‘Remember the saying, not all the good ideas are on your side and not all your enemies are on the other side.’ That’s from Anna Bligh, former Premier of Queensland. Like death, drugs and alcohol, and sex, marriage law has been a zone of hot-blooded political debate, but also of genuine bipartisanship. Part 4 of the ‘Politics of the unmentionables’.
‘I don’t know if I am a Bohemian revolutionary.
– Do you believe in beauty?
– Of course.
Above all things, I believe in love.’
Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!
Strange as it may seem, politicians also believe in love, and some of our very first laws were about love and marriage.
Love and marriage
In 2008 and 2009, there were wide-ranging reforms at the federal level in Australia to equalise entitlements and responsibilities for same-sex couples in areas such as social security, employment, taxation, and superannuation. However, there remained one significant area of difference between the treatment of same-sex and heterosexual relationships, and that was in the institution of marriage.
The 43rd Parliament saw a shift in the major political parties’ attitudes to same-sex marriage. In December 2011, the Labor Party’s platform was amended to support it. Kevin Rudd reversed his opposition to same-sex marriage in May 2013, shortly before regaining the Labor leadership.
During the election campaign, Rudd promised that if re-elected, his government would introduce marriage equality legislation within a hundred days of taking office, and Labor MPs would be allowed a conscience vote on the issue.
Tony Abbott long opposed marriage equality reform. (Abbott’s friend and mentor, John Howard, had amended the Marriage Act 1961 in 2004 specifically to exclude same-sex marriages.) In the 2012 parliamentary debates on the same-sex marriage Bills, Coalition MPs were not allowed a conscience vote.
In the election campaign, Abbott reaffirmed that he would not support legislation to allow gay marriage. He did not see the issue as a priority for a Coalition government. But several Coalition members broke ranks, indicating they would support marriage equality if the party room determined a conscience vote was available. The tide had started to turn.
Barry O’Farrell, Liberal Premier of NSW (2013), changed his mind and thereby changed the game. Other early opponents, including former PM Julia Gillard, would subsequently also declare a change of mind.
One of the most intriguing switches involved the journalist Matthew Knott. Knott formed a friendship with Dean Smith, a Liberal Senator from Western Australia who is gay but did not support same-sex marriage. Smith’s grounds for opposing marriage reform reflected the familiar conservative party line: ‘marriage is an institution that has a long and well-accepted definition, a definition that is heavily laden with cultural meaning and values crafted by custom and by law over the years.’
This was Smith’s view until he read about Tori Johnson, who died in the Lindt Café siege. Tori Johnson had left behind a male partner of 14 years and was prevented by law to marry him. An opportunity for love had been lost. Matthew Knott saw Dean transform ‘from same-sex marriage sceptic to a passionate supporter’. When the Senate rejected the plebiscite, Dean Smith put in months of work drafting a bill that could be supported across party lines.
Love is in the air
Love transcends politics, even within families. Despite his long opposition to same-sex marriage, Tony Abbott attended the marriage of his sister Christine Forster to Virginia Flitcroft in 2018. Christine had campaigned strongly for marriage equality and even considered running for Parliament. She was present on the stage, standing next to her brother, when he lost the seat of Warringah in the May 2019 election.
In the 2017 calendar year, the word ‘love’ was spoken in the houses of Australian parliament 1678 times, in contrast to a total of 4000 times in the 10 years prior, and 1803 times in the 10 Howard years from 1996 until 2006.
Australians overwhelmingly supported same-sex marriage, with 61.6% voting ‘Yes’. With bipartisan support, the subsequent legislation passed the Australian Parliament on 7 December 2017.
Today, following in the footsteps of courageous leaders such as Labor Senator Penny Wong, we have just had the first openly lesbian politician elected to the House of Representatives, Independent Kerryn Phelps, and the first openly gay woman from a major party in the House, Liberal Fiona Bell. Further milestones will follow.
To find out more about how Australia reached bipartisanship (of sorts) on same-sex marriage, we spoke with former Premier of Queensland Anna Bligh. Anna shared her insights on political bipartisanship, and particularly on how some issues that at times seem so divisive can be overcome and resolved in Australian politics. The following is an extract from our interview.
From Queensland with Love, from Anna Bligh, former Queensland Premier
Sometimes people are dragged to bipartisanship. It’s true. Sometimes there are issues on which people evolve their thinking. During my political career — one of the most heated debates that I was involved in was about same-sex relationships.
It was just after Peter Beattie won his first election in 1998 and I was handed my first portfolio. I had responsibility for family services and the domestic violence legislation. We were expanding the definition of domestic violence to include a range of other relationships such as de facto relationships, carer relationships, and I moved an amendment to include same-sex relationships.
Now, this was just after the election when we had a National Party dominated Opposition and One Nation had ten or eleven members of parliament. It was the most fiery debate. People literally screaming threats across the chamber at me to the effect that God was watching me and I would burn in the fires of hell etc.
We then, over the next two terms, undertook, as most state governments did, a whole series of legislation that dealt with a whole raft of rights for people in same-sex relationships, such as succession laws. And to their credit, some of the people in the National Party who had been the most fire-brand about the domestic violence amendments changed their views and their vote. They had gone back to their electorates and realised they were out of step – and they were confronted by some realisations about who actually lived in their community.
And so over time some of those things actually became bipartisan – within a short period of time. When we introduced an omnibus amendment bill a few years later that dealt with succession, inheritance, wills and the like, it was supported by an almost unanimous vote. This shift didn’t take very long in the history of evolving ideology. People and sides of politics can and do change.
There are issues that excite passions in people — but we accept the majority will. Take Howard implementing the GST. The Labor party fought that very, very hard at two elections. Howard went out and sought a mandate for it. Got one. And that was it. Now we have bipartisan support for this tax measure.
Marriage equality. Good example. While there are some people that exempted themselves from the vote, once the people of Australia voted Yes convincingly, the Parliament largely followed suit despite the previously strongly held opposition by some. While the plebiscite may not have changed the personal views of some politicians, they resolved to vote in accordance with the wishes of the electorate. This is not an issue that I think you will see re-prosecuted by the Australian parliament. The people have spoken and it’s done.
That’s one of the things I think is very strong in our democracy. You can have the complete other extreme from bipartisanship on a particular issue — and even the most zealous champions of opposing views know when to put the sword down. They don’t keep coming back and back.
One of the truly important things about Australia’s democracy is that both sides can hold ideas very passionately, argue and contest them with great fierceness, but once those ideas have been put to the Australian people and the majority support one side or the other, we are very good at putting down the weapons, and implementing what the Australian people have indicated they want to be implemented.