Ireland has become the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage through a Constitutional referendum: “With the final ballots counted, the vote was 62 percent in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, and 38 percent opposed. The turnout was large — more than 60 percent of the 3.2 million eligible voters cast ballots, and only one district out of 43 voted the measure down.”
All parties in the Oireachtas (Irish parliament) support same-sex marriage. However, Article 41 the Irish Constitution “guarantees to protect the Family”, and “pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack”. Legal advice suggested this meant the common law definition of marriage “between one man and one woman” could not be altered. Though others disagreed, the government was reluctant to simply legislate and risk the law being declared invalid.
A Constitutional Convention was established, made up one-third by politicians and two-thirds by ordinary citizens, and it recommended amending the Constitution to require (not just allow) legislation to permit same-sex marriage. Ireland’s Constitution is entrenched by a referendum process requiring a simple majority of voters to approve amendments. The weekend’s proposal was to add a line to the document: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” Following the successful vote, the Oireachtas will pass the Marriage Bill 2015, and it is expected that the change will be implemented before Christmas this year.
Tony Abbott responded by saying no referendum would be held in Australia, because “I don’t think anyone is suggesting the constitution needs to be changed in this respect”. Professor George Williams agrees, pointing out that in 2013 our High Court “described marriage in gender-neutral terms as being ‘a consensual union formed between natural persons in accordance with legally prescribed requirements'” and therefore same-sex marriage would be valid under section 51(xxi) of the Constitution.
In November, crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm introduced the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 as a private member. The major parties are now debating internally how they should respond, and a big factor is whether the issue should be left to a conscience vote. The Coalition requires its MPs to vote against same-sex marriage, but senior members (along with Tony Abbott’s sister) are pushing for freedom to vote as they choose. Labor MPs are free to vote either way, but Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek is pushing to require them to vote for marriage between “all adult couples irrespective of sex”. This conscience vote debate will ultimately determine whether the Freedom to Marry Bill is passed.