Australia’s Popular Vote on Same-Sex Marriage Is Unjust—and Expensive

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House on May 8 in Canberra.

Stefan Postles/Getty Images

This past weekend, my boyfriend and I accidentally got married on Facebook. We were at a friend’s wedding in Spain, and I uploaded a photo of us together with the hashtag #wedding. Before I knew it, the photo had been liked over 200 times. Comments were pouring in with variations on the theme of congratulations! Our mothers were frantically texting us asking why they hadn’t been informed of our impending nuptials.

Though the support was lovely, we’ve since corrected our social media faux pas—we’re not even engaged. Still, it got me thinking about the possibility of my own wedding. Like the real wedding I attended, I often imagine tying the knot by the ocean, specifically above the cliffs of Sydney where I’ve spent nearly every summer with my family. Then my stomach does a little lurch as I remember that such a wedding is impossible. Because unlike Spain and 20 other countries around the world, gay marriage still isn’t legal in Australia. Instead, for the last seven or eight years, I’ve watched as politicians in my home country have given just enough hope to avoid seeming entirely bigoted, while always stopping short of making actual progress.

The latest step in this homophobic waltz is called a plebiscite, and although it sounds like a bloodsucking insect you might find lodged on the back of your neck, it’s actually a kind of referendum. In this case, the question of marriage equality will be put to a nationwide vote—a vote that, according to the government’s 2016–17 budget announced a few weeks ago, is going to cost $160 million Australian dollars (U.S. $115 million). Besides this hefty price tag, the vote is in and of itself a problematic notion: Why should 20 million straight people decide who I can marry? (This Irish marriage equality video does a good job of poking fun at the idea.) But even if we leave that injustice aside and pretend, as Australian politicians insist, that this is a more democratic way of deciding the matter, it’s still a bizarre and ultimately ineffective process that will achieve nothing but demonstrate just how far middle-age white men will go to avoid progress.

Unlike in Ireland, where a referendum was necessary because there had to be a constitutional change, in Australia the High Court has ruled there is no constitutional change required to achieve marriage equality. In other words, no referendum is needed. All that is actually required is for a marriage equality bill to pass through Parliament—a bill, which, as recent polls show, is supported by 72 percent of the population. But instead of representing their constituents, politicians are stalling by insisting on the plebiscite.

The plebiscite was the brainchild of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (For context, he was Australia’s answer to George W. Bush, except with a penchant for raw onions and revealing swimwear.) Unpopular Abbott was deposed by his own party and replaced with Malcolm Turnbull, who is slicker but possibly slimier: Turnbull is one of the only people in the conservative Liberal Party to have publicly supported marriage equality; but, as part of a deal to secure his place as PM, he’s stuck to the plebiscite idea. Turnbull has promised it will happen after the next election, now scheduled for July 2.

Aside from being yet another embarrassing backward step on human rights, the plebiscite is set to be even more unbelievably expensive than the government imagined. According to accountancy consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, beyond the AU$160 million to stage, the plebiscite will cost an additional AU$66 million in public spending on the for and against campaigns. The firm has also estimated the economy will lose another AU$281 million from lost productivity as people take the time to vote. That is around AU$525 million in total.

All of this wasted money just to decide if people can marry who they love.

The earliest the plebiscite will happen is 2017, and it could take even longer for the outcome to actually take effect: The last time a plebiscite was held was in 1977, on the matter of Australia’s national anthem, and it took seven years for the results to be implemented. Worst of all, plebiscites are not binding, meaning politicians can just ignore the results of the AU$525 million vote anyway. All this money, all this time, wasted, just so conservative politicians can hold the status quo for a few more years against the inevitable tide of change.

It’s also going to be a messy process: Like any big vote, there is going to be campaigning from both sides. This will leave the door wide open for the many conservative (read: Christian) groups to talk about how gay and lesbian people are predators itching to corrupt children and ruin the sanctity of marriage. That only adds insult to injury in a country where 61 percent of young lesbian, gay, and bi people have reported experiencing verbal abuse and are six times more likely to take their own lives than non–LGB Australians.

Luckily, one hope remains: In less than two months, Australians will have the chance to vote in a national election. Unlike the plebiscite, the results of this election are binding. It’s a chance to vote out a party that has consistently attacked the human rights of not only gay and lesbian Australians, but also women, refugees, and other minorities. A party that has decimated funding for the arts, for science, and has all but encouraged environmental destruction. I’m hoping my friends and family back home vote with their hearts. And hopefully the next time I put wedding photos on Facebook, they will be my own—taken in a home that honors the commitment with the dignity it deserves.