Gay marriage has frequently occupied the forefront of political debate in Australia, and this week the country’s highest-profile politicians have again thrown the prospect of legalizing gay marriage into heated discussion. The recent proposal of, and demonstration in favor of, a plebiscite on gay marriage – a vote whereby the public would vote for or against its legalization – has prompted supporters of same-sex marriage to greater optimism. The current PM, Malcolm Turnbull — who ousted Abbott in September — is personally opposed to the idea of a plebiscite, but has promised to hold one following the next federal election, and to have gay marriage legalized if the plebiscite’s results were in its favor.
The notion that gay marriage in Australia is a serious, imminent possibility is met with skepticism from members of left-wing parties, including the Opposition – the Australian Labor Party – who point out that a plebiscite is not legally binding for the Prime Minister or his party, and even a vote in favor of gay marriage would only be dismissed upon reaching the federal parliament. This would be the case if the majority of Turnbull’s party voted against passing the bill: an outcome that becomes more likely as various members say they will do just that, as ABC News reported yesterday.
Furthermore, speaking to The Australian at a recent pride march in Melbourne, opposition leader Bill Shorten said that a plebiscite would be a costly and unnecessary exercise.
“People don’t understand why there has to be $160 million wasted on an opinion poll merely because 100 Liberal MPs can’t make up their minds,” said Shorten.
Australia’s governing party, The Liberal National Party, has traditionally been steadfastly opposed to gay marriage: former Prime Minister Tony Abbott thwarted attempts by the Opposition to hold a referendum on gay marriage and to introduce a Bill of Amendment to the Marriage Act. There have been nine such Bills voted down since 2006.
Turnbull’s nod of assent has failed to alleviate the pressure that has been mounted since the legalization of gay marriage by referendum last year in Ireland — a country with cultural roots in even stricter conservatism — which instigated renewed interest and discussion, including the opposition leader Bill Shorten’s putting forward of another attempt to legalize gay marriage.
Many political reporters such as Mark Kenny of the Brisbane Times have pointed out that Turnbull is “boxed in” by deals that he cut with party members to overturn Abbott as leader last year, specifically, that – emboldened by the belief that the majority of voters were against gay marriage – a plebiscite would be held following the next federal election to decide on the matter.
Diversity is an issue for which the Australian government as a whole now faces criticism. South Australian Senator Penny Wong flies the banner for gay marriage and diversity in Australian politics, and was the first to vocalize skepticism about the plebiscite promise. Senator Wong is known for her strong stance on equality, notoriously saying that “it is time” for gay marriage in Australia when interviewing with ABC News Australia.
The Australian government’s opposition to gay marriage is part of its conservatism on a far broader spectrum of issues: the country is notoriously lagging in its policies on climate change – having the highest emissions per capita in the world – and was ranked third-to-last in a credible world environmental index.
Australia’s current immigration policy has, like its gay marriage policy, also left it behind its socio-political contemporaries: Abbott’s trademark policy of “stopping the boats” and an investigation into standards of living led to the Nation’s public shaming by CNN.
“It intercepts boatloads of migrants and refugees and then places them in detention on small, relatively poor Pacific island nations,” said the report.
With mounting pressure from citizens as well as other nations to adopt more liberal policies in keeping with global trends, the Australian government faces important decisions on gay marriage in the near future. Many believe that it is only a matter of time before marriage law, like many laws of the past, will change in keeping with society and its people: a belief which is lent veracity by recent poll figures which suggested that a parliamentary majority are in support of gay marriage.
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