Photo: Nancy DowdCC0

Marriage Equality

A non-issue for the 2016 Australian Election campaign?

by Dr Liz van Acker

Economic issues have dominated the 2016 election campaign to date. So far the major parties and the Greens have been silent on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Party leaders are tramping around the countryside, walking for miles and visiting the obligatory fruit markets, shopping centres, schools and factories, but they are treading more cautiously around the issue of same-sex marriage. Despite polls showing consistently high approval rates for same-sex marriage, nobody wishes to annoy voters in marginal seats who may hold more traditional family values.

Although the legalisation of same-sex marriage is no longer a controversial issue in nations such as England (and Ireland where a referendum supported it in 2015), the political debates have raged in Australia about whether to have a referendum, a plebiscite or a conscience vote.

While it is possible for the Commonwealth Marriage Act to be changed to allow for same-sex marriages, the Coalition government opposes this, although Prime Minister Turnbull supports it personally and has previously argued that Parliament should vote on the issue. There was hope that the objective of protecting traditional marriage would change with the new leadership of Mr Turnbull. However, this is not the case. He has not reneged on former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s promise of a plebiscite (which has no legal standing like a referendum) after the 2016 federal election.

Turnbull wishes to avoid alienating the religious conservatives within the Coalition and voters with similar values. In the meantime, the particular division of responsibilities in Australia has worked against any national legislation, so no uniform policy approach or law has been achieved.

In October 2013, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) introduced same-sex marriage laws. However, they were struck down six weeks later after the federal government challenged the legality of the laws in the High Court which found that ACT same-sex marriages were illegal because Commonwealth law overrides the territory law. The law remains firm that the definition of marriage refers to ‘the union of a man and a woman’, while state governments offer various benefits and protections such as sharing property and inheritance for all couples.

We know that if re-elected, the Coalition will support a national plebiscite at some unknown date after the election. The 3 May 2016 budget allocated $160 million to pay for a public vote although this does not include the cost of running campaigns. It remains unclear if groups such as the Catholic Church, the Australian Christian Lobby and Australian Marriage Equality would receive public funding to argue their case. According to Koziol ‘a people’s vote would be unnecessary, expensive and potentially dangerous’ and may in fact actually cause more harm. This is because the protracted debate has dissipated messages of hate which could encourage more vitriol from the opposing side when a campaign commences.

We also know that even if a plebiscite passed same-sex marriage, some socially conservative Members of Parliament from the Coalition would still not vote for it. George Christensen and Senator Cory Bernardi for example have stated concerns that same-sex marriage could lead down the ‘slippery slope’ to group marriage or to polygamy. Bernardi was forced to resign from the front bench of Parliament for his comments about bestiality, but he continues to oppose same-sex marriage.

The Labor party has promised to vote same-sex marriage into law within 100 days of office if it wins. It would allow its Members of Parliament a conscience vote, and despite its rejection of same-sex marriage in the Parliament when Labor was in government in 2012, a clear majority now favour same-sex marriage. Meanwhile the Greens would legislate for same-sex marriage as soon as possible.

There is little common ground between the opposing political camps, even though they both value and respect the institution of marriage. At the National Press Club in 2015, Senator Penny Wong from the Labor Party stated that:

“ … Australians in same-sex relationships experience that injustice every day and if we achieve marriage equality, most things won’t change. The sun will rise, heterosexual marriages won’t crumble, three-year-olds will still want more ice-cream than is good for them, but together we will have made a profound change.”

Senator Cory Bernardi retorted that

“ … marriage is not a right. It was not invented, marriage simply is. Marriage has been reserved as a sacred bond between a man and a woman across times, across cultures and across very different religious beliefs … this campaign is not about equality, but it’s about personal desire and self-interest of a vocal minority.”

Same-sex marriage may not be a divisive wedge issue for those on the election stump, but give it time. We still have weeks and weeks ahead.



Dr Liz van Acker is a Senior Lecturer, in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.

Liz’ research interests include innovation and industry policy, relationship support programs and government policies, gender and politics and service delivery by the third sector.

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