Hopefully we are standing at the threshold of a respectful debate about whether to amend the Marriage Act. It is timely then to take a look at how uniform marriage laws have evolved since first introduced to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1961.
The Marriage Bill 1960 was introduced by the then Liberal Attorney-General, Sir Garfield Barwick. Sir Barwick said in his Second Reading speech:
“Laws of marriage, in the very nature of things, deal largely with matters of procedure and with the capacity of parties to enter the married state… Though largely procedural, a basic endeavour of a law of marriage, as I conceive it, is to ensure that the parties have sufficient maturity to comprehend and perform its responsible obligations.”
Prior to that Act becoming law, our States had set their own minimum age at which people could marry. It is hard to conceive now, but in 1960 the laws in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland all prescribed that it was acceptable for a boy of 14 and a girl of 12 to marry. In fact, it was only a marriage where one party was UNDER seven years of age that was invalid!
Clearly times had changed by 1960 and the minimum age set for marriage in the Bill was eighteen years for males and sixteen years for females. Today, no thinking person would accept the marriage of young children and it would be viewed as an abhorrent crime.
Although the 1960 Bill contained 111 clauses, there was no attempt to include a definition of ‘marriage’.
Both the ALP and Liberal parties granted their Members and Senators a conscience vote on the Bill. A Liberal Senator sought an amendment to the Bill to define ‘marriage’ as ‘the voluntary union of one man with one woman for life to the exclusion of all other’ but that amendment was defeated 40-8.
In 2004 the Howard Government amended the Marriage Act 1961, without consulting the Australian people, to include the definition of ‘marriage’ as ‘a union of a man and a woman’. The Howard Bill also clarified that same-sex marriages created under the laws of other countries would not be recognised in Australia. This Bill was passed and the new definition then became Commonwealth law.
In 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 Bills have been put before the parliament to change the definition of ‘marriage’ to allow same-sex couples to legally marry in Australia. Since the Coalition took office in 2013, six Bills have been put before the Parliament seeking the amendment; however, none have been put to a vote.
Whether we have a plebiscite or a vote in parliament, this debate should be centred around respect: respect for the opinions of others; respect for the institution of marriage; and respect for love itself.