Marriage equality will have to be won on the streets

Just as in the 21 countries where marriage equality has been won, we will have to win this democratic right on the streets here too.

This is the resounding conclusion supporters of equality must draw if we are to push back an emerging tide of conservatism unleashed by this latest round of major party politicking over the marriage equality plebiscite.

The major parties’ lack of leadership — while unsurprising — has been shameful.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, once a supporter of the principle of equality, put his career first, choosing to stick to the delaying tactic hammered out between former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Coalition homophobes.

The ALP, which adopted marriage equality as policy in 2011, is still trying to make a virtue out of giving MPs a “conscience” vote.

Where is the leadership in that?

When it comes to obnoxious policies, such as mandatory detention and stopping the boats, Labor does not support a conscience vote. But it has decided to only bind its MPs on marriage equality in 2019.

Labor’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said it voted against the plebiscite bill because a nationwide debate over marriage equality was likely to cause harm. Hypocritically, it does not discipline its MPs to vote according to its policy.

Plibersek says it is about the numbers. If that is the case, there is even more reason to bind its own members, as the Greens do. Labor, like the Coalition, also includes in its ranks homophobes, whom it does not want to offend.

The plebiscite was a delaying tactic and equal marriage supporters were correct to demand MPs change the Marriage Act immediately, as they have the power to do. Leaving aside the question of how harmful it would have been, we do not need a non-binding plebiscite to find out something we already know.

Since former Prime Minister John Howard amended the Marriage Act in 2004 to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman and clarify that same-sex marriages entered into under the law of another country would not be recognised in Australia, 21 attempts have been made to legislate for marriage equality.

(Interestingly, in 1961 an attempt by Victorian Liberal Senator George Hannan to insert a definition of marriage as “the voluntary union of one man with one woman for life to the exclusion of all others” was soundly defeated 40-8.)

In parliament, the Greens have been the most persistent.

Now that the plebiscite is off the table, supporters of marriage equality have to reassess strategy. Waiting until Labor is voted into government is not a solution. Vulnerable people, particularly young people, will remain vulnerable while the major parties play games.

One of the first community-based groups to agitate for marriage equality was the Sydney-based Community Action Against Homophobia, which formed in 1999. It took up the marriage equality campaign in 2004 and, for many years, it was a lonely battle. The then Labor-dominated gay and lesbian rights organisations were not keen, arguing back then that equal marriage was not as important as tackling other forms of homophobia.

CAAH continued its equal marriage campaign and, with other groups such as Equal Love, successfully mobilised enough people across Australia to convince Labor to change its policy in 2011. Huge national rallies in 2009 and again in 2011 outside the ALP conference in Sydney were central to forcing this change.

Labor’s new policy was a victory that came from grassroots’ organising. Widespread community consciousness-raising was an intrinsic part of the campaign and by 2009 Labor-dominated LGBTI groups had jumped on board.

The tide of change prompted several states and territories including the ACT, South Australia and Tasmania to buck the conservatives and introduce statewide marriage equality or relationship register laws to recognise overseas same-sex marriages (even though the ACT law was struck down by a High Court challenge).

It has been five years since Labor changed its policy and we cannot wait until 2019.

We urgently need to step up the nation-wide community organising now. If you live in or around Brisbane or Perth, join the marriage equality rallies on Saturday October 15 at 1pm.

Outside parliament, we have the numbers. Like recent mass protests by brave women demanding abortion rights in Poland, collective organising can force politicians to make U-turns, cross floors and revisit their conscience.

[Rachel Evans is the Sydney University Post Graduate Representative Association Queer Officer. Pip Hinman is a Green Left Weekly journalist. Both are Socialist Alliance members.]