Australia Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage
Less than a month after a non-binding referendum in which Australian citizens overwhelmingly voted in favor of same-sex marriage, the Australian Parliament has passed a bill doing just that, thus ending a years-long debate in the country in which the will of a majority of voters was being blocked by a minority in the government:
SYDNEY, Australia — Australia’s Parliament voted overwhelmingly to legalize same-sex marriage on Thursday, overcoming years of conservative resistance to enact change that the public had made clear that it wanted.
The final approval in the House of Representatives, with just four votes against the bill, came three weeks after a national referendum showed strong public support for gay marriage. The Senate passed the legislation last week.
“This belongs to us all,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage who had previously failed to get it legalized, said on Thursday. “This is Australia: fair, diverse, loving and filled with respect. For every one of us this is a great day.”
After the vote, spectators in the public gallery began singing “I Am Australian,” a well-known anthem. Lawmakers stood and looked up at the gallery, some wiping tears from their eyes.
The new law expands on earlier legislation that provided equality to same-sex couples in areas like government benefits, employment and taxes, and it changes the definition of marriage from “the union of a man and a woman” to “the union of two people.” It automatically recognizes same-sex marriages from other countries.
Gay rights advocates praised the landmark vote even as they said it was long overdue. In a country where there had been 22 unsuccessful attempts in Parliament to legalize same-sex marriage since 2004, they said, the law should be seen as the triumph of a democracy learning to live up to its values.
A handful of lawmakers tried to add amendments that they said were meant to safeguard religious freedoms for opponents of same-sex marriage, but their efforts failed. Mr. Turnbull noted that nothing in the legislation requires ministers or other celebrants to oversee weddings of gay couples or threatens the charity status of religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage, two concerns the lawmakers had raised.
The final debate in the House of Representatives, which lasted four days, featured more than 100 speakers.
On the first day, there was a marriage proposal: Tim Wilson, a gay member of Parliament with the center-right Liberal Party, spoke of the struggles he and his partner, Ryan Bolger, had encountered as a couple, before choking up, finding him in the public gallery and asking: “Ryan Patrick Bolger, will you marry me?”
The answer came loud and clear — “yes” — as did public congratulations from the deputy speaker, Rob Mitchell.
That was followed by hours of emotional speeches, as politicians on the left and right fell into a rare moment of relative consensus and moving closer to public sentiment, which has favored same-sex marriage for years, according to polls.
Even former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a staunch critic of same-sex marriage, seemed to have softened.
“When it comes to same-sex marriage, some countries have introduced it via the courts, some via Parliament, and others — Ireland and now Australia — by vote of the people,” Mr. Abbott said. “And that is the best way because it resolves this matter beyond doubt or quibble.”
For many lawmakers and gay-rights advocates working behind the scenes, the debate took on the feel of a communal reckoning with Australia’s long history of homophobia.
Many Australians no doubt see this as a long overdue development. For several years now, polling has shown that a strong majority of Australian citizens favored same-sex marriage. Prior to the voting in the referendum, for example, polling indicated that a majority of Australians supported same-sex marriage, as did a majority segment of the legislators in the Liberal Party, the ruling party in the coalition that currently controls Australia’s government. Despite this, conservative forces in the coalition, including several of the legislators named in the report excerpted above, were able to block consideration of legislation to legalize same-sex marriage even in the face of the overwhelming public support. This small group of opponents was able to keep the issue from being considered or voted on for several years thanks in no small part to their crucial role in keeping the ruling coalition together. Additionally, unlike the United States, it doesn’t appear that the Australian legal system offered many viable options for gay and lesbian couples to pursue their cases in Court. As a result, the rights of Australia’s gay and lesbian citizens were held in limbo for what were essentially political reasons that had nothing to do with same-sex marriage at all. With the results of the referendum being so overwhelming, though, there was really no excuse for the governing party to continue sitting on its hands.
With this vote, Australia joins the majority of the worlds English-speaking nations where same-sex marriage has been legalized. Other nations, including the United Kingdom (except for Northern Ireland), New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and even the seemingly most conservative of the English-speaking nations Ireland legalized marriage equality well before the Aussies. The vote in Canberra also comes a day after a court ruling in Austria by that nation’s Constitutional Court legalizing same-sex marriage, making Austria the 16th European country to legalize same-sex marriage since The Netherlands became the first to do so back in 2001. At this point, essentially all of the nations in Western Europe have either legalized same-sex marriage outright or legalized civil unions for same-sex couples that have the same civil benefits as marriage. This last group of nations includes Andorra, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, and Switzerland. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, there is essentially no country where same-sex marriage is recognized and many, such as Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine, where the nation’s laws or Constitution specifically define marriage as only being between a man and a woman. (Source)
In any case, congratulations to Australia and to the gay and lesbian couples who can finally achieve the equality they are entitled to. It’s long overdue.