Australians will finally learn the result of a controversial national poll on same-sex marriage Wednesday, with an expected “yes” vote set to unleash a divisive debate over how then to enshrine marriage equality into law.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics is due to announce at 10am (23:00 GMT Tuesday) how the estimated 12.6-million Australians who participated in the poll have voted.
But the two-month-long voting process has highlighted deep divisions in Australian society that are likely to complicate the task of following up the non-binding poll with legislation legalising marriage equality.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a moderate who supports marriage equality, has pledged that if a majority vote “yes”, his government will quickly introduce a bill to change the marriage laws.
But he must battle conservative elements within his ruling coalition who are demanding “religious freedom” exemptions in any new law to protect the rights of those who oppose gay marriage on faith grounds.
“We won’t stop working until every couple is equal under the law,” the Equality Campaign, the leading group supporting the “yes” vote, said in a statement Tuesday.
“If the result is yes, our politicians will need to follow through on a yes result by passing a fair bill that supports true equality.”
The postal vote was designed to end more than a decade of political wrangling in Australia over the marriage equality issue.
The conservative government failed twice to get parliament’s upper house Senate to approve an election promise last year to hold a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage.
But it also rejected calls, including by the main opposition Labour Party, to introduce legislation in parliament to resolve the debate.
The postal ballot appeared its only option amid public pressure for action.
Turnbull insisted this week that he would oppose efforts by some in his coalition to introduce laws that would allow for discrimination against same-sex weddings by businesses.
“I don’t believe Australians would welcome, and certainly the government does not … discrimination that is illegal, that is unlawful today,” he said.
“I think (such laws) would have virtually no prospect of getting through the parliament.”
Although 78.5% — or 12.6-million — of Australians who were eligible to vote returned their postal surveys, boosting its legitimacy, the vote itself has been slammed by same-sex advocates who said it exposed gay people and their families to hate speech.
In August, a month before the ballot papers were sent out, fears that the debate was turning toxic rose when a poster emblazoned “stop the fags” was put up in central Melbourne and flyers describing homosexuality as “a curse of death” were distributed in suburban Sydney.
“Whether we get a yes or a no output, I don’t think that we can see the process of the postal survey as a success,” gender studies expert Hannah McCann of the University of Melbourne told AFP Tuesday.
“We had information come out this week that showed there’s been an enormous spike in, particularly, young LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex, queer) people seeking mental health services in the wake of the survey.
“It’s a huge burden on that area, which is already in high demand.”
Meanwhile “No” supporters, including some religious groups, have said they have been vilified as bigots, and that any legal changes would limit their freedom of speech.
If the “yes” vote does garner a majority, same-sex marriage could be legalised by the end of the year, with Turnbull previously saying he expected parliament to respect voters’ wishes and act quickly.
A survey of federal politicians by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published Tuesday found that 72% of the lower House of Representatives would support changes to marriage laws.
In the Senate, 69% would vote “yes” to changes, the public broadcaster added.
A bill put forward by Liberal Senator Dean Smith to legalise same-sex marriage but protect religious freedom by allowing churches to refuse to conduct gay weddings is expected to attract broad parliamentary support.
© Agence France-Presse