Marriage equality advocates have backed a push for a plebiscite on the matter despite saying as little as two days ago that a public vote could delay reform and be socially divisive.
Meanwhile, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, who is against marriage equality, has flagged the possibility of a legally binding referendum rather than a plebiscite.
On Tuesday, the Coalition party room voted to maintain its position that frontbench MPs and senators must vote against marriage equality.
Following the decision, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said any future decision on marriage equality “should happen through a people’s vote rather than simply through a Parliament’s vote.”
Just hours earlier, Australian Marriage Equality (AME) National Director Rodney Croome warned that even if a plebiscite showed the public was in favor of marriage equality, Parliament would not be bound by the result.
“We urge Coalition members not to opt for a plebiscite because it will delay the reform, be socially divisive and leave taxpayers with a hefty bill,” he said.
Campaigners have now said they back a plebiscite as the next best option following the party room defeat.
Talking to the Star Observer last night at an AME fundraiser at the NSW (New South Wales) Parliament, Deputy Campaign Director Ivan Hinton-Teoh said: “We’re not supportive of a plebiscite in general, we don’t believe it’s necessary.”
“It’s an elaborate pub quiz, a way of asking every single member of Australia what they think when you only have to pay for a scientific poll to determine a similar result,” he added.
However, Hinton-Teoh said a vote could neutralize arguments that marriage equality is not widely supported: “We’re not afraid of a plebiscite and we know the community is behind [marriage equality.]”
The timing of a public poll was critical, though.
“A plebiscite the way in which the government is proposing could be a delaying tactic,” he said. “Our support for a plebiscite is on the basis it is at the next election which doesn’t delay it.”
So far three Liberal backbenchers, WA (Western Australia) Sen. Dean Smith and Queensland MPs Wyatt Roy and Teresa Gambaro, have declared would cross the floor in defiance of party orders.
Other senior Liberal figures, such as Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, have publicly criticized the notion of a plebiscite.
Hinton-Teoh said a groundswell within the Coalition was forming but the likelihood of marriage equality passing in this term was low.
Sydney state independent MP Alex Greenwich told the Star Observer that a swathe of Coalition MPs, including Turnbull and Kelly O’Dwyer whose seats cover several LGBTI-centric areas of Sydney and Melbourne, were now in a “very difficult position” with their constituents.
Meanwhile, the Greens have joined forces with cross bench senators Ricky Muir, David Leyonhjelm, Nick Xenophon, Jacqie Lambie and Glenn Lazurus to announce a bill that ensures “a fair question” on marriage equality is put at the 2016 Federal Election.
“Tony Abbott is not proposing a plebiscite to give people a choice — he’s doing it to delay and ultimately attempt to defeat marriage equality,” Greens leader Sen. Richard Di Natale said. “We cannot trust Tony Abbott not to delay further, propose an unfair question, or turn it into an unnecessary referendum with little chance of passing.”
“But if a plebiscite is the only option on the table, it must happen at this election and the parliament must choose the question.”
Yesterday, Scott Morrison told ABC’s 7.30 a referendum was an option: “I would prefer the Australian people decide this: not me, not [the High Court], but the Australian people.”
Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus dismissed Morrison’s view and, according to ABC News, said the minister was “talking nonsense.”
Meanwhile, Associate Professor Paula Gerber, of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University, said a referendum was unnecessary.
“A referendum is only required when we want to amend the constitution, and unlike Ireland, we can change the law to permit same-sex couples to marry without touching our constitution,” she said. “Even a successful referendum or plebiscite on this issue would give license to bigots to step up vitriol against LGBTI persons, likely damaging the mental health of youth in the process.”
At NSW Parliament yesterday, an emotional Croome said the last few days had been “disappointing and frustrating.”
“It’s very hard to understand now members of our Parliament can be so thoughtless or so callous,” he said.
Croome added that “we must always hope and believe in change.”
Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce, who was at the same event said: “We’re all proud Australians, we all love this country and we will change this law — it’s only a matter of time.”