Same-sex marriage: issues for the 44th Parliament

Marriage Same-sex marriage Federal government LGBTIQ+ Australia

Australia has achieved a high degree of equality between the treatment of same-sex and heterosexual relationships with marriage remaining the one significant area of difference.

Executive summary

Same-sex marriage has been on the political agenda in Australia for several years, as part of the broader debate about the legal recognition of same-sex relationships. While there has been a shift in community and political opinion, the issue of same-sex marriage remains complex and controversial. It has raised human rights and constitutional law issues, as well as a raft of social, religious, moral and political questions.

The purpose of this Research Paper is to update a 2012 Parliamentary Library Background Note and to draw more widely on the extensive resources available on this subject. The paper covers a range of topics including:

  • the views of the political parties
  • constitutional issues and the 2013 High Court Same-sex marriage case. In that case the Court found the ACT same-sex marriage law was in conflict with the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961 and therefore inoperative and ‘of no effect’. Equally significantly, the Court resolved any doubts as to the scope of the ‘marriage power’ finding that the federal Parliament has the power to legislate about same-sex marriage
  • a comparative analysis of the four private member Bills before the Parliament, introduced by Senator Hanson Young, Senator Leyonhjelm, Mr Shorten MP and a cross party Bill sponsored by Mr Entsch MP. All Bills are similar in that they insert a new identical definition of marriage into the Marriage Act encompassing unions of any two people regardless of sex, and repeal the existing ban on the recognition of same-sex marriages solemnised overseas. The Bills differ in style and substance in relation to the provisions dealing with exemptions for marriage celebrants who may have religious or conscience objections to solemnising gay marriages
  • a short section comparing the differences between a plebiscite and a referendum, included in response to the recent announcement  by the Prime Minister that a popular vote will be held
  • comparative material on international developments in other common law countries that have legalised same-sex marriage including the United Kingdom, South Africa, New Zealand, the United States and Canada
  • a discussion of the arguments about the possible conflict between marriage equality and religious freedom  including the Australian Human Rights Commissioner’s proposed compromise of providing a ‘two tier’ approach that would structurally separate the religious and civil definitions of marriage in the Marriage Act (Cth) but treat them equally in law.  

In addition, the paper replicates parts of the 2012 Background Note, including a history and outline of the Marriage Act and an appendix dealing with other forms of relationship recognition.

As the paper concludes, Australia has achieved a high degree of equality between the treatment of same-sex and heterosexual relationships with marriage remaining the one significant area of difference. For some, it is important to take time to ponder and consider the full implications of changing the meaning of this ancient institution.  For others, including those who live with the memories and scars of the criminalisation and prejudice endured by homosexuals in the past, it is important to move swiftly to remove this last remaining area of difference. Overseas experience would suggest that a long and protracted discussion about the meaning of marriage, leading up to a popular vote some 18 months away, is likely to promote a passionate, robust and even strident or divisive debate within the Australian community.

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