TV star hoped Australian gay marriage vote would follow Irish example

Kath & Kim actor Magda Szubanski says ‘wedge politics’ poisoned debate Down Under

One of Australia's best-known TV personalities, comedian Magda Szubanski, thought Ireland would serve as a template for passing same-sex marriage there but "wedge politics," she says, has poisoned their debate.

The star of satirical sitcom Kath & Kim and the Babe movies described the Irish vote in May 2015 as “a very moving moment,” a result that led many Australians to look “with great hope to Ireland,” she said.

She recalled feeling “enormous euphoria” that a traditionally Catholic country like Ireland voted that way.

"Genuine like, just so happy for you, so bloody happy for you," she told The Irish Times.

“It was just stunning. Honestly, I just wept with joy as did so many of my friends. We really hoped that Ireland would serve as an example of the way to do this.”

The "Yes" side in Australia even tapped Tiernan Brady, political director of the Irish "Yes" campaign, to run their campaign. Brady admits that the tone Down Under has been much harsher.

Almost 11 million Australians, or 67 per cent of the electorate, have already cast a vote in the same-sex marriage postal plebiscite, a voluntary, non-binding poll that continues until November 7th.

A poll on Wednesday showed 59 per cent support for same-sex marriage among those who have posted back votes. The results will be known on November 15th. In the meantime, the debate rages on.

Szubanski (56) takes greatest issue with Tony Abbott, Australia's prime minister until 2015 and one of a minority of MPs in the centre-right Liberal Party strenuously opposed to gay marriage. Abbott has portrayed the vote as a battle against political correctness and a defense of religious freedom and freedom of speech.

“Tony Abbott is the master craftsman of wedge politics. There has been a deliberate attempt made to not be reasonable, to conflate issues and to confuse people,” she said.

“I honestly think that the vast majority of Australians in the middle are fine about it. This whole tactic has been used to frighten the horses.”

The comedian, who revealed she was gay in 2012, has become emotional in TV interviews during the campaign, talking about a lesbian friend who was forced to “stand outside and listen to the screams” of her terminally ill partner because they were not legally married.

Fringe elements

For her stand, Szubanski has been subjected to online abuse, mostly from what she says are “fringe elements.” Still, she feels compelled to speak out because, as she sees it, the issue transcends politics.

“I have been famous in this country for a long time. When I came out, people were so fine about it. We are in many ways a very easy-going nation,” she said.

“The thing that upsets me is this is not an election campaign. I am not running for election. I am not an experienced campaigner or politician. I am just a person who is affected by this.”

She believes that reassurances from Ireland that religious freedoms have not been affected by same-sex marriage “would, for a lot of people, be fantastic” and counter the diversionary “wedge politics”.

On his State visit to Australia over the past two weeks President Michael D Higgins has steered an apolitical course on the vote and spoken of the merits of a "fair and even" debate.

In a post-Brexit/Trump world, Szubanski fears the “good-faith debate” will suffer. She believes Abbott is engaged in “classic, textbook scapegoating” by suggesting that LGBT groups are to blame for wider problems.

“It alarms me not so much as a gay person but as someone who thinks that democracy is precious but also fragile,” said Szubanski, whose grandfather hailed from Co Laois.

The abuse she has received has been severe, particularly after the death of her elderly mother last month - “I was surprised that people would take a potshot at that” - but, for her, the stakes are clearly too high.

“I don’t really want to be doing this, to be honest,” she said. “I would much rather be making people laugh.”