Why There's Hope For Gay Marriage


It would be a big mistake to see the 2013 election result as the defeat of marriage equality, as the Christian Lobby claims.

Kevin Rudd’s success in lifting Labor’s popularity from its low under Julia Gillard, an opponent of marriage equality, as well as his continued personal popularity, are partly due to his strong support for the reform and its appeal to young voters.

The wipe out in western Sydney and Queensland predicted by opponents of Rudd’s pro-equality stance within the ALP did not occur.

But in reality, the future of marriage equality was never about the choice between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, as much as the media and parts of both major parties wanted you to believe it was. Because Labor has a conscience vote, and the reform can only pass when the Coalition grants one too, the election was actually about ensuring maximum support for the reform across both parties.

Seen this way the 2013 election is a step forward for marriage equality, because there are now more supporters in both parties than ever before.

During the election campaign, prominent Liberals like Kelly O’Dwyer and Teresa Gambaro joined the lengthening list of Liberals who openly support marriage equality.

No pro-equality Liberals lost their seat, and some, like Gambaro and Malcolm Turnbull and Wyatt Roy, increased their vote partly thanks to this support and despite strident anti-marriage equality campaigns in their seats.

In Labor ranks, supporters of reform like Graham Perrett, Alannah MacTiernan, Tim Watts, Pat Conroy, Joanne Ryan and Gary Grey were elected despite the overall anti-Labor trend, and also despite a high profile anti-gay leafletting campaign against them.

Only a handful of pro-equality Labor MPs were defeated while Labor MPs who had previously not voted in favour, like Michael Danby and David Feeney, pledged to do so next time.

A swathe of pro-equality Green, minor party and independent candidates were also elected or re-elected, while no candidates for parties that campaigned against marriage equality were successful.

In all, declared supporters of marriage equality in the House of Representatives has increased from 42 to 50, with more likely to declare their support when debate on the issue approaches.

The job ahead for marriage equality supporters is to bring together supporters across all parties in a cross-party working group similar to the one successfully moving marriage equality forward in NSW.

In particular, we must work together with those Liberal and National representatives who support equality to map a way forward to the all-crucial Coalition conscience vote, while at the same time lobbying the swath of new Liberal and National MPs whose personal stance is largely unknown.

Tony Abbott has said he will allow his party room to make a decision on the issue, but no time frame was given.

The increase in support in his party room will keep the pressure on Mr Abbott to keep his promise, as will pro-equality Greens and Independents in the balance of power in the Senate, not to mention the fact that marriage equality has occurred under conservative governments in Britain and New Zealand.

With his sister, Christine, in a same-sex relationship, his daughters in support of reform and his wife, Margie, heading down the same path, expect Abbott to be under pressure in the lounge room as well as the party room.

But before the work begins to move the Coalition and the wider parliament forward, supporters of marriage equality must reflect on the lessons of the election campaign.

Marriage equality had a higher profile this election, and more support from voters and candidates, than ever before. It became a bellwether issue, indicative of where candidates and voters stood on legal and social reform generally.

The Coalition’s strategy of running dead on marriage equality, and thereby removing it from the election debate, failed utterly.

This was partly due to Kevin Rudd’s strong support and partly due to developments overseas — but it was mostly because marriage equality has such overwhelming and passionate support among young heterosexual Australians.

If some members of the Coalition Government want to continue to delay and defer marriage equality, and diminish its importance and urgency, they can expect another failure.

Unlike, say, Australia becoming a republic, which has declined in importance as an issue since peaking in 1999, marriage equality affects tens of thousands of Australians on a daily basis, is an irreversible movement sweeping the western world, and has permanently won the hearts of young Australians.

As it was during the election campaign, the job of advocates is to keep reminding our elected leaders of this fact.

The second lesson from the election concerns the sickening anti-marriage equality campaign that hit electorates across three states. It was a warning to all those people, on both sides of the debate, about what horrors await if there is a referendum on the issue.

The ads featured stock images of unhappy children, some in tears, allegedly because they don’t have a father and a mother.

Others went further, re-inforcing the old stereotype of gay men as disease carriers. The anti-equality campaign followed a familiar pattern set in the 2004 and 2010 elections of striking in the dying days of the campaign to avoid scrutiny, with each leaflet being authorised by a different individual claiming they acted alone.

In past elections it became clear the Exclusive Brethren were behind the flyers.

This time it appears to have been the Australian Family Association, given the similarity between flyers authorised by individuals and those authorised by the AFA itself.

But what was different this time was that the leaflets were not aimed solely at the Greens, but at anyone, including Labor and Liberal candidates, in favour of equality. They were also much more hateful.

No-one who cares for the cohesion of Australian community, or the well-being of young same-sex attracted people and the children of same-sex couples, would want to see this hate given the even larger platform of a referendum campaign.

The 2013 election was not the set back many supporters of marriage equality feared it would be, and some opponents will inevitably claim. Support across the parliament has increased. There is now the opportunity for a Coalition conscience vote that did not exist before the election. It is still uncertain when marriage equality will be achieved, but this is nothing new.

What we can be certain of is that support will inevitably increase and reform will inevitably occur. For the sake of the nation let us hope it is sooner rather than later and with as little division and acrimony as possible.

New Matilda

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