Australia to hold 'postal plebiscite' on same-sex marriage

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Australia is set to hold a nonbinding postal vote on same-sex marriage next month after the country’s Senate voted Wednesday against the government’s plans to conduct a compulsory public opinion vote.

The so-called postal plebiscite will be the first in Australian history. But it faces opposition from gay-rights activists and opposition politicians who are threatening to block the public’s vote and urge Parliament to vote on legalization of same-sex marriage without polling the people.

The conservative government led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tried to organize a compulsory plebiscite which would have gathered the votes of all Australians on Nov. 25 and cost around $135 million. The proposal was defeated in the Senate last November.

Following the defeat, the government came up with a suggestion to hold a voluntary plebiscite where the public would send their ballots by post between Sept. 12 and Nov. 7, costing the country $96 million.

Opponents of the proposal slammed the conservatives, claiming the postal result won’t represent whole society and will likely oppose the legalization of the same-sex marriage because younger adults aren’t familiar with the postal services.

The government hoped the prospect of a voluntary plebiscite, which doesn’t require the Parliament’s approval, would force politicians to reconsider their vote last year blocking the compulsory plebiscite.

On Wednesday, however, the Senate again voted against the compulsory plebiscite, giving a green light to non-binding voluntary vote next month.

If the results of the vote show the majority of people voting “yes” nationally, the government will let the politicians have a free vote on the issue by the end of the year. If the country votes “no,” the government will take no further action.

Left-wing opposition Senate Leader Penny Wong criticized some conservative politicians in the government, saying they would never commit to legalizing same-sex marriage regardless of how the plebiscite vote goes.

“This is a vote because some in the coalition can never countenance equality and they’re never going to change their minds. They simply cannot countenance people like me and others being equal," said Wong, who is openly gay.

" ... (S)ome in the coalition can never countenance equality and they’re never going to change their minds. They simply cannot countenance people like me and others being equal."

— Penny Wong, Australian Senate Leader

Another opposition senator, Janet Rice, told the Senate that she was able to marry her transgender wife of 31 years only because her wife’s birth certificate claimed she’s a man.

“There are very good reasons why you don’t put issues of human rights to a public vote,” she said. “The hurt, the hatred, the attacks on [LGBT] people are going to be amplified in our community.”

Australian LGBTQ rights activist Rodney Croome challenged the government decision to hold a voluntary plebiscite, announcing plans to legally challenge the vote in the High Court on the basis of executive overreach, HuffPost Australia reported.

He said: “We are announcing that we will be filing in the high court to have the high court strike down the postal plebiscite in the hope that we can then proceed to the resolution of this issue in a way that should always have been dealt with, and that is a free vote in Parliament.

“The problem of the government exceeding its executive authority continues to be an issue with this new proposal.”

An online fundraiser aimed at supporting the legal costs of the challenge has been set up and has raised more than $2,000.

Opinion polls in Australia show people supporting same-sex marriage, but gay rights advocates fear that because the issue doesn’t concern everyone, it will be easier for opponents of same-sex marriage to persuade the majority to vote against the change.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has come out against the legalization of gay marriage, offering several reasons why people should vote “no” in the upcoming plebiscite.

Speaking to reporters outside Parliament, Abbott said: “I say to you: If you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote ‘no.’ If you worry about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, vote ‘no’; and if you don’t like political correctness, vote ‘no’ because this is the best way to stop it in its tracks.”

Turnbull, who succeeded Abbott in 2015, has expressed his intent to campaign for legalization of same-sex marriage.

“I have other calls on my time as prime minister, but I will certainly support a ‘yes’ vote,” he told reporters earlier this week.

This story includes reporting from the Associated Press.