Gay Marriage Scuppered in Australia as Public Vote Blocked

  • Labor says plebiscite on marriage equality would be divisive
  • Stalemate could see issue off legislative agenda for years

Pro-gay marriage supporters carry a rainbow banner and flags during a rally in Sydney on June 25. Australia's Labor party rejected Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s plan to hold a public vote on same-sex marriage.

Photographer: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

A campaign to allow same-sex marriage in Australia was scuppered Tuesday as the main opposition Labor party rejected Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s plan to hold a public vote on the issue.

While supporting marriage equality, Labor says a public vote would be divisive and lead to the persecution of gay people, and is instead pressing the government to put the matter straight to parliament. With Turnbull resisting such a move, the ongoing stalemate potentially sinks any chances of marriage equality in the nation for another three years.

“We could make marriage equality a reality today” if the government allowed lawmakers a free vote on the issue, Labor leader Bill Shorten told reporters in Canberra. There was “overwhelming” evidence that a public vote and the accompanying debate would be harmful, especially to the children of gay couples, he said.

Australia has become increasingly isolated among English-speaking nations on the issue, with the U.S. and Ireland last year joining countries including the U.K. and New Zealand in legalizing same-sex unions. While Turnbull, 61, supports marriage equality, many lawmakers in his Liberal-National coalition are opposed and previous efforts to pass such bills in parliament have failed.

‘Direct Path’

The government defended the plan to hold a public vote, known as a plebiscite, saying it “offered a direct path to resolve the question.”

“Rather than working with the government to see this matter settled, Bill Shorten and Labor have chosen to play politics with the lives of gay people,” Attorney-General George Brandis said in a statement. Their decision not to support a plebiscite “will ensure this debate will continue for years to come.”

Without Labor’s support, legislation to enable the plebiscite has little chance of being passed in the upper house Senate, where the government doesn’t have a majority.

Turnbull inherited the policy of calling a plebiscite from conservative predecessor Tony Abbott, whom he defeated in a ballot of Liberal lawmakers a year ago. 

In the past, Turnbull had been a champion of marriage equality, and other issues including cutting Australia’s ties with the British monarchy and tackling climate change. Yet hamstrung by conservatives in the coalition, he’s been unable as leader to pursue the more socially progressive agenda that many expected of him.

‘Socially Progressive’

“Turnbull is socially progressive but he leads a conservative party,” Australian National University political analyst Andrew Hughes said. The logjam over marriage equality “shows how hard it is to get his way when his views don’t have majority support from his own lawmakers.”

Supporters of same-sex marriage have criticized the plan to hold a plebiscite -- estimated by Labor to cost A$200 million ($152 million) -- saying it would be a waste of money and wouldn’t be binding on lawmakers anyway. Some conservative members of Turnbull’s coalition who oppose marriage equality, including Senator Cory Bernardi, have said they wouldn’t respect a “yes” vote.

There were about 34,000 same-sex couples in Australia in 2011, government figures show. Australia’s largest city Sydney, which has hosted the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras since 1978, is regarded as the San Francisco of the South Pacific.

A Fairfax/Ipsos poll of 1,403 voters conducted in June 2015 showed 68 percent of voters support gay marriage, with 25 percent opposed.

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