August 11, 2017

Australia's Gay Marriage Vote is Divisive and Some Ask if Civil Rights Should be Put to a Vote?



This Page is from the New York Times, posted as it appeared today:



A march in support of same-sex marriage in Sydney on Sunday. Polls show that the majority of Australians support legalization. CreditPeter Parks/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

SYDNEY, Australia — Polls show broad public support for same-sex marriage. Politicians say they’re determined to let the people have their say. So why are so many Australians who want the law changed unhappy with plans for a national vote on it?

The government this week called for an extraordinary mail-in vote on whether gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry, and now Australians will have 14 days to register for ballots. The voluntary postal vote, which is being challenged in the High Court, went forward after the Senate rejected opening the polls for a mandatory, in-person one, as is normally required for Australian elections.

Many supporters of same-sex marriage deride the postal vote as a costly, “irregular and unscientific” gauge of public opinion. It would not itself change the law, and it would not be binding on lawmakers. Parliament would still need to approve legalization, and there is nothing legally preventing lawmakers from doing so whenever they wish.

Advocates for same-sex marriage accuse Parliament, which is dominated by the right-leaning Liberal Party, of ducking its responsibility, exposing gays and lesbians to a potentially bruising political campaign for no good reason, and all at a cost of 122 million Australian dollars ($96 million).

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, under pressure from his Liberals’ right wing, insists that he is only following a pledge not to decide the issue without public comment. “We will not facilitate the introduction of a private members bill on this matter unless the Australian people have given their support through a ‘yes’ vote,” Mr. Turnbull said in Canberra on Thursday, referring to a proposal in Parliament that would legalize same-sex marriage. “We’re committed to every Australian having their say.” Ballots will be distributed to Australians who meet the registration deadline, Aug. 24.

Same-sex marriage is a highly politicized issue in the country, and experts said the postal vote was a highly unusual, perhaps unique, path for Australia to pursue. Prof. Paula Gerber, deputy director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University in Melbourne, said she did not know of another country that had sought such an advisory vote.

Ireland, for example, became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015, but that referendum was conducted in person and legally binding. The vote in Australia will be neither. Professor Gerber said she believed it showed how “out of step” the government was with the wishes of the Australian people, “because the public overwhelmingly in opinion polls support marriage equality.”

“Really, this plebiscite is no more than a glorified opinion poll — a 122-million-dollar opinion poll,” Professor Gerber said. 

The decision to let the Australian Bureau of Statistics handle the postal vote instead of the Australian Electoral Commission has also mystified some politicians, who say the bureau has never been asked to do anything like it.

When delegates gathered in Canberra in 1998 to debate whether Australia should refashion itself as a republic, some of those delegates were selected by mail. But a nationwide postal vote on an issue like this has no precedent, experts said, and that unfamiliarity is one reason supporters are wary.

It became clear on Thursday that proponents of change were starting to divide into two groups — one challenging the process, possibly boycotting it, and the other accepting the process and pushing for a “yes” vote.

“I think the less said about this irregular and unscientific polling, the better,” Michael Kirby, a former High Court judge, told Radio National, an arm of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “I’m not going to take any part in it whatsoever. I think they should abandon it.”

Professor Gerber, at Monash, said the leader of the election campaign for same-sex marriage in Ireland came to Australia a few months ago and strongly discouraged holding a vote in Australia.

“He did talk about the damage that it did and the harm that was caused to the L.G.B.T.I. community through having such a public, vitriolic debate about whether they’re equal and worthy of being allowed to marry,” she said.

New York Times

By 
nytaustralia@nytimes.com

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