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A Plebiscite On Gay Marriage Would Tell Us What We Already Know

When Malcolm Turnbull seized the Prime Ministership from Tony Abbott two months ago, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. At last, we might have something that looks a bit more like a 21st century government, rather than the Jurassic Park we had come to expect during the Abbott era.

One issue that came to represent the Abbott government’s archaic world view was marriage equality. Most Australians looked on in disbelief as the Prime Minister concocted one elaborate excuse after another to prevent progress, eventually settling on a plebiscite as a last-ditch attempt to head off a free vote in the parliament.

Despite supporting marriage equality, when Mr Turnbull became PM he didn’t just steal Abbott’s job he also stole his policy. Unfortunately, so far he’s been reluctant to junk it. I hope he reconsiders.

A recent Senate Inquiry initiated by the Greens and other crossbench senators found that a plebiscite isn’t just unnecessary, it’s also very costly. Indeed the AEC estimates it would cost almost $160 million to run a national poll on the issue.

It’s curious to see Liberals who have for years campaigned against budget emergencies and championed brutal budget cuts, promoting such a flagrant waste of public money. Why would the Prime Minister contemplate spending millions of dollars on asking a question we already know the answer to? Australians support marriage equality. They are looking to the parliament to lead, not outsource the decision making to a mammoth opinion poll.

More disturbing, however, is the impact of any national plebiscite on the mental health of LGBT Australians. Despite the positive social changes of recent years, homophobia is still a persistent force in Australian society.

It’s promoted by many powerful organisations and lobby groups. In Adelaide I experienced their wrath first hand when, as a city councillor, I dared to propose painting a strip of rainbow in the CBD to celebrate 40 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in South Australia.

This modest proposal triggered a tsunami of homophobic emails levelled at myself and my then-Council colleagues. This, of course, is just a drop in the ocean compared to what anti-equality organisations could do if they get their hands on taxpayer funds.

These kinds of hate campaigns are shocking for anyone on the receiving end, but imagine, in particular, the impact they have on young people who are dealing with their sexuality.

My own journey wasn’t always easy. I was a bullied at school because people suspected I was gay before I even knew myself. I didn’t come out until I was in early 20s and was scared about what my future might hold. I know that’s a common experience for many young people dealing with sexuality and gender identity today. I shudder to think of the impact a state-funded hate campaign could have on these young Australians. It’s not fair to subject them to this kind of campaign, when the parliament has the authority to legislate.

The Senate this week passed my motion rejecting a plebiscite and calling on the PM to grant a conscience vote on the issue by the end of the year. With this in mind, Mr Turnbull has an opportunity to show he’s offering more than just a break with the Abbott style.

He should dump the plebiscite and allow his MPs a free vote on the issue. Right now, he just looks like another desperate ‘Wedding Crasher’.

This piece was first published on November 20, 2015, on The Huffington Post Blog.