Australia saw its first same-sex marriages over the weekend, in Canberra. The predictable 12:01 a.m. ceremonies, the newspaper pictures of beaming gay couples in matching outfits, the rainbow flags and lofty statements about our rights, all overshadowed by the High Court case that threatens to undo it all after a few days.
For five days, the ACT has been the first jurisdiction in Australia to legislate for same-sex marriage, and later today we’ll know if that law has withstood a constitutional challenge from the federal government. My guess is that the court will strike the ACT marriage law down, and with it those 12:01 am marriages.
As much as that decision will dash the hopes of many supporters of marriage equality in Australia, I think it’s the right thing for the Court to do. I have been following the case with interest: I even watched some of the online video of the oral arguments. To my only partially-trained eyes, the Commonwealth’s argument seems pretty sound: the constitutional framers’ intention was clearly to have a single system of marriage in Australia (indeed, they explicitly argued against the patchwork approach of the US and other countries) and the passage of the Marriage Act in the early 1960s was the, albeit delayed, achievement of that goal. The Commonwealth has exercised its power under the Constitution to define the boundary between people who are ‘married’ and those who are ‘unmarried’ at law, and that means any state or territory law that tries to redefine that boundary must be invalid.
The ACT’s argument is that, because the Commonwealth Act only regulates opposite-sex marriages, that leaves an open space for States and Territories to regulate same-sex marriage. But both Acts are trying to achieve the same legislative end – determine who can claim the status of marriage, and I don’t see how the High Court can realistically leave the ACT law in place. We’ll know in a few hours.
In any case, I don’t think the approach of pursuing marriage reform on a state-by-state basis is right. If we are pushing for marriage equality, that can only mean reforming the existing institution of marriage – not the creation of a set of parallel institutions that all claim the status of ‘marriage’. For marriage equality to be real, we need one institution that treats all relationships the same way, not a series of separate-but-equal attempts to circumvent the Commonwealth Parliament’s failure to legislate.
Australians in de facto relationships, which in every jurisdiction includes same-sex couples, already enjoy nearly identical rights to those who are married, so the idea that we can achieve ‘marriage equality’ by setting up nine different systems of marriage across Australia seems hopelessly misguided. It’s hard for me to see how this is a step forward.
Unlike our cousins in the US, Australia’s push for marriage equality is largely symbolic. We don’t depend on the status if marriage for practical rights, because we already have de facto relationship rights that are virtually indistinguishable from those enjoyed by married people. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue pushing for the Marriage Act to be reformed – we should, and it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t believe that, eventually, reform will come. But the push for state and territory based same-sex marriage laws turns marriage in Australia into a Rube Goldberg contraption of interacting and conflicting provisions that change when you cross from one state to another: that may be fine for people who want to wear matching suits and pledge their commitment at 12:01 am ceremonies in chilly Canberra (and who can blame them?) but it’s not ‘marriage equality’.
I fully expect that, later today, the High Court will strike down the ACT marriage law, and Canberra’s five days of rainbow weddings will be over. When that happens, we should not see it as a step backwards for marriage equality, but a step towards it. Because it’s only by changing the Commonwealth Marriage Act that we can achieve the equality we say we want.