Making history with marriage equality campaign

| December 7, 2011

One week ago Prime Minister Julia Gillard was declaring herself a conservative on the issue of marriage rights for same-sex couples. But, last weekend her Labor Party made history by adopting a policy in favour of marriage equality. Gay activist Rodney Croome charts the success of the campaign for change.

There was a mixed outcome from Saturday’s Labor National Conference debate on marriage equality.

On the one hand the Labor Party made history by adopting a policy in favour of allowing same-sex marriage. This is a first for a major Australian political party, and it reversed the party’s anti-equality position adopted only seven years ago.

But the ALP also voted to give Labor members the right to vote against that policy, should their conscience compel them to.

With Labor holding a wafer-thin majority in Parliament, this means a marriage equality policy has no chance unless the Coalition also allows a conscience vote.

The 10,000-strong rally that converged on the Conference after the vote wasn’t sure whether to cheer or boo, so it did both. But if there is one unambiguous message from the Conference it is that the campaign for marriage equality is working.

Up until the last election there was only a handful of Labor MPs willing to back marriage equality. Fifteen months later it is supported by all but one state Labor leader, all but one state Labor conference, two state Labor governments, most federal Labor ministers, and now the Labor National Conference.

Even a conscience vote is, in its own way, a success.

Until just a few months ago a national civil union scheme was the preferred fall-back position for many Labor decision-makers. But that option would have cut off progress on marriage equality, whereas a conscience vote at least provides a way forward.

Beneath these changes lies a more fundamental shift in community attitudes, with support for marriage equality rising from 38% in 2004 to 65% today.

All these rapid and important changes come down to the effectiveness of the marriage equality movement. And, what makes it so effective is –

  • its emphasis on the power of personal stories in changing the hearts and minds of those conflicted about marriage equality (the popular ‘It’s Time’ Get Up ad encapsulates this);
  • its use of social media to translate popular support for reform into letter-writing and petitioning campaigns that, for the first time in Australia, are bigger than those organised by the churches;
  • its achievements of small, but encouraging, victories along the way (eg. counting same-sex married couples in the Census and removing the ban on the documents same-sex couples need to marry overseas);
  • its ability to learn from the mistakes of campaigns overseas (for example, not allowing civil unions to become an acceptable substitute for marriage equality);
  • and, its cooperative and cohesive spirit when compared to many of the fractious and divided marriage equality movements in other countries.

There are many challenges ahead for marriage equality supporters. It is uncertain if Tony Abbott will allow a conscience vote, and even if he does, it is uncertain if there are the numbers for marriage equality to pass.

The issue may require more than one vote to pass, as was the case in New York earlier this year. But if the ALP National Conference tells us anything it is that we are on the right track.

Our campaigning has made marriage equality possible, and in the minds of many, inevitable. The next step is to make it happen.

Rodney Croome is a spokesperson for the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group and Campaign Director for Australian Marriage Equality. He received an Order of Australia in 2003 for his gay and lesbian human rights advocacy. He is an honorary lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania and co-author of the first book on same-sex marriage in Australia, "Why v Why: gay marriage".