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It's Time To Rethink The Plebiscite On Same-Sex Marriage

04/02/2016 5:09 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Kings and queens pawns symbolizing the same sex marriage

A renewed debate over the merits of Australia's mooted plebiscite on same-sex marriage has erupted over recent days, sparked by a speech delivered in the US by my brother, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and fuelled by pledges to disregard the outcome of the vote from opponents of change such as Senator Eric Abetz.

The plan for a plebiscite, or vote of the people, to decide whether the Australian parliament should change the definition of marriage was lit upon last August in a surprise meeting of the federal Liberal and National party rooms. That meeting was called to debate whether Coalition members of parliament should be allowed a conscience vote on the proposed reform, which would allow same-sex couples to marry.

From all accounts the opponents of a conscience vote, rallied by my brother, convincingly won the day, resulting in the government's commitment to putting the question to the people during the next term of federal parliament. That was an outcome I vehemently and publicly disagreed with then, and still do now.

I have always maintained that changing the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to legally wed should be decided in parliament, by the MPs who the people elected as their representatives. That is what happened in 2004 when parliament under then-Prime Minister John Howard amended the Act to ensure it was exclusive to heterosexual couples.

The proposed plebiscite, however, was also backed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, previously a staunch proponent of a conscience vote in parliament, when he took over as leader of the Liberal party a month later. There is no doubt that was an act of political expediency, designed to salve the opponents of reform in the Coalition party room and guarantee his leadership, as well as maintain a point of difference with the Labor party's pledge, should it be elected, to amend the Act within 100 days.

As a Liberal and a politician myself, I thoroughly understood the new Prime Minister's position, while still finding it personally deeply disappointing, just as I had my brother's.

Fast forward to February 2016 and the Turnbull government has settled in, making and considering changes to policy across a range of issues, not least in the crucial area of tax reform. The government is enjoying enormous support, with the Prime Minister's personal popularity still out of the ball park, amid suggestions that Senate crossbench recalcitrance on the reinstatement of the building industry industrial watchdog might trigger a double dissolution election.

There is also now significantly more support for marriage equality in parliament, and apparently a deepening dislike for the idea of a plebiscite among the general public. According to lobby group Australian Marriage Equality's national director Rodney Croome, today a majority of MPs, albeit a slim one, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, support same-sex marriage.

Those MPs presumably do not share the view my brother expressed in the US last week that "it would be easier for Australians who feel strongly about same-sex marriage to accept a decision -- either way -- if it were made by the whole people and not just by the parliament." I have to assume that, just as they should, those parliamentarians have made their minds up, based on their own convictions and the wishes of their electorates.

Also this week, there was more polling confirming majority popular support for same-sex marriage. A poll by ReachTel, commissioned by Australian Marriage Equality, showed that voters in three rural seats held by the Nationals were 57.5 percent opposed to a plebiscite, and that 61.9 percent of those voters were in favour of legislating for same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, there's been increasing media coverage of public disquiet about the reported cost of a plebiscite. Granted, the per capita cost of what amounts to an opinion poll on steroids might not be much more than a couple of cups of coffee, but $160 million is enough to build a new regional hospital or several schools.

With all that in the mix, surely now is the time for a rethink on the plebiscite, which has the potential to divide our communities, further marginalise already vulnerable gay and lesbian Australians and their families and which, at the end of the day, won't be binding on MPs who oppose the change when they come to vote in Parliament.

I believe that in 2016 a majority of Australians are ready to allow their MPs to make good on the call then-Prime Minister Abbott made in May last year, when he said in question time that this important reform "ought to be owned by the parliament."

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