Australia is hardly the first country to back gay marriage but it certainly appears to be the most unlikely. A nation that once prided itself on backs-against-the-wall masculinity has just backed equal marriage in a government-run postal survey. Sixty-two per cent answered ‘Yes’ to the question: ‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’, with a response rate of 80 per cent.
Actually, it’s not all that shocking. Aussie attitudes to sexuality have changed beyond recognition in a generation. As has happened across the West, gays have gone from revilement to toleration to acceptance thanks to pop culture, demographics, and the decline of organised Christianity.
The result is a much-needed win for embattled prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose government has fallen into minority status amid the citizenship crisis and trails the Labor Party in the polls. Turnbull, a ‘small-l liberal’ who backs same-sex marriage, pursued the postal plebiscite to appease his conservative backbenches and to secure a popular mandate for eventual legislation. Labor tried and failed to trip him up on this manoeuvre, though they are unlikely to give him any credit for making the right call.
Indeed, the results will make uncomfortable reading for opposition leader Bill Shorten. Although he backed a ‘Yes’ vote, of the 17 electorates that voted ‘No’, 11 are Labor-held. This suggests Labor’s progressive social views are out of step with some immigrant communities and with Muslims in seats like Blaxland and Watson, where Islam is now the largest religion. Of those Labor MPs who have so far addressed the result, none will be changing their parliamentary vote to reflect their constituents’ wishes.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott, who campaigned for a ‘No’ vote, was rebuffed in his own true blue electorate of Warringah where 75 per cent responded ‘Yes’ to the survey. One of the most right-wing divisions in the Commonwealth delivered one of the most heavily pro-gay marriage results. Social conservatives have not merely lost the culture war, they have been crushed.
The campaign was divisive and the wounds inflicted will take time to heal. This was often given as a reason that a simple vote by MPs and senators would be preferable, a disingenuous suggestion from same-sex marriage proponents who knew they had the parliamentary arithmetic locked in. Democracy is divisive — that is the way of it when people disagree on something that matters so much to both sides. Canberra could have imposed its will from afar but doing so would have unleashed far more bitterness. Australians do not like being pushed around.
When the US Supreme Court discovered a right to same-sex marriage in the Constitution — quite a find in a 230-year-old document drafted by a bunch of Christians — there was much rejoicing that people in Mississippi were finally being put in their place. Democracy is a fine idea until the wrong people get their say. Judicial fiat dispensed with all that messy ‘We the people’ business but it did so as Americans were already embracing change. Eleven states plus the District of Columbia had already legalised gay marriage at the ballot box or the legislature and a CNN poll showed 63 per cent of Americans in favour of parity in marriage. But the Court had grown impatient of the American people and snatched their place in the history books for itself.
Australia’s faith in democracy is sturdier. Same-sex marriage will soon become law and it will have got there fair and square, by reason and persuasion rather than imposition. Advocates of the traditional definition of marriage will feel sore, disappointed, even bereft; they care deeply about the institution and do not see this as an issue of equality but one of sanctity.
But being fair dinkum is the Australian way and they will accept the result and refocus their efforts on securing protections for religious conscience in the new marriage Bill. That is the next big fight — along with the implications for the Safe Schools programme of relationship education — and it will be no less fierce than the referendum itself. Malcolm Turnbull wants a Bill through the House and Senate by Christmas but that provides almost no time to construct the kind of safeguards conservatives want to see. They are outnumbered in Parliament but can cause grief for Turnbull’s fragile government and will do so to get their way. Gay marriage is coming to Australia but it still has a rough path to travel.