01/02/2016 10:56 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

The Government Shouldn't Decide Who We Can Marry


A plebiscite on same-sex marriage brings with it certain negative aspects. A file in my office bulges with correspondence from individuals who opposed the Freedom to Marry Bill I introduced into the Senate in 2014. Some of it, but not much, offers polite arguments about the definition of marriage. Much more is vile abuse. Some had to be referred to the authorities.

I would rather this kind of stuff remained locked in a cupboard, because that's where it belongs. A plebiscite means similar material will inevitably make an appearance.

I believe it's the job of our elected representatives to uphold basic rights, not put them to a popular vote. Imagine if we were to hold a plebiscite where 95 percent of the population got to vote on whether the remaining 5 percent were allowed freedom of speech.

Nonetheless, it seems we are to have a vote on same sex marriage either at or after the next federal election. Despite polls showing overwhelming public support, the government has made it clear there will be no consideration of a bill in the absence of a plebiscite.

With Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, a plebiscite is of less concern. Whereas I had reason to suspect Tony Abbott may have deliberately sabotaged the question about same sex marriage to make it unpalatable to the Australian public, that now seems unlikely.

I still have several worries, nonetheless. One is to avoid the debate likely to occur if people refuse to perform same sex marriages and are found in breach of the law. Civil celebrants and others should have the latitude to refuse to be involved in same-sex marriages if they don't want to be. Who would want an unwilling person officiating at their wedding anyway?

Another is the potential for suppliers, such as cake shops, to be found in breach of the law if they refuse to be involved in same-sex marriages. It would be best if the law applied a light touch here too.

I am concerned about the cost of the plebiscite. With net debt of $278 billion and an interest bill of $1 billion a month, we cannot afford to waste money. For that reason, I believe we should hold the plebiscite at the same time as the next federal election and avoid the $160 million cost of a stand-alone plebiscite. There would also be less of a spotlight on the issue, hopefully moderating the worst excesses of the homophobes.

And finally, Parliament should pass a same sex marriage bill before the plebiscite; it would include a provision requiring the Governor-General to only sign the bill into law if the plebiscite receives majority support. This would make irrelevant those conservatives -- Senator Abetz and others -- prepared to disregard democracy by ignoring the result.

Getting the government out of our private lives is a long-term aspiration. Ending the government's control over who we marry will be an important step in that process.


David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrats Senator for NSW. He is on Twitter @DavidLeyonhjelm and his website is