No 9 Still No Marriage Equality in Australia

This is an issue where there were a number of different highs – and lows – over the course of the past 12 months. Given my naturally glass half empty personality, we’ll start with the lows.

The most obvious ‘low’ was the High Court’s ruling last Thursday (12 December), overturning the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws as unconstitutional, after just five days of operation, as well as annulling the marriages of all the couples who had taken the opportunity to tie the knot under the law.

One can only imagine how awful the past few days would have been for these couples, experiencing the elation of being married, at long last, to the frustration of having that status ripped from their grasp just days later.

In fact, 2013 was not a good year for the idea of state and territory same-sex marriage laws generally. State-based marriage was defeated, narrowly, in votes the Tasmanian upper house (after passing the lower house, yet again), and by one vote in the NSW upper house (although it was likely headed for defeat in the lower house there). A similar Bill was defeated by a much larger margin in South Australian Parliament.

Now, it seems the High Court has ruled out the option of state-based marriage permanently (at least as far as they are close enough to marriage under the Commonwealth Marriage Act to deserve the title ‘marriage’).

And the Federal Election was also not a good one as far as marriage equality was concerned. A Prime Minister who supported marriage equality, leading a party the majority of whose MPs had voted yes just 12 months earlier, was replaced by a Prime Minister who remains staunchly opposed to equality (even that of his own sister), leading a Liberal-National Coalition of whom exactly ZERO MPs voted yes in September 2012.

Overall, then, there was a lot of bad news to spread around. But 2013 was not universally negative for marriage equality in Australia.

The same High Court decision that overturned the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws also included a key finding – that the Federal Parliament unambiguously has the power to introduce marriage equality.

That might sound, to some, as merely a small win, but it actually takes one of the main arguments against marriage equality in the Commonwealth arena off the table (namely that s51xxi of the constitution – aka the ‘marriage power’ – could only mean marriage of opposite-sex couples).

In what turned out to be a quite progressive judgment (despite the outcome), the Justices wrote:

“”marriage” is to be understood in s 51(xxi) of the Constitution as referring to a consensual union formed between natural persons in accordance with legally prescribed requirements which is not only a union the law recognises as intended to endure and be terminable only in accordance with law but also a union to which the law accords a status affecting and defining mutual rights and obligations.”  Link to full judgment here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/high_ct/2013/55.html

In short, marriage can be the union of two people (or more, if the Parliament so chooses) irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. That is a statement of what is ‘possible’. It is up to our parliamentarians to make it real.

Another ‘high’ was that those couples in the ACT were able to marry in the first place. The fact that, for five full days, newspapers and TV stations around the country carried pictures of happy couples getting married, where the only difference was that their spouse was the same sex as themselves, can only be of cementing victory in the long war of acceptance.

Same-sex couples were married, the sky didn’t fall, nobody else’s marriage was diminished and, for the benefit of people like Senator Bernardi, no pets were interfered with either.

Another glimmer of hope is that the Liberal Party’s position was slightly better at the 2013 election than it was at the 2010 one. While previously the Liberals and Nationals were universally committed to voting no on marriage equality, prior to September 7 they adopted the line that whether there was a conscience vote would be “a matter for the post-election Coalition party-room”.

Given Tony Abbott’s strong opposition, there is no guarantee of a conscience vote happening, but the door is at least slightly ajar – it is now up to people like Malcolm Turnbull to force it open.

Another door that is slightly ajar is the possibility of the 2014 ALP National Conference adopting a binding vote in favour of marriage equality. Something that should have happened in 2011, when the platform was changed, were it not for the homophobic position adopted by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, is a live option because of recent remarks by AWU National Secretary Paul Howes, who conceded that he had been wrong to support a conscience vote back then.

With Howes’ crucial support, and another three years of time elapsed, there might, just might, be enough support from conference delegates to impose a binding vote on Parliamentary members of the Labor Party. And that is definitely something worth fighting for. Because, mathematically, we may well need a conscience vote from the Coalition, and a binding vote from Labor, for any marriage equality Bill to pass the Commonwealth Parliament, at least this term anyway.

The formation, last week, of a cross-party group to work towards marriage equality in the Parliament, drawing members from the Coalition (Sue Boyce), ALP (Louise Pratt) and Greens (Sarah Hanson-Young), will also likely be remembered as a key step along the road to equality.

The final ‘high’ from 2013 is something which now probably doesn’t hold a lot of sway, but which was a powerful statement of intent at the time: then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ‘Bartlet’ moment on the ABC’s Q&A. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdU3ooAZSH8)

When asked by a Christian pastor how, as a Christian, Rudd could support marriage equality when the Bible commands him to believe differently, Rudd rebuked him with a smackdown that was brilliant both in its argument and in its eloquence. It was Rudd at his best – and, watching it three months later, it still brings a smile to my face.

Even if it was only for a few fleeting months, we finally had a Prime Minister join the majority of the Australian population in the 21st century in believing that all couples must be treated equally.

How much longer we have to wait for that community belief to be reflected in the statute books will depend a lot on what happens in 2014, inside the Coalition Party-room and at ALP National Conference. I guess it’s time to prepare to protest once more.

Denying Marriage Equality is Theft

Next week, the High Court will hear the Commonwealth’s application for the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws to be overturned. Arguments will focus primarily on whether the 2004 amendments to the Commonwealth Marriage Act ‘cover the field’ in terms of legislating under sub-section51(xxi) of the Constitution, or whether the amendments have instead left the door open for State and Territory Governments to establish a new category of marriage, namely same-sex marriage.

But perhaps the Court should also consider sub-section 51(xxxi), which gives the Commonwealth Parliament power for “the acquisition of property on just terms from any State or person for any purpose in respect of which the Parliament has the power to make laws.” Maybe our High Court Justices should ask whether laws which take away the right of LGBTI couples to get married are tantamount to theft.

Allow me to explain. The most direct way in which the marriage equality ban takes money from LGBTI couples is that, currently, it forces couples overseas in order for their marriage to have any legal standing at the time of the ceremony. The couple obviously incurs significantly higher costs than for a domestic wedding. Even if the ACT laws are allowed to stand, for Australian couples who wish to have a ceremony with legal standing, however briefly, the vast majority will need to hold their wedding a long distance from home.

With recent estimates of the average cost of weddings being in the vicinity of $35,000, or even $54,000, it is grossly unjust to force some couples to pay even more, merely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Compounding this, a system which forces LGBTI couples to travel, either interstate or overseas, to get married reinforces a financial threshold on which couples can tie the knot, with only the well-off able to do so. Someone’s class should never determine whether they can access a legal institution like marriage.

The next theft comes when the couple returns home – at customs, they are summarily, and completely without justification, stripped of their state of being married. Something which means so much to the couple – enough for them to travel to undertake it – is confiscated, without any compensation. Surely an argument could be mounted that this amounts to “the acquisition of property on [un]just terms”?

Something else which is stolen from LGBTI couples is the ability to celebrate their wedding with their desired guests. This happens in two ways. For those who choose to travel to get married, many of their family and friends will be unable to attend the ceremony due to cost, or the need to take extended time off work. For other couples, like my fiancé Steve and myself, who instead choose to wait until they can legally wed in Australia, the passage of time will have the same effect.

In our case, we both have elderly grandmothers who we love dearly and who we would love to have at our nuptials. That would have been possible when we first got engaged, at the start of 2010, although, sadly, my grandmother is probably now too frail to travel to our wedding, even in Australia. By the time marriage equality is eventually passed, I fear the same will be the case for Steve’s grandmother – and he will be devastated by that.

The ability to celebrate our wedding with the people who matter most to us has been ripped from our grasp by the Commonwealth Parliament. We, and other couples like us, feel it acutely. As an aside, perhaps so-called ‘family values’ campaigners should consider how they would react to government intervention on their wedding guest list – because that is what has been imposed on us.

The theft which is a consequence of the ban on marriage equality will not even stop whenever a Bill is finally passed – it will keep on stealing from us into the future. Explaining this ‘future theft’ is what eventually helped my rural, LNP-voting conservative parents understand why I feel so passionately about this issue.

Earlier this year, they had their 40th wedding anniversary. Which is something worthy of celebration – and so they did. Because these things, anniversaries, matter. One day, Steve and I hope to do likewise. Except that, the longer the ban on our marriage lasts, the less likely we will both be alive in order to celebrate a 50th, or even 40th, wedding anniversary. Even after the ban is eventually lifted, it will still be lifting precious things from our pockets.

Of course, what is being stolen from us is likely too intangible to be considered by the High Court under sub-section51(xxxi). But this theft is exactly what should be reflected upon by any Parliamentarian who is considering voting against the right of LGBTI couples to get married.

What makes the current ban ever harder to stomach is that, everyone, from Tony Abbott down, knows that marriage equality is inevitable. Which makes the ongoing refusal of our MPs to pass it seem extremely petty. Especially when what they are stealing from us, both now and in the future, is something grand.