Kevin Rudd’s commitment to introduce marriage equality in his first hundred days if he is re-elected as Prime Minister signals a significant shift in the marriage equality debate.Not only is the nation’s leader saying marriage equality is important. He’s also saying it’s urgent.
This speaks directly to the frustration marriage equality supporters feel when we see our closest allies, like the US, New Zealand and the UK, move forward on the issue.
It speaks to those Australians whose gay friends and family members are tired of waiting and are considering marrying overseas.
It will be particularly important for those elderly same-sex couples, or couples with elderly parents, who want to say "I do" before it's too late. It is also a pointed contradiction to the long-time talking point, heard from members of both major parties, that marriage equality is a low priority that can wait until the economy is fixed, unemployment solved and hell freezes over.
I have no doubt Kevin Rudd is genuine about resolving marriage equality sooner rather than later. But as well as doing what’s right, he is also doing what’s smart.
It’s no secret that young voters overwhelmingly support marriage equality. A recent Galaxy poll found 53 per cent of voters aged 18-25 are more likely to vote Labor as a result of Kevin Rudd’s support for marriage equality.
Subsequent Australian Institute research found marriage equality is a top priority for young voters, above climate change and with only bread-and-butter issues like jobs and housing trumping it.
But as important as Rudd's statement is symbolically, it doesn't remove the fundamental blockage to achieving marriage equality in Australia.
Because the ALP has a conscience vote on marriage equality and some Labor members will always vote against, the only way to secure a majority in favour of reform is for the Coalition to allow a conscience vote as well.
Kevin Rudd cannot achieve this reform by himself.
He needs to reach across the political divide and bring Tony Abbott with him. To his credit, Tony Abbott, gave signs of softening during the leaders' debate. He declared, for the first time, that marriage equality is “a very important issue”. In another first, he also pointedly refrained from defending the status quo (although he has subsequently restated his opposition to reform).
Australia has come a long way since the 2010 election debates when the leaders of both major parties went out of their way to defend the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and rule out any way forward on the issue. In 2013 both major-party leaders are effectively saying it’s not so much a matter of if, as when.
That question is now Tony Abbott’s to answer.
For several months Tony Abbott has left the door open to a conscience vote, saying it is a matter for the Coalition party room to decide on after the election. But he will need to do more before the election if he is to have any hope of reaching out to those many young voters for whom marriage equality is a signature issue. Tony Abbott’s current stance essentially says to young Australians “don’t’ vote for me”.
It will also come under extra scrutiny when Australian same-sex couples begin marrying in New Zealand in a few days time.
The smart thing for Abbott to do would be to declare now that Coalition MPs will be able to vote how they wish. This would free inner-city Liberals like Malcolm Turnbull, Kelly O’Dwyer, Wyatt Roy and Kevin Ekendahl to campaign hard on the issue. It would also free up opponents of marriage equality within the Coalition to stand up for their personal views rather than hide behind the party line.
Thanks to Kevin Rudd investing marriage equality with a sense of urgency, the reform is now firmly an election issue that could make the difference if the outcome is close. Supporters of marriage equality can only hope the Coalition is flexible enough to adapt to this new paradigm.
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