Attorney-General George Brandis told LGBTI advocates that a plebiscite on marriage equality could be Australia’s only chance to legalise same-sex unions in the near future, and warned that marriage equality wasn’t inevitable. In a phone meeting with 30-40 representatives of LGBTI groups yesterday, Brandis and the groups stood firm on opposing sides, with the Attorney-General told repeatedly that LGBTI groups did not want a national vote and the debate that would precede it.
A tipster who was on the line tells us there was some confusion about the purpose of the meeting, with Brandis appearing to believe that the advocates would be presenting terms on which they would find a plebiscite acceptable. “It ended up not being the best use of his time or our time,” our insider says. Brandis did reveal some information on the finer points of the bill, saying the legislation to change the Marriage Act wouldn’t be bound by the language of the plebiscite bill. This means that while the plebiscite question refers to “same-sex couples”, the change to the Marriage Act is likely to read “two people” instead of “a man and a woman”. Some advocates had been concerned that the inclusion of the term “same-sex” could exclude non-binary people (those who identify as neither male or female) from future changes. Brandis said that although it was not the official position of the government, he believed that conscientious objection should be maintained for ministers and civil celebrants, but that he would not be recommending “general commercial exemptions” in discrimination laws — meaning that bakers and florists would not be granted legal exemptions from providing services to same-sex weddings.
While Brandis said that there would be no expedited or dedicated complaint process for advertisements during a potential plebiscite debate, he did say that advertising by the publicly funded Yes and No campaigns would need to be approved by a committee. It’s unclear if that committee would be the same one that is set to decide which groups get funding. While the Labor Party has not confirmed that it will be blocking the plebiscite bill, comments from Opposition Leader Bill Shorten make it a foregone conclusion.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus will be on a call with the same group of LGBTI advocates tonight.