Explainer: Same sex marriage in Australia is dead in the water. But it doesn't have to be.

Fact: There is one thing standing in the way of same sex marriage in Australia, and one thing only.

Malcolm Turnbull.

Australia could have legal same sex marriage this week if Malcolm Turnbull was willing, and here’s why.

Right now, there are a majority of pro-same sex marriage politicians in the Australian parliament, and there are two marriage equality bills currently being considered by the Parliament, one authored by the ALP and the other by the Greens.

But the pro-same sex marriage politicians from the Coalition are not allowed to vote in favour of marriage equality because the Liberal and National Party will not give their MPs and Senators a free vote in the parliament. Therefore, both of those bills will fail to pass.

Instead, Malcolm Turnbull is proposing a plebiscite; that is, the Government will ask the Australian public to vote on the question of legalising same sex marriage.

In order to have a plebiscite, the parliament will need to pass legislation through the House of Representatives and the Senate to get one. Currently, there’s no guarantee that legislation will pass, as the Greens and a number of Senate crossbenchers have indicated they will block it.

Bill Shorten labelled the plebiscite a glorified opinion poll in a press conference earlier today.

“Our concern is … the emotional torment of a teenager grappling with their sexual identity, is that really worth having this government opinion poll for? Is it really worth some of the evidence that we’ve seen of the experiences of hate and homophobia which this debate, this government opinion poll would licence?” he said.

But the Labor Party has yet to confirm whether or not they will block the plebiscite legislation.

The Attorney-General, Liberal Senator George Brandis, today said, “I call on Bill Shorten to get out of the way, to allow the plebiscite bill passage through the Senate, to allow the Australian people to have their say and, importantly, in the event that there is a yes vote in the plebiscite, to allow there to be marriage equality in Australia by early next year.”

Yet there are a number of problems with a plebiscite.

Mia Freedman, Monique Bowley and Kate De Brito discuss marriage equality on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below.

Firstly, we know that a majority of Australians support marriage equality. Poll after poll after poll has shown this to be the case. In fact, polling conducted by Essential Media two weeks ago shows that 57 per cent of the country is in favour of legalising same sex marriage.

Secondly, it will cost Australian taxpayers something in the order of $175 million to run.


Thirdly, as part of the plebiscite, the Government proposes to give both the Yes and the No campaigns $7.5 million each to fund their efforts.

Finally, it’s not binding. It’s reasonable enough to expect that the result would be a win for the Yes campaign. But there would still need to be a vote of the parliament to amend the Marriage Act and legalise same sex marriage.

Which leads us back to where we began.

Given there needs to be a vote of the Parliament anyway, wouldn’t it just be easier for Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal and National parties to grant their MPs and Senators a free vote on one of the marriage equality bills currently before the parliament?

Tiernan Brady, Executive Director of Australian Marriage Equality, the same-sex marriage lobby group says that all we need in Australia is the political will to work together.

He told Mamamia, “There is no legal requirement [in Australia] to have a plebiscite. This is a political decision. We’ve always said this is a political decision which needs to be taken like any other political decision. This can be a vote of parliament and that’s our first preference.”

Running through the numbers, Brady noted, “There is a majority in Parliament for marriage equality and the leaders of every political party are for marriage equality. The world of politics now has to deliver on the wishes of the Australian people.

“That is possible, but at the moment what we could be looking at is three bills from three different parties and none of them will pass. They need to work together to deliver this,” Brady continues.

“The one thing that is absolutely clear is that no one party can create a pathway to marriage equality by themselves. What is absent from the current political scenario is political cooperation.

“The terrible thing would be if we were to end up with nothing because people weren’t prepared to work together.”

He also told Mamamia the proposal to give public funding to the yes side and the no side makes no sense. Brady was previously political director of the successful yes campaign to legalise marriage equality in Ireland. He suggested that if the yes side had asked for public funding for their campaign they would have been “laughed out of town”.

“The only reason that’s being done, and this is a really important point, the Australia public would prefer that public money wasn’t spent that way. The yes campaign don’t want any public funding. But in a deal with the conservatives we may end up giving funding to the no side even through no one else wants it,” he explains.

“The only reason that can be is because they don’t believe they can fund enough Australians who will fund a campaign against lesbian and gay people.”