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Govt senator slams proposed plebiscite

AAP logoAAP 6/11/2016 Belinda Merhab

Liberal backbencher Dean Smith has slammed his government's proposed same-sex marriage plebiscite, warning it could open a floodgate that could see Australians voting to lock out immigrants.

The gay senator said his opposition to the plebiscite stemmed from his position as a constitutional and parliamentary conservative.

A plebiscite was an abdication of parliament's responsibility and would undermine parliament's sovereignty, he said.

"Do we really want to be the first generation of modern parliamentarians who effectively say that we are not capable of resolving difficult issues?" Senator Smith told parliament on Monday.

"If this plebiscite proceeds, I fear it would not be the last.

"I shudder to think that we may see a day in this country where determinations about our right to freedom of speech and freedom of worship or on whether or not Australia accepts immigrants from a particular nation are made by a popular vote of the people at the expense of our parliamentary system of government."

Several gay senators made impassioned pleas against the plebiscite, telling parliament it would denigrate their families and subject them to hate speech.

Debate on enabling legislation for a February plebiscite, which is set to fail in the face of opposition from Labor, the Greens and several crossbenchers, got personal on Monday.

Senior Labor figure Penny Wong spoke of how she decided to oppose the plebiscite after much soul-searching, deciding it was not the right path to same-sex marriage.

"We do not want our families and our children publicly denigrated," she told parliament.

"This hate speech is not abstract, it is real, it is part of our daily life."

The secular state should not impose the theology of some on all Australians, she said.

"Speaking personally, I do not think the God of my faith would be affronted by who I am, my relationship, or my family.

"Australians overwhelmingly support marriage equality yet now Malcolm Turnbull is asking them to do as opponents of that equality demand, to take a path he did not support."

Greens senator Janet Rice, who married her transgender wife Penny 30 years ago when she was Peter, said Australia did not need to be put through a divisive debate that would not even be binding on parliamentarians.

To stay married, her wife is unable to update her birth certificate to reflect her changed gender.

"We know that our same-sex marriage is just as important and valid and deep and wonderful and loving as our heterosexual one was," she said.

"People's human rights should not be subject to a popular vote."

Special Minister of State Scott Ryan, who supports marriage equality, said arguments a plebiscite would subject gay couples to hurtful comments was foolish.

There may be a small number of individuals who behave inappropriately during the debate, but that's true for any contentious debate, he said.

"Anyone who thinks that stopping a plebiscite means stopping discourteous speech is fooling themselves," he told parliament.

Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm said gay marriage could remain a highly partisan issue for years to come if the plebiscite doesn't go ahead.

Anyone claiming the plebiscite should be scrapped because of the potential for hurtful comments needed to "harden up", he said.

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