Australia Day is a great time to reflect on what makes this nation great, so I want to bring something unique and meaningful to the Australia Day conversation this year and tell you the story of how Australia has been one of the most progressive countries in the world in regards to marriage.

Let’s go back to the beginning

The year is 1889 and Henry Parkes has called for the colonies to unite and create a great national government for all of Australia. Over the next decade the colonies decide what a federal government looks like and what they’ll be responsible for. Marriage at that point was something each colony (state) was responsible for. Queensland had Queensland marriages and Western Australia had West Australian marriages. As the colonies worked out what the new federation would be responsible for, marriage was placed on the list. On the 1st of January 1901 we all joined hands and no doubt grunted “oi, oi, oi” for the first time as a nation and the federation began, but it took 60 years for the Commonwealth to finally take over marriage.

How weird was it?

For those 60 years the states continued to marry people, and all of that marrying took place inside churches. Different states also wouldn’t allow different people to marry, indigenous and other, they let minors marry and many convicts were also excluded from the joys of arguing over who controls the television remote control. In fact up until 1942 a 14 year old boy could marry a 12 year old girl and everyone would cheer at the end when they awkwardly kissed.

Indigenous women wanting to marry non-indenous men would require special permission.

It was messy, so we got in the cleaners

So in 1961 the Marriage Act was introduced to federal parliament. At that time it was introduced without definition. Senator John Grey Gorton argued:

I am inclined to think that the reason why marriage has not been defined previously in legislation of this kind is because it is rather difficult to do so. Marriage, of course, can mean a number of things. For instance, it can mean a religious ceremony; it can mean a civil ceremony; and it can mean a form of living together. There are several meanings covered by the word ‘marriage’, which are quite different one from the other.

This new act did allow something quite unique to accidentally sneak through the corridors of parliament: the civil celebrant.

The rise of the celebrant

The act allowed for churches to marry, for registry offices to marry, and just on the off chance that neither of those options appealed to you they created the role of civil celebrant. A new frontier!

It wasn’t until 1973, 12 years later that the then Attorney General, Lionel Murphy, broke ranks from his staff, fellow members of parliament, and the public service, and secretly wrote a letter of appointment for the first authorised marriage celebrant in Australia, and in all of the world, Lois D’Arcy.

The celebrant was cool

The celebrant was a liberated creature, bound to only a few parameters of how to conduct themselves and a ceremony, they were free to celebrate marriage whenever and wherever they liked on Australian soil. They weren’t even girt by sea, seeing as though marriage ceremonies could take place 22km offshore!

Never before had the celebration seen so much freedom. Not only could a non-religious minister marry you, but that person could be, and was a female, many were Aboriginal, and they could conduct the ceremony however they liked. That 70s feeling really rubbed off on the Attorney General!

The recognition that non-religious people could marry was a ground breaking change in the celebration of marriage and today, 40 years on, over 72% of marriage ceremonies are of this variety. Thats not to say that people being married by celebrants don’t hold a faith of some sort, but they recognise that their faith and their marriage can be celebrated in a unique way, instead of having a boring old church wedding.

So far ahead … yet so far behind

With all of this in mind it’s actually really strange that Australia is so reluctant to allow everyone to enter into the union of marriage while so many other countries are. Even in the recent USA Presidential State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said:

I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home

Seven in ten Americans. Thanks, Obama.

Anyway, happy Australia Day, sink a beer for me and be proud of this awesome heritage we call ‘Straya!

Note: this is my interpretation of the history marriage in Australia. I am not a historian. I just like to read and celebrate.