Former prime minister Julia Gillard has switched her position to now favour same-sex marriage, while denouncing Tony Abbott’s plan for a popular vote on the issue.
But she says if such a vote goes ahead she will vote “yes”.
Gillard, who strongly opposed same-sex marriage in government – a stance many critics saw as driven by political expediency – said she was worried about the “long-lived dangers” of a plebiscite or referendum. The idea, with superficial appeal, had “potential long-term ramifications for our democracy and its capacity to sustain reform”.
She pointed to the risk of inviting electors “to believe that parliamentary decision-making is an inadequate, even shoddy, way of creating change”.
Delivering the Michael Kirby lecture in Melbourne on Wednesday, Gillard said she had been so concerned about the issue she had changed the topic of her speech.
She said there was no logical reason for having a popular vote. “The only foundation stone” for that approach “is an appeal to the all too popular sentiment that politicians are inadequate, that their decision-making is somehow deficient.
"The derisory references to the ‘politicians’ choice’, makes the blunt nature of the populist appeal clear,” she said.
Abbott on Wednesday told reporters he would be taking a proposal to cabinet in the next couple of weeks. It would then go to the partyroom. “The important thing is that it will go to the people. This will be a people’s decision, not a politicians’ decision.”
He did not say whether he favoured a plebiscite or a referendum, although a number of his ministers have opted for a plebiscite. Abbott insists the vote must be in the next term, not with or before the election.
Gillard said: “There is truly something absurd about politicians themselves inviting the public to conclude that politicians are not up to making a decision. Particularly so when it is actually in our nation’s interests to be bolstering belief in the capacity of our parliamentary system.
"Our nation, particularly at this point in our history, when so many big choices lie in front of us, is not advantaged by anyone in the political class pleading their incapacity to be a decision-maker.”
Gillard said the nature of the contemporary debate had caused her to re-examine some fundamental assumptions she had held.
She had voted against same-sex marriage when it came before the parliament, while keenly aware her position was “idiosyncratic”.
“Given the 1970s feminist in me saw much to be concerned with from a gender perspective with traditional marriage, I thought the better approach was not to change the old but to create something new through civil unions.”
But the debate had moved on in recent years and the claim by many activists for civil unions had been discarded in favour of the campaign for same-sex marriage.
Recently she had assumed the Liberals would move to a conscience vote, the parliament would legislate for same-sex marriage at some point, and her position would be overtaken by history, “something which would have caused me no heartburn”.
Now, given the discussion of a plebiscite or referendum, these assumptions had been overturned.
She said it was vital the proposal for a plebiscite or referendum be put to one side – the matter should be resolved by a conscience vote in parliament as soon as possible after the election “so that no more potential twists and turns can loom up”. If she were a politician, she would vote yes.
“If, much against my views about what is best for our nation, a plebiscite or referendum is held on same-sex marriage, then as a voter, I would certainly cast my ballot in favour of same-sex marriage.”
Kevin Rudd, who preceded and succeeded Gillard in office, also changed his position from anti- to pro-same-sex marriage, in his case shortly before he ousted Gillard from the leadership.
Last year Gillard said: “I accept the course of human history now is that we are going to see same-sex marriage here and in, you know, most parts of the developed world.”