The postal vote on marriage equality threatens to split the ruling coalition, as the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, right, faces fierce criticism fromTony Abbot, who is opposed © FT montage; Getty Images

Officially it is an attempt to test the public’s attitude to same-sex marriage. But Australia’s postal plebiscite on the subject has turned into something else: a proxy civil war for control of the ruling Liberal party that threatens to bring down the country’s fragile coalition government.

Over the next two weeks Australian households will receive a postal ballot enabling the 16m eligible voters to have their say. If a majority comes out in favour — as opinion polls predict — the government says it will table legislation in parliament to legalise same-sex marriage before Christmas. But given that it is a voluntary, non-binding poll, if it fails then it is still likely to plunge the coalition into renewed infighting on whether to hold a vote on the issue in parliament.

Whatever the result, it risks ripping apart the Liberal-National coalition government, in power since September 2013 and led by Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister. The coalition holds a single-seat majority in parliament and is already consumed with internal wrangling between its conservative and liberal wings over climate change, energy policy and amending race discrimination laws. For some opponents the postal survey has become as much about halting progressive politics as torpedoing marriage equality.

“The Liberal party is hugely divided on the issue and is caught in the grip of a wider identity crisis, which is being fought out between modernists and traditionalists,” says Ian McAllister, politics professor at Australian National University. “These culture wars are a big distraction for the government.”

Trigger points: 1. Climate change

Steam billows from the cooling stacks of the Loy Yang coal-fired power plant, operated by AGL Energy Ltd., in Traralgon, Australia, on Thursday, March 30, 2017. The closure of the nearby Hazelwood plant, one of Australia’s biggest power plants which was operated by Engie SA and Mitsui & Co., may spark a new bout of electricity price volatility, potentially worsening the country’s power crisis. Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Australia abolished a carbon pricing system in 2014 while retaining a renewable energy target, which incentivises the development of green power to meet emissions reduction targets. Power companies say this has created investment uncertainty, which makes it difficult to plan for the phase out of ageing coal-fired power plants that generated 63 per cent of electricity in 2016.

A rebellion by rightwing MPs was only narrowly averted earlier this year when Mr Turnbull reluctantly agreed to hold the A$122m ($97m) postal vote on gay marriage rather than give in to demands by MPs in favour of same-sex marriage to allow a vote in parliament.

The divisions are playing out in public. “If you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote No. If you’re worried about [limits on] religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote No, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote No because voting No will help to stop political correctness in its tracks,” Tony Abbott, a Liberal MP, said as he placed himself at the head of the No campaign last month.

Mr Abbott, ousted as prime minister by Mr Turnbull in 2015, is one of a substantial minority of MPs in the centre-right Liberal party who are vehemently opposed to the reform. Party insiders fear the platform afforded to him by the postal plebiscite will enable the veteran campaigner — a former trainee priest, nicknamed the “mad monk” by some critics — to weaken the prime minister’s tenuous grip on power.

“There are some in the coalition who believe they are leading an insurgency against overly progressive Liberal party elites,” says Duncan McDonnell, a politics lecturer at Griffith University. “It bears some similarities with Tea party Republicans in the US — they may not be in line with wider community feeling but they are appealing to more conservative, grassroots members and voters.”

Supporters hold placards as they attend a same-sex marriage rally in Sydney on September 10, 2017. Thousands of same-sex marriage supporters on September 10 marched through the streets of Sydney as Australia's ruling and opposition parties vowed to work together to introduce laws against hate speech ahead of a contentious postal vote on gay marriage. / AFP PHOTO / SAEED KHANSAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of same-sex marriage rally in Sydney last Sunday © AFP

Rodney Croome can recall a time when being gay in Australia could result in a beating from homophobic thugs or even the police. In the 1980s and 1990s the veteran gay rights campaigner was part of the successful effort to decriminalise homosexuality in a country that appeared outwardly progressive but was still in thrall to a macho culture.

In 1997, Tasmania, the state where Mr Croome lives, lifted its ban on homosexuality ending a tortuous state-by-state reform process that began in South Australia in 1975, and which was punctuated by outbursts of discrimination and violence. “I received a lot of death threats and hate letters,” remembers the 53-year-old, who is at the forefront of the same-sex marriage campaign.

Australia chart1

Australia still lags behind its peers on gay rights. It stands with Singapore and Northern Ireland as one of only a handful of English-speaking developed countries yet to legalise same-sex marriage following changes to the law in the US and the Republic of Ireland in 2015. The postal survey — a mechanism opposed by campaigners who wanted the decision taken in parliament — is shaping up as a grand clash, with many cultural conservatives believing that the reformist wing threatens traditional family values and religious freedoms, and could open the door to measures such as radical sex education programmes in schools and curbs on religious orders’ teachings.

It is a debate that cuts across family lines with Christine Forster, a Liberal party councillor and sister of Mr Abbott, accusing him and other federal politicians of playing “Machiavellian games with an issue that matters little to most of them personally”.

Trigger points: 2. Energy

A stacker-reclaimer operates at the Newcastle Coal Terminal in Newcastle, north of Sydney, Australia, on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015. The slowdown across global economies is exacerbating a coal glut that's driven prices for the fuel to the lowest level in eight years, according to Glencore Plc. Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg
© Bloomberg

Blackouts in South Australia last year and fast rising energy prices have highlighted the fragility of Australia’s electricity system. The coalition is introducing restrictions on gas exporters and considering a new clean energy target to incentivise investment in new generation capacity. But it faces a backlash from conservative backbenchers, who support prolonging the use of coal.

On Sunday a crowd of 30,000 in Sydney attended what campaigners claim was the largest gay rights march in Australia’s history. “Get with the 21st century, Dinosaurs,” screamed one of the placards, while another featured a skeleton emblazoned with the words, “Waiting for Equality”.

Many participants complained bitterly about the fact they are being forced to take part in a postal plebiscite. Under the constitution the responsibility for legalising same-sex marriage rests with parliament and unlike the Republic of Ireland, which held a referendum in 2015, there is no constitutional requirement to test public opinion.

“Human rights are not supposed to be a matter of a vote,” says Angela van Den Belt, who is in a same-sex relationship and marched with her partner and seven-year-old son. “The concept of everyone ‘having a say’ is plainly and simply offensive. It is dangerous for the majority to decide minority issues.”

Australia chart 2

Gay rights campaigners last week lost a High Court action aimed at blocking the survey, which some label a political stunt designed to save a divided government, noting that even a positive result would not oblige MPs to legalise gay marriage. Others say they fear offensive claims made by opponents could cause psychological damage to young gay people and the children of homosexual couples. These concerns are shared by health professionals, leading the Australian parliament to rush through legislation to outlaw same-sex marriage hate speech ahead of the survey.

“Mistruths being expressed around marriage equality are making some people feel anxious and depressed,” says Lucy Brogden, co-chair of the Australian Mental Health Commission. “This is despite international studies that show marriage equality has positive effects, improving the health, mental and physiological, for LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex] people.”

Protesters hold up banners at an anti-same-sex marriage rally in Sydney on September 9, 2017. As the Australian vote on legalising same-sex marriage kicks off September 12, 2017 Australia's ruling and opposition parties vowed to work together to introduce laws against hate speech ahead of a contentious postal vote on gay marriage. / AFP PHOTO / PETER PARKSPETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters at an anti-same-sex marriage rally in Sydney on September 9 © AFP

The No campaign is spearheaded by the Coalition for Marriage — a body led by religious groups including the Australian Christian Lobby, Marriage Alliance, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. Its first TV advert — featuring three mothers saying the reform could lead to schools running role-playing exercises in same-sex relationships or boys wearing dresses to school — was criticised as “offensive and hurtful” by reformers in what has become a poisonous debate. “In countries with gay marriage, parents have lost their rights to choose [what is right for their children],” says the 30-second advert. “We have a choice, you can say no.”

Nevertheless, opponents of same-sex marriage have their work cut out. Since 2007 opinion polls have consistently shown a majority of the public in favour. An array of business and sporting organisations are campaigning for a Yes vote. Alan Joyce, Qantas chief executive, has donated A$1m to the campaign. And even if the coalition is divided, both the opposition Labor and Green parties, which hold 70 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, are in favour.

To overseas observers, it might seem odd that Australia is even having this debate. It hosts one of the world’s largest gay and lesbian Mardi Gras events, Sydney has been ranked as one of the top 10 cities in the world to live as a gay person and homosexual couples in civil unions have enjoyed similar legal rights as married couples since 2009. Rapid immigration — the population has doubled since 1970, with a quarter of residents born overseas — has helped change attitudes. The 2016 census showed that almost 30 per cent identified themselves as having “no religion”, eclipsing any single religious denomination.

But, like the US, Australia is a country with a distinct urban and rural divide, with conservative attitudes prevailing in more sparsely populated areas. An analysis of polling data by Australian broadcaster ABC shows the five electorates least supportive of same-sex marriage are all based in rural Queensland, a conservative-leaning state.

At the same time political discourse is becoming more partisan and volatile, a combination that makes passing key reforms a challenge. Analysts say the emergence of populist groups such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party is causing the Liberal-National coalition to pivot further to the right, leaving moderates exposed.

Trigger points: 3. Free speech

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 20:  Anti-racism protesters gather to counter protest against a Donald Trump victory rally outside State Parliament on November 20, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. The election of Donald Trump in America has sparked protests and rallies across the world.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
© Getty

Malcolm Turnbull is under pressure to reform race discrimination laws, which outlaw offending, insulting or humiliating people on the basis of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin. Conservatives in the Liberal party say the law undermines free speech, citing the conviction of rightwing commentator Andrew Bolt in 2011. A previous attempt to change the law was stymied in parliament and moderate Liberals believe it is unnecessary and unpopular with voters.

To placate conservatives in his party, Mr Turnbull has distanced himself from policies that he previously advocated and which remain popular. He has ditched his support for an emissions trading scheme to tackle climate change and become an advocate for prolonging coal-fired power, this week urging Australia’s biggest energy supplier not to close a polluting power station in 2022.

Despite his personal support for same-sex marriage Mr Turnbull has avoided taking a lead role in the Yes campaign. “This issue is toxic for the coalition and Turnbull’s best policy is probably keeping a low profile, even if this risks damaging his credibility among the wider voting public,” says Mr McAllister, from the ANU.

The coalition has languished in opinion polls for more than a year, with the Labor party currently leading by 53 to 47 per cent. The next federal election is likely in early 2019, although the government’s razor-thin majority means that any defections by MPs over sensitive issues could trigger a snap poll.


TOPSHOT - This picture taken on September 10, 2017 shows demonstrators taking part in a same-sex marriage rally in Sydney. As Australia prepares for a contentious vote on legalising gay marriage set to kick off on September 12, fierce divisions have emerged within the church, with many Christians disregarding traditional religious views as outdated. / AFP PHOTO / Saeed KHAN / TO GO WITH Australia-politics-marriage-rights-gay-religion, FOCUS by Daniel DE CARTERETSAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

1975 South Australia decriminalises homosexuality, eight years after the UK

1978 Sydney hosts its first gay and lesbian Mardi Gras festival, calling for an end to discrimination. It is broken up by police and 53 people are arrested. Homosexuality remained illegal in New South Wales until 1984

1994 Police raid a gay nightclub, in Melbourne called Tasty, subjecting 463 people to strip-searches. Two decades later Victoria state police pay out A$10m in damages and issue an apology to the gay community

1997 Tasmania becomes the last Australian state to decriminalise homosexuality

Australian Prime Minister John Howard gestures as he talks to residents in Sydney's western suburb of Blacktown...Australian Prime Minister John Howard gestures while talking to residents of Sydney's western suburb of Blacktown October 8, 2004 on the last day of election campaigning. Australia's 13 million voters go to the polls on Saturday, with Howard, who is hoping for his fourth consecutive term, throwing the spotlight onto national security, announcing an unusual plan to create an Asia-Pacific spy school and promising additional counter-terrorism exercises to prepare the country for attacks. REUTERS/David Gray

1997 Tasmania becomes the last Australian state to decriminalise homosexuality

2001 Netherlands becomes the first country to legalise same-sex marriage

2004 John Howard, the then prime minister, (pictured) amends the Marriage Act to ensure same-sex marriage remains outlawed

2007 A poll shows majority in favour of same-sex marriage

2009 People in same-sex relationships are granted similar rights to those of married couples under Australia’s federal law

DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 23: Thousands of people celebrate in Dublin Castle Square as the result of the referendum is relayed on May 23, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. Voters in the Republic of Ireland were taking part in a referendum on legalising same-sex marriage on Friday. The referendum was held 22 years after Ireland decriminalised homosexuality with more than 3.2m people being asked whether they want to amend the country's constitution to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. Ireland voted overwhelmingly to legalise same-sex marriage in a historic referendum. More than 62% voted in favour of amending the country's constitution to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. It is the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage through a popular vote. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

2015 The Republic of Ireland votes in favour of same-sex marriage in a referendum (pictured)

2016 New South Wales police review 88 deaths between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, to determine whether some of them should be classified as anti-gay hate crimes

September 12 2017 Australia launches its postal survey to measure support for same-sex marriage in the country

November 15 2017 Result of postal ballot on same-sex marriage to be announced

Energy policy looms as the biggest near-term risk for the government. Mr Turnbull was ousted as Liberal party leader in 2009 over his support for emissions trading schemes. Eight years later he faces another showdown with climate sceptics who oppose a clean energy target — a mechanism to incentivise the building of low emissions generating capacity. Australia’s chief scientists say it is the best way to solve a looming energy shortage but rightwing rebels are threatening to vote it down, and Mr Turnbull signalled this week that he may backtrack on the plan.

Cory Bernardi, a critic of Mr Turnbull, quit the Liberal party in February to set up the Australian Conservatives, which he claims has signed up more than 10,000 members. The senator, who was forced to resign from the coalition front bench in 2012 for linking same-sex marriage with bestiality, is using the plebiscite as a platform to appeal to disaffected Liberals. He warns the reform could open the floodgates to other progressive changes. He also criticises the government’s failure to detail the “safeguards” it proposes to introduce in the event of a Yes vote, describing it as asking people to sign a “blank cheque”.

Mr Croome hopes this will be his last gay rights campaign, but is taking nothing for granted. Polling released by Yes campaigners shows support has slipped to 58 per cent, down from about 64 per cent last year. Support for a No vote rose 2 percentage points to 31 per cent, while just 65 per cent of people said they were “very likely” to vote.

“Our opponents hope they scare enough people with their fear campaign,” says Mr Croome. “We must fight them with love.”

This article was amended to remove South Africa from the list of countries yet to introduce same-sex marriage. It has been allowed in the country since 2006.

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