Australia will become the latest country to legalise same-sex marriage after the country voted overwhelmingly in a non-binding postal vote to back the move. The turnout was a remarkable 79.5% and found that, of these around 12.7 million people, 61.6% backed equal marriage and only 38.4% voting against. Although the plebiscite won’t change the law in and of itself, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that he wants to change the law by Christmas but as others have pointed out Turnbull has previously been less clear on the timeline for legalisation. Although there should be time for celebrating a big step forward, we must not take our eyes off the ball as full equality is still a long way off.
When marriage equality has been embraced in other countries, the response that I tend to give is that this is but one area where equality has been achieved and attention needs to turn to other issues. These tend to be in areas such as IVF access for lesbian couples, same-sex adoption, anti-discrimination ordinances and so on. However rather than list off a line of facts that one could easily find online, I’d argue that a step that is often not considered is the disparity between different neighbourhoods.
In the case of Australia, of the 17 electoral districts that opposed marriage equality 12 of them were in Western Sydney which has been known as a hotbed of social conservatism for a number of years. It is tempting to simply move forward for other battles, and whilst that is important, it is in my view equally important to engage with these people and challenge their opinions. Although less clear cut than in other results, there is also often a disparity between urban and rural areas, and this can have implications for people wishing to come out. In many instances the people on the front line in the LGBT movement in Australia are those in areas where LGBT people are less visible and where it is more unpopular to voice one’s support for equality.
Whilst it is important to commend the activists and organisers that turned people out to vote and campaigned for a Yes vote it is important to consider the political conditions that led us to this point. This whole plebiscite was a cynical move by the PM to avoid addressing this issue and to hold together his fragile government. Polling had suggested that the pro-equality side had the support of around 62% of the population, and given the final vote was at 61.7% we can conclude that the PM should have simply legislated on the issue without the needless expense of holding this plebiscite.
To conclude, I am glad that the people of Australia voted to support marriage equality, and to be honest the high turnout figures is heartening. However this whole episode has shown Malcolm Turnbull to prioritise his political interests over the civil rights of his fellow citizens. Leadership is about doing something right even if its unpopular but Turnbull didn’t even do that as his decision was popular. His decision was purely to keep his government together and hopefully the people of Australia remember this fact at the next general election.