As marriage equality receives resounding support from the public, a bill that was 13 years in the making is hurried into parliament. By Karen Middleton.

Yes! Australia votes for equality

A couple celebrates the survey result in Oxford Steet, Sydney.
A couple celebrates the survey result in Oxford Steet, Sydney.
Credit: Matthew Abbott / Oculi

Bob Brown was in his Hobart office with partner Paul Thomas when the result came through.

“It’s a long way from a crowd getting to its feet on the north-west coast in 1988, yelling, ‘Kill them, kill them, kill them’,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“Congratulations to all Australians. The people have led the politicians, by and large.”

The former Greens leader’s home state of Tasmania, where homosexual sex was a crime until 1997, is the nation’s starkest example of change, recording the third-highest participation rate in the same-sex marriage survey at 79.7 per cent. Of those respondents, 63.6 per cent said “Yes”.

As the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex community, and their supporters, celebrated the nation’s decision on Wednesday, West Australian Labor senator Louise Pratt also thanked those who had gone before.

They had campaigned “in much, much harder times, when it was criminal to be gay or lesbian and when our identities were entirely stigmatised”.

“So,” Pratt said, “I want to say thank you to those brave people from decades past because we would not be here today without you.”

Wednesday morning was a moment for sentiment and reflection, an overwhelming moment for some, including Labor’s senate leader, Penny Wong, mother of two daughters with her partner, Sophie Allouache.

Wong’s trademark composure crumpled after waiting an agonising four minutes for the chief statistician to wind his way to the actual result.

“Thank you, Australia,” was all she managed to say as the news sank in.

Parliament’s chief “Yes” proponents recognise their task is not yet complete and moved swiftly to bring forward the enabling legislation before the sun had set on celebration day.

Chief sponsor West Australian Dean Smith gave notice of the legislation in the senate on Wednesday afternoon, and introduced it formally on Thursday morning.

Originally, it wasn’t supposed to be quite so rushed.

In his speech, Smith paid tribute to his Queensland colleague, Warren Entsch, a crocodile-farming straight man from Cairns, who began the push for change within the Coalition in 2004.

“This bill is more Warren’s than anyone’s,” Smith said. “We simply walk in the tracks that he’s laid for us.”

Entsch is nearing the end of a three-month secondment to the United Nations in New York, and watched the results being announced from an Australian-owned pub in midtown Manhattan.

The plan of the cross-party “Yes” campaigners had been that if their side prevailed, Entsch would come back a week early to have the privilege of introducing the legislation into the house of representatives when it resumes on November 27.

But he told The Saturday Paper from New York that when conservative colleagues in the “No” camp suddenly produced an alternative bill that sought to authorise what he feared was discrimination dressed as religious freedom, they decided not to wait.

“I’d love to have done it but it was necessary for us to move quickly,” Entsch said. “It just concerned us that it gave idle minds a week to do something, so it was better to get it straight there.”

He was referring to the bill that Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson unveiled this week, which aimed to override state and territory laws and give wedding service providers the legal right to refuse their services to gay couples.

Paterson, who supports same-sex marriage, said he did not want some Australians to impose their values on others.

Entsch says the bill that has now gone forward, drafted by Smith in conjunction with others, was the carefully crafted result of extensive consultation.

“It wasn’t about grandstanding,” he says. Entsch says there is “zero appetite” for amending the law to allow more discrimination.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shares that view. “The government does not, would not, countenance making legal discrimination that is illegal, that is unlawful today,” he said.

Entsch issued a warning to those colleagues who might seek to obstruct the path of the enabling legislation.

“I would suspect that those that have been so opposed to this need to be very careful and need to reflect on the wishes of their own constituency before they start becoming too difficult,” he said.

There remains strong support for entrenching protection for religious freedom and what some are describing as conscientious objection.

Former prime minister John Howard is among those who say that while the national decision should be respected, he has “legitimate concerns” about protecting parental rights, religious freedoms and freedom of speech.

“These are not small matters,” he said. “It is a pity that the government – as I asked – had not spelled out before the vote how these matters were going to be covered in any enabling legislation.”

He said the debate should not get “hung up” on “cake-makers and florists” but the two things that “really do matter” were freedom of religion and speech and parental rights.

On Wednesday afternoon, conservative Liberal MP Kevin Andrews gave an interview defending what he said were the rights of business people to refuse services to gay couples. It alarmed a number of his colleagues.

Andrews suggested parliament should legislate to protect service providers who wanted to refuse service to a couple whose marriage conflicted with their beliefs, whether the couple marrying was Jewish or Muslim, gay or straight.

Not long after, Paterson withdrew his bill, planning to push to amend Smith’s bill instead.

“The parliament must now quickly pass a bill to legalise same-sex marriage,” Paterson wrote on his Facebook page. “It is clear the majority of senators believe my colleague Senator Dean Smith’s Bill is where we should start.”

Prominent Australians are warning parliament against continuing to frustrate the issue – or try to take credit for the result.

While voices outside parliament are vowing loudly to fight on for exemptions, inside, at least among Liberal MPs, they are quieter.

Chief proponents of acting on the will of the people, the MPs who campaigned against this change cannot deny the direction the people gave.

The electorate-by-electorate figures demanded by some “No” proponents have proved extremely revealing and potentially a little uncomfortable for parliamentarians on both sides of the argument.

Some of the strongest “Yes” votes were in the seats of “No”-advocating Liberals.

In Tony Abbott’s electorate, support for marriage equality was among the highest in the country, at 75 per cent. And in fellow conservative Andrew Hastie’s outer-Perth seat of Canning, the result was 60.2 per cent “Yes”.

After Wednesday’s result was made public, Abbott phoned his sister, “Yes” campaigner and Liberal City of Sydney councillor Christine Forster, who is engaged to her partner, Virginia Edwards.

“He rang me not long after this decision was announced, just to be magnanimous and reassure me that he would do the right thing by the Australian people to reflect the choice that they had expressed,” Forster told ABC Radio.

“The people have spoken and of course parliament should respect the result,” Abbott said after the announcement.

In Tasmania, another key “No” proponent, Eric Abetz, has also accepted the result.

“The decision by the Australian people reflected in the postal survey is a decision that I regret but respect,” Abetz said.

There is confronting evidence for Labor MPs of even stronger views against changing the law.

Of the 17 electorates nationwide that voted “No”, 11 are Labor-held and most are in Sydney’s west and south-west, in ethnically diverse seats with strong Muslim or orthodox populations. In Labor MP Jason Clare’s western Sydney seat of Blaxland, the “No” vote was 73.9 per cent. In Watson, held by the manager of opposition business in the lower house, Tony Burke, it was 69.6 per cent. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen’s seat of McMahon returned a 64.9 per cent “No” vote.

On both sides, MPs now face the challenge of deciding whether to vote reflecting the national result, their electorate’s wishes or their own beliefs.

In some cases though, all align.

One of North Sydney Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman’s constituents is a 97-year-old man who wants to marry his male partner of 50 years.

Zimmerman has been acutely conscious that for people like this man, time is running out.

He phoned the constituent on Wednesday morning to tell him it would be law by Christmas.

“Just hearing his delight was really quite moving,” Zimmerman told Sky News.

“I have to say that one of the things that has always perplexed me is that when I was elected and of course was the first openly gay member of the house of representatives, it struck me that I could be elected to be in Australia’s parliament but the law wouldn’t let me get married. And that’s about to change and that’s very pleasing.” 

In the Australian Capital Territory, which returned the highest “Yes” vote at 74 per cent and where gay and lesbian weddings were held legally for one week in 2013 before a federal government challenge saw the High Court rule them invalid, the government closed off a street in inner-city Braddon and put on a party.

Penny Wong addressed the crowd. “I thought this morning… This could be a day where so many Australians feel excluded, diminished and rejected, or this could be a day where Australia shows itself to be the nation we hope it to be.”

It was, she said, the latter.

Sharing the stage was ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, the only openly gay government leader in Australia. Barr believes the ACT government’s persistence in pursuing same-sex civil unions and ultimately marriage has helped achieve this week’s national result.

“It just shows that progressive jurisdictions can lead and lead well and the rest of the country will catch up,” Barr told The Saturday Paper.

Penny Wong seconded Barr’s motion at Labor’s national conference in 2011 that endorsed a change in policy and a change in law.

He says there is more to be done, especially for transgender and intersex Australians. “The challenge I think now for the progressive social movements, once this issue is resolved, is to look at a range of other issues that are still troubling in our society in 2017 and beyond, and we’ll need to turn our minds to that.” 

Barr says the states and territories will need to audit their own laws to look for and amend anything not compatible with the new marriage definition. But he doesn’t want to take anything away from the moment, over which he shed a private tear on Wednesday.

“The symbolic power of this outcome just means I think a huge amount to so many Australians,” he says.

The emotional toll has been high and will not disappear when the bill passes into law.

Barr says that even as chief minister, he experienced the nasty side of the debate firsthand.

“The last few months have been the first time in years that I’ve been called a faggot and a poofter and all that sort of stuff, and people feeling quite free to do that because it’s part of the debate – that being legitimate and acceptable,” he says.

That was in the territory that voted 74 per cent in favour.

“You can imagine what it would have been like in other parts of the country.”   

A month into the survey, a gay friend told me he feared his own mother had probably voted “No”.

“I’m too afraid to ask,” he said. If that were the truth, he couldn’t bear to know it. What would that mean for their relationship long after the survey was done?

For those now legally able to formalise their relationships as marriage, there’s also the question of whether they actually want to. Andrew Barr says nobody should assume so.

“I don’t think people should feel rushed into this,” he says. “It’s not compulsory. But for many people, obviously they’ve been waiting for this and will eagerly await the legislation passing.”

That’s true of their straight supporters, too.

Far away from the street parties and celebrations, Warren Entsch says it wasn’t until he was on the way back to his Manhattan apartment after the results were announced that it struck him what 13 years of campaigning had just helped deliver.

“I just happened to look out the car window and saw something that really blew me away,” he says. “The Empire State Building was lit up in rainbow colours and I thought, ‘How wonderful is that?’ Even here, on this side of the world, the decision was so important that they were prepared to do that. I felt really good.”

In the morning, he phoned Dean Smith just to check that “overnight the sky hadn’t fallen in and the ground hadn’t opened up”.

He was assured that across the Pacific and over the rainbow, life continued as normal – the same, but also very different.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2017 as "Yes! ".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription