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Australia Took Another Step Away from Legalizing Gay Marriage

Two-thirds of Australia's coalition government voted to deny their colleagues a conscience vote on gay marriage.

by Alan Weedon
Aug 12 2015, 4:25pm

Read: How I Infiltrated a White Pride Facebook Group and Turned It into 'LGBT Southerners for Michelle Obama'

Two-thirds of Australia's coalition government have voted to deny their colleagues a conscience vote on gay marriage.

This means that government MPs aren't able to vote in favor of gay marriage unless they cross the floor, a move Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned against, telling ABC Radio National's AM, "If a frontbencher cannot support the party's policy, that person has to leave the frontbench."

During the program, he defended this decision, explaining he had a pre-election mandate to put this debate before the "Coalition party room in the usual way."

But this "usual way" is subject to dispute among his own ranks, with Education Minister Christopher Pyne accusing the Prime Minister of "branch stacking" after National MPs were allowed to weigh in on the vote—a party with very few members who support change.

This decision is bound to cause controversy on a number of fronts: internationally, domestically, and within Abbott's own party.

Right now, there's slim chance of another marriage amendment bill passing anytime soon. While Abbott conceded that he'd launch a referendum or plebiscite on same-sex marriage in the next term of parliament, that's a promise that might kick in from late 2016. So even if that moment did come, this relies on Abbott holding onto power, holding his word, and having a successful referendum or plebiscite (basically the only two ways legislation can change via popular vote in Australia).

A plebiscite is largely a cop-out, considering that plebiscites don't change constitutions, nor do they force the government of the day to adopt the outcome.

As for referendums, the country has been notoriously bad at passing these. Only eight out of 44 referendums have passed since Australia was federated—and the last one that passed was in 1977.

So where does this leave supporters of marriage equality?

For avid watchers of Abbott, a PM who has repeatedly voiced his displeasure at same sex marriage, policing of the status quo is what you've come to expect. The same goes for his senators, with Tasmania's Eric Abetz saying that not all gay men want to get married because Dolce and Gabbana don't want to, presumably, presupposing that the Italian fashion designers have a hotline to all Australian gay men.

It's fair to say Australia sits in an awkward position on this one. To the globe, we're just a lame duck when it comes to aligning ourselves with the rest of the developed world. We're the country that still likes to hold inquiries into whether wind power is harmful, while other places get on with fighting climate change.

This latest decision may also tell the world that our elected representatives aren't actually reflective of the people they serve. About 72 percent of Australians support marriage equality, so it's hard to understand why Abbott tells ABC's AM he's "kept faith with the electorate."

But don't think this is the first time an Australian leader has let their whims define life for a bunch of people. Our constitution gives the Parliament power to rule on marriage, and reading between the lines, that power usually rests with the government of the day—meaning they can decide a lot of things for people who might not agree with them.

This allowed former Liberal PM John Howard to amend the Marriage Act to define marriage as between "a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others" in 2004. During the subsequent Labor years under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, both Prime Ministers voiced their opposition to same sex marriage. Rudd eventually changed his mind by the time he was facing electoral wipeout, while Gillard defended the traditional view of marriage despite being an atheist, unmarried PM (she later came out rejecting marriage as a construct).

By the time the Australian Capital Territory decided to pass same sex marriage in 2013, the High Court had no other choice but to strike it down, as it conflicted with a hetero federal marriage law.

But as depressing as these conditions are for people who just want to get this passed in order to focus on more pressing issues within Australia's LGBTIQ communities, there is still hope.

Next Monday will see another bill for same sex marriage thanks to Government MP Warren Entsch with support from Labor backbencher, Terri Butler. And if Butler's comments are anything to go by, political pragmatism just might hold us in good stead, telling the ABC:

"There's no point throwing your hands up in the air and saying the Prime Minister's a dinosaur so we should all give up."

Image of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott via

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