“Having lived through the same-sex marriage campaign in Ireland just two years ago, I can’t quite believe our politicians are putting Australia’s LGBT+ people and their families through that same experience,” Sophie Donaldson wrote in the Brisbane Times. “Prejudices that had long been swept under the rug were aired in the name of fair debate. The societal fabric began to fray, then it unravelled at an unruly pace.”
You may have heard about the Australian gay-marriage referendum that’s under way. Maybe you were surprised that gay marriage wasn’t already legal in a liberal country like Australia, one that we often think of as having similar values to ours. In fact, it’s unsettling to realize that this is still a topic left up to debate, but in Australia, that debate is very much a raging one.
Beyond the occasional update that might have crossed your newsfeed, there’s a lot more to the Australian gay-marriage vote. It’s not as simple as a census, something that you send out and tick a box and forget about. The campaigning, the tempers, and the prejudice surrounding the vote remind us that we still have a long way to go when it comes to gay marriage. Here’s what you need to know.
People registered their interest to vote beginning in August and started to be sent out on September 12. The survey continues until the results will be announced on November 15 by David Kalisch, the Australian Statistician (head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics). But it’s been a long time coming. A national vote was actually proposed in 2015, so it’s been a two-year process to get it started, including debates about whether or not the vote would be compulsory. As it stands, voting is not compulsory—but it is also not binding. So, although the government has said it will follow the will of the people, it is not actually required to do so.
So far, over 10 million surveys have been filled out and sent in, but they will continue to be accepted until November 7.
Why a Vote on Gay Marriage?
On one hand, having a vote on gay marriage may seem progressive; it shows a country open to the idea of allowing it, after all. But on the other, a vote is in some ways a controversial method of deciding a country’s stance on an issue like gay marriage. In most modern democracies, we think of human rights—such as the right to family life—as something too important to be decided by vote, something that should be protected no matter what, something that’s not open to debate.
It’s the government’s job to protect minority groups from abuse from the “tyranny of the majority.” As law professor Brian Tobin put it: “Putting a human rights issue to a national vote is a crude means of legalizing same-sex marriage.…[It] forces a historically oppressed minority to literally have to plead with the majority.”
It’s Gotten Ugly
As Donaldson wrote, referendums can get ugly. Ireland was the first country to legalize gay marriage via referendum in 2015, and the process led to an increase in calls to LGBTQ hotlines. In Australia, it’s turned into a culture war. “By reducing complex problems to simple questions, they can exacerbate divisions rather than build agreement, while worsening the tyranny of the majority,” Henry Ergas wrote in The Australian. “That we have resorted to one for determining the issue of same-sex marriage is a sad reflection on the state of Australian politics.”
In Australia, not only is there heated campaigning, there are also old, hateful tropes trotted out against gay marriage—suggestions that it’s a slippery slope and soon there will be a man marrying a bridge, that it’s dangerous for children to see, that it’s about religious freedom or political correctness gone mad. The campaign against gay marriages has outspent the “yes” camp on campaign spending—by a whopping 5 to 1 in television ads, some of which were pure vitriol. For members of the LGBTQ community living in Australia, it creates an offensive, hostile, and even dangerous environment.
The Signs Point to a “Yes”
Despite the aggression and closed-mindedness that have flared up during the vote, there is a good chance that the result will point toward gay marriage. Polls have shown that 59 percent of people who planned to vote support same-sex marriage, while 37 percent oppose changing the law to allow it. Those numbers have fluctuated as the vote continues, but despite it certainly being a divisive topic, the signs point to support of same-sex marriage.
You can see why so many people would find having a vote on whether to allow gay marriage upsetting. Basic rights shouldn’t be vulnerable to the will of the majority. But beyond that, the circus that surrounds votes on controversial issues inevitably shows fault lines in a society. And that’s exactly what’s happening in Australia. Homophobia and prejudice aren’t just being revealed—they’re being exacerbated by this circus. Yes, it’s true that the “yes” vote will probably take the day. But that doesn’t mean that the LGBTQ folks of Australia should have been put through this to get there. Family is a human right—for everyone.