The Courier-Mail

Sad division over state of the union

- CHRISTINE FORSTER

AS A Liberal and an advocate for equality, I have been rocked by the decision of the federal Coalition party room to deny its members a conscience vote on the cross-party Bill on samesex marriage.

Tuesday night’s decision, by a majority of about two-thirds of party room members, was a bitter personal disappoint­ment.

I firmly believe that this issue should have been decided by all of Parliament, just as Prime Minister Tony Abbott himself called for when he addressed MPs in May.

For that to happen though, all MPs needed to be free to exercise their conscience­s when they voted on the Bill. Sadly for me and my partner Virginia, and for millions of other Australian families, that will now not happen in the current term of Parliament.

This is not, however, an issue that will go away. The Coalition party room’s decision has clearly differenti­ated the Liberals and Nationals from Labor and, inevitably, that difference will be one that people consider as they weigh up where they will direct their vote at the next federal election.

Clearly too, Labor regards it as a vote-winner and will seek to use that to their advantage, putting the debate around marriage equality even more firmly on the agenda as an election issue.

That means the Coalition will have to have an unambiguou­s policy to take to voters in 2016. It won’t be able to take the approach adopted in the run-up to the last election, which was that the issue would be open for debate in the new party room.

After Tuesday’s meeting the Prime Minister said the Coalition had not yet finalised what its position would be for the next election, but he added that the “dispositio­n” was that it should go to a vote of the people, in other words a plebiscite.

As a supporter of change, and with an eye on the polls, including one conducted yesterday by

The Daily Telegraph which put backing for marriage equality at close to 75 per cent, I have no doubt that the Australian people will vote strongly in favour of reform.

But if the issue is now not to be decided by Parliament until after the people have spoken, there is simply no justificat­ion for delaying the vote until the next term.

A plebiscite will be expensive and is unfortunat­ely very likely to be divisive for the Australian community, just as it has proven to be for our politician­s.

If they abrogate responsibi­lity for the decision and put it directly to the people, there will be strong campaignin­g from both sides.

That will polarise Australian­s and has the potential to pit us against each other on an issue that is ultimately all about mutual respect, inclusion and ending discrimina­tion.

If the Government decides a plebiscite is the right path, the vote should be held concurrent­ly with the next federal election, to ensure maximum participat­ion and deliver the most unequivoca­l result. Bring it on. Christine Forster (below right) is a City of Sydney councillor, the sister of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and engaged to her partner Virginia (below left).

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