Marriage equality should not be overlooked in Australia


Opinion Column: Open Season


Tony Abbott made promise last month that with a reelection for Australia’s Liberal Party would come the chance to put marriage equality up to a national referendum. Most voters took it as an empty one.

But by thwarting a free vote in Parliament, Abbott was grasping at straws amidst discord within his own party — discord so loud, in fact, that the party was able to move straight to impeachment under Australia’s parliamentary system. Today, Abbott has been ousted in favor of former communications minister Malcolm Turnbell, who has since sworn in as Australia’s 29th Prime Minister. But what does that spell for the Australian civil rights front, and can major policy reform for gay marriage be expected of a new Liberal Party leader? Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

On Aug. 11, conservative coalition lawmakers, alongside their smaller coalition partner, the Nationals, voted to disallow members a free vote on the issue of marriage equality. Subsequently, if the issue was to then wind up on the floor of the House, the Liberal Party had secured a potential victory by strong-arming its members. The Labor Party, the Liberal Party’s prime opposition, was quick to cast aspersions to the decision, and rightfully so. Sen. Penny Wong told ABC that Mr. Abbott’s views on same-sex marriage, much like that of his party, were antiquated at best.

“We saw that Tony Abbott is a man who will fight tooth and nail to be yesterday’s man,” she told state radio. According to last month’s polls, support for the governing coalition had slipped to a five-month low, with Labor leading the trail by 8 percentage points, 54 percent to 46 percent. Abbott’s proposal to allow the public a vote on gay marriage continued to be arraigned as an empty promise in the name of relevancy until his in-party succession. It was estimated earlier this year that three-quarters of Australians are in favor of legal recognition for same-sex marriages.

“It has been our clear policy for more than a decade that marriage was between a man and a woman,” Abbott said in defense of the Liberals on state radio. Abbott made clear that it would never have occurred to Australians before to contemplate marriage as not between a man and woman. But that simply isn’t true.

Labor Party leader Bill Shorten, who put a landmark same-sex marriage bill forward in June, boldly predicted that when it comes time to the next election, a vote for Abbott would be a vote against marriage equality. Shorten said, “The choice in this country is you either have Mr. Abbott, or you have marriage equality. But you can’t have both.”

The Coalition preemptively made that choice in handing the ministry over to Malcolm Turnbull, without a public vote before general elections. Abbott’s authority was crumbling in and out-of party, and an impending vote in disfavor of equality was too great a threat to ignore. What threatened the party most of all, though, was allowing in-party coercion to dissuade lawmakers from aligning their votes with the party. Select Liberal members, including senior ministers Chris Pyne and Australia’s would-be Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, were avidly in favor of a free vote. The would-be PM wrote in a blog post last month that if “conscience” voting were to occur, his vote would be for same-sex marriage.

Don’t hail him as a champion of civil rights just yet. Turnbell also went on record saying, “It would be better if same-sex marriage were not a contentious issue at the next election.” But does it matter why marriage equality comes to pass as long as it does and it does so expediently? In essence, this is a conservative lawmaker calling for a “strong, credible policy framework” to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This is a prime minister who has been called a “male champion of change” for promoting greater gender diversity, and one who has made an important enemy out of Tony Abbott for speaking out against Coalition politics. Australia could do much worse in the final stretch of the term. Let's just hope Turnbell stands as strongly for gay marriage while in office and that Liberal lawmakers use the voice a free vote will grant to vote on behalf of equality.

Chris Roney is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies and American studies. His column, “Open Season,” runs on alternate Mondays. He is a former Copy Editor of The Daily Targum.


Chris Roney

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