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Rebel lawmakers reignite same-sex marriage debate in Australia

Posted August 7

Rebel lawmakers have restarted a debate on same-sex marriage in Australia, one of only a few countries in the English-speaking world where it isn't legal.

For nine months the issue had remained in limbo, after a government proposal to hold a national vote, or plebiscite, on the topic was blocked in the parliament in October 2016.

But on Monday, all sitting politicians in Australia's governing Liberal National coalition, were called to a closed-door meeting in Canberra, where they voted to once again attempt to hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, finance minister Mathias Cormann said legislation could be reintroduced into the senate as early as this week.

The meeting was triggered when five politicians in the governing coalition went public with their calls for the party to ditch the plebiscite in place of a simple parliamentary vote, local media said.

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.

Despite broad support for same-sex marriage among Australians, successive governments have failed to pass legislation due to opposition from conservative politicians.

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.

Among the options being considered by Monday's meeting of Liberal politicians are a free parliamentary vote, another attempt at a national plebiscite or even a voluntary postal vote, according to The Conversation's political analyst Michelle Grattan.

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.

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 Australia's 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.

Tiernan Brady, executive director of the Equality Campaign, welcomed the possibility of a parliamentary vote in a statement.

"It is easy in the middle of all the politics to forget what or rather who this is about," he said.

"Marriage equality is about real people, our friends and family, teammates and work colleagues who just want the same dignity as everyone else in their families."

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