Same sex marriage and the republic


Gay Australian flagSame sex marriage has now been defeated in the Tasmanian Upper House as well as in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Will the issue now fade away or is ultimate success for the same sex marriage cause inevitable? The political commentator, Paul Kelly, discussed this question in The Australia recently and forecast what he calls a lengthy cultural conflict. In doing so he drew several comparisons with the republic question, but he neglected important differences between their politics.

The defining characteristic of the same sex marriage debate in Australian politics is that it has a big international dimension. It is this characteristic that will probably ensure its political longevity. There are more important political arenas, including the United Kingdom and the United States, than Australia for this debate.

If same sex marriage continues to gain momentum around the Western world then the Australian debate will not go away. If much of the West adopts same sex marriage then the pressure on Australia to do so will eventually be great. But should international interest fade away then it probably will in Australia too.

Whatever the future of republic-monarchy debates in Australia they are not of the same international character and therefore are quite different from same sex marriage. There are a number of Commonwealth countries seriously considering the move to a republic from the monarchy, including Jamaica, but Australia's international comparators are really only Canada and New Zealand. Effectively it is a stand-alone domestic issue.

A second important difference lies in a factor that Kelly did recognise, which is that same sex marriage is also very much a state and territory issue. The ACT has shown this for some time and several states are currently debating the question. This will continue. Importantly this means that within Australia there are multiple parliamentary avenues for advocates to pursue the same sex marriage cause.

This has not been the case with the republic question, which is about national constitutional reform. Certainly the states play a role, as they are constitutional monarchies too, but the state parliaments have never been major arenas for monarchy-republic debates.

This difference gives same sex marriage advocates a big advantage over republicans as they have many more real avenues to take. These avenues can be used for building momentum and ultimately for achieving national-level success. Together with the international character of the issue it means that same sex marriage can be debated at multiple levels: international, national and state.

A closer political parallel with same sex marriage is the euthanasia question, which also has state, national and international elements.

However, the international momentum for euthanasia is much weaker and doesn't feed into domestic Australian debates in the same way. Euthanasia is a fringe issue, though it has advocates in each state and territory. It has already had one major national parliamentary debate in 1996–97 on the back of Northern Territory legislation. The Federal Parliament overrode the NT legislation on that occasion.

Finally, at the moment, same sex marriage is not yet a constitutional issue like the republic. Constitutional issues have their own politics, most notably, the demanding referendum process. There are some calls for a referendum on same sex marriage but if one were to occur now it would not be a binding constitutional referendum, under the provisions of s.128, but a plebiscite.

It may become a constitutional issue if a state parliament introduced same sex marriage and the legislation was challenged on constitutional grounds in the High Court, and the challenge upheld. At that stage the politics would enter a new era and success would be harder for its advocates to achieve.

Continuing momentum internationally, in terms of pro same sex marriage legislation passed in some other countries, would make its achievement in Australia more likely. The same would be true if one or more Australian states were able to pass legislation which survived constitutional challenge.


John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Topic tags: John Warhust, gay marriage, republic



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Existing comments

I believe a very significant factor to which 'experts' generally fail to give due consideration is the already well established contempt in the population for all things political. The vst majority of us don't trust ***ANY*** politician or political party as far as we could throw them.. This is clearly the reason why most referenda fail miserably & why gay marriage proposals have been defeated even in the most homosexual-friendly states. Personally I'd prefer that homosexuality should be re-criminalized however in a supposedly democratic country, the wishes of the majority of voters should take precedence. This quite obviously isn't happening if, as it appears, the majority are either in favour of allowing gay marriage, or are not actively opposing the issue. The fact that majority opinion isn't sufficient to make our elected officials sit up and take notice is surely cause for alarm bells to start ringing

Thomas More | 04 October 2012  

Canada is an important case for Australia to observe. Same sex marriage has been legal (following earlier rights decisions) was legalized here some seven years ago. Arguably it is broadly accepted and increasingly taken as a matter of course.

Marianne | 04 October 2012  

The French Prime Minister and President have announced that same-sex marriage will be unilaterally imposed on the nation, without debate and that "mothers' and "fathers" will be abolished in terms of official terminology and legal documentation. Now that the 'cat is out of the bag' internationally, such a link between marriage and parenting of children must be factored into the debate here in our nation. I still believe that a national plebiscite is the way to go here, after a properly managed, parliamentary debate where a all matters are discussed. Same-sex marriage advocates cannot demand a 'blank cheque.'

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 04 October 2012  

When the author says the same-sex debate is 'defeated' that has only been because of the failure of politicians, most of whom cling to religious beliefs over and above the wishes of their constituents, in their self-interested political efforts not to upset the the Jensens, Pells and Wallace's of this world. Plus, of course, this is not really a pressing issue to most Australians, even though they clearly would be happy enough to see same-sex marriage on the books. As for the republic. Long may it languish in 'Don't Care' land until group that seems to think it owns the debate wakes up, drops its Vatican connections, and demands a republic with a clear separation of Church and State as a major plank in the design. Currently, the snake-oilers who run the republic debate have no intention of making a republic that is genuinely of the people. They like the perks afforded to their Church, that allow it to run as a parallel state-within-a-nation state as it does now. ARM speaks with a forked tongue, as it makes every effort to protect the privileges of the Church, at the expense of 'the people'.

janice wallace | 04 October 2012  

I receive the online Queensland UCA magazine, Journey, in my inbox each month. This month I read a letter from a church member who wrote of her daughter's anguish at not being accepted within society, and the church, because of her sexuality. The writer (a mother) was puzzled as to why her daughter is required to suffer this way. Puzzles me too. As for the republic issue, I think Australians are generally happy with a constitutional monarchy and it seems to work ok, so why change? I don't think too much about the issue - I wouldn't like to see a US Presidential type thing going on here. It's awful enough to watch from this far away.

Pam | 04 October 2012  

Yes - an interesting perspective, although you might have glossed over one of the core issues when you suggest, quite airily, that 'same sex marriage is also very much a state and territory issue'. It is true that there is great interest among the states and teritories in the legalization of SSM. But yesterday the Prime Minister was quoted as saying that marriage is a Federal issue, and those who voted the Bill down in Tasmania all expressed this opinion and were worried about a High Court challenge if the Bill succeeded. So this is the legal tension we have in Australia about SSM - whose issue is it? Personally, I belive that it is up to the states to see this through, as the Federal Government has resoundingly declined to do so. Unfortunately, the states and territories can't offer full legal recognition. Whatever Bills might be passed will have to be couched in such terms that they could exist alongside the Marriage Act of 1961, and have a solid hope of surviving a High Court challenge. In Tasmania, this meant a 'second tier' marriage was the best that could be offered, and this was the second excuse for voting the Bill down - an SSM certificate is not as good as the usual marriage certificate, and would be valid only in Tasmania. What really matters though, is not that full equality cannot be given at the state level at this time, but that whatever steps in the right direction can be made, must be made. Do we withold something less because we can't give everything? It makes no sense. Here in Tasmania, SSM will not go away. Members of the Legislative Council will be asked this month to listen carefully to expert opinions on the legal issues and the role of the High Court. Some of them may be forced to fall back onto their actual, politically incorrect positions. Bring it on.

Kate Ahearne | 04 October 2012  

Janice Wallace. "ARM speaks with a forked tongue, as it makes every effort to protect the privileges of the Church, at the expense of 'the people'". Your colourful suggestions are indeed wide of the mark. The ARM has a sole objective, which is to replace the constitutional monarchy in Australia with a democratically chosen Australian Head of State having powers and responsibilities substantially the same as those currently held by the Governor-General. The ARM has no proposal to change the system of governance from the federal parliamentary democracy which we now enjoy, and still less does it have any policy or bias toward or against any religion. The ARM's policy is clearly spelled out in its website.

Phil S | 04 October 2012  

At a time when many, if not most, young people seem to prefer simply to live together rather than 'get married', the question arises, "Why should Governments be concerned about what consenting adults do behind closed doors?"
Certainly when children are involved there is a case for ensuring that they are protected, but this seems to be happening regardless of marriage or not. Motherhood too needs consideration. But when "Love" is identified purely and simply with "Sexual attraction" there is never going to be any universal satisfactory solution to the problems concerning gratification of sexual feelings.

Robert Liddy | 04 October 2012  

Mick Mac Andrew neglects to point out that in France, so far as the state is concerned, marriage is clearly and unequivocally a civil contract, unrelated to religious ceremonies. As such, it is quite appropriate for it to be defined by the civil authorities like any other civil matter. Would that the same situation applied here.

Ginger Meggs | 04 October 2012  

Professor, is it really logical to state that if interest in same-sex marriage fades internationally then it will here as well?
Advocates for marriage between homosexuals are not going to take their cues from any waxing or waning trends here or elsewhere. They are strong and convinced about their cause and will keep pushing, I believe, until governments see their point.
Politicians are the ones to observe trends among their constituents and public opinion is quite strongly on the side of allowing gay marriage.

Jan Coleman | 04 October 2012  

It is a shame that Christian leaders go out of their way to make Christian beliefs synonymous with discrimination. I have been gay my whole life . I chose honesty over a torturous life long lie. It's more than sexual attraction, it's everything everyone talks about in any relationship. It's a life, a home, a family. You can execute us, psychologically abuse us as children and discriminate against us as adults in the name of God ... But we have always been here and we always will be.

sc | 04 October 2012  

I also have the privilege of knowing those who do not have a definitive sex. The church stubbornly will not acknowledge the impact sex based definitions of marriage have on them.

sc | 04 October 2012  

Phil S proves my point on the ARM organisation. It has no intention of bringing about a democratic republic and continues to support a president with the powers of the GG, who draws powers from the English Queen, who is head of the Anglican Church. ARM wants to protect that connection, which would give us a non-secular republic. It also wants to keep all the current privileges the Church, indeed all religions, enjoy, which is to bludge off the citizens with tax-free status that appears as-of-right. Because ARM is so full of anti British Catholics, their main interest is to protect their brand of church, which is still the largest single religious body in Australia. Phil S does not deny any of this, he just tries to repackage ARM as a benign fried of the people. Why not expect a new republic to be a secular republic Phil S?

janice wallace | 05 October 2012  

Well, Robert Liddy, the presumption that same-sex marriage means that there's an obligation to engage in sexual intercourse is wrong. It's obvious that homosexual genital activity is already legal and occurring legitimately, so marriage is also obviously more than about sex. Most of the long-term gay couples I know lament that their sex lives have now almost faded into oblivion (not out of some puritanical moral code, but out of the reality of busy lives)

AURELIUS | 05 October 2012  

On reading the some of the comments.... it would be good if a number of readers would follow up the news of the Canadian same sex marriage laws and the results ...enough to make anyone shudder. Secondly, what is wrong with having a religion? In the Western world there is way too much sneering and jeering about people who practice or declare their Christian practice. I think real Christian practice has done much more good in the world than evil...It is only human weakness that causes problems or failure to live up to Jesus' teachings.

penny | 05 October 2012  

So Penny, what are the results of the 'Canadian same sex marriage laws and the results [which are] enough to make anyone shudder'?

Ginger Meggs | 05 October 2012  

Reluctantly, my mind goes back to a couple of articles I read some time ago, one in NewsWeekly United Nations: Feminist frolics, the other, The Endeavour Forum: In Defence of Fathers.
It's al the feminists fault, in paricular in relation to children born to couples of same sex marriages.

L Newington | 05 October 2012  

Janice Wallace clearly wants to curb what she sees as privilegs that the Chuches have. She could pursue that aim NOW. Whether we are a republic is irrelevant. The ARM merely wants a Republic. Could those who want other things kindly refrain from load them onto the Republic. If their cause is good enough they could pursuade a majority on the merits. The problem as I see it is that those pushing a particular barrow which they say must come from a republic, do so because they know they cannot pursuade a majority and hope to sneak it through under the cover of a Republic.

David Goss | 06 October 2012  

AURELIUS05 Oct 2012 Well, Robert Liddy, the presumption that same-sex marriage means that there's an obligation to engage in sexual intercourse is wrong WEll, AURELIUS, where does any presumption in any mariage mean that there's an obligation to engage in sexual intercourse? Any marriage seems to imply such a voluntary agreement, otherwise they would be simply sharing a room together. Maybe in royal weddings there might be a commitment to produce an heir to the throne. is that what you were thinking about?

Robert Liddy | 09 October 2012  

It seems you've answered your own question ROBERT LIDDY - that sexual contact in a partnership is VOLUNTARY - and even if two people are NOT MARRIED, it is not illegal to engage in sexual activity (although perhaps immoral if there's no commitment) so the concept of marriage goes beyond "sexual gratification" which you claimed to be the sole basis for same-sex marriages.

AURELIUS | 11 October 2012  

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