Is Australia’s Marriage Equality Plebiscite Doomed?

Jim Burroway

August 24th, 2016

Two recent developments have revived the debate over whether the Australian government should proceed with its stated intention to hold a promised national plebiscite over same-sex marriage this year, next year. Of course, the first development was the announcement that the plebiscite won’t happen until February at the earliest, despite promises by the ruling Liberal Party (which is actually Australia’s conservative party) and its coalition partners over the past two years to hold the plebiscite in 2016. The announced delay has been roundly denounced for breaking a major, oft-repeated campaign pledge. That row prompted former High Court justice Michael Kirby, who is openly gay, to publicly denounce the very idea of a plebiscite:

He said Australian voters had rarely supported referendum questions and there was no reason a plebiscite would be any different.

“It will mean any time that there is something that is controversial, that’s difficult for the parliamentarians to address or they don’t want to address, they’ll send it out to a plebiscite.

…”This is going to be, if it goes ahead … running out the old issues of hatreds and animosities, abominations and all the old arguments against gay people. We didn’t do this for the Aboriginal people when we moved to give equality in law to them, we didn’t do it when we dismantled the White Australia policy … we didn’t do it in advances on women’s equality, we didn’t do it most recently on disability equality. Why are we now picking out the LGBT, the gay community? It’s simply an instance of hate and dislike, hostility to a small minority in our population. It’s unAustralian.”

Kirby’s sentiments aren’t new. Others have said the same thing. They also note that when the Liberal government explicitly banned same-sex marriage in 2004, they didn’t hold a plebiscite to do it. And besides that, there is no provision in Australia’s constitution that would make a plebiscite binding. The Government would be free to ignore it regardless of its outcome. These and other similar reactions coming from many other quarters of Australian society seems to have stiffened the spines of opposition leaders in Parliament:

Bill Shorten has prepared the ground for Labor to block the government’s proposed marriage equality plebiscite after he launched a stinging attack on the plan.

Speaking to the National Press Club on Wednesday, the opposition leader said he and many of his colleagues were “on the record as opposing” the plebiscite.

“I am gravely concerned about the merits of the plebiscite,” he said.

With senators Nick Xenophon and Derryn Hinch indicating this week that they would vote against legislation to enable the plebiscite, a parliamentary bloc is emerging consisting of Labor, the Greens, Xenophon and Hinch that would be sufficient to block it.

Shorten is repeating the demand that Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull allow a free vote in Parliament. (A free vote occurs when party members are permitted to vote their conscience instead of being bound to support the party’s position.) Shorten noted that before Turnbull became Prime Minister, when his predecessor and fellow Liberal Tony Abbott held the job and opposed a free vote on marriage equality, Turnbull supported a free vote in Parliament. Other opposition parties also say they will oppose a plebiscite:

A plebiscite on same-sex marriage is looking less likely, with the Federal Opposition determined to have a parliamentary vote to change marriage laws instead.

The Government has promised to have a national vote — or plebiscite — to determine whether same sex marriage should be allowed. But the Greens, Labor and the three Senators from the Nick Xenophon Team are all firm that a plebiscite is unnecessary. That would make it impossible for the Government to pass a law to have a national vote.

…Greens leader Richard Di Natale said Parliament could agree to same-sex marriage when it meets for the first time next Tuesday, “but instead, the Liberals want to run a costly and divisive public vote that may be ignored by many of their so-called representatives anyway”.

“The plebiscite is pointless,” Senator Di Natale said.

“We already know there’s overwhelming support for marriage equality in the community and in the parliament so it can’t be seen as anything but a delay tactic.”

Polling shows that upwards of 70% of Australians support marriage equality, while support for conducting a national plebiscite is quickly losing ground.

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