Australia's gay marriage plebiscite could backfire spectacularly

by Bernard Lagan / 06 September, 2017
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A painted wall in Sydney ahead of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. Photo/Getty Images

The postal ballot was a tactic by Tony Abbott and his conservative Christian allies to frustrate gay-marriage supporters.

Of all the issues that could have so vexed Australians, the legalisation of gay marriage would seem among the least likely.

After all, the nation led the world in the mid-1980s in confronting the Aids epidemic. It succeeded not by moralising about sex between men – responsible for the majority of the disease’s transmission – but by encouraging its health bureaucrats to talk openly about gay sex and produce safe-sex campaigns.

The annual gay parade – the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras – grew out of police harassment and violence against the first gay marchers in 1978 to become one of the world’s largest gay-pride events, now attracting 10,000 marchers and crowds of half a million.

The 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which followed two drag queens and a transgender woman as they journeyed across the outback, was a surprise worldwide hit, credited with introducing gay and lesbian themes to mainstream audiences.

Australia is, therefore, not a nation with any particular hang-ups about gays; hardly surprising then that opinion polls over the past year show that about 70% of the population support the legalisation of gay marriage.

New Zealand, of course, gave legal recognition to gay marriage in April 2013 – a decision it reached with little enough fuss by way of a simple vote in Parliament.

Compare that with the queer bind Australia finds itself in: its population overwhelmingly supports legal recognition of gay marriage and we can be confident that so, too, do a comfortable majority of MPs in the national Parliament.

But still – and at a cost of $122 million – the Government insists that Australians must formally indicate their view of the proposed change by way of a national plebiscite – a postal ballot – before a parliamentary vote can take place.

No matter that the outcome of the November plebiscite will be non-binding – MPs will be free to vote however they wish. Or that the plebiscite is constitutionally unnecessary, the High Court having ruled that Parliament can pass legislation providing for marriage equality.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a self-described lifelong supporter of gay marriage whose inner Sydney electorate is among the nation’s three gayest, doesn’t, we suspect, actually want the plebiscite; he’s saddled with it because Tony Abbott – just 32 days before he lost the prime ministership to Turnbull in September 2015 – had promised the nation a plebiscite on gay marriage ahead of a vote in Parliament.

It was another tactic by Abbott and his conservative Christian allies to frustrate gay-marriage supporters. Turnbull – although he’s never admitted it – agreed to hold to Abbott’s promise as the price of getting conservative MPs to back his leadership.

Abbott now leads the public campaign against a law change, pitting him against his sister, City of Sydney councillor Christine Forster, who is engaged to her same-sex partner.

In a wonderfully theatrical twist, that casts Abbott as the Road Runner cartoon’s hapless Wile E Coyote, an extra 90,000 people – many young Australians – have rushed to register as voters so they can take part in the plebiscite.

And they’ll also be voting in the general election within the next 24 months – an unexpected tide more likely to vote for Labor or the Greens than the Government.

It has been described as the “Theresa May effect”, after what happened to the British Prime Minister, who was forecast to win June’s UK election by a landslide but instead ended up with a minority Government because of extraordinary number of young people deciding to vote and back Labour.

Abbott’s insistence on a plebiscite may see Australia getting both a Labor Government and lawful gay marriage, rubbing his nose in it twice.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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