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Emily Burke: Same-Sex Marriage Legislation in Australia

There is a global trend towards the recognition of same-sex unions, with recent expressions of support from Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama and the new French President Hollande. In the Australian Federal Parliament there are currently two bills in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate that would legalise same-sex marriage. When the Labor Party government last year amended its official policy platform to advocate for same-sex marriage, its members were ensured a conscience vote on the issue. However the Liberal-National Party coalition in opposition has rejected same-sex marriage reform, and a recent motion to allow a conscience vote for its National party members failed. The minor Greens Party and backbenchers from all sides continue to call for the leader of the opposition to allow coalition members the freedom of a conscience vote.

A committee of the House of Representatives completed its inquiry into the same-sex marriage bills in early June, but declined to support or reject the legislation as a committee. More recently, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee released the report of its separate inquiry. In the latter case, of the six voting members, four were in support of the bill (one Liberal-National, two Labor, and one Greens Senator). However the remaining two voting Senators, one Labor and another Liberal-National, each issued a strong dissent. There were 10 additional participating Senators on the committee, eight of which opposed the legislation.

The public debate over these issues has been intense, with the Senate Committee alone receiving an unprecedented 79,200 submissions – 46,000 of which were in support of same-sex marriage. The House of Representatives Committee received over 250,000 responses to their online poll, with a strong majority of 64% in favour of marriage equality.

Alongside the political debate as to whether same-sex marriage should be enacted, lies a legal one concerning whether such legislation is capable of being enacted by the Commonwealth Parliament. The bills would change the statutory definition of marriage, which is currently the ‘union of a man and a woman’, to be the ‘union of two people … voluntarily entered into for life.’

The dissenting Senators relied on the submissions of several lawyers to conclude that the constitutional foundation for such legislation is weak, and a referendum is ‘worthy of serious consideration’ to allow the public to decide whether or not same-sex marriage should be legalized.

This comment aims to examine the constitutional foundation upon which the Australian Parliament could legislate for same-sex marriage, and assess its strength. Is there a case for proceeding with a referendum before legislating on such an important question?

(1)  The Constitutional Validity of Same-Sex Marriage Legislation

Under section 51(xxi) of the Australian Constitutionthe Commonwealth Parliament has power to makes laws with respect to ‘marriage’ – a term that is not further defined in that document. The Commonwealth Parliament cannot determine the ambit of its own power by defining the constitutional meaning of the word ‘marriage’ through legislation. It is exclusively the role of the High Court to determine the constitutional limits of Parliament’s powers. However there have only been sparse indications from the High Courton whether the ‘marriage power’ can support legislation for same-sex marriage.

In the cases of Singh(2004)and Re Wakim(1999), Justice McHugh commented that at 1900, the time of the Constitution’s foundation, ‘marriage’ was seen as meaning a voluntary union for life between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. However, his Honour noted that ‘by reason of changing circumstances’, ‘marriage’ now means, or in the future may mean, a voluntary and permanent union between two people’.

This demonstrates the two different views that the High Court could take on the scope of Parliament’s power to legislate with respect to ‘marriage’. On one view, the permissible meanings of the constitutional provision are limited by the framers’ intentions – confining ‘marriage’ to only different-sex unions.

Alternatively, as Justice McHugh’s comments indicate, the High Court could conclude that the essential concept of marriage is a commitment of two people to a voluntary and permanent union – and in contemporary society, includes both heterosexual and homosexual conceptions of marriage. In this sense, the constitutional meaning of marriage may be said to have ‘evolved’ beyond the 1900 conception of marriage as exclusively heterosexual.

The ‘evolution’ of constitutional meanings using a distinction between its ‘essential’ and non-essential features is not uncommon. For example, section 80 of the Constitutionguarantees the right to trial by jury for Commonwealth offences on indictment. In Cheatle(1993)the High Court recognized that criminal juries in 1900 were constituted exclusively by males who satisfied some minimum property qualification. However, it was held that the ‘relevant essential feature or requirement of the institution was, and is, that the jury be a body of persons representative of the wider community’. As such, they held it would be ‘absurd’ to suggest that women and unpropertied persons would be excluded from juries, ‘in the more enlightened climate of 1993’. By analogy then, if the ‘essential concept’ of ‘marriage’ is the voluntary and permanent union between two people, it is not necessary or essential that they be of opposite sex.

Another important example is the evolving power of Parliament to legislate with respect to ‘intellectual property’ under section 51(xvii) of the Constitution. The High Court has held that the ‘essence’ of the intellectual property power is that it ‘authorizes the making of laws which create, confer and provide for the enforcement of intellectual property rights’. Thus Parliament is able to create ‘fresh rights’, and the boundaries of the intellectual property power are not to be ‘ascertained solely by identifying what in 1900 would have been treated as a copyright, patent, design or trademark’. (The High Court in Grain Pool(2000) cited with approval the analogy that the meaning of trademarks in 1900 provided a ‘centre’, around which to seek the full ‘circumference of the power’.)

Comparing the intellectual property power and marriage power highlights how the High Court must have regard to the development of the common law and legislation when determining the constitutional meanings of legal terms of art. Several submissions to the Senate Committee described the same-sex marriage bill as equivalent to Parliament expanding its power to legislate with respect to lighthouses (s 51(vii) of the Constitution) by statutorily defining ‘lighthouses’ to include schools. But this comparison overlooks the ‘vital distinction’ identified by Higgins J in the Trade Markscase between subject matters that are ‘concrete, physical objects [where] the boundaries of the class are fixed by external nature’, and those that are ‘artificial products of society, and dependent upon the will of society’. By way of example, his Honour explained that while ‘[t]he class ‘cattle’ cannot well be extended by man; the class ‘trade marks’ can be extended. Power to make laws as to any class of rights involves a power… to extend the class of those who may enjoy those rights.’ Thus it is a mistake to overlook the fact that marriage, not being a concrete object fixed by ‘external nature’, is an artificial legal construct inherently capable of expansion.

An additional consideration supporting the likelihood that the High Court would uphold a law providing for same-sex marriage is that Commonwealth legislation has a presumption of validity. As Dan Meagher and Margaret Brock have argued, this presumption should be at its strongest when the legislation considered raises ‘complex and intractable moral issues of this kind’.[i]

One concern raised by opponents of the bills is the possible conflict between the legalization of same-sex marriage and freedom of religion. Section 116 of the Constitution provides that the Federal Parliament cannot make any law ‘prohibiting the free exercise of any religion’. Currently section 47 of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) provides that there is no obligation imposed on an authorized celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnize any marriage. If bills legalizing same-sex marriage were passed, this exemption would be broad enough to ensure that no ministers would be obliged to solemnize same-sex marriage. Even so, to address the anxieties of religious groups, the Senate committee has recommended the insertion of ‘for avoidance of doubt’ provisions that expressly provide that such legislation does not limit the freedom for religious ministers to decline to solemnize same-sex marriages.

On balance therefore, it appears more likely than not that the High Court would find that same-sex marriage legislation was constitutional. However, the resolution of these issues may depend on when the issue goes to the High Court. There will be four new appointments over the coming years, including two within the next six months; and it is impossible to know for certain what methods of constitutional interpretation these justices will take.

(2)  A Referendum On Same-Sex Marriage?

Given the uncertainty over whether a bill legalizing same-sex marriage would be struck down by the High Court, should a referendum be called instead? The dissenting Senators in the Senate Committee stated that they

 believe it is profoundly unsatisfactory to erect such major law reform on so weak a constitutional foundation. In particular, the possibility that people might undertake marriage pursuant to such a law, only to have their ‘marriages’ struck down by the High Court, is a highly unsatisfactory way for the Parliament to proceed. The committee majority shows contumelious disregard for the interests of homosexual Australians by advancing such a risky and ill-advised course of action.

[The] Coalition senators are of the view that, given that a number of the submissions to the committee acknowledged that same-sex marriage raises significant social, religious and cultural issues and that section 128 of the Constitution provides a mechanism to enable the people to expand the specified powers set out in the Constitution, a referendum to enable the people to pronounce on the issue of same-sex marriage is worthy of serious consideration.

This position assumes that the legislation is indeed on very weak constitutional grounds, but also appears to misunderstand the relationship between the High Court, Parliament and the people. As the majority Senate report noted, the Parliament is elected to pass legislation, and acts within its constitutional right when it passes legislation ‘which it believes to be valid, and ultimately in our system it [is] left to the High Court to determine otherwise’ (quoting from the evidence of Professor John Williams). Australia has a long history of Parliament passing legislation where there is some doubt as to its constitutional validity. Parliament does not seek separate constitutional endorsement via referendum on each occasion such an enactment is passed.

The ‘risk’ that many people may enter same-sex marriages that will then be declared void can be addressed in other ways. As a test case is likely to be brought immediately after a same-sex marriage bill passes, Parliament could suspend the same-sex marriage provisions until the High Court decides the validity of that marriage, preventing any further persons from entering into same-sex marriages that might be subsequently voided should the Court confirm a want of power.

This appears to be the better course of action than a referendum considering: the likelihood that the legislation is indeed valid; the huge cost and time involved in holding referendums; and the actual interests and desires of Australians in the LGBTI community who wish to see the legislation passed in preference to a referendum being held. Other commentators and the majority report of the Senate Committee also noted that Australian proposals to amend the constitution are far more likely to fail than to succeed – for a variety of reasons that extend well beyond the merit of the proposals in question. To date, 44 referendums have been held, of which only 8 have been carried to effect change to the Australian Constitution.

Conclusion

Although there remain constitutional uncertainties over the scope of the marriage power, there are strong arguments in favour of the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage bills currently before the Australian Parliament. As marriage is governed by our civil and not religious laws, it is for Parliament to determine who can and cannot marry. Australian law can better balance freedom of religion with the separation of church and state, by providing that every person is entitled to marry the person of their choice, whilst ensuring that religious officials are not required to solemnise any particular marriage.

Emily Burke is an intern at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales


[i] Margaret Brock and Dan Meagher, ‘The Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Unions in Australia: A Constitutional Analysis’ (2011) 22 Public Law Review 266, 278.

One comment on “Emily Burke: Same-Sex Marriage Legislation in Australia

  1. Barry
    July 4, 2012

    Dear Ms Burke,

    Thank you for your article. Just one small point but nonetheless important you say, ‘A committee of the House of Representatives completed its inquiry into the same-sex marriage bills in early June, releasing a report unanimously supporting the passing of the legislation.’ However, from my reading of the report’s committee, as a committee, declined to support or reject the legislation proposed by Labor backbencher Stephen Jones and Greens MP Adam Bandt. The break down of the committee members was as follows, three in support of same-sex marriage, including Chair of the inquiry Graham Perret, Laura Smyth and Adam Bandt, but four voted against and one who did not declare a position. It is important to have this correctly stated otherwise readers will not take your article seriously when they read such a major oversight.

    Thank you
    Barry

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