alleviate the concerns of many LGBTQ activists.

In any case, only time will tell how this will unfold. In the meantime, it’s still a good idea to enroll.


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