Around the world there are more than one billion people living in a region where gay couples can marry. However, this isn’t the case for Australia yet. There have been approximately 15 unsuccessful attempts made to amend the Marriage Act. When the Australian Capital Territory attempted to make same sex marriage legal within the Territory, the High Court struck down the changes on the basis that changes to same sex marriage law is a constitutionally exclusive power, meaning it is only for the federal parliament to implement change.
Previously, there were talks of having a plebiscite on the subject matter of same-sex marriage. In Australia a plebiscite is a national vote, much like a referendum in this country. Where it varies, however, is that in Australia a plebiscite is a simple yes or no vote with the most popular side being the winner. A referendum, in Australian law, requires one of the propositions to secure a majority in at least four of Australia’s six states for there to be a ‘winner’. Typically in Australia plebiscites are used to gauge national opinion whilst referendums, which do of course reflect popular opinion, are used as a mechanism to effect constitutional change.
Recently the Australian Prime Minister promised a national referendum on the issue of same-sex marriage. But this begs the question, was the referendum proposal a genuine effort to recognise equality or just a political power play in the recent election? A closer look at the different views raised in this debate may help to analyse the issue.
Although the polls conducted on the issue of same-sex marriage indicate that a majority of Australians seem ready to support marriage equality, there have been mixed opinions. According to Australian LGBT activist, Tony Pitman, it’s unfortunate that ‘Australians will never be able to say that they were among the first billion to achieve marriage equality in the world and this can be attributed to politics’. Others have noted that if the referendum is unsuccessful, there could be a similar backlash as Brexit. This would have the opposite of the intended goal to recognise equality and could potentially result in discrimination and a rise in homophobia. When questioned about their views, many prominent Australian MPs have failed to directly make their position known and have dodged questions.
Whether the newly elected Australian government will opt for a plebiscite or a referendum, or any type of vote at all, remains to be seen.