What now for marriage equality?

Opponents of marriage equality like Kevin Andrews show how little they understand the issue when they declare the debate “conclusively won” and “settled” following recent defeats in parliament.

All through this debate they have assumed marriage equality is a concern limited to a small group of gay rights advocates, the Greens and Labor’s left.

By this logic a defeat in parliament would be the end of the matter.

But the demand for marriage equality has always come from below, from same-sex couples and their families, friends, neighbours and colleagues far from the seats of political power.

What lies behind this grassroots movement is a decade-long, demographic shift that has seen tens of thousands of same-sex couples move to or remain in suburban, regional and rural Australia.

The cause of this shift was growing acceptance of same-sex relationships beyond the inner-city.

The impact has been a growing awareness among heterosexual Australians that same-sex relationships have the same qualities as their own.

The outcome has been a dramatic acceleration of acceptance to the point where marriage equality is now supported by nearly two thirds of Australians and seen as inevitable by three quarters.

What was once an aspiration limited to Oxford Street can now be found on every main street in the nation.

Seen this way Andrews’ declaration is more a vain attempt to stem a rising tide than an accurate prediction that the tide is ebbing.

But there is still the question of how and when Australia’s support for marriage equality will result in law reform.

Having written letters and met MPs, many supporters wonder what more they can possibly do to make change.

My response is to keep recent defeats in perspective.

Everyone remembers the achievement of marriage equality in New York state last year but fewer realise it was defeated twice before that.

What gives me hope Australia will follow the same course is that the number of federal politicians who supported marriage equality in this year’s unsuccessful vote was a ten-fold increase since the last vote in 2009.

The recent vote also showed two thirds of federal Labor representatives support marriage equality.

That means the support of only a third of Coalition MPs is required for reform to pass, pending a conscience vote.

To achieve a conscience vote, Australian Marriage Equality will run a federal election campaign targeting key Liberal-held seats.

Our previous electoral campaigns have helped elect pro-equality MPs like Adam Bandt and push Labor towards a change of policy.

I’m hopeful the Coalition will respond to similar community pressure by allowing its members the choice to vote for or against reform.

I am even more optimistic about marriage equality at a state level.

State same-sex marriage laws have been introduced in six state and territory parliaments, and have a good chance of passing in at least four of these.

Far from being discouraged by the recent vote against marriage equality in the Tasmanian Upper House, supporters of state laws should take heart from the fact the vote was so close.

I expect to see same-sex couples marrying somewhere in Australia within months.

When they do, irrespective of whether there is a High Court challenge to the law they marry under, the national debate will change forever.

Clearly, there are still many paths forward for marriage equality at a parliamentary level.

But the missing piece of the campaign jigsaw is the mobilisation of the very people I began with: those suburban and regional Australians who value equality for their gay friends and relatives.

It is these people who hold the fate of marriage equality in their hands.

In the wake of the recent votes against reform, Australian Marriage Equality has a commitment to establishing a national network of marriage equality teams in suburban and regional areas.

We are also have a commitment to communicating the importance of marriage in ways which will engage middle Australia.

In the weeks leading up to the federal and Tasmanian votes, AME sponsored pro-marriage equality TV and print ads which focussed on family instead of rights with the catch-line “Marriage is about family, everyone’s family”

There wasn’t time for this new emphasis to transcend the old debating points of human rights vs tradition and religion, but if carried forward it will result in a significant shift in how the issue is understood in middle Australia.

Finally, we have a renewed commitment to fostering the kind of one-to-one conversations that have been one of the main motors of the debate until now.

Tens of thousands of ordinary Australians have already opened the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens through engaging in respectful conversations and by telling personal stories about why marriage equality matters.

The deeply personal aspect of marriage equality is what distinguishes the issue from, say, the republic debate, and it will be what continues to drive the debate right up until it is achieved.

Like many Australians I am disappointed by recent defeats for marriage equality, but I am not discouraged.

I am confident the fundamental shifts in Australian society, which together with the compelling personal aspirations of those most affected by inequality have given rise to this debate, will see the campaign for reform brought to a successful conclusion.

In the words of Michael Kirby, the arc of history bends toward justice.

With just a little more pressure I see it bending towards marriage equality much sooner than many people expect.

Rodney Croome AM is the new national convener of Australian Marriage Equality

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