Australians Signal Desire for Marriage Equality, but Path to Legalization Could Prove Tricky

Same Sex Marriage Rally Melbourne, 29 November 2009

Logging on to Facebook yesterday, I came across a livestream video from my sister’s account. My sister, Victoria, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, was documenting the public reaction to the news that in a government survey conducted by mail-home ballots that more than 61% of Australians favor legalizing gay marriage. Nearly 80% of eligible Australians voted, which sent a clear signal to both liberal and conservative lawmakers that the supposed “silent majority” that opposed legalization is a mythical construct of conservative politicians that doesn’t hold up to the truth.

However, the results don’t translate into legalization yet, as it is now up to the Australian Parliament in Canberra to pass legislation that makes same-sex marriage legal. This is where the situation gets tricky. Members of the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal Party, Australia’s right-of-center faction, want to ensure that those who opposed the measure will have their religious and personal freedoms protected. Legislation has been proposed that would allow religious officials and store owners to deny administering nuptials to or baking wedding cakes for same-sex couples. The guaranteeing of these freedoms attracts support from conservative white Australians in Queensland and Muslim immigrant communities in Sydney’s western suburbs, two areas of politically active constituents and immense electoral significance.

With the debate over same-sex marriage moving from the public opinion realm to the legislative theater, Australia’s factious politics will come into full view. The Liberal Party in the last decade has seen the emergence of a more right-wing, socially conservative faction while also dealing with numerous leadership changes. For Prime Minister Turnbull, whose coalition-backed government holds a slight edge over the opposition Labour coalition, he must deal with these objections to a measure he publicly supported out of notions of fairness, equality, and love.

While opponents are committed to respecting the results of the vote, they want to ensure those religious and personal liberty protections are added in what they hope will be a lengthy legislative process. In the words of Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age writer Judith Ireland, “Celebrate Wednesday’s history-making, heart-filling result. But don’t for a second be complacent.” While the Australian Parliament will eventually pass legislation that codifies same-sex marriage, it could be months before such a bill becomes law. Furthermore, it will further expose how social issues have embroiled the Liberal Party and wider political discourse.

While the “yes” vote resulted in jubilant cheers captured by my sister in central Melbourne, it also showed how Australians in less well-heeled, less liberal areas are turned off by the more progressive politics that are championed in urban centers. It is eerily reminiscent of the United States just two years, when measures to enshrine religious freedoms to same-sex marriage were championed by conservatives in the Heartland, but reeked of discrimination and inequality to those in coastal, urban enclaves like New York and San Francisco. It shows while same-sex marriage acceptance is spreading throughout the West, it still encounters deep resistance in areas of politically active citizens.

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