Australia’s prime minister introduced legislation to Parliament on Wednesday that would allow a public but non-binding vote on gay marriage early next year.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a marriage equality advocate who is the only serving prime minister to attend the Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, introduced the bill on the first anniversary of his ascension to the top government job.
He replaced Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a gay marriage opponent who proposed that the public decide the issue with a popular vote and avoid a bitter debate in Parliament.
But the Feb 11 plebiscite a compulsory vote for all adult Australians would have no legal weight. Parliament would ultimately decide whether the law would be changed.
Although such a vote appears to be a move toward changing the law, most gay rights activists are against a plebiscite, saying it should be decided in Parliament without the potential divisive public debate.
They fear that government plans to spend 15 million Australian dollars ($11 million) on publicizing the cases for and against marriage equality would give legitimacy to bigoted and homophobic views.
Turnbull said the real reason marriage equality advocates opposed the plebiscite was because they thought enough lawmakers already supported the reform for it to become law.
“They don’t want to run the risk of the Australian people giving them the wrong answer,” Turnbull told Parliament.
“For our part, we put our faith in the Australian people and we know that their answer, whether it is ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ will be the right answer,” he said.
The government does not have a majority in the Senate, and two minor parties that support same-sex marriage have said they won’t vote for a plebiscite.
The government’s only chance of a plebiscite is now the opposition Labor Party.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has argued that a plebiscite would “give the haters a chance to come out from underneath the rock and make life harder for” lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
But Shorten, who backs marriage equality, has not ruled out supporting the plebiscite to avoid a stalemate in Parliament over gay marriage that could last until the next election in three years.
Lyle Shelton, managing director of Australian Christian Lobby, a group that lobbies for Christian principles and opposes gay marriage, urged Labor to back the plebiscite.
He said he hoped that millions of Australians could participate in the debate without the fear of being labelled a bigot or a homophobe.
“It was great to hear the prime minister respecting the points of view of all Australians,” Shelton said in a statement.
Turnbull opposed the plebiscite before striking a deal with hard-right party powerbrokers to become prime minister.
Shorten has also shifted his position, telling religious leaders in 2013 that he was “completely relaxed about having some form of plebiscite” on same-sex marriage.