Gay couples still waiting for Australian recognition

A couple hold each other during a rally at Taylor Square in support of Marriage Equality on May 31, 2015 in Sydney, Australia Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Australia's gay community has lobbied hard for same-sex recognition

The majority of Australians support same-sex marriage but unlike their conservative counterparts elsewhere, Australian politicians are making hard work of the issue.

The UK and New Zealand have backed change but Prime Minister Tony Abbott remains opposed.

Declaring himself the last holdout in his own family, the conservative Catholic Australian leader, whose sister is in a same-sex relationship, does not support gay marriage.

Officially, neither does his Liberal Party. On the other side of the political fence, the Labor Party has also dragged its feet on the issue.

Irish lead

Seizing the momentum from the recent Irish referendum supporting gay marriage, Australia's Labor opposition last week rushed a same-sex marriage bill into Parliament. But former Labor leaders have opposed gay marriage in recent years.

Opinion polls suggest most Australian adults support legalising same-sex marriage. So, why are their politicians so reluctant to change with the times?

A mix of long-held conservative views, and some MPs' fears they could lose their seats if conservative voters turn their backs on them, go some way to explain the conundrum, say political watchers.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Despite the strength of the Catholic Church, many Irish people support gay marriage

Why support marriage equality?

  • More than half of Australian same-sex partners would marry if they had the choice
  • 80% of Australians in same-sex relationships support marriage equality even if they do not wish to marry
  • De facto couples, including gay couples, do not have immediate access to all relationship entitlements, protections and responsibilities
  • A marriage certificate allows married partners to easily prove their legal rights if challenged, for example in emergency situations

Source: Australian Marriage Equality

One man's 'deep, romantic wish' to marry his partner

Last July, a poll by research company Crosby Textor found 72% support in Australia for legalising gay marriage - almost double that of a decade ago.

Crosby Textor managing director Mark Textor says the silent majority "have spoken in the clearest possible way and said 'get on with it'".

Mr Textor argues the subsequent solid UK and New Zealand conservative election wins prove support for gay marriage is not politically dangerous.

"I just think they are imagining electoral monsters that don't exist," Mr Textor says of MPs worried about losing their seats.

"The conservative Christian [groups] make a lot of noise about this but at the end of the day, they are so small in number that it doesn't matter," he says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Abbott's sister Christine Forster (bottom left) "respectfully disagrees" with her brother

The government adjourned debate on the opposition's bill but Mr Abbott has declared his MPs will decide whether to have a free or "conscience" vote when the matter eventually comes before them.

However, New South Wales Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells says same-sex marriage "is not a conscience matter".

"Marriage between a man and a woman is a core policy of the Liberal Party," Senator Fierravanti-Wells says.

"This is not a change that the Parliamentary Liberal Party can make without extensive consultation with those thousands of party members for whom marriage is a fundamental bedrock belief."

In Australia, state and territory governments have tried to legislate for same-sex marriage but run foul of two Liberal prime ministers opposing change - John Howard and Mr Abbott.

In 2004, the Howard Government amended the Marriage Act to specify marriage was between "a man and a woman".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The federal government overturned same-sex marriage laws in the Australian Capital Territory

Conservative federal governments have twice used their powers to overturn laws passed by the Australian Capital Territory legislature sanctioning same-sex unions.

Labor Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard also opposed gay marriage. Mr Rudd subsequently changed his view - but not the law.

In 2009, his Labor government expanded same-sex couples' legal entitlements, amending 85 Commonwealth laws to confer on them many of the same rights as those legally married. But the definition remained.

In 2011, the Labor Party's policy-making national conference endorsed gay marriage but passed a separate ruling that MPs be allowed a conscience vote.

Church influence

As pressure increases for change, pressure against is rising too.

Resistance from the churches is influential, with Australia's Catholic bishops issuing a pastoral letter entitled "Don't mess with marriage".

Labor has a long affiliation with the Catholic Church but Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek says it is a "gross oversimplification" to suggest her party is divided along religious lines.

"Not all Catholics have a problem with same-sex marriage," she says.

The head of Australia's Maronite Christian church, Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, has urged his members to contact their MPs to protest against any change. The church is influential in western Sydney where the Liberals hold a number of marginal seats.

"Please share with them what marriage means to you and your family and ask them to uphold the true meaning of marriage," the bishop said in a letter to his congregations.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells believes it is a common view in migrant communities.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The push for gay marriage accelerated after Irish voters supported it in a recent referendum

"Marriage and family values resonate strongly amongst our culturally and religiously diverse communities," she says. "I believe there would be strong opposition to changing the definition of marriage."

What next?

There are now three bills before the Australian Parliament proposing to legalise gay marriage. The Greens hope for a vote on theirs by November.

Following one from Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm and Labor's effort, there may yet be a fourth, with bipartisan sponsors. None are guaranteed to be voted on this year.

Mark Textor argues the overseas experience should inform Australia's response.

"Has the world ended in Ireland? No," Mr Textor declares. "Are children being taught gay sex in school? No. Are there plagues of locusts and devils on horses? No. They got on and just did it."

He believes Australia will eventually do the same.

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