September 16, 2016 at 10:20 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Australian prime minister proposes national marriage vote

Malcolm Turnbull, gay news, Washington Blade

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has introduced a bill that would prompt a non-binding vote on whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull this week introduced a bill that would prompt a public vote on whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The non-binding plebiscite would take place on Feb. 11.

The bill would give the Australian Electoral Commission 170 million Australian dollars (more than $127 million) to carry out the vote. This figure includes 15 million Australian dollars (more than $11 million) that would be divided equally between the “yes” and “no” campaigns.

Turnbull noted his support of marriage rights for same-sex couples in a speech he gave in the Australian Parliament on Wednesday.

“The plebiscite will allow our nation to make a decision on this fundamental, important issue of same-sex marriage,” said Turnbull. “Then as a nation we will respect the outcome.”

A vote on the proposed plebiscite is expected to take place the week of Oct. 10.

The majority of Australian MPs publicly support marriage rights for same-sex couples, but Turnbull’s bill is unlikely to pass because of steep opposition in Parliament. Dozens of Australian LGBT advocacy groups on Wednesday formally expressed their opposition to the plebiscite.

Tiernan Brady, director of Australians 4 Equality, a same-sex marriage advocacy group, told the Washington Blade on Friday during a telephone interview from Sydney that the cost of the proposed plebiscite is “a huge problem for us.” He also noted the campaign could adversely impact same-sex couples.

“It is still an unpleasant process to have your families, your relationships and your identity weighed and measured by the general public,” said Brady.

Marriage supporters prefer Parliament vote

Brady and other activists with whom the Blade spoke this week said a vote in Parliament on whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples is preferable than a plebiscite.

“No Australian should have to witness a national debate on their worth or the value of their relationship,” said Australians 4 Equality, Australian Marriage Equality and dozens of other advocacy groups that include PFLAG Perth and OII (Organization Intersex International) Australia on Wednesday in a joint press release.

Parliament in 2004 approved a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Parliamentarians have introduced 22 bills — including three that are currently pending — to amend Australia’s Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry. Brady noted to the Blade that none of them have passed, even though the majority of lawmakers publicly support the issue.

“The real challenge here is the political parties haven’t worked together on this and LGBT issues are still being seen through the lens of what’s in it for me from the political parties,” he said. “As a result they’re not working together.”

“No one party can deliver a pathway to marriage equality themselves,” added Brady.

Christine Forster, an openly lesbian member of the Sydney City Council who is running for mayor, told the Blade in an email “the question of marriage equality in Australia should be decided by Parliament.”

The Liberal and National Parties, a conservative coalition that holds a slim majority in Parliament, have yet to adopt a “conscience clause” provision that would allow members to vote for a same-sex marriage bill without sanctions. Forster’s brother, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, blocked a vote on the issue shortly before Turnbull ousted him in a September 2015 party leadership vote.

Abbott, who reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage earlier this year in a speech he gave at an Alliance Defending Freedom event in New York, supports a plebiscite on the issue.

The Liberal and National Parties campaigned in support of the plebiscite ahead of national elections that took place on July 2. They won and Turnbull was able to remain prime minister.

“The Coalition took this policy to last federal election, on July 2, and was returned,” Forster told the Blade. “As such, I do believe the government has a mandate to proceed with the plebiscite and on that basis, and given that there is currently no prospect in the prevailing political climate that a bill will come before Parliament for a vote, I would prefer (reluctantly) that the plebiscite goes ahead.”

“The prospect otherwise is that the many Australians who would like to marry their same-sex partners will have to wait at least another three, and possibly more, years before the reform can be implemented,” she added.

Evan Wolfson: Plebiscite ‘irresponsible’ and ‘unnecessary’

The U.S., France, New Zealand, Brazil and South Africa are among the countries in which same-sex couples can legally marry.

Ireland in May 2015 became the first country in the world to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples through a popular vote.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in May announced that he would seek to amend his country’s constitution to allow gays and lesbians to marry and to adopt children. The Roman Catholic Church is among the groups that have strongly criticized the proposal.

Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, and Human Rights Campaign staffers have traveled to Australia to work with same-sex marriage advocates.

Wolfson described the proposed plebiscite to the Blade as “wasteful, irresponsible and unnecessary.”

“It’s time the Australian people got the simple freedom to marry legislation an overwhelming majority already supports without political delays or maneuvers,” he said.

HRC Global Director Ty Cobb made a similar point.

“It is time for Australian politicians to listen to the Australian people and allow a free vote,” he said.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

2 Comments
  • Let’s see.

    A non-biding plebiscite will cost the Australians about $170 Australian, and then Parliament will need to vote on it for same-sex marriage to be legal.

    Or Parliament could vote, without a plebiscite. There has been enough national polling, polling showing that the Australian people overwhelmingly want same-sex marriage legislation, so go ahead and just pass legislation that allows same-sex marriage. Save the Australian people some money.

  • The bureaucracy and red tape to hose up such legislation is why we had to get a ruling from the SCOTUS on the issue but even that was a narrow victory.

    I’ve always said putting a person’s rights to a public vote is insulting and dehumanizing especially when other civil rights were not decided that way.

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