Gay Marriage

Legal Gay Marriages Begin in Germany; Australia Gets Mired in a Messy Referendum

A tale of two parliaments


Australian National Rugby League

On Sunday, Germany joined 14 other European countries (and the United States) in officially recognizing gay marriages.

As has been typical in a country when the change starts, the first couple to be wed legally in the nation received a lot of press coverage—in this case, Bodo Mende, 60, and Karl Kreile, 69.

Germany had a domestic civil partnership system in place since 2001, but it did not provide all the same legal rights in the country as a full marriage (in particular, the right to adopt).

Why did it take so long for Germany to get on board? Chancellor Angela Merkel and her party opposed gay marriage recognition, and given party politics, that meant members of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, would be expected to vote no in any parliamentary effort to extend legal recognition to gay couples.

That all changed in June. Part of the reason was purely political: Merkel calculated her party would need to maintain a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats after September's election, and the Social Democrats demanded support for same-sex marriage recognition. (The actual results of the election complicate Merkel's plans.)

But her shift was also partly due to her own realization that homosexuality was not, in fact, an indication that a person was not capable of forming a stable, loving relationship suitable for children, as she discovered from communicating with a lesbian couple who had fostered eight children.

In June, Merkel declared she was open to allowing her party members to have a "vote of conscience," meaning lawmakers would be allowed to decide for themselves whether to legally recognize same-sex marriages and would not be ordered to toe the party line. Days later, Germany's parliament did just that and voted to legalize recognition, starting October 1. City halls even opened on Sunday to marry off couples.

Meanwhile, down under in Australia, the road to legal recognition for same-sex couples remains very, very messy. Gay marriage supporters, including members of the Liberal Democratic Party—a.k.a. the libertarians—have been pushing lawmakers to change the law to recognize such unions. But Australian supporters have had the same problem as Germany's supporters: Part of the ruling coalition has a formal stance against recognizing gay marriages and would not allow a "conscience vote" so that party members could decide for themselves. So even though Australian polls show the public widely supports same-sex marriage, they did not have the votes in the parliament.

What Australia's ruling party has done instead is pushed it all into a nonbinding national vote through the mail. Australian citizens have all been sent a survey form and asked to mail it back indicating whether they thing gay marriages should be legally recognized. They have until November 7 to return their ballots.

Because the vote is nonbinding, Parliament will have to act to legalize gay marriage, even if the majority votes yes. So fundamentally, the purpose of the vote is to give lawmakers political cover either way.

The referendum has resulted in a massive media blitz from both sides to convince voters to support or oppose marriage recognition. Every Australian celebrity people might have heard of outside the country has declared support for a "yes" vote. This weekend saw the strategic deployment of Macklemore at the national rugby finals (essentially the country's Super Bowl) with a performance of one of only two songs anybody will ever remember about him, "Same Love." ("Thrift Shop" is the other one.) In the event you might have forgotten who Macklemore is, watch below:

How should liberty-minded people feel about such a vote? While I've generally been supportive of ballot initiatives bypassing stubborn legislatures to improve people's lives and reduce the government's control over our lives, this referendum doesn't even do that. Because the vote is not binding in any way, the parliament is still going to have to vote; this entire expensive process exists so the ruling parties can avoid accountability. Libertarians I know who live in or have ties to Australia have been negative about the vote probably for just that reason: The referendum isn't about democracy so much as it's about lawmakers dodging responsibility.