Despite incredible momentum domestically following on from last year’s historic ALP National Conference, which saw the party add marriage equality to its policy platform, 2012 was undoubtedly a disappointing year for advocates of marriage reform. A Galaxy poll released in August showed support for marriage equality at its highest level ever in Australia at 64 percent, but it wasn’t enough to convince our federal politicians that the country was ready for a change in September.
Only 42 Lower House MPs supported Stephen Jones’ bill to amend the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry, with an overwhelming 98 against. The Senate joined the House of Representatives in voting down another gay marriage bill, this time in a vote 26 to 41.
Coalition senators were denied a conscience vote in both houses and a number of ALP MPs (including Prime Minister Julia Gillard) joined their Liberal counterparts in opposing reform. There was widespread disappointment from gay rights advocates and supporters of same-sex marriage after a long and hard-fought national campaign.
Gay senator Penny Wong released a statement shortly after the vote, saying the Parliament had failed Australians by not supporting marriage equality and voting against the removal of discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexuality.
It was then over to the states to do what they could to resurrect hope for some semblance of equal marriage rights, though doubts about their capacity to afford them remain.
Tasmania’s attempt saw its Upper House vote down a bill to legalise gay marriage in a vote of 8 to 6. The bill had cleared the Lower House in August (13 to 11) but was rejected by the predominantly independent Legislative Council.
A number of the MLCs who voted against the bill said it was not because they opposed gay marriage, but because they were not happy with the make up of the bill itself.
Adriana Taylor said during debate that the bill would do nothing to end discrimination.
“It will be a lower-level, marriage-like act,” she said.
“There will not be a marriage certificate but a same-sex marriage certificate.”
A number of MLCs also expressed concern that the bill would face costly legal challenges in the High Court if enacted into state law.
Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings expressed her disappointment at the decision, saying the state had missed an opportunity to lead the nation in ending discrimination against same-sex couples.
She promised to continue to push for state-based marriage legislation next year.
The year ahead
All eyes will be on the ACT, South Australia and NSW next year, where similar state marriage measures are expected to come to a vote. Western Australia and Victoria also have gay marriage bills before their parliaments, but are not expected to see much success.
While the situation domestically remains stagnant, the rest of the world continues to take great strides towards equality. In 2013, a number of countries look set to allow same-sex couples to marry, including neighbouring New Zealand.
Labour MP Louisa Wall’s bill was drawn from Parliament’s members’ bill ballot in July this year and easily passed its first reading in New Zealand’s Parliament with a 80 to 40 vote in August. New Zealand’s conservative Prime Minister John Key supports same-sex marriage and had a proxy vote recorded in favour of Wall’s bill.
It is currently being considered by a select committee and will face two further votes before it can pass in to law, but local marriage equality advocates are confident of its success after the near landslide first vote.
Despite significant religious opposition, France looks likely to allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt children from next year. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced the reforms in July as part of a keynote speech outlining the new Socialist government’s five-year plan. The changes to marriage and adoption laws were an election pledge by President Francois Hollande.
Recent surveys in the country showed 63 percent in favour of marriage equality, with 56 percent support for gay adoption.
Marriage equality may also be a reality in the UK within weeks, with the government pushing forward its plans to legalise same-sex marriage. The legislation is to be put to a conscience vote, and is expected to pass comfortably.
Churches have stepped up their campaign against gay marriage in the UK in recent months, but are believed to be on the back foot in terms of public opinion.
The British government committed to introducing marriage equality legislation in September, 2011, promising it would be enacted before the next general election in 2015. A public consultation took place earlier this year on how to make marriages available to same-sex couples.
The government commitment on the issue came after what was reported as being a personal intervention from Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron declared his support for marriage equality while speaking at the Tory Party Conference in Manchester last year, urging his party and its supporters to do the same.
Religious institutions would not be required to conduct same-sex marriages under the laws.
Just last week, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled a state law banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional in a unanimous decision. Gay marriage advocates in the country are confident it has opened the way for eventual legalisation of marriage equality across the country. Mexico City enacted a same-sex marriage law in 2010.
Uruguay has also passed a same-sex marriage bill through its Lower House this week. It’s likely to have an easy passage through the country’s Upper House early next year before being signed into law.
In the US, where voters from three states in November’s presidential elections (Maine, Maryland and Washington) became the first to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, 2013 looks set to be the most significant year for the marriage equality movement yet.
In the first half of next year the Supreme Court will decide on both the constitutionality of the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s state ban on gay marriage.
It will be the first time its nine justices will have heard a case on gay marriage. Arguments in the two cases will be heard in March, with a decision likely by the end of June.
It sets the stage for a potentially massive victory or crushing loss for same-sex couples in the country.