On This Gay Day: Marriage plebiscite is adopted as government policy

Tony Abbott puts forward the idea of a plebiscite for marriage equality

On August 11th 2015, division within the Coalition over the issue of marriage equality came to a head.

The Abbott government’s policy was that marriage would strictly only be between a man and a woman, but as country after country around the globe changed their laws, and opinion polls showed the mood for change in Australia was rapidly rising, many Liberal MPs were also beginning to call for change.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was staunchly opposed to changing the laws faced a dilemma, one that threatened his leadership. After a marathon six hour meeting the Prime Minister announced a new plan.

Coalition MPs would be tied to the party position for the remainder of the current term, but after the next federal election would be allowed to vote with their conscience, but rather than a vote on legislation in the parliament Abbott proposed a national plebiscite on the issue, sending voters to the ballot boxes to decide the issue.

“If you support the existing definition of marriage between a man and a woman, the coalition is absolutely on your side, but if you’d like to see change at someplace, at sometime in the future, the coalition is prepared to make that potentially possible, but the disposition is that it should happen through a people’s vote than simply through a parliament vote,” Abbott told reporters at the end of the marathon meeting.

The PM was criticised for delaying the issue, and many people observed that the proposed methodology was not common in Australian politics, and possibly chosen because it was unlikely to succeed.

Abbott only lasted as Prime Minister for another month, he was overthrown by rival Malcolm Turnbull. The plebiscite policy however remained. The drawn out process saw the government unable to pass the relevant legislation to allow for a plebiscite and eventually in 2017, a postal survey was held by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The result showed an overwhelming majority of Australia’s supported marriage equality and in November 2017, the laws were changed and same-sex couples were able to wed.

In 2019, the former Prime Minister attempted to take credit for ‘making marriage equality happen’, arguing that until he put forward the idea of a plebiscite the issue had been a political millstone for almost a decade. Given his long standing opposition to allowing same sex marriage, his attempt to take credit for the result was thoroughly mocked.

OIP Staff, This post was first published in 2020. 

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