As an openly gay woman in the public eye, Labor senator Penny Wong is all too familiar with the discrimination that same sex couples face on a daily basis. Hateful messages, verbal abuse, even assault. While she remains resilient, she’s fearful that a plebiscite on same-sex marriage will only make things worse.
Delivering the Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture at ANU last night, the frontbencher argued that the non-binding, non-compulsory public vote proposed by the Coalition would “license hate speech to those who need little encouragement”.
“I don’t oppose a plebiscite because I doubt the good sense of the Australian people. I oppose a plebiscite because I do not want my relationship, my family, to be the subject of inquiry, of censure, of condemnation, by others. And I don’t want other relationships, other families, to be targeted either,” Senator Wong said.
The mother of two took aim at Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis, who she claims have bowed to internal pressure exerted by opponents of the cause.
“In supporting the plebiscite Mr Turnbull repudiated the position he had previously put to the party room and in the public domain. He now tells us that a plebiscite campaign will be conducted respectfully. These are the hollowest of hollow words,” she said.
“Not one straight politician advocating a plebiscite on marriage equality knows what that is like. What it is like to live with the casual and deliberate prejudice that some still harbour.”
They have failed, she argued, to take leadership on the issue, to acknowledge their role as elected officials and put the issue to a free vote in parliament.
“The Racial Discrimination Act and the Sex Discrimination Act were enacted without a plebiscite. State and Federal Parliaments have legislated on abortion, voluntary euthanasia and stem cell research without holding plebiscites,” she said.
“I want the Australian Parliament to fulfil the function laid down in the Constitution – to legislate on the matter of marriage – to remove discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians in the Marriage Act. That is Labor’s position.”
The government has budgeted $160 million to stage the nation-wide vote, and Prime Minister Turnbull has indicated that it will be staged before the end of the year.
“It will be held as soon as practicable and I’ll vote yes and encourage others to vote yes and I’m very confident it will be carried,” he told the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday.
Unlike a referendum, the vote is neither compulsory nor binding, meaning you don’t have to vote and the parliament doesn’t have to enforce the result. Instead it serves more as a poll that allows parliament to test the public’s response to a particular issue.
In contrast, Labor has pledged to introduce a marriage equality bill to the parliament within 100 days of being elected.