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Australia is voting on same-sex marriage - but it's not as straightforward as our referendum

There’s support for a change – but the process begins with a non-binding postal vote.

THOUSANDS OF AUSTRALIANS dressed in rainbow colours rallied in support of same-sex marriage at the weekend ahead of a postal ballot.

Carrying placards and calling for marriage equality, the marchers packed the streets of central Sydney and Brisbane ahead of the posting of ballot papers to some 15 millions Australians.

The campaign received a boost at the rally as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made an appearance and gave a speech in support of same-sex marriage. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, meanwhile, has been one of the highest-profile No campaigners.

The approach being taken to the vote is different to the one taken here. A non-binding postal vote will take place first. If there is a response in support of same-sex marriage, parliament will take action.

Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote in a referendum two years ago.

Kayne West and Kim Kardashian Mural - Sydney An enormous mural of two Kanye Wests attracted attention in Sydney last year. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

So what’s happening?

A postal survey on same-sex marriage begins today, with ballots delivered across the vast continent ahead of an expected fractious campaign between the Yes and No sides.

While there has been growing support for marriage equality, with 70% of those surveyed in a Fairfax Media poll today backing the Yes campaign, Australia has yet to legalise such unions despite more than a decade of political wrangling.

The conservative government chose the unusual approach – a voluntary and non-binding postal vote – after an election promise of a national plebiscite was twice rejected by parliament’s upper house, the Senate. In the event of a Yes vote, a free vote will be held in parliament on changing marriage laws.

Prime Minister Turnbull, a moderate, is opposed by some members of his conservative ruling Liberal-National coalition on the issue and the postal vote is seen as a compromise.

What will the question be?

Up to 15 million Australians will be asked:

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

They will be given the option of marking Yes or No boxes on the ballot paper.

Australia Gay Marriage A sample of the postal ballot. Source: Rick Rycroft

But Yes campaigners have said this method of collecting votes, via the postal system, could be less effective at engaging younger tech-savvy Australians, who are seen as more supportive of changing the laws.

National Party MPs have also voiced concern about Australia Post’s abilities to deliver the ballots to rural areas across the vast country.

The postal vote will close in November.

What’s the campaign been like so far?

The vote was given the go-ahead last week after the nation’s highest court threw out two challenges to the voluntary postal ballot. It had been challenged by two gay marriage advocacy groups, who said the government had exceeded its powers in funding the ballot without parliamentary approval.

There were early signs the debate could turn toxic ahead of the court’s decision, after a poster emblazoned with the words “stop the fags” was put up in central Melbourne.

There were also flyers describing homosexuality as “a curse of death” distributed in suburban Sydney, sparking calls by the government for a respectful debate.

Politicians are now scrambling to pass election-type safeguards restricting material that might be misleading and deceptive. Among the proposed penalties are fines of up to Aus$12,600 (€8,360), The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

“It will be unlawful to vilify, intimidate or threaten to harm a person either because of views they hold on the survey or in relation to their religious conviction, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status,” a government spokesman told the paper.

The laws – which are expected to attract bipartisan support from the government and the main Labor opposition party – will apply to advertising, leaflets or behaviour during the campaign period, the Herald added.

Australia Gay Marriage A mural depicting former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as both the groom and bride is displayed on a cafe wall in Sydney. Source: Rick Rycroft

Former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott, who has been campaigning against the introduction of same-sex marriage, writes in the Sydney Morning Herald today that the debate “is about changing marriage, not extending it” and that “if you change marriage, you change society; because marriage is the basis of family; and family is the foundation of community”.

In one of the odder twists of the campaign to date Abbott was involved in a public spat with his sister, who is a Liberal councillor in Sydney. Christine Foster tweeted her take on the debate, rebutting each argument made by Abbott in his comments to reporters.

What are the two sides saying?

A leading group behind the Yes vote, The Equality Campaign, said it would be “hitting the ground running with hundreds of thousands of supporters talking about why marriage equality matters”.

Prime Minister Turnbull told Sunday’s Sydney rally:

I’ve said this many times before – the threat to marriage is not gay couples. It is a lack of loving commitment.

Bill Shorten, the leader of the opposition Labor party, told the crowd:

We’ve got one last mountain to climb to make marriage equality a reality – let’s climb it together.

Meanwhile, a key voice backing the No vote, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), has said it will inform Australians about the “consequences of changing the Marriage Act for them and their family”.

This would include what ACL’s managing director Lyle Shelton said would be the impact of the reforms on religious freedom and the rights of parents on whether their children would be taught “radical” gay programmes in schools.

Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher said in a post on his archdiocese’s website that the push for marriage reforms raised key questions for Australian Catholics.

He asked:

If the law is changed, will Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals and welfare agencies still be free to employ lay people who profess our values?

Australian Prime Minister Turnbull in Berlin Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Source: DPA/PA Images

What happens now?

The postal vote will close on 7 November, with the result released on 15 November.

If most Australians vote Yes to same-sex marriage the government will move to hold a parliamentary free vote on changing the marriage laws. It will not do so if there is a No outcome.

National non-binding plebiscites – different to referendums, which affect the constitution – are rare in Australia.

Just three have been held – two on conscription in 1916 and 1917, and one on which song should be the national anthem in 1977.

- With reporting by © – AFP 2017

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