This is an open letter written to a sitting member of parliament on the topic of marriage equality for an assignment entitled ‘Engaging with Politics’ from January 2017
Dear Prime Minister
I am writing to you today as I was saddened to recently read that the same sex marriage plebiscite bill had been blocked by the Senate (Keany & Holman, 2016). It was a disappointing outcome but one which can be explained given the potentially non binding nature of the question posed and the rising costs associated with the plebiscite (Aston, 2016). I understand that with such a contentious issue, opinions are heavily divided between both sides of this issue. It is a shame that we as a nation of educated people cannot come together and afford all of our citizens the same just and equal rights under the law.
Despite the rhetoric of certain politicians, the Australian political leadership agree with the majority of voters surveyed that instituting marriage law reform should be a priority for our Parliament (Farr, 2016). This may take the form of amendments to the 1961 Marriage Act to extend coverage to and allow for recognition of same sex marriages under the law. In my letter to you today, I hope to thoroughly outline the case for a conscience vote in parliament about making changes to the marriage act, so that you might consider it an appropriate course of action to further our country on its road to true equality and justice for all its citizens.
On your own website under the Malcolm & Wentworth section for survey results, you list arguments and comments for recognising same sex marriages and also recognising civil unions. Two entries in this section stand out most prominently. Firstly, there’s Dr Kerryn Phelps, former Australian Medical Association President, who says “The issue of marriage equality is a human rights issue. It is essential that the political/legal and religious aspects remain separated”. Secondly, and perhaps most poignantly, there’s Nick Greiner, former Premier of New South Wales, who’s quoted as saying that same-sex marriage is “self evidently a matter of justice” (Malcolm & Wentworth, n.d.).
Those two leading Australians raise some noteworthy points regarding same-sex marriage and its relationship to human rights, equality, and justice. We have in Australia a democratically elected parliament that is designed to be a fair representation of our people so that it may govern our nation with the aim of improving not just our economic outlook as a united country, but also our quality of life as individuals and social groups. When it comes to the issue of same sex marriage, the Federal Parliament is keeping a group of our population on unequal footing with the rest. One begins to wonder if it is due to the size of the group affected. Surely if it was half of our countries population, or more, facing the injustice of not having the same equal rights as the rest, there would be a stronger movement in parliament to correct the imbalance. The size of the group in question should not be a mitigating factor on whether they receive equality or not. I would like to think that we as a nation always strive to ensure justice and equality for all of our citizens.
The issue of same sex marriage is not just locally isolated to Australia. We can learn from other western countries who have already successfully tackled this difficult issue. From the Netherlands in 2000 to Ireland and the United States of America in 2015, there have been over 20 countries in the last 17 years that have recognized same sex marriage (Waxman, 2015). It seems like rectifying the injustice of treating citizens unequally might be having a domino effect on the political landscape of western countries. For instance even our closest neighbour, both geographically and culturally, New Zealand, has amended their laws for same sex marriage back in 2013 (Schwartz, 2013). And they did so by having members vote in parliament, rather than holding a plebiscite.
As I am no doubt sure you are aware, unlike the United States of America, who reached their same sex marriage equality through their Supreme Court ruling that same sex marriage is a right under their Constitution (Liptak, 2015), we do not have that option available. In 2013, the High Court of Australia passed a judgment that said that same sex marriage is a matter for Federal Parliament and should be provided for by the law (Wickham, 2013). This means that we might have to follow New Zealand’s lead on the way forward, and amend our laws, specifically the definition of marriage: “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others…” (Marriage Act 1961).
After writing that line, I notice how it can be unnerving that just one or two lines of text can represent such a divisive and complicated issue in our society. That is why issues such as these should be put to vote in our Parliament, as the process allows for substantial debate and discussion from our elected representatives to shape an issue.
As I was looking into how such an amendment might be received by the parliament and Australian public, I was surprised to find some stances on this issue by our parliamentary members are not a matter of public record. For example, my local minister and your cabinet appointed Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, the honourable Steven Ciobo, was not on public record stating support for one side of the issue or the other (Australian Marriage Equality Organisation, n.d.). I’ve taken to writing to him as well, to see if he will state his position on this issue. As it seems foreign to me how someone can represent the people if they do not take a stand on important issues – even if the side they choose is not the popular, or the historically perceived ‘correct’ choice. This raises the question, is inaction on such a defining issue really acceptable? Since the honourable member has held his seat at the most recent election without publicly announcing his support for either side of this issue, it seems that an on record account of his opinion is not required by his other constituents.
According to the Australian Marriage Equality Organisation’s website, there are 86 members in the House of Representatives who have stated their public support for same sex marriage, and only 34 opposed (Australian Marriage Equality Organisation, n.d.). Even taking into account the 30 undeclared members, of which the aforementioned honourable member Steven Ciobo is a part, that still puts the supporting figures ahead by 22 votes.
In summing up my letter to you today Mr Prime Minister, I would ask of you to strongly consider putting the issue of same sex marriage to a vote in parliament. It seems that the numbers are there, on paper at least, for the amendments to pass. If all parliamentarians were held to their publicly stated stances on this issue, we could see a correction to this injustice and inequality for our fellow citizens. If you allowed the parliamentary members to vote based on their conscience rather than following political party guidelines, we might see equal rights granted to members of our community who have suffered from bigotry and vitriolic remarks about their ways of life stemming from a lack of legal support for their relationship choices.
Granting Australian citizens equal footing under the law for same sex marriage could be the greatest achievement of the Australian parliament in 2017, therefore I implore you, Mr Prime Minister, to be the change that so many Australians want to see.