The postal plebiscite, scheduled to take place over a two-month period, would cost an estimated $122 million ($96.5 million USD), and not be legally binding.
Its many critics include LGBT Australians, equality campaigners and prominent media personalities, concerned about the gravity of putting civil rights up to a popular vote and questioning why parliamentarians cannot legislate on the issue.
The constitutional legality of holding the plebiscite—whose question or questions to the Australian people have yet to be clarified—is also being questioned.
The Senate voted to block a similar plebiscite last year, and if it does so again the ruling Liberal Party (which is conservative in its ideology) is confident it can hold a public postal ballot without fresh legislation, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
If it goes ahead, the postal plebiscite would take place between September and November, with a subsequent parliamentary vote that would take place by December 7.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the postal vote would lead to a vote in parliament only if Australians supported marriage equality. There will be no free vote in parliament if Australians reject marriage equality in the postal vote.
Separately, there have also been calls for a free vote on a private members’ bill, introduced by Dean Smith, Senator for Western Australia, that, if successful, would see the legalization of same-sex marriage. That bill remains on the table if and when the issue returns to Parliament.
Smith said he believed that the plebiscite would be “costly and divisive,” but respected his colleagues’ decision to hold one.
Critics have already noted how $96.5 million (USD) could be better spent on healthcare, education, childcare, and tackling diseases like HIV and cancer. Polling shows around 64 percent of Australians support marriage equality, rising to 81 percent among young people.
Opponents of marriage equality in Australia, reported the Herald, are already planning an anti-LGBT leaflet campaign in advance of the plebiscite, claiming that children of lesbian and gay parents are especially prone to drug abuse, depression, and being unemployed.
One leaflet from 2016 said that should marriage equality be achieved, “boys will be taught that they could marry boys, girls will be taught they could marry girls.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is in favor of marriage equality, said: "We respect Australians' ability to have a frank and forthright discussion on this issue. We're not going to shut down democracy and debate because people here or there say outrageous things or defamatory things." (Which means, presumably, that opponents of marriage equality are free to spread as much anti-LGBT fearmongering and misinformation as they see fit.)
The NT News’ front-page response to the plebiscite idea was resounding. With its name decked in rainbow colors, and an image of a pair of hands interlinked, the accompanying text read: “The time for talking is over. The public are sick of the bickering and political point-scoring about same-sex marriage. The Northern Territory and Australia need to move forward. The legalization of same-sex marriage is inevitable. It’s time to end this farce.”
Then in large capital letters, the NT News' headline read: ‘DO IT NOW.”
On the morning TV show Today, presenter Karl Stefanovic called the postal ballot “complete BS,” and said it was an issue that should be decided on in parliament.
“Why do we elect officials if not to effect decisions that reflect our beliefs?” Stefanovic said, addressing the TV audience watching at home. He wondered “why are we stopping people from loving each other, why do any of us have the right to stand in the way?” The fear and naivety of non-gay people was the issue, he added, and that marriage equality had become the “nation’s capital political football, subject to much “chest-beating and posturing.”
“Vote in Parliament,” Stefanovic said, “and say yes to gay marriage and let's live happily ever after.”
After news of the plebiscite plan broke, campaigners placed a number of pink paper hearts over Parliament Lawn in Canberra. The hearts, the Sydney Star Observer reported, have been collected over 12 years of Sydney’s Mardi Gras, with messages from LGBTQ couples around the city.