John Eales was one of Australia’s best rugby union players, exemplified by his nickname “Nobody”, because “Nobody’s perfect”. He led Australia to win the Rugby Union World Cup in 1999 and, on that same day, Australia voted to decide whether to keep the monarchy or replace the Queen with an elected president. Eales, a declared Republican, accepted the trophy from the Queen of the UK, hoping that by the end of the day she would no longer be the Queen of Australia too.
Australia voted to retain the Queen much to the disappointment of the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull who led the Republican campaign. Given that both he and the leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten, are Republicans, it could be expected that the monarchy would be an important political issue commonly discussed and considered. However, I struggle to remember any time that it has been talked about politically or in the media, contrasting with the constitutional discussions that have dominated UK politics since the 1990s.
Malcolm Turnbull is leader of the Liberal Party, which is in a coalition with the National Party and depends on them to form a majority. The National Party, and many people in the Liberal Party, are supporters of the monarchy and would never support Turnbull if he ever began talking about republicanism.
Turnbull is also restricted by people in his party and the coalition on another issue, which has probably been the most talked about issue during my two years here: same-sex marriage. The extent to which it has continuously been a prominent political and social discussion has surprised me and may surprise other foreigners who might guess that Aboriginal affairs, the environment or the economy may take centre stage. But, with how to treat refugee and asylum seekers a close second, same-sex marriage has been talked about more than most.
In 2004, the government changed the definition of marriage to mean the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others. Many people in Australia disagree with this law and believe that a person should be able to marry somebody of the same sex; this is supported by the Labour and Green political parties. There has been an ongoing campaign for Parliament to vote on the issue, and it is within Parliament’s power to change the law.
Just because it can, doesn’t mean that it will though. The Liberal Party had a pre-election manifesto policy of holding a plebiscite on the issue. The Liberal party wants to ask the country what it thinks before holding a Parliamentary vote. Fans of direct democracy, and I’m one of them, like people getting to vote on issues rather than elected politicians deciding everything for us. However, the plebiscite is not legally binding meaning that Parliament would still be required to vote to change the law and Parliamentarians would not have to follow the plebiscite’s result.
Many people who favour allowing people to marry somebody of the same sex oppose a plebiscite and are pushing for Parliament to vote on same-sex marriage without a plebiscite. They cite the experience of many people in Ireland who felt the campaigning before the plebiscite was abusive and harmful, causing significant mental distress. I’m not homosexual but I’m trying to think what it would feel like to have the nation debating whether I could get married or not. For heterosexual people, they just need one person to say yes rather than the whole nation.
Turnbull is a supporter of same-sex marriage but many in his party and the National Party are not. He introduced legislation to hold a plebiscite but the Senate, which is not controlled by the Coalition, voted against it. Labour will try to find a way to have a vote on the issue in Parliament, possibly through a private member’s bill. However, it would probably need the support of Turnbull to occur and his party is committed to a plebiscite and opposes a free vote in Parliament.
When Turnbull lost the referendum in 1999 he said that Australia’s heart was broken. Those who oppose the plebiscite fear that the campaign would break the hearts of people targetted for abuse. Possible positive effects of a nation affirming, rather than politicians deciding, the equality of same-sex marriage are unconfirmed and it’s an argument Turnbull has not put forward.
It is seventeen years since Turnbull lost that referendum and they have passed without a murmur of the monarch’s role; the moment has passed for the time being. It feels like Australia is reaching such a moment with same-sex marriage and, after being broken by a referendum before, the question is whether Turnbull will act now without one.