What Does Labor’s Marriage Equality Bill Actually Mean?

When Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced last night that he will move a private member’s bill on marriage equality in the House of Representatives next week, it could not have been more timely.

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Gay Marriage - Holding Hands Closeup

When Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced this week that he will move a private member’s bill on marriage equality in the House of Representatives next week, it could not have been more timely. On the weekend, the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality via a referendum – despite the country being staunchly Catholic and historically deeply conservative. But what does Mr Shorten’s announcement mean? Should you break out the glitter… or start smacking your head against a wall?

Bill’s bill (sorry – couldn’t resist) seeks to overturn changes to the federal Marriage Act passed by the Howard government in 2004. The amendments banned same sex marriage by defining marriage as: “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. The amendments also make it mandatory for celebrants or ministers to say those words as part of every wedding ceremony, and prevent same sex marriages conducted overseas from being recognised in Australia.

With the bill being introduced on Monday, does that mean gay marriage could be legal this time next week? Almost definitely no, so hold your horses. It is only being introduced on Monday – it still needs to be time for parliamentary debate, let alone a vote. Parliament does not sit in July, so the best bet is to wait until August.

Crucially, for the bill to have any hope of success, the Liberal Party must have a free, conscience vote. Liberal MPs are currently bound to vote against marriage equality, regardless of their wishes or those of their constituents. Prime Minister Abbott is personally opposed to marriage equality, but he has hinted that he would allow a free vote if that was the will of his party. Many Liberal MPs have gone on public record in support of marriage equality, with many more said to be privately supportive, or undecided until they know the opinions of their electorate.

However, some Liberals have expressed their annoyance at Shorten’s bill. They see as being forced on the issue, and have essentially accused Shorten of hogging it for his own glory. This is worrying; by accusing Labor of partisanship, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of the Liberals. Already, Liberal MP Warren Entsch – despite being a long-time supporter of marriage equality – has disappointingly said that he will not support this bill. Let’s hope that our politicians can be mature (ha!) and that the Liberal Party won’t pettily cut off their noses to spite their face.

Meanwhile, the Greens have already introduced the a marriage equality bill in the Senate for a vote in November, and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has called for a cross party strategy meeting to be held on June 1.

“The only way to achieve a common goal and secure marriage equality in Australia is to work together across all parties,” Ms Hanson-Young said in a statement. “Love and equality should be above politics.”

When the amendments to the Marriage Act passed in 2004, only 38 per cent of the public supported marriage equality. Popular opinion has shifted dramatically in the decade since, with a recent survey showing that 72 per cent of Australians now support same sex marriage – including a majority of Catholics and Anglicans, and a majority of those aged over 55.

In the eyes of many, Australia seems to be living in the past. Same sex couples can marry in 35 out of 50 US states, covering more than 75 per cent of the population. Same sex marriage is legal (or laws permitting it will soon take effect) in 20 countries and counting, spanning across the globe – from Iceland to South Africa, Uruguay to New Zealand. If Ireland can do it, then why won’t Australia?

Marriage equality has a real shot this time, but for it to happen, this bill will need cross party support. Unfortunately – as Australians are well aware – getting Parliament to cooperate can be like trying to herd a bunch of particularly unpleasant cats. The bill’s success will also rely on a free vote for Liberal MPs. Many have said that they would vote in line with the wishes of their constituency, so if you want to ensure that your wishes are known, email or write to your federal MP. If he or she is a Liberal, urge them to support the push for a free vote.

It can be difficult to believe in our politicians, but it is easy to believe in love. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if marriage equality was the thing that finally proved both sides of politics can work together, for the good of the Australian people?

Watch this space.

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