CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A leading gay rights advocate and former judge on Tuesday urged Parliament to prevent a popular referendum on legalizing gay marriage in Australia.
Michael Kirby, a former High Court judge who headed a United Nations inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea in 2014, wrote in The Australian newspaper that a popular vote against gay marriage would likely set back the cause of marriage equality for decades.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull went to elections on July 2 promising to hold a referendum by the end of this year on whether Australia should recognize same-sex marriage.
The center-left opposition Labor Party promised to allow Parliament to decide the issue if it won power and avoid the divisive public debate that would surround a popular vote.
Kirby, a 77-year-old who has been in a same-sex relationship since 1969, urged the new Senate to reject legislation that would allow the plebiscite when it sits for the first time this month.
"Defeat in a plebiscite on same-sex marriage would kill the reform, probably for decades," Kirby wrote. "A defeat in Parliament alone would do no more than delay the inevitable for a short time."
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said he agreed with Kirby that a plebiscite "is a second-best option for marriage equality." But Shorten has not committed Labor to blocking the referendum in the Senate, where the conservative government holds a minority of seats.
Kirby said the government proposed a referendum in the hope that it would fail. While opinion polls showed that most Australians wanted marriage equality, the surprise result of the Brexit referendum in which Britain voted in June to leave the European Union and the high failure rate of referendums in Australia served as warnings, he said.
"Brexit is an illustration of what can happen where a popular vote is chosen contrary to a nation's democratic and parliamentary tradition and launched for internal political reasons," Kirby said.
Kirby said same-sex marriage should be allowed in Australia, although he and partner Johan van Vloten had not decided whether they would ever marry.