Marriage Equality: The US vs. Australia

26 June 2013 was of course the day that Kevin Rudd was restored as Australia’s prime minister. But I am not going to write about that – no doubt this edition of Woroni will be chock-a-block with coverage of what was a tumultuous political week. What I will comment on is another aspect of Rudd’s return and two judicial decisions handed down that day, on an issue that is now the civil rights issue of our time: marriage equality.

I spent the first half of this year living and working in Washington DC. For a policy geek likeme, it was heaven. Working in a think tank, alongside some of the best minds in the world on international strategy, diplomacy, economics, health and climate change was intellectually titillating. In the many water cooler chats (minus the water cooler), the issue of equality was topical to say the least. When I arrived in the United States, nine states plus the District of Columbia allowed same-sex marriage. I arrived back in Sydney only two days before the Supreme Court handed down its decision ruling the Defence of Marriage Act unconstitutionaland nullifying Proposition 8, allowing same sex marriage to resume in America’s most populous state, California.

That day was also when Kevin Rudd toppled Julia Gillard, reversing his opposition to it only a few before resuming the prime ministership). He is the first Australian prime minister to back same sex marriage. Some are sceptical and a little cynical, others are optimistic and grateful. I’m in the latter camp. Many see former opponents of marriage equality as being a suspicious political ploy to hunt for votes. Perhaps. Hillary Clinton came out for it only days before hearings on Prop 8 and DOMA began. The Economist was particularly sceptical in its usual pontificating tone. Personally, I have a little more faith that people like Clinton and Rudd have had a genuine reversal in their beliefs. Such endorsements matter and can help change others who have opposed the better debate within society.

So when I arrived back in Australia only a few weeks ago, it felt like Australia was really lagging behind the United States on this issue, with Rudd’s idea of a referendum not warmly received by many quarters. The fact that Tony Abbott still maintains that marriage equality is not inevitable or labels it a passing fad is wrong and politically naïve. While both Abbott’s daughters and his openly gay sister are marriage equality supporters, Abbott himself refuses to budge. If he wins the election (and there is every chance that he will), Australia will have aleader who frankly has a vision of society more suited to the nuclear family unit of the 1950s than the 2010s. When marriage equality also passed in April this year across the ditch in NewZealand (my place of birth as it so happens), the outpouring of support and jubilation was ecstatic to say the least – the singing of Pokarekare Ana (a tradition Maori love song) was a hit on You Tube. The months of March to June in the US saw a cascade of support for marriage equality in opinion polls, passage through several state legislatures, and the Supreme Court cases.

I sincerely hope this issue begins to gain the salience it has had in the US in recent months. The US is a great model to follow. Kevin 13 could even more Ruddmentum on the issue, albeit at the risk of alienating opponents such as Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby. I think that is a good thing. Wallace is a bigoted relic. I was particularly offended last year when he stated, “a homosexual lifestyle was more hazardous to health than smoking.” I always find opponents of marriage equality very keen to make comment upon personal lives and choices of individuals who simply like to sleep and be with people of the same sex. In the US, these sorts of bigoted views (and they ARE bigoted views) are becoming less fashionablevery fast, even amongst young evangelical and conservative Christians.

It seemed that until recently, Australia was going to remain a cultural backwater on this issue.Rudd’s return may signal a shift in the debate over marriage equality. Having lived in the US so recently, I did (on the odd drunken occasion) look a little more earnestly for a husband while I was there (alas to no avail… this time…). Let’s hope the narrative of marriage equality in Australia changes from hereon in. Ruddmentum for this will help. The US is a shining example for us to follow. Not often you see those words written these days.