Australians Say ‘Yes’ to Gay Marriage, Paving Way for Law Change

Australia is set to legalize same-sex marriage before the end of the year after voters emphatically backed the move in a nationwide survey.

“We must respect the voice of the people,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in Canberra on Wednesday after the country’s statistics office revealed 61.6 percent of respondents support marriage equality, with 38.4 percent opposed. “It is unequivocal. It is overwhelming.”

Turnbull’s call to have the legislation passed by Christmas is supported by business, including Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., which says marriage equality would add A$650 million ($496 million) to the economy in the first year alone. But the right-leaning coalition government remains divided on the issue, with lawmakers arguing whether to let celebrants and other service providers opt out of marrying gay couples on religious grounds.

Read more: How same-sex marriage has divided Australia’s parliament.

Alan Joyce, the gay chief executive officer of Qantas Airways Ltd. who has been a passionate supporter of same-sex unions, called on parliament to respect the result and legislate swiftly.

“If this was a general election, it would be the biggest landslide in the Australian electoral history,” Irish-born Joyce said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “I am now amazingly proud of my adopted country, the country where I live, Australia.”

The announcement by the Australian Bureau of Statistics was broadcast on giant screens in major cities throughout the nation, with the result welcomed by thousands of marriage equality supporters, many waving rainbow-colored flags and dancing. In Canberra, Senator Penny Wong, who has two children with her female partner, broke down in tears and was embraced by fellow lawmakers.

Gay-rights campaigners seized on the result, with the Marriage Equality campaign group saying Australia should quickly become the 25th nation to legalize same-sex unions. Almost 80 percent of voters, or more than 12 million people, took part in the survey, and the ‘yes’ vote won in every state and territory.

Australia was increasingly isolated among Western nations, with Germany, the U.S. and Ireland recently joining countries including the U.K. and New Zealand in legalizing same-sex unions. Other nations to have permitted gay marriage are Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.

More than 30 business leaders this year petitioned the government to introduce legislation on same-sex marriage. The Australian economy will reap a windfall through the spin-off benefits from additional weddings, along with a slight boost to confidence, ANZ Bank said in September.

“We are absolutely thrilled on the vote today,” Andy Vesey, the chief of Australia’s largest electricity generator AGL Energy Ltd., told a business audience in Sydney. “Celebrate and let’s get back to work because we’re not done. We still have to include. We have to make people feel welcome.”

Advocates of same-sex unions criticized the government for holding the postal vote — saying the almost two-month campaign saw a surge in calls to mental-health helplines as opponents warned that changing the law could harm children and lead to radical sex education in schools.

Hours after the survey results were announced, a bill drafted by Liberal Senator Dean Smith to legalize same-sex marriage was introduced to parliament. Lawmakers are expected to debate the legislation from Thursday, with some conservatives having already demanded changes to include greater protections for religious freedom.

“It would be a betrayal of the nation to allow the fears and phantoms of the ‘no’ campaign to set the terms for marriage equality legislation,” veteran gay-rights campaigner Rodney Croome said. “LGBTI people have been through enough. To delay the process or to suggest we should now accept discriminatory legislation would be cruel and disrespectful.”

Australia had about 46,800 same-sex couples in 2016, a 39 percent increase since 2011, government figures show. Sydney, the nation’s largest city, has hosted the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras since 1978, 19 years before the last Australian state decriminalized homosexuality.

Since becoming leader in September 2015, Turnbull has been unable to pursue the socially-progressive agenda many voters expected of him, including tougher action on climate change, leading to claims he is beholden to conservatives within his own party.

While the Prime Minister appeared at a rally in support of the ‘yes’ vote, he was criticized by the main opposition Labor party for holding the postal survey instead of pushing for parliament to resolve the issue with a free vote.

The postal survey result “strengthens his hand in dealing with the hardline conservatives within his own party,” said Nick Economou, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne. “It might not shut them up, but it means they are being confronted with the reality that, despite their rhetoric, they actually speak for a small share of the Australian community.”

With assistance by Perry Williams
by Jason Scott and Kanika Sood
Source – Bloomberg