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Plebiscite looks set to fail, but the push for same-sex marriage will not

Dennis Altman writes in The Conversation (13.9.16) about the uncertainty surrounding the federal government’s proposed national plebiscite on same-sex marriage, after Labor and the Greens both backed a vote in Parliament on the issue instead.

‘Recently I spoke on a panel at a city law firm on same-sex marriage. At the conclusion of the discussion the audience, predominantly young gay professionals, voted by more than two to one that they would prefer to wait rather than hold a plebiscite to achieve changes to the Marriage Act.

‘It appears increasingly likely that this view is shared by Labor, and the plebiscite will founder due to opposition in the Senate and confusion in the government ranks. There are two major reasons to oppose the plebiscite: it distorts the nature of parliamentary democracy, and it will lead to a bitter and hurtful campaign.

‘Unlike referenda, plebiscites are official public opinion polls, without any binding impact on legislation. They are rare in Australian history; two on conscription during the First World War heightened sectarian bitterness that persisted for several decades. In 1977 a non-compulsory plebiscite asked voters to choose an appropriate Australian national anthem.

‘Let’s be clear: a plebiscite can only stall a parliamentary vote to amend the Marriage Act allowing same-sex couples to wed. The marriage plebiscite will distract attention from the referendum we do need to have, namely a constitutional amendment to recognise the unique position of Indigenous Australians.’

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