The Trans-Tasman Gay Marriage Divide

In New Zealand same sex marriage has been a reality since 2013. In nearby Australia, however, all attempts to legislate for marriage equality in the past few years have failed. How did two similar nations end up on the opposite sides of the gay marriage fence?

Most New Zealanders who travel overseas have had the experience of being mistaken for an Australian. It’s our accent – similar yet different to the Australian twang. It’s while travelling that you will discover that much of the world is under the misapprehension that New Zealand is actually part of Australia.

Of course, we are two entirely separate nations with our own money, governments and sporting teams. We are as friendly as we are antagonistic towards each other. Australians pepper Kiwis with sheep fucking jokes. New Zealanders remind their neighbors that Australia is full of noxious vermin – and then there are all those poisonous snakes and spiders that live there! But we fought together in world wars, we both celebrate Christmas in summer, we have similar Parliamentary systems with the Queen as the head, we both use the metric system, drive on the left side of the road, our flags are virtually identical, and we both claim to have invented pavlova dessert. Toted up our similarities far outweigh our differences.

But New Zealand has gay marriage. Australia does not.

That’s difficult for some people to believe. For years Australia has traded on its Crocodile Dundee-ish reputation for being relaxed and loose. It’s the “she’ll be right, mate” country, where t-shirts and shorts count as formal attire. And it’s a gay mecca, right? It’s the home of Sydney Mardi Gras, a country so camp it produced Olivia Newton-John, Kylie Minogue, Dame Edna and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

The Australian drag queen in its natural habitat.

Australian drag queens in their natural habitat.

New Zealand, on the other hand has a reputation for being a little reserved, a bit serious, even a little dull. We certainly don’t have Australia’s reputation for embracing campness. Of the two nations one would automatically assume Australia would be the ones embracing the homos while New Zealand would be standing back, a little more aloof, a lot more conservative.

But New Zealand has gay marriage. Australia does not.

Gay Rights In New Zealand and Australia

Australia, which has six states and an additional three territories that can make their own laws, decriminalized sodomy over the course of twenty years – between 1973 and 1997. In New Zealand, which has only one central goverment, we enacted anti-decriminalization legislation in 1986.

Some states and territories in Australia have enacted legislation to recognise same sex relationships – though most treat them like they would de facto heterosexual unions. Only the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) – which covers a population of just under 400,000 – provides same-sex couples with civil unions.

Civil unions for New Zealand gay couples were introduced in 2004. Many of us here at the time wondered why our then Labour (left-leaning) government didn’t go the whole way and simply pass marriage reform.

But at that time Labour was already divided over controversial legislation aimed to limit Maori (indigenous) rights to the foreshore and seabed. That already existing division kept them relatively conservative with regard to gay rights. They thought civil unions could be achieved – gay marriage was a hill too far, a concept still too contentious in the early 2000s.

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