Australians must have the final say on same‑sex marriage

Australia is set to determine whether it will legalise same-sex marriage. Last week, the Liberal National government moved to endorse a postal vote after its original policy of holding an election-style plebiscite was thwarted by minor parties in parliament’s upper house for nearly two years. With moderate liberals threatening to cross the floor, and public pressure mounting, a postal vote emerged as the best way of breaking the political logjam while keeping faith with the government’s promise to leave any change to marriage in the people’s hands.

The government’s rationale for a plebiscite was sensible, and fair. Given the strongly held views of both sides, seeking the consent of the people for a change in the law is the best way once and for all to end the debate on same-sex marriage, or at least act on the basis of the most populous view.

But despite opinion polls consistently showing Australians favouring a plebiscite, the postal vote announcement was met with a groundswell of rancour and indignation from politicians and activists who claim it will give licence to mean-minded bigotry. Gay-rights activists believe the LBGT community is too brittle to withstand a public debate, and are opposing the idea of a plebiscite.

According to Greens’ party leader Richard Di Natale, the plebiscite could ‘give a megaphone to hate and homophobia’. Opposition leader Bill Shorten agreed, arguing that a public campaign ‘would be an emotional torment for gay teenagers’, which would risk inciting suicide.

The idea that LGBT people are too emotionally fragile to bear witness to a public vote isn’t just insulting – it’s wilfully blind to the fact that gay people have been waging political battles, and winning them, for decades. The fact that same-sex marriage now enjoys broad-based public support, just two decades after homosexuality was decriminalised in Australia, is a credit to the tenacity and will of LGBT activists.

What’s more, the outrage from certain plebiscite detractors reeks of hypocrisy. Labor frontbencher, Penny Wong – an atheist in a long-term same-sex relationship – defended the ‘traditional’ view of marriage as late as 2012. Yet last week she said a plebiscite is only being held because opponents of same-sex marriage cannot ‘countenance people like me and others being equal’. Wong now rails against traditionally minded Australians for voicing an opinion she held just five years ago.

This intolerance of public discussion on same-sex marriage belies the fact that there are important, unanswered questions about how change would reconcile religious freedom with anti-discrimination law. If churches, charities, schools or even bakers and florists can be hauled before a court for refusing to agree with LGBT politics, as has happened in the UK and Canada, that means the issue of same-sex marriage deserves serious attention.

Whether you agree with same-sex marriage or not, Australians have every reason to be wary of the state forcing people to solemnise a marriage against their will and beliefs. Same-sex marriage advocates have had extraordinary success winning over public opinion to their cause. Why are they now scared of debate? What better proof of their hard-fought progress than a resounding win at the ballot box? Let the people have their say.

John Slater is a writer and policy analyst based in Brisbane, Australia.

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