New York state is surprisingly similar to Australia. Its population is about 20 million. It is divided between the big city and traditional country areas. It has an influential Catholic Church and its centre-right party has a powerful conservative wing. Marriage equality is in the hands of legislators, not judges —and popular support for that reform stands at about 60 per cent with the projected economic dividend of equality being substantial.
This means there is a lot Australia can learn from the recent achievement of marriage equality in New York.
1. Conservative religious legislators can support reform
Four religious Republicans who had previously voted against equality this time crossed the floor to make sure it passed. They did this not despite their values but because of them. They also did it knowing not one politician who ever supported marriage equality lost their seat because of it. This is a reminder to Australians that equality is an issue religious conservatives can support. It is also a warning to centre-left supporters of equality to reach out to supporters on the other side of politics. If Australia’s major parties adopt conscience votes on this reform, it will not pass without the support of Coalition MPs.
2. Civil unions are not a necessary step towards full equality
New York legislators rejected the compromise of civil unions. They had the benefit of studies which show civil union schemes in other American states had failed to provide same-sex couples with full legal or social recognition. They realised the time has passed for "intermediary steps" to full equality and that the issue of same-sex marriage should rise or fall on its own merits. Those Australian decision-makers who think civil unions will end the debate, or are a necessary step towards full equality, should pay heed to the outcome in New York.
3. Equality can win out over fear campaigns
Some supporters of equality pessimistically believe fearmongering against reform is a force too powerful to overcome, especially in the event of a conscience vote. New York shows that when the supporters of equality are united around a common goal, and can enlist the support of influential political and corporate figures, it is possible to make progress against fear.
4. The final hurdle will be religious exemptions
Once fear ceased to work in New York, the final hurdle to reform was the demand from some churches for legal immunity if they refused to marry same-sex couples, refused services at faith-based child and welfare agencies, or even refused to rent them premises for wedding receptions. Such exemptions already exist in Australian law. No religious celebrant can be forced to marry someone against their wishes. Churches have exemptions under marital status in federal law and sexual orientation in state law. Supporters of equality must reinforce the point that religious bodies already have all the exemptions they require.
5. The key to reform is strong political leadership
Compared to New York, the one crucial element missing from the Australian scene is a political leader willing to champion reform. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo invested significant political capital in achieving equality, as have government leaders in Canada, Spain and Argentina. No Australian federal leader is yet willing to do this. Reform is probably still possible without such a leader, but it will be much less painful and divisive for the nation with one.
6. Personal stories make a real difference
Personal stories are crucial to achieving marriage equality because so many people have gay friends or relatives, and because marriage is a universal institution we all understand. New York has no residency requirement for marrying partners, and welcomes a lot of Australian expats and tourists —who could resist a wedding on the top of the Empire State Building? But when these married partners return to Australia their solemn vows count for nothing. They vote. So do their friends and families, who will be angry about this discrimination and about not being able to attend their loved one’s wedding. Each time a gay Australian marries in New York it is another nail in the coffin of inequality.
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