Australia’s Messed-Up Public Vote on Same-Sex Marriage
After many parliamentary and legal challenges, we ended up with a much, much worse idea: a voluntary, postal survey on marriage equality.
“Hitler had put all those kind of people in their own concentration camps—it’s one of the two good things he did,” caller “Don” told Australian radio host Jon Faine in early September.
The “kind of people” Don was referring to were gays. And the reason he was calling in to the taxpayer-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation was to discuss the government’s national vote on marriage equality (the other good thing Hitler did was build the Autobahn, by the way).
The host, Jon Faine, let the call go to air because he wanted the country to see exactly what was being said by some of the people campaigning against marriage equality. I wish I could tell you that this is the worst thing that’s been said throughout this whole ordeal, but I’d be lying.
We’ve been told by prominent anti-equality campaigners that raising children in same-sex families is a form of child abuse, that we are creating a new “Stolen Generation”—a reference to the horrific, practice of removing Indigenous children from their biological parents, which prompted a formal apology from the Australian government in 2007—by allowing same-sex parents to exist, and that LGBTQ people in general are “disordered.”
The campaign has been long and difficult. There’s plenty of evidence that queer people are suffering—LGBTQ help lines have seen huge spikes in traffic—and the most frustrating part is, none of this ever needed to happen in the first place.
The move for marriage equality began in 2015. Ireland had just voted overwhelmingly for marriage equality, and Australia was beginning to look like a pariah as one of the few English-speaking, Western democracies that did not allow same-sex marriage.
Our ultra-conservative prime minister, Tony Abbott, was under pressure. The momentum for same-sex marriage seemed inevitable. One section of the governing Coalition was pushing for change, while another group would allow same-sex marriage over their dead bodies.
Abbott himself has always been staunchly opposed to marriage equality (despite having a gay sister), so he found a way to delay the inevitable. He decided to shunt the responsibility away from parliament, and put it into the hands of the people. The idea, called a plebiscite, was that Australians would be asked what they think of same-sex marriage, then the parliament would act on the people’s wishes.
The plebiscite, which would be a compulsory national vote with a simple Yes/No question, was vehemently opposed by marriage equality supporters for a number of reasons: It was costly, it was legally unnecessary, the result was not binding, and most of all it would do untold harm to some of Australia’s most vulnerable people.
Pretty soon Abbott was dumped as prime minister by his own party and replaced by the urbane, center-right Malcolm Turnbull, a longtime supporter of marriage equality. But the plebiscite policy remained because Turnbull depended on the right-wing of his party to hold on to power.
The Coalition took the policy to an election and won, but couldn’t pass the necessary laws through parliament. And so, after many parliamentary and legal challenges, we ended up with a much, much worse idea: A voluntary, postal survey on marriage equality.
The policy is so bad, it can’t even be legally called a vote (even though that’s what it is). It isn’t being conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, the body set up to conduct national votes such as this. Instead, it’s being conducted by our Bureau of Statistics under the guise of a “statistical survey,” in the same way you might want to find out how many Australians enjoy eating beets.
Since early September, envelopes have been arriving in people’s letterboxes posing a simple question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”
The process may sound simple, but it raised a lot of questions. Would young people, who overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage but are more likely to move house frequently actually receive their ballots? Would Australia’s notoriously terrible postal service be up to the challenge of delivering 16 million ballots? Would those ballots actually reach their intended recipients, or would they be stolen by the homophobes down the street?
The No campaign made it very clear from the beginning that it wouldn’t be talking about marriage (because polls have consistently shown for a decade that most Aussies support marriage equality). Instead, they’d be throwing a bunch of slurs at the wall and hoping those slurs stick.
So over the last few months we’ve heard about how gay parents are terrible and dangerous, how marriage equality means kids will be taught “radical gay sex education” in schools, and how it will soon be illegal to even suggest that marriage should remain between a man and a woman.
It’s a gross amalgam of the many different anti-equality campaigns that have been run across the world, all wrapped up in a nice little three-month package.
The whole process has been very, very draining for queer people. This vote has been hanging over us like a very big, very dark cloud. Every day on TV, online and in newspapers, people are given a platform to question our worth as spouses, humans and parents.
All the while, in the back of our minds are the lingering questions. What if Australia votes No? Who do I know who is voting No? Can I still live in a country that would deny me the right to equality?
The good news is the No campaign’s tactics don’t seem to be working. A stunning 75% of Australians have so far returned their ballots (which is probably a reflection of our culture of compulsory voting), and if the polls are correct, the split so far is around 60:40 in the Yes campaign’s favor. Unless something is catastrophically wrong with the polling (and when has that ever happened before?), equality-loving Australians will soon be celebrating a decisive victory.
The voting process is wrapping up now. All ballots need to be returned by early November, and the final result will be announced on November 15. If it’s a No, the government will do nothing and same-sex couples will need to wait until the government changes before marriage equality becomes law.
But if, as expected, the result is a resounding Yes, all eyes will return to parliament, and the introduction of marriage equality legislation.
The government says that in that case, it would want a marriage equality bill passed by Christmas (if nothing else, most conservatives just want to stop talking about same-sex marriage and move on to other issues). But hard right politicians have other ideas.
Just this week, one of our most conservative senators hinted that no matter what the result, he will seek to delay marriage equality. Yes campaigners have also begun shifting focus, calling for swift legislation in the case of a successful yes vote.
In an ideal world, this Christmas will be highlighted by same-sex couples Australia-wide getting down on one knee, safe in the knowledge that for the first time they are truly considered equal. But for LGBTQ Australians December 25 still feels a long way away.