Australia's gay marriage plebiscite could backfire spectacularly

by Bernard Lagan / 06 September, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Gay Marriage

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.

Latest

Germany considered changing the autobahn speed limit and people weren't happy
102497 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z World

Germany considered changing the autobahn speed lim…

by Cathrin Schaer

A Government-initiated working group suggested putting a speed limit of 130km/h on motorways to lower emissions and make roads safer. Big mistake.

Read more
Stan & Ollie pays tribute to Laurel and Hardy's brilliant buffoonery
102440 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Movies

Stan & Ollie pays tribute to Laurel and Hardy's br…

by James Robins

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan are lifelong devotees to comic duo Laurel and Hardy – and it shows.

Read more
Colin Hogg: Why my mates matter (and keep on ending up in my books)
102594 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Books

Colin Hogg: Why my mates matter (and keep on endin…

by Colin Hogg

With his second book about Sam Hunt proving a hit, Colin Hogg ponders why so much of his writing career has been inspired by his mates.

Read more
Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot People’s Choice Award
102345 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot P…

by Metro

Vote for your favourite dish in the 2019 Peugeot People’s Choice Award and be in to win dinner for two.

Read more
Death of the gods: The woeful response to kauri dieback disease
102578 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Planet

Death of the gods: The woeful response to kauri di…

by Bob Harvey

The closer you get to a kauri, the more you realise you are looking at one of the wonders of the planet.

Read more
National’s failure to grasp climate change a major challenge for NZ
102598 2019-02-21 00:00:00Z Planet

National’s failure to grasp climate change a major…

by Steve Abel

National's Bluegreen wing are set to hold their annual conference this weekend. Greenpeace’s Steve Abel will be there to challenge the party.

Read more
The native Mandarin speaker who's translating te reo on television
102606 2019-02-20 22:10:47Z Education

The native Mandarin speaker who's translating te r…

by Vomle Springford

Lidu Gong first started learning te reo in bed.

Read more
Win a double pass to Everybody Knows
102573 2019-02-20 13:19:44Z Win

Win a double pass to Everybody Knows

by The Listener

Starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows is a gripping new thriller about the fissures and fault lines that can tear a family apart.

Read more