The ACT passed its same-sex marriage bill today. Congratulations, and it’s about time.
It’s not the bill they wanted. It isn’t comprehensive. It won’t allow trans or intersex, or non-binary gender identifying people to marry. The ACT’s Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, had the bill re-drafted after receiving legal advice that its original language would leave it vulnerable to a High Court challenge (already threatened by the Liberal government). The result was a much smaller victory than was hoped for, and no doubt there will be many, many people who feel both let down and excluded. There’s certainly a fair amount of bitterness flying around social media today.
The idea that this bill needed to be amended in such a way to even have a hope of standing up to a legal challenge is, at the very least, disappointing. At worst, it’s infuriating.
But it doesn’t take away the fact that the ACT passed a bill to allow same-sex marriage. It doesn’t take away the fact that this is a landmark reform. And it doesn’t take away the fact that a Territory government was prepared to stand up to a conservative government and pass a law that will redress so much of the damage done by the Marriage Act and its narrow definitions.
The ACT managed it through some clever legal manoeuvring, taking advantage of a loophole in the Marriage Act which, ironically, was created by the Howard government’s insistence on defining marriage as taking place between ‘a man and a woman’. Rather than attempting to change that, the new law stands alone in applying solely to same-sex couples. It operates side-by-side with the Commonwealth’s law, and the Territory is confident that this will be the defining characteristic that allows it to remain on the books.
The Chief Minister has already said that, as far as she’s concerned, there is more work to be done. She signalled that if the law withstood the expected challenge, the Territory would seek to pass further laws extending marriage to those couples excluded by the one passed today. This first law is the test.
That it should even have to be a test is utterly repugnant – but that has been the history of the bill all along.
Attorney-General George Brandis wrote to Gallagher, ‘urging’ her not to go ahead with the bill. His reasoning? Marriage should be uniform across all States and Territories. Of course, what he really meant was, ‘uniform according to one limited definition’.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the government would challenge the law. His reasoning? Marriage has a ‘traditional’ definition. Traditional, of course, meaning, ‘enshrined in law since 1984 on the basis of special pleading’.
This law hurts nobody. No one will be required to ‘get gay married’, nor will they be required to give up their heterosexual marriage. Yes, I’m being absurd, but the notion that same-sex marriage somehow hurts or undermines heterosexual unions warrants this level of scorn.
What this law will do is redress a great wrong. It will celebrates love. It acknowledges that nearly 70% of Australians support doing away with the artificial distinction between marriage based entirely on gender. To be pseudo-economic about it, having this law in place increases the Gross National Happiness – which always bodes well for governments, even if all they want to talk about is the Budget deficit or unemployment rate.
We have a government that – even before the debate really got off the ground in the ACT Parliament – decided that this law could not be allowed to stand.
If the Abbott government carries out its threat to challenge the ACT’s same-sex marriage law, it will not be about tradition, or uniformity, or any other of its usual excuses.
It will be pandering to a vocal minority of religious lobby groups who feel they have the right to dictate that we should all live by their doctrines.
It will be vicious discrimination from a government that feels its job is to control how people live their lives, and punish them for who they love.
It will be narrow-minded pettiness from a government so obsessed with image, to the point that it cannot bear to be seen to lose even one of its self-imposed battles.
It will be the action of a government that acts like a spoiled child, refusing to let anyone else be happy unless they play by rules that only it can define – rules which it can change on little more than a whim.
And if – heaven forfend – such a challenge were upheld by the High Court, it would not be a victory. It would be a day of shame.
It’s not often I urge readers to take to the streets, to sign petitions, to campaign unceasingly and take the fight to the politicians and the media. But there are some things that should be defended, passionately and unceasingly. Marriage equality is one of those. What the ACT did today was take the first, huge step towards true equality, by locking into law the right for same-sex couples to marry. It’s not good enough for us to sit back and watch while the Federal Government acts – again – like a bully determined to get its own way, no matter who gets hurt. It’s not good enough for us to simply complain, or lash out at those who would do this to us, or the ones we love, or even the stranger in the street who deserves the same rights as everyone else.
We are better than that. And this is only the beginning.