INDEPENDENT MP Tony Windsor has drawn criticism from both sides of parliament today after calling for a national referendum in order to decide the gay marriage debate in Australia, with the suggestion being labelled as dangerous and potentially divisive.
The New England MP said that it had become clear that the political establishment were “out of step” on the issue of gay marriage, claiming that it had become necessary to depoliticise the debate and allow the Australian public to decide for themselves. Mr Windsor’s call for a referendum come on the heels of both New Zealand and France voting to legalise same sex marriage in the past week, putting pressure on Australian legislators to take a position on the issue of marriage equality.
Mr Windsor said: “Polls on gay marriage say it’s what the population wants. A way to resolve it is through a referendum. It’s a bit like the gun debate in America – the politicians appear to be out of step with the people.”
Mr Windsor, who voted against the last gay marriage bill that went before parliament, said that he had softened his position on marriage equality after attending the civil ceremony of a same-sex couple last year. He said that he would not lead the campaign for the legalisation of gay marriage, clarifying that he was only calling for a vote to address the issue rather than supporting any particular position.
Finance Minister Penny Wong, the government’s most prominent same-sex representative, said that a national referendum on gay marriage would be a “very high bar to jump”. She pointed out the difficulties associated with passing referendums under the Australian system, which requires a majority of voters nationwide and a majority of state’s voting in the affirmative in order to pass.
Ms Wong said: “My view is the parliament has a responsibility and will one day discharge that responsibility. (In the 1999 republican referendum) John Howard and Tony Abbott ran a very good fear campaign and we lost that referendum.”
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott did not dismiss the idea of a national vote on the issue of gay marriage, however argued that it should not be held in conjunction with the upcoming election in an effort to make the September poll as “uncomplicated” as possible.
Mr Abbott said: “I think the coming election should be uncomplicated by other matters…I think the election should be a referendum on the carbon tax … the current government, do you really want three more years of this? If there’s ever to be a plebiscite on this subject it should be held quite separate from this election.”
Mr Windsor’s proposal did not even attract support from same-sex advocacy groups, with Australian Marriage Equality national convener Rodney Croome claiming that a referendum would only serve to enflame the opponents of gay marriage even further.
Mr Croome said: “We fear cashed-up opponents of marriage equality would exploit a referendum to polarise the electorate and demonise gay and lesbian people in a way that will impact badly, particularly on young gay people.”
Australian Greens leader Christine Milne was the only major political figure to come out in support of a referendum on gay marriage, saying that the issue had become a “distraction” that was preventing the parliament from focusing on other important issues.
Ms Milne said: “The only impediment is that the coalition won’t provide a conscience vote. Tony Abbott should give a conscience vote to his members in both houses of parliament and we can legislate this before the election.”
Christian Democratic Party leader Reverend Fred Nile said that he agreed with Mr Windsor’s suggestion of a referendum, claiming that his party had intended on calling for the exact same thing in a media release planned for next week.
Mr Nile said: “I think people should decide the issue. But the question has to be clear. A question like ‘are you in favour of marriage equality?’ will confuse some people. I’m in favour of marriage equality — between a husband and a wife. The question has to be black and white: Do you agree that homosexuals should be legally married? I think the majority of people would vote no if the question was clear.”