The government late Monday night released its draft legislation for implementing a successful same-sex marriage plebiscite – the day before Labor is set to torpedo the February 11 popular vote.
The exposure draft, immediately attacked by the opposition, would exempt civil celebrants as well as ministers of religion from having to conduct same-sex marriages, on the grounds of conscientious or religious objections.
Religious bodies and organisations would be able to refuse to provide facilities, goods or services for same-sex weddings. But ordinary businesses such as florists or cakemakers would not be exempt.
The legislation would also provide for the recognition of foreign same-sex marriages.
The exposure draft was given to the ALP ahead of Tuesday’s caucus meeting that will confirm Labor’s opposition to holding the plebiscite – which Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has consistently signalled. This will kill the plebiscite, because there is not sufficient support on the Senate crossbench to carry it.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the exposure bill showed the government was in the thrall of the right wing of the Liberal and National parties.
“What possible justification could there be for exempting civil celebrants who are licensed to perform civil ceremonies from performing these ceremonies for same-sex couples?”
While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis claimed to support marriage equality, Dreyfus said, they had introduced exemptions in the bill that would discriminate against the LGBTI community.
Brandis said that if the bill for the holding of the plebiscite was passed, the government would set up a parliamentary committee “to review and report on the exposure draft”.
Brandis briefed government backbenchers on the draft bill on Monday night, while the shadow cabinet met ahead of Tuesday’s caucus.
Earlier on Monday, cabinet minister Simon Birmingham suggested the government could consider removing funding for the Yes and No cases if the opposition asked.
Birmingham told Sky that it would be a “reasonable request” for the opposition to ask for the funding to be dropped “and then one that we could consider ourselves”.
“Ultimately, if that is something that the Labor Party want to take out, in return for support for the plebiscite, well they should say so and put it on the table,” he said.
One of Labor’s criticisms of the plebiscite is the allocation of public funding, which it believes would be of most help to the No side. While the government has urged Labor to say what changes might persuade it to support the plebiscite legislation, the conservatives in the Coalition would resist the removal of public funding. The government has said there will be A$7.5 million for each side.
Turnbull accused Shorten of caring little about the right of same-sex couples to marry. “How little he cares about the fundamental substantial, substantive issue. It’s all about the politics with him.”
Turnbull said the government had done everything it could to win the backing of the crossbenchers, Labor and the Greens.
“We’ve invited them to come back and tell us what changes they would like that would enable them to support the plebiscite. After all, Mr Shorten three years ago publicly called for a plebiscite.”