Australians support marriage equality – why haven’t we won yet?

The granting of same-sex marriage rights in Ireland and the US in recent months has put further pressure on Australian politicians to follow suit. In a move to further postpone the introduction of marriage equality legislation, Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that the Coalition may consider holding a plebiscite (a type of non-binding referendum) on same sex marriage after the next federal election.

This announcement coincided with the blocking of a conscience vote within the ranks of the Liberal Party. The Labor Party voted similarly at its recent national conference, postponing the potential to bring in legislation in favour of marriage equality until after the next election.

Liberal and Labor both continue to appease conservative elements of their own parties and support bases. Opportunistically, both parties seem to believe they have more to lose by legalising same-sex marriage rights than they do by pandering to religious conservatism.

It has been more than a decade since the Howard Government introduced legislation banning same sex marriage. The Labor opposition supported the ban and voted with the government on the bill in 2004. Since this time public support for same-sex marriage rights has steadily increased. Polls consistently show upwards of 72% of Australians support marriage equality. This has left both major parties dramatically out of step with public opinion, forcing them to employ double-speak on this very emotive issue.

One of the latest surveys has shown that support for same sex marriage in Australia is now higher than it was in both New Zealand and the United Kingdom when same sex marriage laws were passed. Victories in other countries has renewed optimism for marriage equality in Australia, but also highlighted how far Australia now lags behind.

There is no need to wait for a plebiscite as Abbott suggests, or wait until at least 2017 as Labor suggests, to introduce marriage equality. Both strategies are designed to stop same-sex marriage legislation from being voted upon during this term of government.

While Tony Abbott is pretending his proposed plebiscite is about democracy and the Australian people deciding, the toing and froing of both Labor and Liberal on this issue over the last decade proves that neither have an interest in determining policy based on public opinion.

The battle for marriage equality was won in the hearts and minds of the Australian population many years ago. This is primarily due to the efforts of LGBTIQ activists. It is the major parties and their political opportunism and pandering to conservative minority interests that is holding back social progress.

This situation is not limited to the issue of same-sex marriage. The main concern of politicians from both major parties is not to legislate equality or wind back discrimination. Their primary goal is to look after the interest of their big business backers. Within this context, human rights consistently take a back seat to factional manoeuvring and the lobbying of elite interest groups. Religious organisations are some of the largest employers in Australia and hold significant sway over both major parties because of their clout and economic influence.

What Australia needs is not a plebiscite to tell us what we already know. We need a new political formation, based on the movement of workers and young people fighting for progressive social change, that will put the interests of people before those of big business. This is why socialists argue that the struggle for marriage equality and other forms of LGBTIQ liberation need to link up with a broader movement for socialist change. By combining the struggle for rights and equality with the struggle for socialism, we can put an end to this system that serves the interests of a rich minority, and establish real democratic control by the majority.

By Toby Dite

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