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Human Rights |Explainer

Australian parliament approves historic same-sex marriage bill

Australian parliament passed a historic bill that will legalize same-sex marriage, just weeks after a national poll overwhelmingly voted to change the Marriage Act.

The result offers an end to the bruising debate that has split the country for over a decade. The results were met with applause and cheers in parliament, following last month’s rainbow-infused celebrations across the country after the public vote.

The decision comes 20 years after Tasmania became the last Australian state to decriminalize male homosexuality.

“What a day for love, for equality, for respect,” said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who said the survey’s result was “an overwhelming call for marriage equality.”

Australia’s governor-general will ratify the bill in the coming days, when it will make its official passage into law. The senate voted in support of same-sex marriage last week.

The public poll

Voting in a voluntary plebiscite on same-sex marriage was held from September 12 to November 7. The poll was held instead of a referendum because previous attempts to hold more conventional parliamentary votes were rejected in the Senate, the federal upper house.

Of those who voted in the public poll, 61.6 percent (7.8 million) were in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said. The vote against was 38.4 percent (4,873,987). High-profile opponents of the change included former prime minister Tony Abbott, as The Guardian newspaper noted. More than 12.7 million people (12,727,920) participated in the voluntary survey – 79.5 percent of the 16 million Australians eligible to vote, according to the Bureau.

The question asked was: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

All Australian states and territories recorded a vote in favor of change; the vote was closest in New South Wales, the most populous state, with 57.8 percent for yes and 42.2 percent no.

Nearly five million people voted ‘No’, which has prompted concern about the protection of free speech and religious freedom of citizens who are against the change. The participation rate was high for a voluntary survey, chief Australian Statistician David W. Kalisch said. As expected, there was a high response in lower age-groups, but also around 80 percent of voters aged over 85 took part.

Emotion-driven campaigns

The high turnout was the result of campaigns which played to emotions, Vince Mitchell, a behavoralist at the University of Sydney Business School, told WikiTribune.

The turnout of almost 80 percent of Australians was “enormous”, given the vote was about what he termed a “small issue.” Only about 1 percent of couples in Australia are same-sex, according to government statistics.

Campaigns on both sides ignored rational arguments, instead using messages of hope for the ‘Yes’ vote and fear on the ‘No’ side, Mitchell said. Both sides “fueled passions by running very emotive campaigns which asked people to feel not think.” Emotive advertisements angered each opposing side, he said.

A sign supporting the 'Yes' vote in Australia's marriage postal survey (Photo: Nic McBride via Flickr)
A sign supporting the ‘Yes’ vote in Australia’s marriage postal survey (Photo: Nic McBride via Flickr used under creative commons license CC BY 2.0)

The ‘Yes’ campaign capitalized on the link between love being a universal right and marriage equality, said Mitchell, whereas the ‘No’ camp capitalized on the emotion of fear to allow “leaps of logic,” he said.

Voting took place over eight weeks from September 12 to November 7, in what the BBC described as an “ugly and bruising” process.

“It exposed people’s prejudices and allowed some degree of homophobia and judgment on gay relationships in general as opposed to sticking strictly with the issue of marriage,” Mitchell said. “It gave some a public platform and occasion to air homophobic views which lie dormant and often unspoken until provoked.”

The government asked citizens for the debate to be civil and respectful in response to unrest caused by the same sex marriage debate. The Senate passed legislation that banned intimidation, threats and vilification during the vote. Anyone deemed to breach the protections faced fines of up to A$12,600 (US$10,103).

A long time coming

Same-sex marriage has been prohibited in Australia since 2004 when the Howard government changed the law to define marriage as between a man and a woman and “to the exclusion of all others.”

After that, 22 bills were introduced to legalize same-sex marriage, according to the Parliament of Australia. Since September 2016, four same-sex marriage bills have been introduced into the federal parliament.

Homosexual sex was illegal in Tasmania until 1997, with age of consent laws discriminating against homosexuals in Queensland until 2016.

“It is widely accepted and Australia has come a long way in a short space of time,” Vince Mitchell told WikiTribune. But “there it is still a little way to go before everyone is informed and comfortable with the LGBTQ community,” he said.

Same sex marriage around the world

  • Same-sex marriage is legal in 25 countries: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Uruguay, United States.
  • In some of those regions, only some parts permit same-sex marriage. In the UK, for example, it is banned in Northern Ireland.
  • Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage in 2001.
  • Same-sex marriage legislation came into force in South Africa in 2006, though it is outlawed in every other part of Africa.
  • Gay relationships are still criminalized in 72 countries, according to the 2017 annual report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
  • It was  illegal to be gay in 126 countries between the late 18th century and the current decade. In many countries, it can lead to imprisonment or the death penalty.
  • Taiwan became the first country in Asia to vote to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2017. The country has two years to amend the marriage laws to align with the constitution.

Sources & References

Featured image: REUTERS/David Gray


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Lydia is a staff journalist at WikiTribune, where she writes about politics, women's rights, inequality, sexual politics and more. Previously she headed up the women’s rights and political content at Konbini for over two years. In 2016, she made ‘Building Big’, a documentary about bigorexia and male body image. Her work has also been published in Dazed & Confused, Refinery29, Vice, Lyra, Banshee and Buffalo Zine. She is based in London.

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