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All The Questions You Were Too Afraid To Ask About The Marriage Equality Plebiscite

There's never been a more pleb-exciting time to be alive.

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The government has finally introduced a bill on a same-sex marriage plebiscite, and we all have a lot of questions. Here are some answers.

What is a plebiscite?

A plebiscite is a national vote intended to guide the government on what the public wants.

Have we had a plebiscite before?

Yes – three! Two votes on compulsory military service were held in 1916 and 1917, and another on the national anthem in 1977.

Why are we having a plebiscite on marriage equality?

The plebiscite was proposed under then prime minister Tony Abbott in mid-2015 as a circuit-breaker to the pressure building up on the Coalition to allow a free vote on the issue. When Abbott was rolled and replaced with Malcolm Turnbull, Turnbull inherited the policy and has stuck to it ever since.

The Coalition says it is important to give all Australians a say on same-sex marriage and that it has a mandate for the plebiscite because it took the policy to the election.

Do we need to have a plebiscite to legalise same-sex marriage?

No. It could be legalised with a vote in the parliament.

It seems like many LGBTI people are against the plebiscite. Why?

Polling has shown that up to 85% of LGBTI Australians oppose a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. There are a few reasons for this. Some LGBTI people believe it is fundamentally wrong to subject minority rights to a majority vote. Other contentious social issues, like the decriminalisation of abortion or the allowance for divorce, have been legislated by state and federal governments, so some argue the plebiscite sets a dangerous precedent for the parliament abrogating its duty. And some people are worried the debate will engender hatred towards LGBTI people and give a megaphone to people with homophobic views.

Of course, not all LGBTI people have the same opinion. Some support the plebiscite, including three openly gay Liberal MPs: Tim Wilson, Trent Zimmerman, and Trevor Evans.

I keep hearing that the plebiscite might not happen because of Labor and the Senate. What's this all about?

Long story short: For a bill to pass the parliament, it has to make it through the House of Representatives (where the government has a majority) and the Senate (where it doesn't). The bill will pass the House of Representatives, but right now, it appears the government will not be able to pass the bill through the Senate, as Labor, the Greens, and various crossbenchers have all signalled their opposition.

OK. So...if it DOES happen, when will the plebiscite be?

February 11, 2017.

How much will it cost?

$170 million. $15 million of this goes to the "yes" and "no" campaigns, and the rest is for logistics.

Is voting compulsory? Is there a fine for not voting?

Voting will be compulsory. There will be a small fine if you do not vote and cannot provide a reason.

What will the question be?

"Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?"

What will the ballot paper look like?

A bit like this:

Why are people are mad about the wording of the question?

Some people see the word "allow" in the question as patronising, because it exacerbates the idea of LGBTI people having to ask Australia for the right to marry.

What happens if "no" wins?

The government will not move to amend the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriages.

What happens if "yes" wins?

The government will introduce a bill to amend the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriages. If that bill passes the parliament, same-sex marriage will become legal in Australia.

The question says "same-sex couples". Does this mean people who have an X marker on their passports won't be able to get married?

No. The answer to this question depends on how the government plans to amend the Marriage Act in the event of a "yes" vote.

If the wording is changed to something like "two consenting adults" that does not specify gender, then we're good to go. However, if the wording is changed to "a man and a woman, two women, or two men," or some other gender-specific proposal, then there could be a problem.

(Some people who have an X marker on their passports are intersex and others are gender-diverse. Not all intersex or gender-diverse people have an X marker.)

How soon after the vote will we find out the result of the plebiscite and how soon after that will the law be officially changed?

The votes will be cast and counted similarly to a federal election. So unless it is an incredibly tight result, we should know on the night of the plebiscite.

The timing of the official law change depends on when the government introduces a bill and when it is passed by both houses of parliament.

What happens to the $7.5 million the government is giving to each of the "yes" and "no" campaigns?

The money will go to two committees: one for the "yes" case and one for the "no" case. These committees will each consist of five politicians – two Coalition, two Labor, and one crossbencher – and up to five other people.

Committee members will be selected by attorney general George Brandis and special minister of state Scott Ryan.

If I donate to "yes" or "no", what will my money be spent on?

We won't know exactly until the campaign kicks off. But possible expenditure includes advertising space on broadcasters, billboards, posters, flyers, and campaign infrastructure.

Do you have EVEN MORE QUESTIONS? Leave them in the comments for a possible future post!

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

Contact Lane Sainty at

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