2022 Street Stories

It overturned the status quo: ABC journalist on covering the High Court’s same-sex marriage plebiscite decision

Elizabeth Byrne stands in front of the ACT Supreme Court. The Commonwealth Coat of Arms is visible in the background.
Elizabeth Byrne watched on as the fate of the same-sex marriage postal vote was decided

Elizabeth Byrne has worked as a journalist all over Australia. From Katherine to political reporting in Darwin, to here in Canberra; her career has been long and illustrious. Since 1998, she has been with ABC Canberra, court reporting in the Australian High Court, and the ACT Supreme Court.

The cases presented in these courts often have great implications for broader society. The stand-out ones are “…where the court has overturned the status quo,” Elizabeth said. “The same-sex marriage decision is one of them.”

In September of 2017, the High Court ruled in favour of issuing a plebiscite to determine the future of marriage equality in Australia. The postal vote, which closed on the 7th of November that year, asked a simple question: should Australian law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?

However, even before the vote went ahead, it was challenged. Two cases were brought before the High Court, both arguing against the plebiscite. Surprisingly, the organisations behind these cases were both in favour of same-sex marriage; but not the way in which the matter was being handled.

It is a complex matter of human rights: should the right to marry be left up to a majority-rules vote?

“You couldn’t actually go into the court physically, because there were so many people there wanting to watch it, and they weren’t just journalists,” Elizabeth said.

Just five years ago, Elizbeth stood in a crowded secondary courtroom, watching a television screen where the decision would be broadcasted.

“Every seat was occupied, and there were people standing in the doorway,” she said.

“Some of the people there were lobbyists, some were same-sex couples who had gotten through and wanted to savour the moment. Mainly, it was journalists.”

Finally, the judges began speaking. This decision would change the face of the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights in Australia, but Elizabeth was not the first person to get the news out.

“High Court judges will say, ‘we think this’…and then they will say ‘on the other hand’, and you can’t always tell when they get to the court orders; where they’re going to fall,” she said.

“Tom Connor…who works for Sky [News], he tweeted it before me, and the people in Sydney were asking me why I hadn’t tweeted it before him?”

“I’ve seen it time and time again, so I didn’t tweet anything until I had heard the final orders; because you can miss something, you can make a terrible mistake.”

In the end, the judge ruled that the plebiscite would go ahead. Elizabeth walked out of the courtroom to celebration.

“I think that they were fairly confident that the plebiscite would be ‘yes’, and they were right,” she said. “You had this sense that the world had changed.”