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Govt puts gay plebiscite onus on Shorten

AAP logoAAP 12/09/2016 Katina Curtis

How soon same-sex couples can marry is now entirely up to Labor leader Bill Shorten, the federal government insists.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will introduce to parliament this week a bill that proposes a compulsory-voting plebiscite for February 11 and $7.5 million in funding for each of the "yes" and "no" campaigns

Voters will be asked: "Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?"

"The only person that stands in the way of Australians having a vote on this issue is Bill Shorten," Mr Turnbull told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

Attorney-General George Brandis backed his leader, saying: "It is Mr Shorten who is saying to gay Australians, 'You can just wait while I play politics'."

With the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team opposed, the enabling legislation can only pass parliament with Labor's backing.

The government will not have the support of its first openly gay parliamentarian, West Australian senator Dean Smith, who intends to cross the floor or abstain from a vote.

Labor has grave reservations about the plebiscite but has stopped short of committing to blocking legislation in parliament.

But opposition frontbencher Anthony Albanese says it's most likely Labor would block the bill.

"We'll wait and see the legislation before caucus meets and makes a determination but I haven't heard anyone arguing on the Labor side that the idea of a plebiscite is a great idea," he told Sky News.

Mr Shorten says there will be emotional torment and questioned whether it was worth it.

"We're going to be talking further to people who will be affected by this vote. We will be talking further to mental health experts," he said.

Labor backbencher Graham Perrett said the plebiscite had "a snowflake's chance in hell" of getting through the Senate.

Gay marriage advocates say public funding for yes and no cases makes the plebiscite even more unacceptable.

Greens senator Janet Rice was worried the gay and lesbian community now faced a summer of "hateful, hurtful, homophobic" speech.

But the government says how that money is spent will be policed by a committee of MPs and citizens with final approval for all ads given by a cabinet committee, similar to the process used in the 1999 republic referendum.

"What we have striven to do ... is to ensure that there is a completely fair process, a completely neutral question, not loaded in one way or another to favour one side or another," Senator Brandis said.

Amid fears about the tone of debate, Health Minister Sussan Ley said the ad approval process would make sure it stayed respectful.

Marriage equality advocates have repeatedly raised the prospect of hurtful and harmful rhetoric as part of their arguments against the plebiscite.

"It's vital that we look after our LGBTI community but I don't believe that a respectful plebiscite is going to put them in harm's way," Ms Ley told reporters in Canberra.

Special Minister of State Scott Ryan said only ads paid for with taxpayer money would be subject to cabinet approval.

"There will be supporting and opposing committees established outside the official yes and no committees and they are free, of course, to run their own particular campaigns," he said.

The Australian Christian Lobby complained the $7.5 million was on the low side.

"It's been a very one-dimensional debate about the love of two people but there's been very little discussion about the consequences," managing director Lyle Shelton said.

His group intends to campaign on issues such as gender teaching in schools, including the Safe Schools program.

Three coalition MPs spoke against public funding of the yes and no cases during a 40-minute party room debate on Tuesday.

One of them argued the issue had been adequately discussed and there was no need to spend taxpayers' money to explain the pros and cons.

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