CANBERRA, Australia (Christian Examiner) – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has blocked an effort by members of his own party to push through legislation authorizing same-sex marriage in the country.
The move to block the "conscience vote" by the members of Parliament comes as the debate on same-sex marriage intensifies in what was once a traditionally conservative nation. A recent poll indicated 72 percent of Australians now favor legalizing same-sex marriage.
In spite of the public pressure to adopt the practice, Abbott isn't budging. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he and his party will "maintain our existing position for the life of this parliament."
Instead of trusting members of parliament driven by polls, Abbott either wants to put the matter to the people in a popular referendum, or to let state representatives decide in what is known as a "plebiscite." That is a process that could take several years.
He told reporters in Canberra Aug. 12 that his willingness to open the issue to a popular vote shows the government is willing someday to change its policy of recognizing only marriages between men and women. "But let's not underestimate the magnitude of this as a cultural shift," Abbott said.
Abbott has the backing of the Australian Christian Lobby in his opposition to same-sex marriage. The group has argued that a parliamentary vote on the issue would seal off public debate on the matter and lead to the criminalization of speech opposing homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
In fact, the group says, it is already happening because of the media "hype" surrounding the issue. In a press release Aug. 11, ACL said that in spite of "years of relentless media and celebrity championing," same-sex marriage remains a low priority for Australian voters. It was 13th on a list of priorities in one recent poll, and 15th on another. Recent polls, the group says, also indicate Australians don't want to be pushed into accepting it by the few in Parliament. They want more time to discuss it.
ACL's director, Lyle Shelton, said his group has been calling for "mature debate" on the issue primarily because – should the society accept gay marriage – it will have implications for other freedoms.
"There are millions of Australian's of ethnic background, faith and no faith who will never accept a politician-imposed redefinition of marriage," Shelton said. "These people are not bigots or homophobes, they just want to always be free to publicly express their views."
A contraction of what the Australian media deems "free speech" is already under way, Shelton said. Two Australian television stations reportedly refused to run an advertisement warning Australians of the unintended consequences of same-sex marriage. A leader of the gay rights movement in Australia also said recently it should be "illegal" for religious schools to teach their church's position on traditional marriage, Shelton said.
"People are rightly concerned about where this agenda might take our society and experience overseas of people being legally punished and drummed from their jobs for believing in the traditional definition of marriage only reinforces this," Shelton said.
Supporters of same-sex marriage see the quickest path to victory in a parliamentary "free vote." In a free vote, members of the political parties can vote on their own without direction from the party leader – an act that generally does not occur in the Australian parliament and which Abbott will not allow now.
Abbott has been criticized heavily by Australian newspapers for being "out of touch" with the modern times. The Sydney Morning Herald called his efforts to block the vote in Parliament as a "desperate measure to hold back history."
Political opponents are arguing the same. Jason Clare, a member of the Labor Party, said the Australian people will have to "divorce Tony Abbott at the next election" if they have any hope of seeing "marriage equality" in the near future.
Abbott, however, seems undeterred. He told reporters it is only fair to ask the people what they think on the issue of same-sex marriage. He said he would then be bound by what the people say.
"Obviously, for many, many, many centuries there's been a settled position on this. In recent times there's been a strong social movement for change," Abbott said. "If the people decide to support the existing definition of marriage between a man and a woman, obviously I'd be pleased and I think everyone else should accept that," Abbott told reporters.
In 2013, lawmakers in the Australian Capital Territory enacted a same-sex marriage provision. Nearly 20 couples quickly married in an attempt to stake a legal claim to what proponents of same-sex marriage call "marriage equality." However, Australia's highest court struck down that law calling it inconsistent with the Federal Marriage Act of 1961, which only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman.
Abott is a devout Roman Catholic and one-time Catholic seminary student. After two years in the seminary, Abbott left to become a journalist and political activist. He is consistently pro-life and has praised sexual abstinence before marriage.