Australian Prime Minister Proposes Non-Binding Plebiscite On Same-Sex Marriage
Australia’s Prime Minister is proposing a national vote on the issue of same-sex marriage:
SYDNEY, Australia — Australia’s divisive debate over same-sex marriage returned to Parliament on Wednesday when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull implored lawmakers to support a bill that would ask Australians to vote yes or no on gay marriage.
“If ever there is an issue to be put to a plebiscite, this is one that can be and should be because it is a very straightforward question,” Mr. Turnbull said. “We put our faith in the Australian people, and we know that their answer, whether it is yes or no, will be the right answer.”
Mr. Turnbull needs the support of Parliament to pass the bill, which calls for a plebiscite — a national, nonbinding ballot — to be held on Feb. 11. The bill would ask Australians, “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry,” Mr. Turnbull said. “This is a simple question.”
The speech on Wednesday was the first time Australians had heard the details of the bill, and the first time that Mr. Turnbull, the leader of the Liberal Party-led conservative coalition, had outlined his agenda on same-sex marriage since his government was re-elected on July 2.
But many in Parliament think that the bill calling for a plebiscite is doomed. A national poll would cost about $138 million, including funding for the “yes” and “no” campaigns, and its result would be nonbinding. No matter how Australians would vote, lawmakers could vote against changes to marriage laws. And many lawmakers who support gay marriage say the plebiscite is not the right platform and instead favor a direct vote by lawmakers on the issue in Parliament.
Mr. Turnbull said that his party had won the elections after campaigning to allow Australians to vote on same-sex marriage. The majority of Australians support changes to existing marriage laws that state that marriage must be between a man and a woman.
But the conservative coalition was returned with such a slim majority that Mr. Turnbull’s status within his own party was weakened, and the coalition party’s hold on Parliament was reduced to a one-seat majority in the lower house, the 150-seat House of Representatives. Mr. Turnbull must also woo a disparate band of independents in the upper house, the Senate, to pass bills into law.
A bloc of politicians, some of whom support gay marriage, have said they will not vote in favor of allowing a plebiscite, possibly scuttling hopes for any change.
The plebiscite is a “platform for prejudice and a megaphone for hate speech,” Bill Shorten, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, told Parliament on Monday. The “no” campaign would probably torment teenagers struggling with their sexuality and could push some toward suicide, he said.
But Mr. Shorten has not declared whether the Labor Party would support the plebiscite when lawmakers vote on the bill, which will be debated in the coming weeks.
Even without outside dissent, Mr. Turnbull has had to corral his own party members, some of whom are deeply conservative. Some did not support his ascension as leader after he toppled Tony Abbott, a former seminary student, nor do they want changes to Australia’s marriage laws.
Mr. Turnbull became prime minister one year ago. His tenure has been marked by falling opinion polls and general disarray, including a close-call election that he thought he would win convincingly.
In an unusual show of unity, his party members agreed on Monday in a cabinet and party room vote to allow the bill on the national plebiscite to be sent to Parliament. They also agreed to spend $11 million on public debate, equally split between the “yes” and the “no” camps.
Before his elevation to leader, Mr. Turnbull firmly favored a vote in the Parliament for change to the marriage laws. In Parliament on Wednesday, he told lawmakers that he and his wife, Lucy, had been married for more than 36 years and would both vote to allow same-sex couples to marry.
Unlike the other major English-speaking countries in the world, where same-sex marriage is legal in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Ireland, Australia has slow to move on same-sex marriage even though polling shows overwhelming public support for legalization of same-sex marriage. Efforts to change the national laws on marriage through the Australian Parliament in the past have stalled, however, thanks to conservatives in the governing coalition who have managed to put together enough of an opposition to block a bill in one chamber or the other. Since the referendum that is being proposed is non-binding, it’s still possible that nothing will result from this but, hopefully, this will help expedite marriage equality down under.