Australian Finance Minister and government leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, has rejected a plan by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to hold a referendum or plebiscite on same-sex marriage if Opposition leader Tony Abbott refuses to give his MPs a free vote on the issue.
Wong, who is in a same-sex relationship, warned that while a clear majority of Australians supported reform on the issue, the same had been the case for support for Australia becoming a republic in 1999 when a referendum had failed on that issue.
In order for referendums to pass in Australia they must both be supported by a majority of the Australian people and a majority of the people in a majority of Australia’s states.
A plebiscite would confirm voters’ intention on the issue but would cost millions of dollars and would not legally bind lawmakers to act on the issue.
‘A referendum would not be without risk,’ Wong told The Australian newspaper.
‘Remember the referendum on the republic. Although the majority of Australians supported it, John Howard and Tony Abbott ran a very good fear campaign, and the referendum was lost in every state.’
Wong called on Opposition Liberal politicians to ‘reflect on their liberal principles.’
‘Marriage equality will only be achieved when all parliamentarians are able to vote on their conscience,’ Wong said.
Wong was joined in that sentiment by Senate colleague and Rainbow Labor co-convener Louise Pratt.
‘Parliament is the place for this,’ Pratt told The Australian.
‘It's fantastic that the Prime Minister is behind marriage equality [but] It's preferable to have this dealt with by the Parliament. Tony Abbott must give his MPs a conscience vote.’
Earlier in the week Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister declared that Labor would make same-sex marriage happen in Australia – although he did not say in what time frame.
Rudd’s decision to change his mind on the issue has infuriated the right wing Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) who attacked his commitment to his Christian faith.
‘There would be many people in the Christian constituency who would have seen Kevin Rudd for many years holding press conferences outside church, defending marriage, then suddenly change his mind because of the whims of pop culture’ ACL managing director Lyle Shelton told News Ltd. papers.
‘To see someone who claims Christianity to be changing his principles so freely and easily ... I think people see through that very easily.
‘For someone like Kevin Rudd who has courted the Christian constituency to then really betray that constituency on an issue that's very dear to a large proportion of that constituency, I think is a political mistake.’
Polls have shown that a majority of Australian Christians support the idea that same-sex couples should be able to have civil marriages.