The Australian people have spoken and they support same-sex marriage. The results of the country’s controversial postal plebiscite were announced at 10am this morning: 61.6 percent said Yes, the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry. Only 38.4 percent said No.
It was a convincing win for the same-sex marriage campaign. There was no Brexit effect, no Trump thunderbolt, no Macron upset. The polls had predicted a win for the Yes vote and they were more or less on the money.
The participation rate was amazingly high: 79.5 percent of registered voters responded. Of the nation’s 150 electorates, only 17 returned a majority No vote. Women were slightly more likely to vote than men, with about 82 percent of eligible women voting, compared to 77 percent of men. Despite sneers that young voters would not know how to post a letter, 78.2 percent of 18 and 19-year-olds voted. Participation was highest amongst 70 to 74-year-olds, at 89.6 percent. So, apart from the sparsely populated Northern Territory, where only 58.4 percent responded, interest in the outcome was unexpectedly strong. Voters took the plebiscite seriously.
However painful it may be for “No” campaigners to admit, most Australians today do not feel that traditional marriage between a man and a woman deserves special protection nor that children are better off if raised by a mother and a father.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten are both strong supporters of same-sex marriage, so enabling legislation will probably be passed by the end of the year — Parliament’s Christmas gift to the electorate.
Now the debate has shifted to the details of the legislation. Apart from changing the wording of the Marriage Act, will there be exemptions for conscientious objectors?
The short answer is No.
The long answer is that a bill proposed by Dean Smith, a gay senator from Western Australia, which is favoured by both Turnbull and Shorten, would allow churches and religious organisations to refuse to perform same-sex weddings. It will probably be tabled in Parliament tomorrow.
A rival bill sponsored by conservative MPs would allow a much broader range of conscientious objection. People could refuse to participate in a same-sex wedding if it went against their beliefs; they could discuss their views on traditional marriage without fear of legal penalties; they could remove their children from classes which do not support their views on marriage.
But this version of the bill is already being savaged in the media and by Yes vote politicians. “Very, very few Australians would agree that one discrimination should be removed and replaced with other discriminations,” says Senator Smith.
So, as the debate shifts from redefining marriage to survival strategies, what are the takeaways from the results of the plebiscite?
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1. The plebiscite ought to be a reality check, however bitter, for supporters of traditional marriage, especially for Christians. Ultimately they lost the plebiscite because Australians had lost faith in it. And the writing has been on the wall for a long time.
According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of registered marriages actually decreased by 6.3 percent in 2015 over the previous year. Couples who lived together before marriage accounted for 81 percent of all newlyweds. Gone are the days when couples “saved themselves” for the wedding night. Both men and women are tying the knot later and later – at about the age of 30.
Nor is marriage a religious commitment any more. Civil celebrants performed 74.9 percent of all registered marriage ceremonies in 2015, a figure which edges up every year.
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2. With this in mind, gays and lesbians should have mixed feelings about result of the plebiscite. They have joined the marriage club just when its prestige has hit an all-time low and it’s unlikely to give them the affirmation that they crave. They’re a bit like kids whose parents wouldn’t let them have a yo-yo when everyone on the playground had a yo-yo. By the time their parents finally relented, the yo-yo craze was over.
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3. You could say that November 15 was the day that Australia divorced Christianity, a bit like Islam’s triple talaq. But it’s also an opportunity. It’s the secular model of marriage after cohabitation that is on the skids, with children as an optional extra and the awful possibility of divorce hovering above the family.
A committed and fruitful Christian marriage, however, is a light shining on the hill. So, if you’re given lemons, make lemonade. If Christian couples struggle to put their ideals into practice, society could be changed by the attractiveness of their example. To paraphrase Chesterton, Christian marriage has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.
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4. Private schools and parents have every right to be scared. With same-sex marriage the law of the land, schools will be forced to teach it as a legitimate alternative. The Safe Schools program which is already being rolled out in Victoria could become a model for all education systems.
And parents will be expected to support the new social order. Two parenting “experts” wrote today in The Conversation, that “it is important that parents help normalise all family types. Explain that some families have one mummy and one daddy, while other families might have two mummies or two daddies.” Traditionally-minded teenagers will have to keep mum in the classroom and accept diversity – or else. The debate over exemptions is focused on the rights of religious institutions – parents are running a poor second, let alone suppliers of wedding cakes and florists.
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5. While a clear majority of Australians support same-sex marriage, a closer examination of the results may give Bill Shorten a bit of heartburn. Of the 17 rogue electorates which voted No, 11 of them are held by Labor. And nine of these are in the Western Suburbs of Sydney. The seat of Blaxland recorded a 73.9 percent No vote; Watson, 69.6 percent; McMahon, 64.9 percent. The No vote bowled the Yes vote for six amongst the Westies.
Journalists dismissed this anomaly, noting that these electorates are more religious and have large migrant populations. However, as pundits have often remarked, “the party that wins ‘western Sydney’ – in its greater expanse – will win the election”. Both parties launched their national campaigns there last year. So Labor MPs will be vulnerable to reprisals from angry No voters at the next election. They may be religious and they may be migrants, but they still vote.
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To the victors belong the spoils. The LGBTQI+ crowd and their supporters are not in a mood to be magnanimous. In their eyes disagreement leads to discrimination; lack of affirmation implies intolerance. As a lesbian journalist wrote in the Guardian today, “I’ll be happy I have the same rights as my straight friends – but I’ll never take my equality for granted again.” For gay and lesbian activists, this is just the beginning of the struggle.
And for all supporters of traditional marriage and families as well.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.