It isn't the date Malcolm Turnbull promised—remember all those election campaign speeches about getting the marriage equality question out of the way before the end of 2016?—but the government has announced that Australia's same sex marriage plebiscite will be held on February 11 next year. It will allocate $7.5 million of public funds to both the "yes" and "no" campaigns.
For the plebiscite to go ahead, the Coalition will need to pass legislation through parliament. With the Greens already announcing they won't support the bill, the pressure is on Bill Shorten and the ALP to announce whether they will ensure its safe passage through parliament. The ALP are yet to indicate either way—although, like the crossbenchers, they've introduced their own private members' bill to legalise same sex marriage.
Shorten has indicated he prefers this option, telling parliament yesterday that "a 'no' campaign would be an emotional torment for gay teenagers and if one child commits suicide over the plebiscite, then that is one too many."
Still, if a plebiscite proves the only realistic option—the Greens and Shorten might have a tricky time passing their marriage equality bills through both houses of parliament—it seems possible that the ALP will support it.
While a plebiscite may force politicians to finally acknowledge strong public support for same sex marriage, it would do so at a significant cost. The federal government has estimated that a plebiscite campaign and vote would cost the Australian public around $160 million, but an independent assessment by PricewaterhouseCoopers puts the number somewhere closer to $525 million.
This is based on estimates of $281 million for the time cost of voting, $158 million for the voting itself, $66 million for campaigning, and $20 million for mental health harms to 50,000 LGBTQI Australians.
In 2015, the Australian Psychological Society submitted a report to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee urging them to reconsider the plebiscite.
According to the Psychological Society report, "a public vote is likely to present significant risks to the psychological health and wellbeing of those most affected." It also states that "marriage equality is a human rights and equal opportunity issue and therefore on principle, should be a matter for Australian law and our parliamentary system, not a popular vote."
It's also worth remembering that a plebiscite isn't legally binding in the way a referendum is—there is no guarantee that the government will introduce a same sex marriage bill in the event of a successful "yes" vote.
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