Australians overwhelmingly expressed support for marriage equality. Now what?

The big survey has come to a conclusion, but no outcome is guaranteed.

Marriage equality advocates Alex Greenwich and Anna Brown speaking at a press conference in August. CREDIT: AP Photo/ Rod McGuirk
Marriage equality advocates Alex Greenwich and Anna Brown speaking at a press conference in August. CREDIT: AP Photo/ Rod McGuirk

Around 79 percent of all eligible voters participated in Australia’s national postal survey on marriage equality, and now the results are in. As projected, there was very strong support for legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, with 61.6 percent calling for it to be legalized and 38.4 percent percent opposing it. Every state and territory recorded a yes vote, and only New South Wales’ yes result fell below 60 percent (57 percent).

But because it was a survey, not a referendum, the results have no immediate effect. The government promised, if the “yes” vote prevailed, that it would allow the Parliament of Australia to hold a conscience vote on a marriage equality bill. But nothing requires the MPs to vote according to the survey. Multiple versions of marriage equality legislation have also been proposed that could render results counter to the national survey outcome.

Sen. Dean Smith, for instance, previously promised to introduce his bill hours after a “yes” vote is announced. It would ensure that religious ministers and organizations do not have to administer same-sex weddings, but the religious exemptions end there.

This week, as the likelihood of a “yes” result grew, other conservative lawmakers proposed an alternative bill. Borrowing from American conservative tactics, it would legalize marriage for same-sex couples, but also create broad “religious freedom” exemptions for business owners who want to refuse service to those couples. It already has the support of many of the “no” campaign’s biggest advocates.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has already rejected the conservative bill. “I don’t believe Australians would welcome, and certainly the government would not countenance, making legal discrimination that is illegal, that is unlawful, today,” he said Monday.

The marriage survey has been widely criticized by Australian LGBTQ groups as an unnecessary waste of taxpayer money. It likewise fostered the same fallout as marriage referenda in the United States, including higher rates of antiLGBTQ violence and increased mental health consequences for the LGBTQ community.

Turnbull, who supports Smith’s bill, has said marriage equality could be the law of the land by Christmas, but no timeline is guaranteed.