The Campain For Equality Has Changed Forever

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Today the High Court found unanimously that the ACT's new same-sex marriage laws cannot exist concurrently with the federal Marriage Act. The court held that only the federal Parliament "has power under the Australian Constitution to legislate with respect to same sex marriage".

But in many ways the finding is less important than the images and personal stories from last weekend’s same-sex marriages in Canberra, which have taken the Australian public’s understanding of marriage equality to a new level.

The ideological conflicts and political protests that often turn Middle Australia away from an issue were removed. Instead, the values at the heart of marriage equality — love, commitment, family — were finally visible for all to see and share.

The immense happiness and sheer ordinariness of last weekend’s weddings directly challenged the doomsayers who hysterically predict the end of society should two men or two women walk down the aisle.

The weddings challenged the way same-sex relationships are still stereotyped as unstable, short-lived and entirely sexual. They challenged the assumption that same-sex marriage is an issue for other people, other countries, or for future generations.

All this matters because polls show about a third of the 65 per cent of Australians who believe same-sex couples should be able to marry, aren’t much fussed either way. Meanwhile, about a third of the 35 per cent who currently oppose marriage equality are not rusted on to that position and are open to the case for reform. This middle ground's assent to marriage equality will be what makes the difference.

Because federal Labor has a conscience vote, marriage equality can only pass if the Coalition has one too. It will be the less-likely voices of suburban, rural, elderly and religious Australians that will convince wavering Liberal and National politicians to take the leap and vote for marriage equality.

To that end, the first step towards marriage equality in the current federal parliament was taken this week with the launch of a working group involving representatives from the Coalition, Labor and the Greens. It is modelled on a similar group which has advanced marriage equality in NSW.

As we have already seen in New Zealand and the UK, cross-party co-operation is indispensable in any parliament where marriage equality can only be achieved by a cross-party vote. Regardless of this outcome in the High Court, the new working group points the way to how marriage equality will finally be achieved.

I'm not saying the High Court’s decision doesn't matter. The court has decided the fate of the ACT’s Marriage Equality Act and the marriages solemnised under it. The joyous marriages we saw at the weekend will be voided and the certificates couples signed with such high hopes will be souvenirs of what was.

But regardless, the marriage equality campaign has changed forever thanks to the handful of brave souls who take the plunge last weekend. When they started a new chapter in their lives, so too the nation began a new chapter in its understanding of why marriage equality matters.

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