On Friday 13 August 2004, in an unusually emotional debate punctuated by tears and rage, the Australian Senate passed a Howard government amendment to the Marriage Act 1961, defining matrimony as the exclusive union between one man and one woman for life.
That had been the definition ascribed to marriage by the courts for over a century, one that lawmakers felt too obvious to declare in statute. But in 2003, Canadian provinces, starting with Ontario, began solemnising same-sex marriages. Because there is no residency requirement for marriage in Canada, a stream of Australian same-sex couples flowed across the Pacific to wed, only to have their marital rights stripped the moment they walked back through Australian Customs.
At the beginning of 2004, two such couples sought a ruling from the Federal Court on whether Australia’s relatively liberal laws on foreign marriages extended to the recognition of their Canadian unions.
The court was never allowed to decide. Liberal senator Guy Barnett petitioned the prime minister to ‘protect marriage’ from being ‘demeaned and degraded’. The petition was successful, not least because 2004 was an election year in both Australia and the United States, and the politicisation of ‘gay marriage’ welded wealthy and highly disciplined evangelical churches in marginal electorates to the conservative cause.
The government’s marriage amendment – declaring matrimony to be exclusively hetero-sexual, and limiting the powers of the courts to recognise overseas same-sex unions – was raced through parliament, prioritised over government anti-terror legislation. For good measure, the prime minister addressed a rowdy meeting in the Great Hall of Parliament House in defence of ‘traditional marriage’, during which homosexuals were condemned as ‘moral terrorists’. In her address to that anti-gay audience, shadow attorney-general Nicola Roxon declared Labor’s support for entrenching discrimination against gay relationships. She was given a standing ovation.1
The events of 2004 defined the debate on same-sex marriage. The major parties continue to heed anti-gay lobbyists and the mega-churches they purport to represent. Supporters of reform continue to make the case that equality and anti-discrimination are the primary principles at stake. The far more intense American debate on same-sex marriage inevitably influences and overshadows its Australian equivalent.
But there is another way of understanding the ban on same-sex marriage that puts the issue in a longer-term and thoroughly Australian context.