How Australian Voters Forced the Push for Same-Sex Marriage

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Australians Vote Yes to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

Australia will hold its first gay weddings early in 2018 after parliament legalized marriage equality Dec. 7, joining the two-dozen nations that already voted to allow same-sex marriage. While Australians have long backed changing the law, converting that support into political action proved a slog. The turning point was a nationwide postal vote, ordered by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government.

1. What happened in the postal vote?

Some 61.6 percent of the more than 12 million people who voted backed marriage equality, with 38.4 percent against. Almost 80 percent of voters took part in the survey, and the ‘yes’ vote won in every state and territory. While the voluntary survey didn’t legally bind parliament, Turnbull said after the results were announced Nov. 15 that the public’s support was "unequivocal" and urged lawmakers to respect the outcome.

2. Isn’t Australia famous for gay pride?

It is indeed. The largest city, Sydney, hosts one of the world’s biggest Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parades and is known as the San Francisco of the Southern Hemisphere for its large gay community. But while the U.S., Germany, Ireland, the U.K, Canada and New Zealand moved to allow same-sex unions, Australia was something of a laggard -- even as the number of same-sex couples in the country surged 39 percent in five years to about 46,800 in 2016.

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (as of June 2017)

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (as of June 2017)

3. Why did Australia need a postal vote?

In short, politics. The ruling center-right Liberal Party is split between social progressives like Turnbull and conservatives like his predecessor, Tony Abbott. When Turnbull seized the leadership in 2015, he needed to keep conservatives on-side so retained Abbott’s policy on same-sex marriage: Allowing Australian voters to make the final decision through a mandatory public vote, known as a plebiscite. But that path was blocked in the Senate twice, so the prime minister had to find another way to break the deadlock. Hence, the postal vote.

4. Was it all good news for equal rights campaigners?

Advocates of same-sex unions said the almost two-month campaign for the postal vote resulted in a surge in calls to mental-health helplines as opponents warned that changing the law could harm children and lead to radical sex education in schools. Still, fears that the campaign would unleash incidents provoked by bigotry proved, in the most part, unfounded.

5. How did opponents react to the postal vote?

Conservative lawmakers had sought to amend the legislation to ensure that celebrants and other service providers couldn’t be charged with discrimination if they refused to marry gay couples on religious grounds. Those amendments were defeated.

6. What does this mean for Turnbull and for Australia?

It’s a boost for Turnbull, 63, who has disappointed many Australians by not taking a more progressive approach on issues he’d previously championed, including climate change and Australia becoming a republic. “Every Australian had their say and they said it’s fair, get on with it," Turnbull said Dec. 7 after the legislation was passed. “The parliament has got on with it, and we’ve voted today for equality, for love.”

The Reference Shelf

  • A report by the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association describing the status of gay rights around the globe.
  • A Pew Research Center report explores the major religions’ stands on gay issues.
  • How gay marriage has handed New Zealand a wedding windfall.
  • A profile of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
  • A QuickTake on Gay Rights globally.


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