SYDNEY • Australia's bitter political battle over legalising gay marriage came to a head yesterday, with the government pushing ahead with a postal vote after Parliament rejected a referendum - both options bitterly opposed by activists.
Polls indicate popular support in Australia for marriage equality, but the issue has dragged on for over a decade amid political wrangling on the best way to vote on the issue.
The conservative Liberal-National coalition last year went to the polls promising to hold a nationwide plebiscite, but the opposition Labor Party, Greens and crossbench senators yesterday rejected the option in the Upper House Senate for the second time.
The opposition, along with many gay rights campaigners, favours a free vote among MPs, with parliamentarians not bound by party policy. They say a national vote is costly and will prove divisive, subjecting gay people and their families to hate speech.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday committed A$122 million (S$131 million) to the postal vote, run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, with ballot papers sent out by Sept 12 and due back in early November. "Strong leaders carry out their promises. Weak leaders break them," he said.
Marriage equality advocates have vowed to challenge the postal vote in court, saying the government might be exceeding its executive authority, casting doubt on whether the ballot would go ahead. Supporters also fear the postal option could disenfranchise younger Australians - usually more supportive of same-sex marriage - who are less likely to use the mailing system.
How it works
Q When will the vote take place?
A Australians will start receiving ballots in the mail on Sept 12 and will have a number of weeks to respond. The government will receive the final results on Nov 15.
Q Who gets a say in the plebiscite? A Australians aged 18 and over who are registered to vote.
Q What happens in the case of a "yes" vote?
A If most people vote "yes", the government says it will allow a private members' Bill to go before Parliament on whether gay marriage should be legalised, with MPs getting a free vote on the Bill. The Bill needs to pass both the Upper and Lower Houses to be made a law. In the case of a "no" vote, rebel Liberal MPs may still attempt to take action.
Q Who will conduct the ballot?
A In a move that has attracted controversy, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will run the postal ballot instead of the Australian Electoral Commission.
Q What is the cost of the postal ballot?
A The overall cost will be A$122 million (S$131 million).
Former conservative prime minister Tony Abbott yesterday welcomed the postal vote, kicking off the "no" campaign. "If you don't like same-sex marriage, vote 'no'," he told reporters. "If you are worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote 'no'. If you don't like political correctness, vote 'no'."
Labor Senator Penny Wong made an impassioned speech in Parliament, accusing the government of "handball(ing) a hard decision to the community" and failing to defend the LGBTI community against hate speech: "Let me say, for many children in same-sex couple parented families and for many young LGBTI kids, this isn't a respectful debate."
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.