Australia looks to February vote on same-sex marriage

Pro-gay marriage supporters carrying a rainbow banner and flags during a rally in Sydney on June 25, 2016.
Pro-gay marriage supporters carrying a rainbow banner and flags during a rally in Sydney on June 25, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia plans to hold a national vote on Feb 11 on whether to allow same-sex marriage, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Tuesday (Sept 13), despite critics warning it could unleash homophobia.

Mr Turnbull went to the July 2 elections promising every Australian could have their say on gay marriage via a plebiscite.

"Our job is to ensure that the Australian people have the opportunity to express their view and to do so in a manner that is fair and impartial," he told a press conference in Canberra.

Mr Turnbull said he would introduce a Bill to Parliament this week which he expected would be passed by the lower house. But he admitted it could be blocked by opponents in the Senate, where the government does not hold an outright majority.

"There will be a plebiscite on the 11th of February unless (opposition Labor leader) Bill Shorten decides to block it" in the Senate, he said.

Labor has not yet said how it will act regarding the referendum, but ahead of the July election, Mr Shorten described it as a "taxpayer-funded platform for homophobia".

"In modern Australia, no-one should have to justify their sexuality or their love to anyone else," he said.

Critics have accused the government of delaying reform, with Mr Shorten this week saying that Parliament could vote to make marriage equality a reality immediately and without resorting to a plebiscite - an earlier Labor election promise.

"This is an expensive delaying tactic designed by the conservatives in the Liberal party to prevent marriage equality," Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said on Tuesday.

Australia is seen as lagging behind a growing number of countries on marriage reform despite strong popular support for marriage equality.

Same-sex couples can have civil unions or register their relationships in most states across Australia, but the government does not consider them married under national law.

Mr Turnbull is well-known for his support for gay marriage but committed to the plebiscite, costing some A$170 million (S$174 million). The vote was decided on by his conservative Liberal Party under previous leader Tony Abbott.

Attorney-General George Brandis said the question to be put to people at the vote would be: "Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?" The vote is non-binding, meaning that even if the plebiscite is passed by a majority of Australians, parliamentarians do not have to pass legislation in support of same-sex marriage.

But Mr Brandis said he would introduce legislation to "give effect to the will of the people" to amend the Marriage Act if the "yes" vote wins, adding that he had "no doubt" Parliament would respect the wishes of the people.

"There are many, many of my colleagues... who have said both privately and publicly that they would vote 'no' in the plebiscite but in the event the plebiscite were to carry, they would vote 'yes' on the floor of the Parliament," he said.