Turnbull to Make Second Attempt at Australian Gay Marriage Vote

  • Liberals try again to pass legislation after first bid blocked
  • Prime minister wants to defuse issue that’s divided his party

Supporters of same-sex marriage march in Sydney on Aug. 6.

Photographer: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will make another attempt to hold a mandatory public vote on whether to allow same-sex marriage in Australia after a similar bid failed last year.

The government is “absolutely committed” to “give the Australian people a say on whether or not the definition of marriage should be changed,” deputy Senate leader Mathias Cormann said after a two-hour special meeting of lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Party in Canberra on Monday. Legislation will be re-introduced to parliament later this week, with the government to seek a voluntary postal ballot if it is voted down.

While polls show a majority of Australians support marriage equality, previous efforts to legalize such unions have failed in parliament and the issue has split the right-leaning Liberal Party. With his government consistently behind the Labor opposition in recent opinion surveys, a failure to unite the party could put Turnbull’s leadership under further pressure.

Since becoming prime minister two years ago, Turnbull has backed a policy of holding a mandatory public vote, known as a plebiscite, to let Australian voters decide the issue. However, the outcome wouldn’t be legally binding and lawmakers would have the final say.

His first attempt at a plebiscite was blocked in the upper-house Senate, where several minority party lawmakers hold the balance of power. Conservatives within Turnbull’s party, including his predecessor Tony Abbott -- who was defeated in a party-room vote two years ago and remains in parliament -- have insisted the government stick with that policy of seeking Senate approval for a plebiscite.

Increasingly Isolated

Others have threatened to introduce their own legislation in parliament to legalize same-sex marriage without a plebiscite, and have called for a free vote of all lawmakers.

Australia has become increasingly isolated among English-speaking nations on the issue, with Germany, the U.S. and Ireland recently joining countries including the U.K. and New Zealand in legalizing same-sex unions.

In the past, Turnbull had been a champion of marriage equality, along with other issues including cutting Australia’s ties with the British monarchy and tackling climate change. As leader he’s been unable to pursue the socially progressive agenda that many voters expected of him, leading to claims that he is beholden to conservatives within his own party.

“There is only one reason why this failure to deal with marriage equality has dragged on as long as it has -- it is because of the complete failure of leadership and weakness of the prime minister,” opposition Leader Bill Shorten said in Canberra earlier on Monday.

Business Concerned

The issue is also a growing concern for Australia’s business community. Earlier this year a group of more than 30 business leaders, including the CEOs of Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Telstra Corp., petitioned Turnbull to introduce legislation on same-sex marriage. Qantas Airways Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce was hit in the face with a pie during a speech in Perth in May by a man protesting against his stance in support of gay unions.

Australia had about 46,800 same-sex couples in 2016, a 39 percent increase since 2011, government figures show. Australia’s largest city of Sydney, which has hosted the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras since 1978, is regarded as the San Francisco of the South Pacific.

Labor leads the ruling coalition by 53 percent to 47 percent on a two-party preferred basis, according to a Newspoll survey published on Monday in The Australian newspaper. While that’s the same margin as the previous poll, support for Turnbull as preferred prime minister rose to its strongest position this year at 46 percent to Shorten’s 31 percent.

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