On Tuesday night, just before 11pm, I was at home in rainy London glued to Australian news. The results of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey were about to be called. I watched as huge crowds gathered beneath sunny skies across the country to await the verdict; the mood, despite its festive appearance, was jittery and anxious.
It was a survey that many people felt should never have taken place. Quite apart from the fact that it cost AU$122 million and repeated polls had shown that a vast majority of the population supported a positive change to the law, how was it possible that Australia, supposedly one of the most robust democracies in the world, hadn’t legalized marriage equality years ago? Even Ireland did in 2015! Most non-Australians I’ve told about the vote have been surprised. ‘What?’ they exclaim, ‘same-sex marriage isn’t legal in the home of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the 40-year-old Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Kylie Minogue?’ Others asked, quite rightly, how, in a country ruled on non-secular lines, it was even still a debate. Wasn’t it a straightforward issue of human rights and equality for all citizens?
Nope. Under Australian law, same-sex couples can be registered as de facto relationships but have no access to civil unions. In the last 13 years, 22 same-sex marriage bills have been introduced and rejected by the government. In 2013, the Australian Capital Territory briefly legalized same-sex marriage but it was overruled by Federal courts.
I still remember when, in the mid-1990s, the-then Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating – a man who was known for his wit and sophistication – told Cabinet in a debate about gay marriage that ‘two blokes and a cocker spaniel don’t make a family’. Everyone laughed.
Wasn’t it a straightforward issue of human rights and equality for all citizens?
His successor, the Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, a vocal homophobe, apparently refused to send a message of support to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 1997 and stated in a TV interview that he would be ‘disappointed’ if one of his children was gay. (In Australia, the Liberal Party is, confusingly, the main conservative party.) In 2004, with the support of the opposition Labor Party, marriage equality was officially blocked by Howard’s government; the 1961 Marriage Act and the Family Law Act was amended in order to define marriage as ‘a union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’.
In 2012, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard – a Labor politician who lived with her hairdresser boyfriend – voted against a private member’s bill to allow marriage equality. (In 2015, no longer PM, she changed her mind.)
Less surprisingly, perhaps, her successor Tony Abbott – who trained as a Catholic priest before entering politics and was Prime Minister from 2013–15 – was a leading ‘No’ campaigner. (His daughter Frances and his gay sister Christine Forster have been vocal in the ‘Yes’ camp.) Now an MP, he declared that: ‘If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote “No”, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote “No” because voting “No” will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.’ By ‘political correctness’, of course, he meant a change in the law that would simply allow two people to make a public and legally binding declaration of their love. (Isn’t it great when someone wants to tell you how to live but insists they’re really protecting your freedom of speech?) An aside: Abbott also said in a recent lecture he gave to the Global Warming Policy Foundation – an ultra-conservative think tank that is sceptical of the impact of humans on the environment – that: ‘Climate change is probably doing good; or at least more good than harm’. I only mention this to give you a sense of the man.
The current (Liberal) Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull – who supports marriage equality – authorized the postal survey. The question it asked was a simple one: ‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’ Voting in Australia is compulsory, but this national survey was voluntary, and its result has no actual legal clout. Nonetheless, much of the ‘No’ side focused on the levels of discrimination that will be permissible if marriage equality becomes law, and have shown more concern for the rights of bakers, florists and musicians who might not wish to bake, flower-arrange or perform at a same-sex wedding, than they have towards LGBTI Australians. Summing up the viciousness of the past few weeks, the journalist Rob Stott wrote that:
‘The “No” campaign knew it had to change millions of minds if it was going to win this thing. And so on day one of the campaign it dispensed with the idea that this was ever about marriage. Instead, they had to make us feel fear. In order to win, they were going to have to lie, distort, and misrepresent. They told us Australia’s social fabric would be torn apart if marriage equality became legal, that children would be harmed, and that people of faith would be persecuted. […] The lies were egregious and harmful. They called same-sex parents child abusers and said their children were a new Stolen Generation. They called us “fascists” and said we were “disordered”. They declined opportunities to disavow violence and intimidation, while doing everything they could to link every person acting badly on the “Yes” side to the official campaign.'
But finally, it was time for the result. At 10am sharp, Australian Eastern Daylight time, the statistician David Kalisch appeared on giant screens across the country to deliver the results. The huge, colourful crowds went still and quiet. Kalisch spoke slowly; he was ponderous and methodical, explaining that the Australian Bureau of Statistics ‘provided trusted, relevant and accurate statistics’ and giving some background to the vote. Twitter went mad telling him to hurry up. Finally, four minutes later, he got to the point: of the 79.5% of the eligible population who had voted, 7,817,247 had voted yes and 4,873,987 voted no. (To put this in perspective: only around 58% of Americans voted in the 2016 US Presidential elections.)
‘Yes’ had won by 61.6 %. Every state and territory in Australia had a sizeable ‘Yes’ majority.
The crowds erupted into a cheering, crying, hugging, dancing frenzy.
A jubilant Prime Minister Turnbull spoke: ‘They voted “Yes” for fairness. They voted “Yes” for commitment. They voted “Yes” for love … Now it is up to us, here in the Parliament of Australia, to get on with it.’ He has vowed to try to get legislation changed before Christmas. Today, Australian lawmakers began debating a bill to legalise same-sex marriage introduced by the Liberal Senator Dean Smith.
Smith, who is gay, told the Senate: ‘Yesterday we saw a glimpse of the country we all yearn for, a country that is fair-minded, generous and accepting. I never believed the day would come when my relationship would be judged by my country to be as meaningful and valued as any other. The Australian people have proven me wrong.’ He received a standing ovation.
In a Facebook post, Tony Abbott said that he would like to ‘thank the 4.7 million Australians who supported marriage between a man and a woman.’ It has also been reported that his sister is marrying her girlfriend in February. Her brother is invited.
Main image: Australians Gather To Hear Result Of Marriage Equality Survey, Wednesday 15 November, 2017. Photograph: Scott Barbour / Getty
Jennifer Higgie is editor-at-large of frieze, based in London, UK. She is the host of frieze’s ﬁrst podcast, Bow Down: Women in Art History. Her book The Mirror and the Palette is forthcoming from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.