The Australia Labor Party planned to block Tuesday a same-sex marriage referendum proposed by Prime Minister Malcom Turnball, claiming that the funding of the campaign on both sides would ultimately be too expensive and foster negative homophobic rhetoric. The stance could further delay the fight for marriage equality in Australia.
While Parliament was still poised Tuesday to vote on whether to hold the non-binding ballot, the decision from the left-wing Labor party, which has a thin majority in the lower house, makes it unlikely that the issue will be resolved soon. Australia’s Marriage Act defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. If parliament approves the referendum, Australians will be asked next February: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”
There were around 33,700 same–sex couples in Australia, making up one percent of all couples in the country, according to the 2011 Census. Same-sex marriage has been illegal in Australia since 2004, when former conservative Prime Minister John Howard amended Australia’s Marriage Act to permit only heterosexual couples to marry.
There is a majority of support for same-sex marriage in the federal parliament, House of Representatives and across all political parties including the conservative, national, and liberal coalition. Opinion polls show between 60 percent and 72 percent of Australians support legalizing gay marriage, according to a BBC news article.
Same-sex marriage supporters that also oppose the referendum say they fear that a “no” vote could hinder the chance for legal changes for even more years to come. They say human rights decisions should not be made by the public, but in accordance to the civil traditional upheld through the elected officials.
Opposition Labor leader Bill Shorten said on Tuesday that his party would oppose the vote due to it being “divisive” and “expensive.” The vote is expected to cost $120 million, which includes equal funding for both sides of campaign, according to a CNN report.
Shorten’s party, the left-wing opposition, also said that a public vote would produce a divisive public debate that could traumatize and harm young gay and lesbian Australians. Shorten said gay Australians should not be subjugated to a different law-making process than other citizens, and cited that if the vote passed through parliament it would ensure that same-sex marriage be legislated. A referendum vote, however, would not be binding in parliament.
“Why should a couple in a committed relationship have to knock on the doors of 15 million of their fellow Australians and see if they agree with it?” Shorten told a news conference in Canberra. “The easiest way is the way which this parliament has done for a hundred years—legislate.”
On Twitter, he added: "Labor wants to achieve marriage equality in the fastest, cheapest, least harmful way possible. That's why we want a free vote in Parliament."
Across the world, 22 countries currently allow same-sex couples to legally wed, including the United States.