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After a break in the legislative session, Australian lawmakers returned to Canberra only to be greeted at the airport with a terminal lit up in rainbow colors and a huge sign with Australia’s hashtag campaign #WeCanDoThis. This is the week that the Australian Parliament is set to debate a new cross-party marriage equality bill.
Many Australian sports stars and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert star, Hugo Weaving, appeared in TV spots calling on Parliament to stop stalling and secure marriage equality for Australian LGBT+ citizens. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in July, Australia’s marriage equality movement has picked up steam. Still, the Australian system of government is only vaguely similar to that of the United States, as the last couple of hours reading long boring articles on Wikipedia.org can attest to.
And in many ways, Australia’s government is much more complicated than our own form of government. Australia operates with more than two parties in elections and follows the Westminster system. The party (or an alliance of parties as is the case currently in Australia) that hold the majority of seats in Australia’s House of Representatives (the analog to our House of Representatives) is asked to form a government by Queen Elizabeth II, who is still considered the sovereign (in title only) of Australia.
The legislature is bicameral and said to be based on the United States Congress. The house that is analogous to the Senate is known as the Queen, and members of the Queen serve similar terms as those in the US Senate. The executive branch, however is fused to the legislative branch, as the party leader of the majority party (or majority alliance) becomes the executive, or Prime Minister. This system has its pros and cons, as parties and alliances can attempt to overthrow their leader if the party feels it’s being led in the wrong direction or public opinion polling on the Prime Minister is low. This is known in Australia as a leadership spill. Since June 2003, the Australian government has had 8 successful leadership spills and many more attempted ones. As recently as February 2015, did the current Prime Minister Tony Abbott survive his own leadership spill.
In parliaments, votes are almost always down party lines. Like in Congress, legislators known as whips, do just that, whip the other legislators into conformance with the party line. Abbott, leader of the center-right Liberal party (which as an American liberal makes my head want to explode), can easily tell his alliance of parties to vote against the marriage-equality legislation and delay the issue until after elections in 2017.
However, Abbott promised the opposition party (Labor Party, the “liberal” party in American vernacular) that he would allow a conscience vote, where each individual Member of Parliament can vote according to their conscience (which technically in America you’re allowed to do all the time, but it doesn’t happen all that often. Unless there’s a nuclear deal on the table with Iran, then everybody’s going be all willy-nilly about their conscience.) But, there are now rumors floating around that Abbott might call for a plebiscite, which, because it’s Australia, complicates things even further. Is it me, or is Australian politics like Thunderdome? Two men enter and only one man … nevermind.
There are two types of public votes for passing laws in Australia, referendums and plebiscites. Referendums are public votes on changes to Australia’s Constitution, and plebiscites are changes to laws outside Australia’s Constitution. So in effect, if the issue of marriage equality in Australia goes to a plebiscite, it could be wiped out by an act of Parliament during the next session.
Yikes! Could the Australian court system help my Aussie LGBT siblings out? Well, the High Court of Australia has the last word on the constitutionality of laws passed by the Australian federal, state and self-governing territorial parliaments. But in 2013 the Australian Capital Territory legalized marriage equality. The Commonwealth took the ACT to court over it and won, the ACT law was struck down for not being in compliance with Australia’s Federal Marriage Act.. The High Court of Australia doesn’t seem as amenable to the marriage equality movement as the United States Supreme Court was in June.
So there you have it, unless the Australian Parliament gets to have a conscience vote it doesn’t look likely that marriage equality will be a thing in Australia until at least 2017, when the next round of parliamentary elections will be held. You never know though, Abbot’s evasiveness over this issue could cause another attempt at a leadership spill. Hopefully, the rumors about Abbott looking to see he can turn the issue over to a plebiscite are just that, rumors.
To my Aussie LGBT+ siblings:
If #WeCanDoThis, then I know you can!
I’m Michael, and I’m the Philosophical Gaytheist. Gaytheist? Is that a gay theist, or a gay atheist? Well I like f*#ikng men and I don’t believe in God. My philosophical sophistication will intrigue you, and then make undergrads everywhere realize to never major in philosophy.