Australia’s Parliament could legalize gay marriage this year if the government was allowed to poll the public on their opinions, a senior minister said on Tuesday.
The conservative Liberal Party-led coalition was narrowly re-elected in July 2016 with a promise to let voters decide whether Australia should recognize same-sex marriage through a popular vote. But the Senate in November blocked the so-called plebiscite, which would have cost 160 million Australian dollars ($127 million) and promoted a divisive public debate.
The Liberal Party held a crisis meeting late Monday to resolve in-fighting and rejected a push to allow lawmakers to decide the issue now.
The party decided to ask the Senate this week to reconsider allowing the plebiscite, which the government now estimates would cost AU$170 million. Voting on the plebiscite would be compulsory and failure to vote would be punishable by a fine.
The result would not be legally binding and some lawmakers have already declared it would not sway their vote on gay marriage legislation.
If the Senate again blocks the plebiscite, the party proposes a voluntary postal plebiscite in which voters mail in their opinions instead of using ballot boxes as a cheaper option that would not need the Senate to approve the expense. Responses would be voluntary and therefore less indicative of public opinion.
Opponents argue that the postal plebiscite would also need Senate approval and have threatened a court challenge if it proceeds.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, the government’s deputy Senate leader and an opponent of same-sex marriage, said on Tuesday some type of plebiscite was essential if Parliament was to decide the marriage equality question. Parliament would only get to decide the issue if the plebiscite found most Australians supported gay marriage.
“The truth is that there is a diversity of strongly and sincerely held views on both sides of the argument in our community and that is reflected in our party room,” Cormann told reporters.
“The government has a timetable that would facilitate resolution of this issue by the end of the year, but ultimately there are some factors that are outside of the government’s control,” he added, referring to the hostile Senate.
Sen. Nick Xenophon, whose minor party opposed the plebiscite in the November vote, said gay marriage would become an election issue if the plebiscite was blocked by the Senate or courts.
“This is something that ought not to be put to a plebiscite, this is something that parliamentarians are paid for to decide and our position hasn’t changed,” Xenophon told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Anti-gay marriage advocates support the plebiscite, despite opinion polls showing that most Australians agree with marriage equality. Gay-rights advocates are concerned that referendums rarely change the status quo in Australia.
Lyle Shelton, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, said his advocacy group had collected 55,000 signatures on a petition demanding a plebiscite.
Sheldon handed the petition to Sen. Cory Bernardi, leader of the minor Australian Conservatives party, to present to the Senate. Bernardi has said he would vote against gay marriage regardless of what the plebiscite found.
Sheldon was concerned that renegade Liberal Sen. Dean Smith had proposed a bill this week that allowed people who did not identify as either a man or woman to marry.
Sheldon said that furthered a gay agenda “queer theory” that gender was fluid. Marriage equality would also cast doubt on whether religious schools could teach children that marriage was exclusively between a man and a woman, Sheldon said.
“This is not just about loving couples, if that was all that it was about, well, probably none of us would have too much concern,” Sheldon said.