Australians set to vote on same-sex marriage by end of year

Former prime minister Tony Abbott says he will vote no ‘to help stop political correctness’

Supporters of same-sex marriage at a protest march in Sydney on August 6th. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Same-sex marriage could be legal in Australia by Christmas, after a postal vote on the issue followed by debate in parliament.

But a postal plebiscite, unlike a regular vote in Australia, is non-compulsory, non-binding and open to legal challenge. The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has previously rejected the method. Two decades ago, when he led the failed push for Australia to become a republic, Turnbull said a postal plebiscite "flies in the face of Australian democratic values".

“It is likely to ensure that not only will a minority of Australians vote, but also that large sections of the community will be disfranchised,” he said in 1997.

Despite the complete turnaround in his views, Turnbull gave himself top marks for how he was handling the issue, which has been tearing his Liberal-National government apart for months. “I’m a strong leader,” he said. While it’s not up there with Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” in the history of great unfortunate political one-liners, it is one likely to get replayed over and over from now until the end of his political career.


While Turnbull favours same-sex marriage and many other small "l" liberal positions, he is hamstrung by the conservatives in his Liberal party and a one seat majority in parliament. Prime among his conservative colleagues is Tony Abbott, whom Turnbull replaced as prime minister in an internal party coup. "Obviously I will be voting no," Abbott said.

“And I say to you if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote no, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.”

Irish referendum

Lyle Shelton, of the Australian Christian Lobby, invoked both the Irish head of the Qantas airline and Ireland itself in outlining how he sees the same-sex marriage campaign. "We understand there won't be any [government] funding, for no one. That makes it particularly difficult to our side because we don't have Qantas and Alan Joyce and corporate Australia behind us," he said.

“We’re going to see another situation like Ireland where you saw tens of millions in overseas money coming in to influence the debate.”

Dublin man Stephen Dawson, who is environment minister in Western Australia's Labor government, married Dennis Liddelow in December 2013 when same-sex marriage was very briefly legal in the Australian Capital Territory. Five days later the federal government overturned the law and annulled all the gay marriages carried out in that time.

Dawson says the estimated AU$122 million (€82 million) plebiscite cost of the referendum is money that does not need to be spent. “It is an absolute waste of time and money.

“Unlike in Ireland there is no need to change the constitution to allow same-sex marriage. Any plebiscite will have no official standing. Our federal politicians can and should act now to legislate for marriage equality and not waste more time and money procrastinating on the issue,” he told The Irish Times.

“I was hopeful that the issue would have been addressed a lot sooner. I’m very proud of Ireland’s action to allow marriage equality and I wish Australia would follow.”

Having got married in Canberra and had both a civil union and marriage in Dublin, Dawson is aware he is more fortunate than most gay couples in his adopted home. "Dennis and I would love to have our relationship recognised in Australia. We are lucky to have had the support or our family and friends.

“If the laws eventually change in Australia we might take advantage of the changes. Either way other same-sex couples in Australia should have the same opportunities as we’ve had,” he said.

Pádraig Collins

Pádraig Collins

Pádraig Collins a contributor to The Irish Times based in Sydney