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What The Fuck Is A Plebiscite And Other Marriage Equality Questions, Answered

What the fuck is a plebiscite?

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In the final week of this long, long campaign, the government's plans for a marriage equality plebiscite have come under fire as right-wing MPs refuse to clarify exactly how they'll abide by the vote. Confused? Same. So, here's your quick #AusVotes guide to marriage equality.

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Around the world, 22 countries have legalised same-sex marriage.

This includes many nations that are culturally similar to Australia, including New Zealand, England, Canada, and the United States.

The same-sex marriage debate has been happening in the Australian parliament since 2004, when the Coalition and Labor jointly passed legislation to ensure the definition of marriage is between a man and a woman only.

Several bills to change that definition have since been put to the Australian parliament and failed, while polling has found a majority of Australians support same-sex marriage. So what are the options being put forward this election?

The Coalition

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The Coalition's policy is to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, most probably towards the end of the year. As a party, the Coalition supports the current definition of marriage.

If you don't know what a plebiscite is, that's fine – there's only been three in Australia's history. During World War I, two plebiscites were held on military service, and in 1977, a plebiscite determined the national anthem as "Advance Australia Fair". That's it.

The short explanation is that a plebiscite is a national poll, meant to advise the government on how the Australian public feel about an issue. It's non-binding, meaning the government does not legally have to do anything about the result. The government also has to pass legislation to hold a plebiscite in the first place.

No details are firmly on the table, but it's expected the Coalition's marriage equality plebiscite will a) involve compulsory voting, b) include equally publicly funded "yes" and "no" campaigns, and c) be held towards the end of 2016.

The Australian Electoral Commission has estimated the cost of the plebiscite at $160 million. However, this estimate does not include public funding for the "yes" and "no" campaigns and is therefore likely to be higher.

A plebiscite is not the same thing as a referendum, which is specifically to alter the Australian Constitution. A referendum requires a double majority to pass (a national majority and a majority of states), but Turnbull has said the plebiscite will only need a simple majority to pass (50% +1).

OK, got it. Is there anything else I should know about the plebiscite?

Yes! If the plebiscite comes back with a "yes" vote, that doesn't mean same-sex marriage is automatically legalised in Australia. Instead, a bill still has to pass the parliament.

Coalition MPs will have a free vote on this bill, meaning none of them have to vote in accordance with the plebiscite's results.


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Labor leader Bill Shorten has pledged that a marriage equality bill will be the first piece of legislation he introduces if elected as prime minister.

As a party, Labor supports marriage equality. MPs have a conscience vote until 2019, meaning they do not currently have to vote with the party position. Some MPs within the party support the current definition of marriage.

The Greens

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The Greens say same-sex marriage should be introduced through the parliament as soon as possible. As a party, the Greens support marriage equality and every MP will vote in favour.

Anyone else who might be around?

  • Nick Xenophon Team: Support
  • Jacqui Lambie: Oppose
  • Liberal Democrats: Support
  • Family First: Oppose

So what's the policy debate?

Torsten Blackwood / AFP / Getty Images

Marriage equality has been at the forefront of the last two weeks of #AusVotes – and it's all about the plebiscite. Instead of the debate being about whether or not same-sex marriage should be legalised, it is about competing mechanisms for reform.

Turnbull, who has previously expressed his preference for a parliamentary vote, is in the somewhat awkward position of having to spruik a policy he personally doesn't support. Turnbull defends the plebiscite in relatively unenthusiastic terms, preferring to say it's "thoroughly democratic" and "has been offered to the people" rather than mounting an argument for why a public vote on marriage is needed.

The plebiscite is supported by all major groups that oppose marriage equality, including the Australian Christian Lobby and the Marriage Alliance. These groups say the Australian people deserve a say on what is a critical issue facing the nation.

Labor is deeply critical of the proposal on a number of fronts. Leader Bill Shorten has described it as a "taxpayer-funded platform for homophobia". Opposition leader in the Senate Penny Wong delivered a personal speech outlining her fear that the plebiscite would spark abuse and even violence towards LGBTI people in Australia. Wong has also described the plebiscite as an attempt to sabotage marriage equality, saying conservative MPs are determined to use the national vote to prevent reform.

The Greens strongly oppose the plebiscite. Senator Robert Simms has described it as "a farce", "an expensive sham", "a con", "lunacy", and "as popular as Tony Abbott".

Lobby group Australian Marriage Equality has said their preferred mechanism for reform is via a parliamentary vote.

Both Labor and the Greens contend the plebiscite is pointless if Coalition MPs will have a free vote in the parliament anyway.

This criticism has only ramped up in recent days, as MPs have been increasingly cagey about whether or not they will abide by a "yes" vote.

Their current line is "I will respect the outcome of the plebiscite," but it's unclear whether that means MPs will vote in accordance with the result, abstain from the vote, or respect it in some other way that is yet to be revealed.

However, Turnbull has insisted time and time again that if the Australian people vote "yes", the plebiscite will pass.

“There are few things in politics that are certain. But one thing that is an absolute certainty is that same-sex marriage will pass the parliament if the plebiscite passes,” he said.

But with a free vote for Coalition MPs, the only guarantee Turnbull can give is "believe me".

“I have a very good understanding of parliaments, parliamentarians, and the realities of politics,” he said.

Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Lane Sainty at

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