Why is Australia so far behind on marriage equality?

Tonight, exactly one year ago, the US Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in Obergefell v Hodges, making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. In doing so, they also reinforced the sinking feeling for many Australians, myself included, that we have fallen far behind our contemporaries around the world as we continue to refuse to treat the relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people equally under the law.

 

Of course, the United States was by no means the first place in the world to introduce marriage equality – that honour belongs to the Netherlands, which has had marriage equality since 1 April 2001, or more than 15 years ago. The list of countries that have joined their ranks in the time since grows longer by the year:

 

  • The Netherlands (2001)
  • Belgium (2003)
  • Spain (2005)
  • Canada (2005)
  • South Africa (2006)
  • Norway (2009)
  • Sweden (2009)
  • Portugal (2010)
  • Iceland (2010)
  • Argentina (2010)[i]
  • Denmark (2012)
  • Brazil (2013)
  • France (2013)
  • Uruguay (2013)
  • New Zealand (2013)
  • England & Wales (2014)
  • Scotland (2014)
  • Luxembourg (2015)
  • Ireland (2015)
  • United States (nationwide 2015)
  • Colombia (2016)
  • Finland (from 2017)

 

But, perhaps because of our community’s disproportionate focus on events in the United States, or simply because it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the fact that, as of 12 months ago, LGBTI couples anywhere from Albany to Alabama and Alaska could get married, while we still could not, was the point at which many people felt we could no longer ignore the reality that, on marriage equality, Australia has officially become a backwater.

 

The question I am interested in asking is why? What are the factors that have caused Australia to fall so far behind its counterparts on this fundamental human rights issue? Why, when we compare ourselves to countries like the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, is it just us and Northern Ireland left in discriminating against couples on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status?

 

There is a range of possible reasons that I will explore below, but first I want to highlight one factor that has not contributed to our lack of progress, and that’s public support. In short, the level of community support for marriage equality in Australia – which has consistently polled above 50% for the past seven or eight years, and is now frequently above 60% or even 70% – is not materially different to that recorded in countries that have already introduced this reform. Indeed, in several of the countries listed above, marriage equality has been implemented with much lower support from the public. So, if a lack of community support isn’t the problem, what is?

 

  1. The lack of a Bill of Rights

 

Perhaps the most obvious reason why Australia is behind the United States on marriage equality is that, while the US Bill of Rights allowed the Supreme Court in Obergefell to determine that state same-sex marriage bans are a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, Australia has no equivalent Bill of Rights (or even nation-wide Human Rights Act). Constitutional rights have also played key roles in the history of marriage equality in other countries, including Canada and South Africa.

 

In contrast, given the limited human rights protections contained in our own Constitution, when the High Court of Australia was asked to rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriages conducted in the ACT, all it could determine was whether marriage equality could be passed by Parliament at all, and if so at which level (only by Commonwealth Parliament as it turns out) rather than being able to find that the denial of the right to marry on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status was in itself ‘unconstitutional’.

 

  1. The power of the right wing of the Liberal-National Coalition

 

In the absence of a constitutional ‘circuit-breaker’, the onus has been on Commonwealth MPs and Senators to pass marriage equality. Unfortunately, of the 15 years since the Netherlands led the way, the Liberal and National Parties have formed Government for nine. This included the Howard Government that, in 2004, introduced legislation to amend the Marriage Act to ensure couples married overseas would not be treated equally under Australian law.

 

In the 12 years since then the Coalition’s stance against marriage equality has barely softened – with exactly zero Liberal or National Party MPs or Senators voting in favour of change when it was last voted on in September 2012 (and only one, Senator Sue Boyce, abstaining).

 

Even in the most recent term of Parliament, right-wing members of the Abbott and then Turnbull Governments succeeded first in blocking any substantive vote on marriage equality, and then in adopting a policy of holding an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite before holding any such vote in the future.

 

The National Party – which can itself be considered one large bloc of the right wing of the Coalition – felt so strongly that Parliament should not vote on marriage equality without a plebiscite, it even included this condition in its agreement with Malcolm Turnbull after he deposed Tony Abbott as PM in September 2015.

 

The power of the right wing within the conservative side of politics, and their obsession with marriage equality (or at least, their consistent focus in denying it) appears to have been a much stronger force in Australia than in comparable countries, such as New Zealand and England & Wales, both of which passed marriage equality during Conservative Governments[ii].

 

  1. The power of the right wing of the Australian Labor Party

 

Unfortunately, it is not just on the conservative side of politics where people opposed to LGBTI equality have exercised disproportionate influence in Australia – the right wing of the ALP, and particularly the hard-line SDA (or ‘Shoppies’) led by religious fundamentalist Joe de Bruyn, have also played a key role in denying equality to LGBTI Australians.

 

This included helping to bind ALP parliamentarians to support Howard’s ban on marriage equality in 2004, but then opposing an attempt to impose a binding vote in favour of marriage equality at the ALP National Conference in December 2011. And, while a majority of ALP House of Reps MPs, and Senators, voted in favour of marriage equality in September 2012, it was still a much lower proportion that supported change than their comrades in both UK and New Zealand Labour.

 

In recent years the tide seems to have finally turned against the homophobes of the hard right of the Australian Labor Party, with the 2015 National Conference agreeing to support a binding vote from the 2019 federal election (albeit long after they should have), and their strengthening position in favour of marriage equality compelling the resignation of ‘Shoppie’ Senator Joe Bullock in March 2016. Nevertheless, the SDA’s influence in ensuring marriage equality was not passed before today should not be ignored.

 

  1. The lack of diversity among Australian parliamentarians

 

The fact that both the conservative and progressive sides of Australian politics have had higher levels of opposition to marriage equality than their equivalent parties elsewhere cannot be considered a mere coincidence. One of the reasons why I believe this is the case is the fact our Parliament is far less diverse than those in other countries.

 

The most obvious example, at least with respect to marriage equality, has been the dearth of ‘out’ LGBTI politicians in Commonwealth Parliament. While there has been a small number of LGBTI Senators over the past 10-15 years, the first out gay man to be elected to the House of Representatives, Trent Zimmerman, took his seat less than five months ago[iii].

 

This places Australian a loooooooong way behind places like Canada, the UK, New Zealand (which had the world’s first transgender MP, Georgina Beyer, last century) and even the United States. And, based on the principle that it is much harder to deny someone’s rights when they are ‘in the room’, our historical absence from the ‘House of Government’ has not only left us sitting outside looking in, it has left us behind too.

 

But it’s not just the lack of out LGBTI parliamentarians that has held us back – I believe the under-representation of female MPs and Senators has also played a part. While in the mid-to-late 1990s female representation in Commonwealth Parliament was among the highest in the world, Australia’s progress in this area has stalled over the past decade, with the proportion of women in the House of Representatives in particular stuck around 25%.

 

According to Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) data, Australia slipped from 20th in the world on female representation in 2001, to 48th in 2014, a downward trend that shows no signs of abating[iv]. As well as being a negative in and of itself, this lack of diversity undermines marriage equality, both because women have consistently shown higher levels of support for this reform than men and because a more gender-balanced, and therefore demographically representative, Parliament might be expected to be closer in opinion to the community’s existing strong support for marriage equality.

 

  1. The lack of diversity in Australia’s commercial media

 

Perhaps more controversially – especially to some commentators who believe that marriage equality is a trivial issue only placed on the public agenda by ‘leftists’ at the ABC – I believe the lack of diversity in our commercial media has also had a negative influence on marriage equality in this country.

 

I’m speaking in particular of newspapers, and especially those owned by Rupert Murdoch. As a former ‘political staffer’ I can attest that the main stories, and lead opinion pieces, in the day’s papers, including Australia’s only national broadsheet (The Australian), and the highest circulation papers in our three major cities (The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, The Herald Sun in Melbourne and The Courier Mail in Brisbane), are paid very close attention.

 

The fact all four newspapers have been opposed to marriage equality – almost universally at The Australian, and also by the main commentators at the tabloids (including Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman and Miranda Devine, and Des Houghton) – means the views our politicians are reading about this issue are largely out of touch with those of the voters they are there to represent. Even in 2016, with the newspaper industry in what appears to be a death spiral, these NewsCorp publications continue to exert disproportionate influence on our politicians.

 

In short, I suggest the lack of diversity in our commercial media has meant that MPs and Senators have been led to believe the issue of marriage equality, and LGBTI rights more broadly, is far more ‘controversial’ than it actually is.

 

  1. The existence of de facto relationship recognition

 

The only ‘positive’ reason on this list is the fact that, at least at state and territory level, Australia has long had de facto relationship recognition, including for same-sex couples. Under Commonwealth law, LGBTI de facto relationships were also finally recognised on the same basis as cisgender heterosexual relationships by the Rudd Labor Government’s Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws – General Law Reform) Act 2008 and Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws – Superannuation) Act 2008.

 

These long-overdue reforms, to at least 85 different pieces of Commonwealth legislation, mean that – outside of marriage – LGBTI couples now largely enjoy the same rights as other couples.

 

The reason why this has had an impact on marriage equality is that, unlike some countries (and especially parts of the United States), relationship recognition here is not an all-or-nothing affair – just because you aren’t married doesn’t automatically mean you are considered ‘single’ under Australian law (although, as some tragic recent case studies have shown, sometimes these de facto rights are not respected in practice[v]). If these de facto rights did not exist, it is likely there would be even greater urgency for marriage equality in Australia.

 

  1. The lack of leadership by Australia’s Prime Ministers

 

Irrespective of the above half-dozen factors, I genuinely believe that, if we had had Prime Ministers who were actual ‘leaders’ on this issue over the past dozen years, the outcome could have, would have, been very different. In reality, we have had five PMs who have each demonstrated serious flaws in their approach to marriage equality.

 

John Howard: Instead of having a constructive debate about marriage equality in 2004, Prime Minister Howard almost instinctively sought to use the issue as a pre-election wedge against the Mark Latham-led Opposition. The fact that the relationships of LGBTI Australians would be devalued and demeaned as a result seemed to matter naught to a man who just three years previously had based an entire campaign on attacking refugees.

 

Kevin Rudd: In hindsight, the first stint of Prime Minister Rudd (November 2007 to June 2010) can be seen as a major missed opportunity. Too risk averse, and notoriously focus-group obsessed, he failed to grasp the possibilities of taking leadership on this issue – and therefore didn’t pursue it at the 2009 ALP National Conference. If he had, Rudd could have seized control of the agenda, just as public support in Australia was rising, thereby adding to his ‘legacy’. While he did support marriage equality during his second stint as PM (June to August 2013) he was never going to win re-election or be in a position to pass it.

 

Julia Gillard: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard is still the most disappointing to me on this issue (although Malcolm Turnbull is rapidly catching up – see below). Supposedly left wing, and an avowed atheist, the expectation was that she was an ideal candidate to make progress on marriage equality.

 

Wrong. For whatever reason (and speculation has long centred on a possible deal with Joe de Bruyn and the SDA to oppose marriage equality as a condition of their support for her as PM), Ms Gillard did everything in her power to deny the right to marry to LGBTI Australians, including blocking the resolution for a binding vote at the December 2011 ALP National Conference, and voting against it herself in the House of Representatives in September 2012. Whatever her other merits, I will never forgive her for standing squarely in the way of ‘equal love’.

 

Tony Abbott: In some respects, there is less ‘disappointment’ in Prime Minister Abbott – because nobody ever expected anything different from him. A staunch Catholic, and someone who brought his religious fundamentalism to bear in political office, he was never going to be the Prime Minister to ‘lead’ on this issue. Although the fact one of his last acts as leader was to oversee the six-hour joint party room meeting that eventually settled on a plebiscite (primarily as a means to deny or at least delay marriage equality) means he nevertheless takes his place in the pantheon of Australian Prime Ministers who have ‘screwed over’ LGBTI Australia on this issue.

 

Malcolm Turnbull: Last, and in many ways, ‘least’, there’s the current Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, who claims to support marriage equality, he just doesn’t want to actually have to do anything about it. Within 24 hours of toppling Tony Abbott, he had signed a new Coalition Agreement with the National Party, caving in to them – seemingly without protest – and their demands to continue with the plebiscite on marriage equality. And he has soldiered on with this policy, right up to the July 2 election, and will presumably hold it in late 2016 or early 2017 should he win next Saturday.

 

An intelligent man, Turnbull does so knowing that it is entirely unnecessary, and, at $160 million, fundamentally wasteful. And he continues to advocate a plebiscite even though he understands the harms it will inevitably cause to young and vulnerable LGBTI people. Unlike others inside his party, I’m not going to accuse him of not caring about these adverse impacts – he just cares about them far less than his obvious desire to remain Prime Minister.

 

151222 Turnbull

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who probably cares about the harms a plebiscite will cause young & vulnerable LGBTI people – just less than his desire to remain PM.

 

These are seven reasons why I believe Australia is so far behind other countries on this issue. It is not an exhaustive list – no doubt others will suggest additional reasons (including possible shortcomings within the LGBTI movement itself, although from my perspective that is a topic for a different post, on a different day – and probably after the battle for marriage equality has finally been won).

 

One final point I would make, however, is that if the Liberal and National Parties are re-elected on July 2 then this list will automatically expand to eight. Because, if Turnbull is returned, and he does hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, then Australia will have found a unique way to ‘screw up’ on this subject.

 

Not one of the countries listed at the start of this post introduced marriage equality by way of a non-binding public vote. As far as I’m aware, only in Ireland has it been passed at national level via referendum – but it was actually needed there to change the Constitution.

 

Holding a plebiscite, which, as multiple reports over the past few days have confirmed won’t even be binding on Cabinet Ministers, let along the Bernardis and Christensens of the Coalition backbench, will involve yet more delay, and more disappointment for the LGBTI community.

 

So, if you’re reading this before July 2, then please think about this issue before you cast your vote, and put the Liberals and National last (or next to last, only ahead of extremists like Pauline Hanson and Fred Nile), so we can avoid an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite. If we elect Bill Shorten’s Labor Party, we might even get to add Australia’s name to the above list between Colombia and Finland. Above all, we could end the wait of LGBTI couples in this country who have been denied equality for far too long.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Marriage equality has also been available in Mexico City from 2010, and is now legal in four additional states, with all being recognized nation-wide.

[ii] While only a minority of Conservative MPs in the UK, and National Party MPs in New Zealand voted in favour of marriage equality, in both places it was at least 40%, which is substantially higher than what would be expected even under a ‘free vote’ within the Coalition in Australia.

[iii] The lack of LGBTI representation in Australian Parliaments is an issue I have written about previously, see: LGBTI voices absent from the chamber

[iv] From Australian Parliament House Library “Representation of Women in Australian Parliaments 2014”.

[v] Including Tasmanian man Ben Jago who was allegedly mistreated by Tasmanian Police and the Tasmanian Coroner’s Office after the death of his de facto partner: Samesame, “I was treated like I meant nothing after my partner died”, 8 November 2015.

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