What’s Been Happening?
In May 2004, the Howard government expressly prohibited the legislation of same-sex marriage by introducing the Marriage Amendment Act in Parliament. The amendment specified that marriage, would be defined as a “union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”.
Over the next decade or so, legislation was passed so that discrimination against same-sex couples in areas of tax, social security and health and adoption were gradually removed.
In August this year, a non-compulsory national postal survey (also known as plebiscite) was conducted in order to gauge whether people supported the notion of changing the law to allow same-sex couples to marry. Respondents were asked to mark one box – Yes or No on the survey form. 80% of total registered voters (16,006,180) returned the form with 61.6% voting Yes and 38.4% voting No. Having given the public a say, it was felt by most members of parliament (MPs) that the verdict must be reflected in law.
Australia has officially become the 26th country to legalise same-sex marriage after the Marriage Amendment (Definitions and Religious Freedoms) Bill was passed in the Senate last week and House of Representatives on the 7th of December. An overwhelming majority of MPs voted in favour of the Bill, with four voting No and around nine abstained.
The new law changes the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act by removing the words “a man and a woman” and replacing them with “the union of 2 people”. This was the minimum required reform to enable same-sex marriage.
When the vote was declared on the floor of the House, the public gallery exploded into cheers and applause and eventually burst into a rendition of the song, “I am, you are, we are Australian”. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was equally jubilant as he declared, “Australia has done it. What a day for love, for equality, for respect. This has been a great, unifying day in our history.”
It is certainly cause for celebration that Australia has finally embraced marriage equality. Thousands of Australians who married in overseas jurisdictions will have their vows recognised under Australian law and the first same-sex weddings will be able to occur from January 9, 2018. However, it is not the end of the road when it comes to law reform.
There are still other issues that require attention and discussion which continue to affect same-sex people:
- Birth certificates that accurately reflect a child’s family structure (e.g. four parents)
- Controversial conversion therapies that attempt to “cure” a person’s same sex attraction
- Protection of religious freedom or is it discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation?