Luke Gahan, Federation University:
Months before the Marriage Amendment Act 2004 was proposed, a small group of LGBT people (yes, we had at least one of each) from around Australia exchanged emails and organised a teleconference. Each of us had raised the issue of marriage equality in our own communities and we wanted to place the issue on the national agenda. At our first meeting we came up with a name for our little group, Australian Marriage Equality (AME), and myself and TASA member Geraldine Donoghue were elected co-conveners.
When we came together, the idea of same-sex marriage was unheard of among most people in Australia – including those within the various LGBTI communities. Although 2004 was not so long ago, in terms of LGBTI rights Australia was quite a different place. Male homosexuality had been legal in Tasmania for just seven years, and NSW, WA, and the NT had only recently aligned the age of consent laws for male anal sex. More significantly, at a Federal level there was no legal recognition of same-sex de facto relationships, nor was there legal recognition of same-sex parents in most of the country.
Many people are unaware that we founded the marriage equality movement in Australia because at the time it appeared that we were only months away from Australian courts legally recognising Australian same-sex couples who had been married abroad. The Marriage Act at that time did not specify that marriage was between one man and one woman. Consequently, same-sex couples who had been married in Canada believed that this meant that their marriages were legal – as did their legal advice. However, before the courts could hear their case, the Coalition Government with support of the Labor Opposition voted to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. It was now a requirement for celebrants to read this out at all weddings.
While many thought our young movement had come to a fast end, we knew that the fight had only just begun. While marriage equality was the ultimate goal of the fledgling movement, our immediate goal was to gain legal recognition for same-sex couples and parents. After lobbying for marriage equality for four years, the movement had a breakthrough in 2008 when the Rudd Government, in an attempt to quell marriage equality demands, extended the definition of de facto relationships to include same-sex partners. At that time, many of us including myself retired from the marriage equality movement. While we still hoped marriage equality would be achieved some day, same-sex couples now had the same legal rights and responsibilities as opposite-sex couples and marriage was now a symbolic reform.
A couple of years later, as I worked on the qualitative responses to the Writing Themselves in 3 project (Hillier et al., 2010), I noticed that young people consistently mentioned marriage equality as something that was important to them despite the 2008 law reforms. The Marriage Act had become for many a form of homophobia and, regardless of whether they actually wanted to get married some day, the denial of that legal choice hurt them. While we were now in a much better legal position than in 2004, it became clear to me that marriage equality was as important – although in a different way – as it had been when we first called for it.
As I am sure you know, Australia then went through the Rudd, Gillard, then Rudd again governments and despite passing a record amount of legislation, it was not until the final weeks of the Labor Government in 2011 that the Prime Minister announced his support for marriage equality. By this time, polls consistently showed that a majority of Australians supported the idea. Nevertheless, within weeks Australia elected the Abbott government and wedding plans for same-sex couples were well and truly cancelled for the foreseeable future.
Not only did Australia take a conservative turn, so also did the marriage equality movement in an effort to win over Coalition MPs. While I remain critical of this shift within the movement’s discourse (Gahan, 2013), it was during this time that a number of conservative politicians began to support marriage equality, and, slowly, the idea of a national plebiscite began to emerge.
In short, I am totally against holding a plebiscite, regardless of how many concessions the government or opposition may grant in order to appease its critics. Aside from the damage it may cause LGBTI people and their families, a proposal to have a national vote on the rights of one particular group is a dangerous precedent to set. Unlike the Indigenous referendum of 1967 that was needed to approve changes to the Constitution, no such requirement exists in order to amend the Marriage Act. Indeed, there was no plebiscite in 2004 when the Marriage Act was changed to forbid same-sex marriages. If this plebiscite is held, a precedent will be set so that when any government in Australia feels that an issue is controversial, they could resort to put it to a public vote and, like Pontius Pilate, wash their hands of the outcome. Consequently, we may see future votes on immigration, on halal food, on surveillance of religious minorities, on membership of the UN, or on what can and cannot be included in educational curricula (including higher education). If you think this is far-fetched, read some of the recent speeches in Parliament.
I have no doubt that marriage equality will exist in Australia at some time in the future. The majority of MPs in Canberra now support it and according to a recent poll, all but one electorate in the country does so too. Instead of unleashing weeks of hatred stigmatising LGBTI people and their families, the Prime Minister could and should allow a free vote in Parliament and protect vulnerable Australians from hate and discrimination.