It was only twenty years ago that the last Australian state, Tasmania, decriminalised male homosexuality. Whether one is in favour or not, Australia had a lot of catching up to do with other western nations.
In an Australian general election, there is no such thing as a “low turnout” since voting is compulsory for citizens. In contrast, the vote on gay marriage was voluntary and conducted by post, following two failed attempts by the government to hold a compulsory national vote that was denied twice in the Australian Senate. Senators opposing a compulsory vote had expressed concern that it would be more costly and exacerbate hate campaigns. Nevertheless, it was costly (A$100million or $76 million) and, at times, the campaign became violent. For example, a man was charge last month after former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, an opponent of same-sex marriage, was headbutted. Abbott called the incident “politically motivated violence.” Police were called to intervene in a confrontation between rival groups at the University of Sydney, while some workers complained that they were harassed if they did not show support for the “Yes” vote.
Despite its voluntary nature, 12.7 million people, 79.5% of those eligible to vote, participated in the poll during an eight-week period. It asked one question.
"Should the marriage law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?"
With the votes counted, the “Yes” vote gained more than 60%, as the BBC reports.
Australians have overwhelmingly voted in favour of legalising same-sex marriage in a historic poll. The non-binding postal vote showed 61.6% of people favour allowing same-sex couples to wed, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said. Jubilant supporters have been celebrating in public spaces, waving rainbow flags and singing and dancing. A bill to change the law was introduced into the Senate late on Wednesday. It will now be debated for amendments. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said his government would aim to pass legislation in parliament by Christmas.
"[Australians] have spoken in their millions and they have voted overwhelmingly yes for marriage equality," Mr Turnbull said after the result was announced. "They voted yes for fairness, yes for commitment, yes for love."
The Yes campaign argued that it was a debate about equality. The No campaign put the focus on the definition of family, raising concerns about how issues like gender will be taught in schools. Australia's chief statistician David Kalisch said about 7.8 million people voted in support of same-sex marriage, with approximately 4.9 million against it. He said participation was higher than 70% in 146 of Australia's 150 electorates. All but 17 electorates supported changing the law.
"This is outstanding for a voluntary survey and well above other voluntary surveys conducted around the world," Mr Kalisch said. "It shows how important this issue is to many Australians."
As the FT reports, “Yes” supporters celebrated after the result was announced, with high-profile business and celebrity figures getting involved.
The resounding victory for the Yes campaign sparked celebrations across the country, with supporters wearing rainbow colours and glitzy costumes at events to reflect on the eight-week campaign for marriage equality. Alan Joyce, the Irish-born Qantas chief executive who donated A$1m to the Yes campaign, performed a jig on stage at an event in Sydney, declaring it was an “amazing result, on an amazing day”. Tiernan Brady, director of Australians for equality, a lobby group that co-ordinated the Yes campaign, said voters had reaffirmed that most deeply-held Australian value — a “fair go for all”.
“Their message today is one of confidence in their values and their country. Their message to LGBTI people is one of generosity and inclusion. Their message to politicians is clear — it is time for them to do their jobs and pass marriage equality,” he said.
The vote in favour of marriage equality marks a watershed moment for gay rights in Australia, which remains one of the last English speaking developed nations that has not yet implemented the reform.
However, Mr Turnbull is likely to face a tricky internal battle within his own party from a group of conservative lawmakers, who have used the issue as a proxy war for control of the ruling Liberal party. They are pushing for exemptions to individuals or companies who did not want to provide services to gay weddings due to religious or “conscientious” objections. The exemptions would allow parents to withdraw their children from school classes that do not accord with their own understanding of marriage. They would also enable people to discuss their traditional views about marriage without fear of legal penalties. Tony Abbott, a prominent No campaigner and former prime minister, said this week more protections were needed to guarantee freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
“I look forward to a parliamentary process that improves on (the draft bill) to implement same-sex marriage with freedom of conscience for all, not just the churches,” he said. Critics say approving such exemptions would roll back years of anti-discrimination laws and encroach on protections for gay and lesbian people.