Federal Liberal Party vice-president Karina Okotel has become one of the figureheads of the No campaign, since announcing in the Australian that the “bigotry” she had encountered as an anti-marriage equality campaigner was worse than any racism she’d experienced.

Okotel followed that up with a speech at the National Press Club on September 13 describing the “vitriolic abuse” she and others campaigning for a No vote have received, which was replicated without comment in Fairfax over the weekend.

Okotel has only been Liberal Party VP since June this year — what else do we know about her?  

Religious background

Between 2007 and 2010, Okotel was a volunteer for World Baptist Aid, a Christian charity group based in Australia. She spent a great deal of time in Uganda, where she met her husband David.

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Okotel notably mentioned in her Press Council speech that “When I first considered the legalisation of same-sex marriage several years ago, I was all for it. I thought that if two consenting adults want to marry, what does it hurt anyone else? At that point in time I would have voted ‘yes’.”

However, Okotel admitted to Crikey that she had never “actively supported” same-sex marriage and that as soon she started doing her own research on the impact of marriage equality on other countries, she changed her mind. She says this happened around 2010, soon after she finished at World Baptist Aid. Okotel is currently on maternity leave from Victorian Legal Aid.

Glen Eira Council and ‘freedom of speech’ 

Okotel was elected to Glen Eira City Council in 2012  — she received $1000 worth of help with her campaign material from local Liberal powerbroker and resident of the Rosstown Council Ward that Okotel represented, Frank Greenstein — and served as a councillor and deputy mayor until March 2016, when she stood down run on the Liberal’s Victoria Senate ticket for the 2016 federal election.

In 2014, she voted against the council’s decision to compile a report on what Glen Eira could learn from other councils’ (such as Greater Geelong Council) advocacy for same-sex marriage. She argued that it was not the role of local government to enter debate about changing federal legislation, but was in the minority; the motion passed, six to two.  

“When the council made a move to support gay marriage and I read out some of the revolting emails I was sent by the church and Rabbis, she declared this to be free speech,” a senior council source told Crikey.

The correspondence, seen by Crikey, contains some of the following arguments: 

“If people no longer believe there is anything special about marriage, apart from the issuing of a wedding certificate, then it is no surprise they would equate both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Perhaps in the not so distant future they will think the same about incestuous unions and/ or polygamy.”

“…However it should be remembered that the unhealthy practices of many homosexual men was a major cause of the AIDS plague. This still incurable disease has caused the death of thousands throughout the world. This alone makes it difficult to have any sympathy for the gay lobby’s wish for marriage equality.

“Our own efforts at reasoned debate concerning this issue, including raising the very real prospect of a legal slippery slope to also recognise polygamous and polyamorous relationships as “marriages”, have often been met with hate-filled invectives.”

Okotel defended the right of people to make those arguments, maintaining it was valid to consider where any legislative changes might lead. However, she said to compare homosexual relationships with incest or paedophilia was “obviously wrong”. 

Okotel shared with Crikey some of the messages she had received since going public with her views. Despite having said that the bigotry of the Yes campaign is worse that racism, a lot of it just plain is racism — her race and that she should “go back home on her boat” come up, as does the wish that she would die off. 

However, Okotel doesn’t think the majority of the negative feedback she’s received — saying that her argument is bigoted or homophobic — is any better.

“Anyone who doesn’t completely buy into marriage equality is immediately labeled hateful to shut down the debate, and no one wants that.”