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08/09/2017 12:07 am ET

Australia To Hold Vote On Same-Sex Marriage. Here's What You Need To Know.

The country has a long way to go to catch up with other developed nations on marriage equality.

CANBERRA ― Australia has the unenviable tag of being the only developed, English-speaking nation that doesn’t allow same-sex couples to marry.

Although a subject of debate in Australia for years, in recent months the issue has intensified to consume the country’s politics and spurred the ruling government to propose a new path forward this week.

But despite Australian voters being overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equality, the government is still stuck in a debate over just how to make that a reality. The process, to the frustration of many Australians, has been mired in bureaucracy and political infighting, and multiple hurdles remain before same-sex marriage can become law.

On Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull laid out his proposal for how Australia might change the definition of marriage under the Australian Marriage Act to include same-sex unions. Turnbull’s plan aims to appease both marriage-equality advocates and the more conservative elements of his Liberal Party in order to maintain his government’s tenuous grasp on power.

Turnbull is seeking to hold a non-legally binding voluntary public postal vote (at the estimated cost of $122 million) before an official parliamentary vote in November. A different plan ― to hold a non-legally binding but compulsory national vote before the parliamentary vote in November ― was killed off by a hostile senate on Wednesday. 

Gay rights activists in Sydney in 2015 campaign for same-sex marriage in Australia, an issue that has consistently had t
David Gray / Reuters
Gay rights activists in Sydney in 2015 campaign for same-sex marriage in Australia, an issue that has consistently had the support of most Australians for the past 10 years.

Part of the reason that the path to marriage equality is so convoluted has to do with both Australia’s current political landscape and the role of past prime ministers in shaping the debate. 

The country’s political leaders have long faced calls for a free parliamentary vote on the matter that would allow senators and Members of Parliament to vote according to their conscience, rather than along their party’s official line.

Yet despite widespread public support for the issue ― every reputable opinion poll from the past decade has shown a majority in favor ― marriage equality has bedeviled Australian leaders for years. In some ways, the subject has become as much about leadership as about addressing inequality. 

Rather than allowing the much-called for free vote in Parliament, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott ― who once trained as a priest and who, while in office, opposed same-sex marriage ― said politicians should hold a plebiscite to let “the Australian people have a say” on the future of same-sex marriage. The vote was not expected to be compulsory and its result would be non-binding. 

Abbott’s successor, Turnbull, has expressed his support for marriage equality. But he is walking a political tightrope. 

Turnbull’s Liberal-National coalition has a slim, one-seat majority, and there’s a real fear that it could lose control of Parliament. Liberals who have departed from the party line on same-sex marriage have faced public and anonymous threats

Turnbull has been tied to Abbott’s policies under pressure from conservative elements in his party, political sources say. Turnbull has described it as an issue of trust.

“We’ve made a very clear commitment here and we are sticking with it,” Turnbull told reporters in Canberra this week. 

According to the plan, the postal vote would start as early as Sept. 12 and run through Nov. 7. A “yes” vote to legalize same-sex marriage would lead the government to put forth a bill for Parliament that would formally change the country’s current definition of marriage. The MPs and Senate would be free to vote on the bill according to their beliefs, rather than being tied the official party positions.

But in embracing a non-binding plebiscite, just as Abbot did before him, Turnbull knows that any result could be ignored by Parliament.   

An activist supporting same sex marriage takes part in a protest in front of Australia's Parliament on Tuesday.
Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax
An activist supporting same sex marriage takes part in a protest in front of Australia's Parliament on Tuesday.

Criticism of Turnbull’s plan from all sides of the debate has been fierce, and the outlook is far from certain

Opponents of same-sex marriage are expected to try to delay the postal vote, while marriage equality advocates have threatened a legal challenge, possibly affecting the timetable. The government has also yet to provide crucial details on the issue. 

Those opposing plebiscites view them as non-binding, non-representative and wasteful during a time of budget restraint. Other contentious, emotionally-charged issues like euthanasia and abortion have not gone to a popular vote.

And some worry that likely heated “yes” and “no” campaigns could cause serious harm to the well-being of LGBTQ people. 

Meanwhile, same-sex marriage advocates, such as Liberal Sen. Dean Smith, insist that using a plebiscite sets a dangerous precedent in removing Parliament from the responsibility of dealing with important issues.

Whatever the outcome of Turnbull’s efforts this week, Australia’s politics around marriage equality is likely to remain messy and divisive for the foreseeable future.  

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