home Australia, GLBTQI, Human Rights, Women A Same-Sex Marriage Referendum in Australia? Terrible Idea, Mate.

A Same-Sex Marriage Referendum in Australia? Terrible Idea, Mate.

This week one site spread like wildfire over the Australian parts of the internet – http://australianchristianlobby.org/. Unfortunately for notorious anti-gay group Australian Christian Lobby, not every website domain linked to their name delivers precisely what is promised.  The above website was created by another ACL group – the Australian Cat Ladies, who promise a pro-marriage equality platform of “family values, hard work, and lots of tummy rubs.” As with everything on the internet, you know things are getting serious when cats are involved.

All joking aside, the fight for marriage equality in Australia has gotten distinctly more intense lately in the wake of other recent same-sex marriage legalisations in France, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Trans-Tasman rivalry being what it is, the New Zealand move in particular has prompted renewed calls for marriage equality legislation.

But though same-sex marriage has been passed by conservatives in the UK and New Zealand, neither side of Australian politics has been eager to float legislation. The minority centre-left Gillard government has hung by a precarious thread for most of its term, with the prime minister at most willing to allow a conscience vote. On the other side, arch-conservative Tony Abbott, likely to become the next prime minister when Australia goes to the polls in September, has refused to even countenance that small concession to his party’s centre.

In short, then, the fight for marriage equality appears to be stalled on both sides of Parliament House. Public opinion, on the other hand, has overwhelmingly supported same-sex marriage in Australia for a number of years. As a result, independent MP Tony Windsor has called for a referendum to push through the change.

It might seem to the casual observer the perfect solution. Australian marriage equality campaigner Rodney Croome, however, is not so thrilled by the idea, stating in the Sydney Morning Herald that:

Overseas referenda on marriage equality have been exploited by cashed-up, anti-gay groups to conduct fear and hate campaigns against gay people.


We know from US research that in states where there have been marriage equality referenda there is an increase in the level of anxiety, depression and suicide among gay and lesbian people.

Most Australians would remember the republic debacle in the late 90s, when scaremongering from monarchists was able to sink a change that was overwhelmingly supported by the majority of people pre-poll. Given the emotive nature of the referenda, anti-gay politicking promises to be especially nasty.

Croome rightly notes that a referendum would give “would give anti-gay stalwarts such as Fred Nile the biggest megaphone they have ever had.” Even without a website, the Australian Christian Lobby would be thrilled with such an opportunity.

Furthermore, Croome points out the difficulty in formulating a referendum in time for the election. “For it to be done by the September election, as Windsor has proposed, it will be a rushed job, and probably botched.”

When it comes to social justice, referenda are frequently on the wrong side of history. Democracy not only means majority rule, it means protecting minority groups from the tyranny of the majority through the rule of law.  Putting fundamental rights up for debate by an unaffected majority is an ugly, ugly precedent.

In any case, given the momentum in Australia on this subject, it seems unlikely, even with a probable Abbott government, that we would head to the polls again in 2016 without one of the major parties in favour of marriage equality.  Unlike the Republic debate, which sank in the late 90s without a trace, marriage equality isn’t going anywhere.

Lagging behind most of the Anglophonic world seems unlikely to be a state of affairs for too long.  Let’s do things right in Australia and, to steal a line from a great New Zealander, the sooner the better now.