Murray Lipp, an Australian citizen living in NYC and administrator of the Facebook page ‘Gay Marriage USA’, discusses Australia’s slow progress towards marriage equality and the role of the nation’s Prime Minister & Opposition Leader in blocking change.

Australian in New York

I have resided in the USA for nearly six years and I am happy to say that I live in one of the states, New York, where same-sex marriage is now legal. It wasn’t always that way, however. When I first arrived in New York in 2007, marriage equality seemed like a distant dream and same-sex marriage had only been legalised in one state, Massachusetts (2004). It took years of advocacy work to achieve the goal of marriage equality in New York, the culmination of which was the successful passage of legislation in 2011. It was indeed an amazing experience to have been present in this state during such an historic change.

But throughout it all, there was a sense of sadness that my native country, Australia, wasn’t making any progress on the issue. Frustratingly, the marriage equality ‘debate’ in Australia and the entire effort to bring about change there has in recent years been hijacked by two people: Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister and leader of the Australian Labor Party (centre-left), and her opponent, Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberal Party of Australia (centre-right) and the Liberal-National coalition. While the number of countries which have legalised same-sex marriage grows by the year, the addition of Australia to that honourable list is being hampered by Gillard and Abbott who are each, ironically, immigrants from Wales and England respectively where marriage equality is on track to soon become law.

Australia’s slow journey

Australia is a modern, vibrant, culturally diverse, and prosperous nation. It consistently ranks as one of the best places in the world to live and as someone who lived there for nearly thirty years I can attest to its liveability. But on one particular dimension – LGBT rights – Australia is falling behind. While Australia does provide many relationship rights and benefits to non-married or ‘de facto’ couples (either straight or gay), same-sex marriage is not legal in any state of the country nor is it permissible under federal law. In 2004 the conservative government at the time (headed by John Howard) amended the federal Marriage Act to specify that marriage is a union between a man and woman. It was not until 2009 that marriage equality legislation was first presented to Australia’s parliament by the Australian Greens and the associated bill never progressed to a full parliamentary vote.

While lacking the political numbers to bring about legal change, the Australia Greens and the prior leadership of the openly gay, Bob Brown, nevertheless helped bring the issue of marriage inequality into national political focus. In 2011, noting a loss of support to the more left-leaning Greens, the Australian Labor Party adopted marriage equality as party policy despite personal opposition from Labor’s leader, Julia Gillard. In 2012, a public inquiry found majority support for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia which was consistent with national polls that have consistently shown support for marriage equality in the 60% range. Despite this, however, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, and a sufficient number of politicians from both sides of politics, voted against a revamped marriage equality bill that was re-introduced to Australia’s parliament in 2012, ensuring the bill’s defeat in both the House (98-42) and the Senate (50-26).

Encouragingly, while Australia’s major political leaders are holding the country back in relation to marriage equality, its citizens are certainly not. The non-partisan organisation Australian Marriage Equality has played a key role in forging a national debate on the issue which has drawn in politicians, the media, and the public. AME has been a leading voice in efforts to raise awareness about the need for marriage equality in Australia and the need for bipartisan political support to ultimately ensure victory. There is a strong Aussie presence online in regards to marriage equality projects. With 210,000 supporters on Facebook, ‘Gay Marriage Rights in Australia’, has an explicitly Australian focus and has played a key role in organising various public protests in cities around the country. Meanwhile, America’s largest gay marriage page on Facebook with 350,000 supporters, ‘Gay Marriage USA’, was started and is maintained by an Australian living in the USA.

Commonwealth nations & global trends

While Australia has often won the medal tally at the Commonwealth Games, and is a sporting giant in general, it is turning out to be a big loser when it comes to the pursuit of marriage equality, failing to even score a medal! Canada was the first Commonwealth nation, and third in the world, to legalise same-sex marriage, doing so in 2005. It was closely followed by South Africa in 2006 which became the second nation in the Commonwealth, and the fifth nation globally, to enshrine marriage equality as national law. Australia’s neighbour to the east, New Zealand, recently (April 2013) passed marriage equality legislation becoming the third Commonwealth nation, and thirteenth country globally, to legalise gay marriage. In the same way that Canada has frequently outperformed the neighbouring USA on social justice issues, New Zealand has often outperformed its bigger neighbour, Australia, in relation to LGBT issues. Meanwhile in the UK, there is a strong recognition of the growing international trend towards marriage equality and a bipartisan effort to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales has already passed through two successful parliamentary votes. A separate but related effort to legalise same-sex marriage is also under way in Scotland.

Globally, the trend towards marriage equality is obvious. Starting with the Netherlands in 2001, a total of thirteen countries have legalised same-sex marriage at the national level in the past twelve years. This total looks set to grow to fourteen as France moves through the final stages of legalising gay marriage there. Meanwhile, in the USA, the number of states permitting same-sex marriage is also growing by the year. Beginning with Massachusetts in 2004, marriage equality is currently state law in 9 states as well as in the nation’s capital, Washington DC. That tally will soon grow to 10 states when Rhode Island’s successful passage of marriage equality legislation becomes law. A number of other states in the USA are expected to make serious moves towards the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the next 1-2 years including: Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Oregon. While the federal government of the USA does not recognise same-sex marriages, many predict that the recent challenge to the Defence of Marriage Act in the US Supreme Court will be successful and, if so, would result in federal recognition of gay marriages performed at the state level.

The political landscape in the USA in general is rapidly becoming one in which marriage equality is embraced rather than rejected. President Barack Obama’s public expression of support for marriage equality in 2012, and his re-election, has led almost all high-ranking Democrats to express similar support (if they had not already done so previously). Marriage equality was added to the official Democratic Party platform in September 2012 and any future presidential hopeful on the Democratic side will absolutely have to support marriage equality to have any chance of winning the party’s nomination. All but three Democratic Senators now support marriage equality and for the first time in US history a majority of US Senators (54/100) support the legalisation of same-sex marriage. On the Republican side, many are finally starting to face the undeniable trend and more Republican politicians and public figures are starting to either express support for marriage equality or are avoiding any promotion of their opposition to it.

Australia’s anti-marriage equality ‘odd couple’: Julia Gillard & Tony Abbott

One would think that within this national and international context, which is moving clearly towards the legalisation of same-sex marriage, Australia’s Prime Minister Julie Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott would be more partial towards addressing this issue in a progressive and bipartisan manner. Disappointingly, this is not the case. Gillard’s opposition to equality is particularly baffling. When she came to power in 2010 as Australia’s first female Prime Minister, many thought that Gillard would be an aide, not an obstacle, to the pursuit of marriage equality in Australia. Her status as a woman in politics, as a Labor party member, as a migrant from Wales, as an atheist, and as unmarried person in a childless ‘de facto’ relationship with a male hairdresser, were all factors that led many to logically conclude she would display a degree of sensitivity to the concerns of the LGBT community.

Unfortunately, those assumptions were incredibly off-target. Like many other LGBT Australians, I have been utterly appalled by Gillard’s performance in relation to marriage equality. Her repeated public statements in support of ‘traditional marriage’ and her absolute refusal to show any level of flexibility on this issue have been a constant source of irritation and frustration for marriage equality supporters. Gillard’s pandering to right-wing forces within her own party has shown her absolute willingness to sacrifice the needs of LGBT Australians in an effort to maintain her fragile reign on the Labor Party leadership. Sensing growing discontent in 2011 she bargained with internal party powerbrokers to allow marriage equality to become official Labor Party policy. Her compromise, however, was that individual Labor representatives in Parliament would be free to vote against this policy if their ‘conscience’ led them to do so, rather than being forced to vote in support of marriage equality as part of a united block. Gillard ultimately voted against the legalisation of same-sex marriage when proposed legislation was presented to Australia’s Parliament in 2012.

While Julie Gillard’s performance on marriage equality has been woeful at best, Tony Abbot’s has been even worse. Abbott took over the leadership of the Liberal Party of Australia in 2009. He led the Liberal-National collation in the 2010 federal election which he lost narrowly to Gillard. An outspoken social conservative, Abbott has consistently opposed the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Much like Gillard has pandered to right-wing powerbrokers within her own party, Abbott has consistently allowed himself to be dictated to by anti-equality religious groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby and the Australian Catholic Church. A devout Catholic who once trained as a seminarian, Abbott has consistently displayed an inability – or refusal – to separate his religious beliefs from his political practice in relation to the issue of marriage equality.

In essence, Abbott’s opposition to marriage equality is not just political – it’s personal also. Having a sister who is lesbian has, sadly, not softened his stance. Nor have the public statements in support of marriage equality recently made by two of his daughters seemingly had any impact. His personal and political opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage has underpinned his ongoing refusal to allow Liberal-National politicians to vote freely on the issue. In this regard, the 2012 parliamentary vote on marriage equality was over before it even started because Abbott forced all Liberal-National coalition members (who make up roughly half of Australia’s Parliament) to vote as a united block against the bill. While many predict that Abbott and the Liberal-National coalition will win the upcoming Australian federal election in September 2013, few expect Abbott to change his stance on marriage equality anytime soon.

The future & the inevitability of progress

It is without doubt that Australia will one day embrace marriage equality and the legalisation of same-sex marriage will become a reality. The question is: how long will Australia’s LGBT community have to wait for this to happen? For how many more years will LGBT Australians be denied full equality in a nation that consistently prides itself on giving all Aussies a ‘fair go’? One thing is obvious: the path towards marriage equality is currently being blocked by two political leaders, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, both of whom have shown unfathomable persistence and defiance in their effort to keep Australia locked in the past on this issue. As an Australian living overseas I am ashamed and embarrassed that my country is being kept in a time warp by two severely out-of-touch politicians who lack any kind of socially progressive vision for a contemporary Australia.

Roughly 75% of Australians think that the legalisation of same-sex marriage is inevitable. Infuriatingly, the two people who have the most power to convert that sense of inevitability into a legal reality refuse to budge. Gillard and Abbott loathe each other but in regards to same-sex marriage have joined forces in a bizarre and united opposition to what many are calling the civil rights issue of our generation. While it is for me horrifying to think of the Liberal-National coalition winning the federal election in September, perhaps a scathing loss is what Labor needs in order to embrace a new leader who displays an understanding and sensitivity towards LGBT issues. And perhaps if Abbott does win, he will feel politically safe enough to at least eventually grant his coalition members a conscience vote on any future re-introduction of marriage equality legislation to Australia’s parliament. Regardless, if same-sex marriage becomes law in England and Wales in the near future, I propose that we send both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, without their spouses, back to their homelands for some ‘re-training’ and ‘education’ on the true meaning of MARRIAGE EQUALITY.

Murray Lipp is an Australian citizen who has lived in New York City since 2007. He works as a Social Worker in health care. He is the administrator of the Facebook page, Gay Marriage USA and the Twitter account of the same name (@GayMarriageUSA).