Two Australian women, Kerryn Phelps and Jackie Stricker- Phelps, were married in New York in 1998. They once joked that they would be grandparents before same sex marriage was legal in Australia. Now, they have two children and one grandson and still- same sex marriage is not legal in Australia. That could possibly change quickly, Australians are set to vote in a postal plebiscite this year.
Except, this vote is non-binding. Even if the vote result is a yes, it still requires that parliament passes marriage equality legislation.
Australia is the only developed, English speaking nation that doesn’t allow same sex couples to marry. Every country that has made same sex marriage legalized has done so through their government rather than a public referendum or plebiscite (besides Ireland where it was constitutionally required to hold a referendum). Opinion polls in Australia largely show public support for legalizing same sex marriage, this has left many people wondering why an expensive plebiscite (1.22 million) is necessary.
Karl Steganovic, hosting Australia’s “Today” show, told politicians to “get on with it”; asking “why do we elect officials if not to make decisions that reflect our beliefs?”.
Some believe this is a decision for the government to make. The Senate blocked the plebiscite for a few reasons, namely the cost and the possible divisiveness or harm it could cause for the LGBTQ+ community.
The Australian government, led by Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, resorted to putting the plebiscite through without Senate approval. Turnbull said he would vote yes but still argues the decision should “give all Australians a say”. There is nothing in the Australian constitution or law that requires a plebiscite to legalize same sex marriage.
Terri Butler, an advocate for same-sex marriage and the member of the opposition Labor Party, was quoted in the New York Times saying “the problem is there is a minority of members of parliament…who are preventing the executive government from agreeing to allowing the Parliament to vote.” The Labor Party has said they will legalize same sex marriage if elected in the next election.
Some marriage equality advocates may actually boycott the vote entirely. They see the issue as fundamentally about parliament being indecisive and demand that the government makes the decision, rather than wasting money and time on a national vote. Even with the plebiscite, parliament will still have to make the decision as the plebiscite is non-binding- it would still require parliament to pass a law for the real change to occur.
Lauren Moore, a University student from Sydney, summarized her thoughts surrounding the issue of the plebiscite “gay rights are not a debatable subject…it is quite odd that the Australian government have chosen to open this to a public vote as existing polls show overwhelming support for these laws as a plebiscite, the result does not legally have to be followed (as with referendums) so after all this money being spent, campaigning – we could obtain a yes vote that the government may not act on.”
Voting also brings out the process of campaigning. A main concern for many surrounds the effects a divisive yes/no campaign could have for LGBTQ+ community members. As with any campaign, opinions are strengthened and heated as the vote nears. It is assumed that the same will occur and LGBTQ+ community members may be forced into conversations, positions, and politics that they didn’t want to be in in the first place.
The reality is that a postal plebiscite will be conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistic over the next few months. What follows from this plebiscite is still to be determined. Turnbull stated “We’ve been very clear about this, we will facilitate a private members’ bill to change the law with respect to same-sex marriage so that same-sex couples can be married if there’s a “yes” vote. And if it is a “no” vote, we won’t.” Warren Entsch, a Coalition Member of Parliament, said “if it comes back ‘no’, I reserve my right as a Liberal to call on a vote”. So, the result of the vote may not have any real effect on whether or not Australia legalizes same sex marriage in the future.
The plebiscite is non-binding but it will have immeasurable impacts on the LGBTQ+ community and obviously on the legalisation of same sex marriage. It may still be a long time before Australia legalizes same sex marriage, regardless of the result of this plebiscite.