Why Australia blocked a vote on same-sex marriage

A Gallup poll shows that 61 percent of Australians support same-sex marriage, but some argue that a public, non-binding vote on the issue would be more harmful than deciding the issue in Parliament. 

Tracey Nearmy/AP/File
Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (l.) and opposition leader Bill Shorten shake hands as they arrive for a debate in Canberra, May 29, 2016.

On Tuesday, Australia's Parliament rejected plans for a February referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage, due to a lack of support from members of the majority Labor Party. Now, it is likely that Parliament will not readdress same-sex marriage again until 2019.

Those opposed to the referendum cited worries that it would spark harmful anti-gay rhetoric and undermine the legislative process, while advocates, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal Party, argued that this would be the simplest path to legalization.

"Turnbull is socially progressive but he leads a conservative party," said Australian National University political analyst Andrew Hughes to the Chicago Tribune. The stalemate over marriage equality "shows how hard it is to get his way when his views don't have majority support from his own lawmakers."

A Gallup poll shows that 61 percent of Australians support same-sex marriage, but many lawmakers rejected the idea of substituting a referendum for a parliamentary vote.

"Why should gay Australians be subjected to a different law-making process than any other Australians?" said Labor leader Bill Shorten to Reuters. "Why should a couple in a committed relationship have to knock on the doors of 15 million of their fellow Australians and see if they agree with it? The easiest way is the way which this Parliament has done for a hundred years – legislate."

Dean Smith, the first openly gay politician in Australia's legislature, agrees. He does not support the referendum because he believes that opening a vote up to the entire population undermines the representative government.

“The people chosen as members of the Parliament are expected to make decisions on the full gamut of issues that confront the nation in the course of a parliamentary term, foreseen or unforeseen,” Dean Smith wrote in a column for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Critics note that by rejecting the national referendum, the issue of same-sex marriage will be put on hold until the next election in November 2019, putting Australia far behind many English-speaking countries, including US, Ireland, UK, and New Zealand, that have already legalized same-sex marriage.

"Rather than working with the government to see this matter settled, Bill Shorten and Labor have chosen to play politics with the lives of gay people," Attorney General George Brandis said in a statement. Their decision not to support a plebiscite "will ensure this debate will continue for years to come."

This could prove to be a significant blow to the prime minister, whose popularity was already waning because his progressive platform has gotten little support from the conservative Labor Party, which is in the majority in Parliament.

"If things don't turn around by this time next year, and Turnbull's poll numbers haven't improved, he will find himself under pressure from within his own party," Haydon Manning, an associate professor in political science at Flinders University in Adelaide, told Reuters.

Material from Reuters contribute to this report.

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