In a world where religion and conservatism are often used to justify prejudice, the idea that a socially conservative Catholic nation could enshrine marriage equality by popular vote was always going to be momentous. Ireland’s 62.07% vote in favour of marriage equality has lifted the veil of ideological objection and bared an important truth: ideological beliefs can exist alongside human decency.
A watershed moment in Ireland’s Yes campaign came when Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland, disclosed that she had a gay son and urged the nation toward a Yes vote. This proved a massive blow to Ireland’s No campaign, which was led primarily by religious groups. Why? Because McAleese is a highly respected and devout Catholic. Though fear and prejudice often masquerade as religious sentiment, a devout McAleese was able to urge a “yes” vote on the basis of empathy, decency, and kindness. These are religious traits, if you ask me.
In Australia, conservatism remains a key obstacle for marriage equality, yet does not represent the popular view. Opinion polls show that as much as 72% of the population supports marriage equality, while Australia’s incumbent right-wing government continues to oppose same-sex marriage on conservative grounds. Such opposition has ever dwindling legitimacy; conservative parliaments in the United Kingdom and New Zealand have already legalised same-sex marriage, and Ireland’s referendum is a resounding blow to the conservative stance.
Why then, does Australia continue to lag on such an important issue? If a similar referendum were possible in Australia, the result might prove decisive. But unlike in Ireland, our Constitution does not make reference to the definition of marriage, meaning that the power to enact change lies entirely in the hands of our elected representatives. These individuals have rejected two bills to amend the Marriage Act in the last 11 years. At what point does it become an obscenity for the government to ignore the resounding view of the Australian people?
On the back of Ireland’s referendum, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has now introduced a third bill attempting to legalise gay marriage, a move that was instantly flagged as political opportunism by our PM. Tony Abbott has long opposed marriage equality on ideological grounds, and is a self-confessed “last bastion” of conservative values even among his own family. Marriage equality becoming the legacy of his government must prove a frightening prospect for him. While the major parties spar, the Greens have lamented the issue becoming political at the detriment of real change. “Another marriage equality bill?” Greens MP Adam Bandt tweeted, “We should be working together, not having duelling legislation.”
Regardless of whether Labor’s stance is political opportunism, Ireland has shown that the issue is vastly larger than this. Our government should look at the sky, not down at its shoes, for setting aside political and religious dogmatism in favour of human decency affects real lives. Studies show that homosexual and bisexual people are twice as likely to experience anxiety and three times as likely to experience depression when compared to heterosexual people. A 2012 report showed that two out of every five victims of homophobic bullying at school attempt or contemplate suicide, while a 2008 study of 390 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Victorians found that nearly one in seven reported living in fear of homophobic violence. Ideological opposition to same-sex marriage feeds discrimination. It reinforces social inequality, excuses prejudice, and worst of all, leaves these individuals with the belief that their love is less valuable than someone else’s. When an issue affects lives on such a basic human level, how can discrimination be excused by religion or ideology?
Regardless of how the Australian debate unfolds, the Irish referendum on marriage equality has proven a valuable lesson for our democracy. Ireland has shown that decency is non-ideological, a simple truth, yet one that governments and interest groups continue to trip over. While marriage equality has become an issue of stance, a playground for a dogmatic ideology, it should be viewed as an issue of decency.
Imagine all of the lives that would change, and be saved, if only this were true.