NEW: Australia will try once again to hold a national vote on gay marriage
A small group of rebel politicians triggered the meeting
The Australian government will once again attempt to hold a national vote on same-sex marriage, after rebel lawmakers restarted debate on the issue.
For nine months same-sex marriage in Australia has remained in limbo, after a government proposal to hold a national vote, or plebiscite, on the topic was blocked in Parliament in October 2016.
Australia is one of only a few countries in the English-speaking world where same-sex marriage isn’t legal.
But on Monday, all sitting politicians in the governing Liberal National coalition were called to a closed-door meeting in Canberra, following calls by a group of rebel government politicians to dump the plebiscite as party policy.
Instead, the rebels wanted a simple parliamentary vote. That remains the policy of the opposition Labor party, which says it would resolve the issue quickly.
Rebel Liberal MP Dean Smith drafted a bill which would make same-sex marriage legal in Australia, but allow celebrants to refuse to marry whoever they wished.
The government would not introduce this bill under their current policy, but Smith can introduce it on his own as a private member’s bill. If the bill was to then reach the floor of Parliament, the five Liberal politicians have warned they could join the opposition to vote in favor of it.
But speaking to reporters after the meeting, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the plebiscite would remain policy and legislation could be reintroduced into the senate as early as this week.
On Tuesday, Cormann confirmed the plebiscite would be held on November 25. If the legislation to hold a vote doesn’t pass parliament, a voluntary postal vote will instead be held from September 12.
Despite broad support for same-sex marriage among Australians, successive governments have failed to pass legislation due to opposition from conservative politicians.
A consistent majority of Australians have told pollsters they support same-sex marriage. In July, 61% of respondents told national pollsters Essential they supported marriage between couples of the same gender.
The ruling Liberal Party has said since 2015 it wants to let the Australian people choose in a national vote, while the opposition Labor Party wants it be directly legislated by Parliament, saying a plebiscite is unnecessary, too costly and traumatic for the LGBT community.
Despite the Australian government’s plans to attempt to pass the plebiscite legislation, there’s no indication it has any more support than when it failed in October 2016.
“Labor, Green (and) some of the independent senators, as well, have given no signs they’ve changed their mind on it,” John Warhurst, emeritus professor at Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations, told CNN.
“I think as time goes on that support in the general community for the plebiscite has ebbed away and the recent polls indicate (people think) this is a conservative stalling tactic that the community as a whole is getting sick of.”
Australia left behind
The United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, France and the United States are among the nations who have already legislated in favor of same-sex marriage.
In August 2015, at a party room meeting of the Liberal National Coalition, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott changed his party’s policy to call for a plebiscite after the 2016 national election.
“The Coalition supports the traditional definition of marriage between a man and a woman, but we won’t seek to bind people beyond this term of Parliament and in the next term… it will be the people’s decision,” Abbott said at the time.
Commentators and same-sex marriage advocates at the time saw it as a move by conservative Abbott to postpone the issue as long as possible.
Just over one year later, in October 2016, the legislation for the plebiscite was blocked in Parliament by the opposition Labor party.
Labor has pledged to pass same-sex marriage in Parliament immediately if it wins the next election.
Rebellion in the Liberal party
Turnbull’s government has a majority of just one vote in Australia’s lower house of Parliament. A loss of even a few votes could allow same-sex marriage to pass were it to be put to parliamentary vote.
Liberal senator Smith told Australia’s ABC on Sunday he was moved to support same-sex marriage after he heard the story of Tory Johnson, the gay manager of Sydney’s Lindt Cafe who was killed in a terrorist attack in 2014.
“I don’t know Tory’s circumstance, but I came to the conclusion had Tory and his partner been wanting to get married, or been waiting to get married … and then his life was taken in such a tragic way, that moved me and it reinforced my resolve,” Smith said.
Paul Kildea, director of the Referendums Project at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, told CNN only changes to the Australian Constitution required a mandatory national vote.
“At the moment, marriage is regulated under the Marriage Act of 1961 … it would be a simple change by the Parliament. So all that’s needed is legislation,” Kildea said.