This week Australia took the momentous step of legalizing same sex marriage – joining two dozen countries that have given gay and lesbian couples the right to tie the knot.
It is the culmination of a drawn-out and highly divisive public debate.
From Sydney, Jake Atienza takes a look at Australia’s road to same-sex marriage.
On Thursday, rainbow flags were waving around Australia Parliament house, as the right the right to same sex marriage was enshrined in law.
Marriage equality has been front and centre in Australia over the past few months.
In November, the Australian government released the results of its national postal survey on same-sex marriage. The survey showed 61%, or nearly 8 million Australians, voted to amend the law and allow same-sex couples to marry.
“In a sense this is a modification to an amendment that was made in 2004 when the former Prime Minister inserted a specific clause in the marriage act to say that marriage is only between a man and a woman,” explained Peter Chen, lecturer in media politics, public policy and Australian politics at the University of Sydney.
More than 20 bills dealing with marriage equality have been presented to parliament since 2004, but until now they failed to gain traction.
So after more than a decade of lobbying, what’s changed?
“There are so many different answers to that one,” says Lee Carnie, a lawyer specializing in LGBTI rights at the Human Rights Law Centre in Sydney.
“I think politicians in Canberra didn’t know how much Australians, the ordinary Australians support marriage equality,” she continued.
The voluntary postal vote showed that the majority of Australians support same sex marriage.
But the postal vote was also heavily criticized for unnecessarily putting LGBTIQ Australians at the centre of a highly charged and sometimes hateful public debate. It also cost taxpayers AUD$122 million to administer.
“This non-binding postal survey, something that has never happened in Australia, is completely unprecedented in terms of a process for making laws in this country,” said Carnie.
The postal vote gave no guarantee the parliament would pass a law allowing same sex marriage.
In a system where policy and legislation is decided in parliament, why was a contentious issue like marriage equality subjected to a voluntary postal vote?
“The political elite class in Australia were really unable to come to an agreement about having a parliamentary debate over the issue,” Peter Chen explained.
But after the results of the postal vote were in, a bill still had to get through parliament.
Peter Chen says that the parliamentary debate reflected how divided feelings are on the issue.
“It will undo the restriction on same sex couples getting married but it also is a somewhat centrist position because it is going to have some elements that permit a degree of legalized discrimination by non-religious celebrants and this is one of the areas of debate.”
After the majority of Australians voted yes to legalise same sex marriage, the debate shifted. Members of parliament then argued that the law should give small businesses, religious institu-tions, and celebrants the right to refuse doing business with gay and lesbian couples.
“It will also have a few other elements to it, and it is about this question of whether religious or-ganizations and religious practitioners have the right to refuse to marry same sex couples,” stated Chen.
Some argued that this would enshrine discrimination in law. But Monica Doumit, spokesperson for the Coalition of Marriage, an alliance of organizations and interest groups that say no to mar-riage equality, argued differently.
“Three of the key consequences that we spoke about in the campaign were the impact on free-dom of speech, the impact of freedom of religion or freedom of belief and also the impact on pa-rental rights particularly when it comes to what their children learn in school,” she commented
Lee Carnie says that these arguments are completely unrelated to what is at stake - marriage equality.
“We’ve tried to focus, during the whole postal survey campaign, the yes campaign has really fo-cused 100% that this is about marriage equality, this is about same sex couples who want the same opportunities for fairness and equality, and for love, commitment and happiness and they just want the same opportunities that all other Australians have already.”
Same sex marriage was eventually passed into law without measures that would permit religious institutions and businesses to refuse same sex couples.
The first gay weddings can be expected in a month.