Australians Vote Overwhelmingly In Favor Of Marriage Equality In Non-Binding Referendum
Australians have voted overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in a non-binding referendum that supporters are hoping will finally spur the government in Canberra to move forward on an issue that has had widespread public support for some time now:
MELBOURNE, Australia — A solid majority of Australians voted in favor of same-sex marriage in a historic survey that, while not binding, paves the way for Parliament to legally recognize the unions of gay and lesbian couples.
Of 12.7 million Australians who took part in the government survey, 61.6 percent voted yes and 38.4 percent voted no, officials announced on Wednesday morning. Participation was high, with 79.5 percent of voting-age Australians sending back their postal ballots.
“The Australian people have spoken, and they have voted overwhelmingly ‘yes’ for marriage equality,” said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who called the survey in a move described by advocates as a delay tactic devised to appease his party’s far-right faction. “They voted ‘yes’ for fairness, they voted ‘yes’ for commitment, they voted ‘yes’ for love.”
The high turnout and unequivocal result amounted to a rebuke for Australia’s most conservative politicians, many of whom saw a majority of their constituents vote to support same-sex marriage despite their arguments against it.
Proponents of gay rights spent the day celebrating. They gathered in cities around the country to watch news broadcasts of the survey results. The largest crowd, at Prince Alfred Park in Sydney, broke into cheers, with hugs, dancing and tears, as soon as the news was announced.
“This is our proudest moment as gay and lesbian Australians,” said Chris Lewis, 60, an artist from Sydney, who waved a large rainbow flag he bought in San Francisco about 30 years ago. “Finally I can be proud of my country.”
But many Australians said it was also late in coming.
Annika Lowry, 42, who brought her 4-year-old daughter to the celebration, said the vote revealed a widening gap between Australia’s political class and voters who have been demanding same-sex marriage legislation for years.
“It was not just about us,” she said. “It’s for our kids, so that they know equality is important.”
Alex Greenwich, a state lawmaker from New South Wales and the co-chairman of Australian Marriage Equality, an advocacy group, said the vote “shows that Australians have truly come together in support of their gay and lesbian mates and have said that everybody should be able to have the freedom to marry.”
In calling for the national survey, Mr. Turnbull sought public backing for a shift in social policy that was opposed by many members of his center-right Liberal Party.
Mr. Turnbull voted yes, and he urged other Australians to do so as a matter of fairness, seeking to blunt opposition from far-right members of his party.
“My commitment was to give every Australian their say,” Mr. Turnbull said after the results were announced. “That has been done, they have spoken.”
He added: “Now it is up to us, here in the Parliament of Australia, to get on with it — to get on with the job the Australian people have tasked us to do, and get this done, this year, before Christmas.”
Dean Smith, a federal senator from the Liberal Party, who is gay, said that he would immediately introduce a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. He said on Tuesday that he believed he had the votes to pass the legislation in the Senate and send it to Parliament’s lower house for approval.
Lyle Shelton, a Christian lobbyist who was the “no” campaign’s most outspoken advocate, said he would begrudgingly “accept the democratic decision.”
“Millions of Australians will always believe the truth about marriage, that it’s between one man and one woman,” Mr. Shelton said. “It could take years, if not decades, to win that back.”
The survey in Australia was controversial, not only because it placed such a thorny issue at the whims of direct democracy but also because of its cost.
As the deadline approached for citizens to mail in their ballots, passions were inflamed by heartfelt pleas and vitriolic attacks.
Many supporters of same-sex marriage opposed the survey, saying that human rights should not be a matter for an up-or-down vote and urging Parliament to decide the matter.
Estimates put the cost of the survey around 122 million Australian dollars, or $97 million. The poll was not a legally required step for changing the law.
Activists in September challenged the survey’s legality, arguing that it was an unconstitutional use of tax money, but Australia’s High Court allowed the poll to proceed. In the end, the response rate was higher than supporters of same-sex marriage anticipated, showing both frustration with parliamentary inaction and the extent to which mainstream opinion has shifted in support of sexual minorities.
Although legalization is not guaranteed, the results announced on Wednesday make the country’s path to same-sex marriage much clearer.
Mr. Greenwich said the outcome delivered “an unequivocal mandate for Parliament to legislate for this bill as soon as possible for a fair bill this year.”
Focus has already shifted to that bill, and what form it will take.
“After a cost of 122 million, and over two months of campaigning and years of public discussion, it makes no sense to delay a parliamentary debate,” Mr. Smith, the Liberal senator, said in an interview. “Australians upheld their end of the bargain by voting en masse. Now it’s time for Parliament to uphold its end of the same deal.”
Mr. Smith’s bill provides for some religious protections and allows members of the clergy to refuse to solemnize marriages that conflict with their beliefs.
An alternative bill, proposed by another Liberal Party senator, James Paterson, has more robust religious protections. His bill would allow service providers like bakers and photographers to refuse service to same-sex couples, without facing legal action. His bill would provide additional anti-discrimination protections for religious people and businesses opposed to gay marriage. Reflecting the national debate that often centered on the well-being of children, Mr. Paterson’s bill would allow parents the right to take their children out of classes that “conflict with their values.”
However, within hours of the survey’s result being revealed, Mr. Paterson took to Facebook to announce that he would be working on Mr. Smith’s bill.
“It is clear the majority of senators believe my colleague Senator Dean Smith’s bill is where we should start,” Mr. Paterson wrote.
As noted, Prime Minister Turnbull and his wife announced their support for the referendum early in the process:
Lucy and I are voting YES because it’s fair. Make sure you have your say too by returning your survey form. pic.twitter.com/6xhaDYC7pQ
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) September 23, 2017
And, in the wake of the results, he is promising action on a bill by Christmas:
The people of Australia have spoken and I intend to make their wish the law of the land by Christmas. This is an overwhelming call for marriage equality. pic.twitter.com/PWZbH5H71r
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) November 14, 2017
Katharine Murphy at The Guardian, meanwhile, says that the ball is now in the court of the governing coalition to prove it can deliver on an issue that it had been promising to proceed on for the better part of two years:
The Coalition actually has significant political opportunity with this result. The government has an opportunity to prove it is something other than a rabble obsessed with intrigues and toxic paybacks.
It has the opportunity to demonstrate to voters that it can function productively, and has not, collectively, lost the plot.
Demonstrating that would involve government MPs getting on with turning the will of the people into the law of the land, without delay, without posturing, without new threats and arm twisting and standover tactics, without unctuous gestures of obedience to conservative power brokers and preselectors.
Given the parlous political circumstances the Turnbull government currently faces, this is a significant test that people might like to consider meeting. A bit of sober reflection is seriously in order. But whether people can rise to the occasion, can rise above their inclination to plot, remains moot.
The crash-through strategy now among Liberal supporters of same-sex marriage is to grab the momentum from the result and play a simple numbers game.
If yes supporters hold their nerve, the numbers (with cross-party support) carry Dean Smith’s bill to the floor, not the risible bill produced by James Paterson.
Turnbull has now, at the last possible minute, the day before the result, nailed his own colours to the mast. He said on Tuesday his government was not looking to entrench discrimination against LGBTI people if Australians vote yes.
Having drawn a public line, it would be difficult in the extreme if his own people now proceeded to make a liar of him.
So the next few weeks are critical. Success will require a combination of Turnbull holding the line, moderates holding the line, and the conservatives who matter playing ball.
If all that sounds fragile, and uncertain, it is. Proceeding on those parameters requires reason and functionality, and in Canberra, we’ve almost forgotten what that looks like.
But if people in the government are thinking rationally, they will know that getting a cross-party outcome on same-sex marriage by year’s end is important for two reasons.
Firstly, it delivers what a clear majority of Australians have asked for. Yes, democracy: that old thing.
And secondly it settles same-sex marriage as a political issue ahead of what could be an earlier and more brutal start to the federal election season than anyone bargained for.
To some degree, legislators in Australia may be eager to take on the same-sex marriage bill at a time when Australian politics is apparently being rocked over a seemingly arcane issue that has led to a handful of resignations. It is apparently the case under Australian law that members of the Senate or House of Representatives in Australia are forbidden from holding dual citizenship in Australia and any other nation, including other members of the British Commonwealth such as the United Kingdom. In recent weeks, though, a minor scandal has erupted in Canberra over the fact that several members of both the House and the Senate have been discovered to have dual citizenship, most typically in both Australia and either New Zealand or the United Kingdom. This apparently isn’t uncommon in a nation that has a sizeable immigration. Given that the relevant section of the Australian Constitution bars people with dual citizenship from even running for office it’s unclear how these people even made it into office, and it’s equally hard to believe the protestations of those members who called the issue an “oversight” as if they were totally unaware that they held dual citizenship. In any case, concentrating on legislation to fulfill the will of the people such as this would give the ruling coalition an opportunity to move beyond that issue ahead of nationwide elections which must be held next year for the Senate, and no later than November 2019 for the House of Representatives.
The outcome of this referendum is hardly a surprise, of course. Well before the voting process even began, 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. As a result, Australia remains one of the few remaining major English-speaking nations where same-sex marriage remains illegal. 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. With the results of this referendum, that will hopefully be rectified soon.