Australia's debate over gay marriage vote gets uglier

Dr Pansy Lai, a Chinese-born paediatrician in Sydney, said she and her medical staff had been verbally abused and threatened with harm after her appearance in a television advertisement which was against legalising same-sex marriage.
Dr Pansy Lai, a Chinese-born paediatrician in Sydney, said she and her medical staff had been verbally abused and threatened with harm after her appearance in a television advertisement which was against legalising same-sex marriage.

Calls for doctor in TV ad to be deregistered, homophobic poster among bitter incidents

Australia's debate over whether to legalise same-sex marriage has become increasingly bitter, with accusations of bullying and calls for a doctor to be deregistered after she rallied against legalising same-sex marriage.

As the federal government pressed ahead with plans for a controversial national plebiscite, Dr Pansy Lai, a Chinese-born paediatrician in Sydney, found herself at the centre of the debate after appearing in a television advertisement for the "no" campaign.

Her appearance prompted an online petition urging medical groups to review Dr Lai's registration, saying she was guilty of a "violation of its code of ethics".

Dr Lai, the founder of a group called Australian Chinese for Families, said yesterday that she and her medical staff had been verbally abused and threatened with harm after her appearance in the advertisement. Explaining her decision to present herself as one of the faces of the campaign against same-sex marriage, she told ABC News: "Chinese parents are telling me that they are fearful for what it means."

Activist group GetUp! yesterday removed the petition from a community petition website it created, sayingit had not endorsed it and there had been many complaints.

The government plans to hold a voluntary postal plebiscite later this year at a cost of A$122 million (S$131.7 million), despite concerns by advocates of gay marriage that it will unleash homophobia and discrimination.

Opinion surveys indicate widespread support for legalising gay marriage, with an Essential survey in August showing 57 per cent of Australians support the change and 32 per cent are opposed, with the remainder uncommitted.

CALL FOR RESPECT ON ALL SIDES

I deplore disrespectful, abusive language, whether it is directed at young gay people or religious people.

PRIME MINISTER MALCOLM TURNBULL

A Newspoll survey in July found 46 per cent want a plebiscite, with 39 per cent opposed and 15 per cent uncommitted.

The Labor opposition has criticised the plebiscite, saying it is unnecessary, costly and divisive. Opposition leader Bill Shorten wants the marriage issue to be decided by a free vote of MPs. He said Labor would campaign for a Yes vote but warned that he would hold Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull responsible for any "filth" that resulted from the debate.

So far, the debate has shown every sign that it will be as acrimonious as its critics feared. A homophobic poster was put up in Melbourne by a neo-Nazi group. Leaflets in Sydney - printed in English and Chinese - claimed that homosexuality was a "curse" and that legalising same-sex marriage would lead to an increase in rapes in public toilets. And religious leaders and organisations are split.

The increasingly hate-filled campaign has prompted Mr Turnbull to demand respect on all sides.

"I deplore disrespectful, abusive language, whether it is directed at young gay people or religious people," he told 2Day FM radio. "One of the problems in this debate is the tendency to caricature each side."

The debate has prompted medical groups to publicly debunk some of the claims made about the consequences of same-sex marriage. The Australian Medical Association and the Australian Psychological Society both stated there was no scientific evidence that children of same-sex couples suffered adverse health or psychological consequences.

But the debate has galvanised Australians, with the Electoral Commission saying last week that almost 100,000 people have added their names to the electoral roll to ensure they can vote.

Still, it is possible the vote will not go ahead. Same-sex marriage supporters have taken action in the High Court, saying the plebiscite is unconstitutional because it was not based on an Act of Parliament.

The court is due to hear the case today and tomorrow, a week before voting is due to begin. Voters are expected to return their ballot by Oct 27.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline 'Australia's debate over gay marriage vote gets uglier'. Print Edition | Subscribe