Australia same-sex marriage plebiscite comes to a head

Swimming star Ian Thorpe was never an advocate for Australia’s postal survey on same-sex marriage, which is due to wrap up on Tuesday.

“It is really just a stalling tactic,” says the 35-year-old marriage equality campaigner and five-time Olympic gold medallist. “But I tell people the only thing worse than a postal plebiscite is not winning it.”

Mr Thorpe, who spent years struggling with his sexual identity before coming out as gay in 2014, is one of thousands of volunteers who have worked to promote a Yes vote over an eight-week campaign that many never wanted to fight for fear of a homophobic backlash.

The postal survey — a voluntary, non-binding test of public opinion — was established by Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, to placate conservative opponents of same-sex marriage in his ruling Liberal-National coalition.

Many thought the A$122m ($94m) plebiscite was their best chance of delaying or defeating the introduction of gay marriage — a totemic issue in western liberal democracies — when calls for a free vote of MPs in parliament became difficult to resist.

The survey has also became a proxy war for control of liberal and conservative politics in Australia, which is split over energy, climate and some social issues.

Tony Abbott, the former prime minister ousted by Mr Turnbull in 2015, has led an aggressive campaign urging people to vote No to “stop political correctness in its tracks”, warning of grave threats to religious freedom.

Same-sex marriage campaigners claim the No campaign has deployed spurious and hurtful arguments, in particular by questioning gay peoples’ suitability as parents. “We have seen material that isn’t based on fact,” says Mr Thorpe. “Posters that are really homophobic, misguided and inaccurate and designed to instil fear and muddy the question.” He says legislating to allow gay people to marry will help root out homophobia and give courage to young people who may be struggling with their sexual identity.