Marriage equality: 2015 in review
2015 was a year of great frustration for Australia’s marriage equality supporters but also solid gains.
Ireland achieved marriage equality through a referendum and the US through a Supreme Court decision.
Both events highlighted how far Australia is falling behind other comparable countries.
As if to rub salt into the wounds, the path the nation has been following to marriage equality for many years now – a cross-party free vote in parliament – was blocked.
After “branch stacking’ the Coalition party room, the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, got the numbers to block a free vote and take us down the path of a plebiscite.
There are no fixed rules for plebiscites.
In the hands of the man who had helped derail Australia’s republican referendum, a plebiscite could easily have been stacked against reform.
Immediately, cross-bench marriage equality supporters in the Senate called Abbott’s bluff by introducing legislation for a fair plebiscite, making a national vote look less attractive to opponents of reform.
The elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to the premiership a few weeks later gave many people hope marriage equality was back on track.
For the first time, Australia had a Prime Minister and a Leader of the Opposition who support marriage equality.
Bill Shorten had already introduced his own marriage equality legislation, while Labor’s National Conference decided ALP members will be bound by party policy to vote for the reform by 2019.
Upping the pressure even more, a cross-party bill was introduced that was championed by Liberals like Warren Entsch and Teresa Gambaro.
But a plebiscite remained Government policy, despite unresolved questions about the immense cost of running it ($158 million), whether voting will be compulsory, how vulnerable people will be protected from hate speech and whether the result will be binding.
The Coalition’s avoidance of a free vote was deeply disappointing to those many marriage equality supporters who had worked hard over many years to get their local MP across the line.
But it was also a back-handed compliment to them.
Conservative opponents of reform only felt the need to block a free vote because the number of MPs in support was so close to a majority.
In 2015 a significant number of Liberal, National and cross-bench members declared their support, including Josh Frydenbger, Greg Hunt, Sarah Henderson, Ewan Jones, Dean Smith, Darren Chester, Nigel Scullion, Glenn Lazarus and Ricky Muir.
They were matched by a swath of Labor members from western Sydney, including Tony Burk, Chris Bowen, Ed Husic and Julie Owens.
Critical to bringing these members on board was the effective community campaigning that saw three state Liberal-dominated parliaments, several faith leaders, 50 local councils and 700 businesses declare their support for marriage equality in 2015.
Marriage equality now has slim majority support in the Senate and is only six votes short in the Lower House.
In 2016 Australian Marriage Equality will continue to build on this grassroots tide for change.
We have identified 25 MPs we believe can be persuaded to support reform and we will foster grass roots campaigns in their electorates.
Getting six of them across the line is eminently achievable given how many MPs shifted position in 2015.
Achieving majority support in parliament is important regardless of a plebiscite because a) it may convince the powers to be that a plebiscite isn’t necessary, and b) a “yes” vote in a plebiscite can’t be implemented without parliament’s say so.
As for the plebiscite itself, AME will continue to point out why one isn’t necessary, while, at the same time, organising and fundraising to ensure the result is an emphatic “yes”.
Already, we have employed a campaign manager, Erin McCallum, begun research on key messages, and brought social media and communications experts on board.
Another top priority is to explore the possibility of an agreement between key stakeholders about ground rules for a plebiscite debate.
All parties should feel free to state their case, but they also need to be aware of the impact their words can have on young LGBTI people and the children of same-sex couples.
I am heartened that an anti-discrimination case brought by transgender advocate, Martine Delaney, against a Catholic anti-equality booklet has seen the beginnings of an agreement between the parties to the case.
This gives me hope a broader agreement can be reached, and that we can turn the challenge of a plebiscite into an opportunity to reset Australia as a tolerant and inclusive nation.
Whichever path Australia takes to marriage equality, I am optimistic marriage equality is not far away, as long as we continue to work together to make it happen.
- CATEGORIES: Viewpoint