The Australian opposition on Tuesday decided to block government plans for a public but non-binding vote on recognising gay marriage, arguing it would better if the issue was decided in Parliament.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s conservative coalition government needs the centre-left Labour Party’s support to get enabling legislation through the Senate to hold a national vote on gay marriage on February 11.
But a meeting of Labour lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously decided against supporting the plebiscite, opposition leader Bill Shorten said.
While Labour supports gay marriage, it argues the plebiscite would trigger a divisive public debate. Labour argues the Parliament should decide the issue without asking the public.
“This country does not have the right in a plebiscite to pass judgment on the marriages and relationships of some of our fellow Australians. It is not what Australia is about,” Shorten told reporters.
Turnbull, an advocate for same-sex marriage, said that despite the Labour comments, the idea of a plebiscite was not dead. He said the enabling bill would be voted on in the Senate after it was passed this week by the House of Representatives where the government holds a majority.
“We urge the senators — all the members of the Senate, including the Labor Party — to support that bill and give the people their say,” Turnbull told reporters.
The Australian Christian Lobby, which opposes same-sex marriage, said it was disappointed “that ordinary Australians are being shut out from having a say about the biggest social policy change in a generation.”
Yet Michael Cook, editor of Mercatornet believes that the decision to delay the referendum might work in favour of those who support traditional marriage. He explained: “Australia is the only large Anglophone country not to have legalised gay marriage. This is a grievous disappointment to supporters and a welcome surprise to opponents.
“It is basically a political accident: Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is a fan of gay marriage, but is stuck with a commitment made by former PM Tony Abbott to hold a referendum or plebiscite. The Labor Opposition supports gay marriage and since the outcome of a popular vote is uncertain, will only settle for a vote in Parliament. The result is a stalemate – it appears that there will be no decision until after the next election. This could be as late as 2019, a long time between drinks,” Cook said.
Cook – who believes that same-sex marriage weakens the family unit – thinks the political stalemate will give the traditional marriage camp an advantage. He said: “The stalemate gives supporters of gay marriage time to make mistakes – such as backing the Safe Schools program, a homosexual and transgender education program in schools which horrified voters. And it gives us time to regroup and put the case for natural marriage to the public and wavering MPs.”
On Monday, the government released draft amendments to the federal marriage law that would be put to Parliament if a majority of Australians endorse same-sex marriage in the plebiscite. Opinion polls show most Australians support same-sex marriage.
Most gay rights advocates fear that an aggressive scare campaign could result in the plebiscite failing, putting same-sex marriage off the national agenda for decades. Some conservative lawmakers have said they will vote against gay marriage in Parliament even if a majority of Australians support it.
Under the proposed changes to the law, religious ministers and officials would be allowed to refuse to officiate at same-sex marriages and churches would be allowed to refuse to provide facilities, goods and services for gay weddings. Some government lawmakers argue the same legal protections should be extended to cake makers and wedding singers who object to same-sex marriage.
Labour as well as gay rights advocates are concerned that the government proposes giving civil wedding officials the same legal right as religious clergy to refuse to marry same-sex couples.
Catholic bishops in Australia have vocalised opposition to same-sex marriage. In 2015, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference published a letter titled “Don’t Mess with Marriage,” in which they outlined Church teaching on marriage.