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Plebiscite on same-sex marriage will unleash divisive debate, warns Bill Shorten

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says Malcolm Turnbull “is a prisoner of the extreme right of the Liberal Party”. Photo: Alex EllinghausenEric Abetz slams ‘thought bubble’ Coalition same-sex marriage planPM weighs decisive same-sex marriage planMichael Gordon: Turnbull faces mess of Abbott’s makingBill Shorten: $140m plebiscite risks a platform for abuse
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Bill Shorten says he is happy to talk to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about a plebiscite on marriage equality but Labor’s preference is still for the matter to be settled by a free vote by the Parliament.

It comes as the Opposition Leader, in an opinion piece for Fairfax Media, expressed his fear that a plebiscite would lead to an ugly, drawn-out debate that would expose LGBTI Australians to attacks “on the basis of who they love”.

Mr Shorten said he would speak to Mr Turnbull about a public vote because Labor wanted “by and large to co-operate to make marriage equality reality.”

But he said he was concerned about Liberal Party divisions over the issue, which re-emerged again on Thursday after dumped cabinet minister Eric Abetz described a proposal to have the current Parliament vote on same-sex marriage ahead of a plebiscite as an “ambush”.

“Our concern, though, is that there is division in the Liberal Party,” Mr Shorten said.

“[Former prime minister] Tony Abbott may have been captain of the extreme right of the Liberal Party but as I say Malcolm Turnbull is a prisoner of the extreme right of the Liberal Party.”

He said the proposal for a plebiscite was put forward by Mr Abbott to delay a resolution on marriage equality and Labor still believed the issue could be quickly settled by the Parliament.

“People elect their parliamentarians to do their job, I think that is what we should do,” Mr Shorten said.

“My reservation about a plebiscite is do we really want a nation-dividing debate where the taxpayers are funding not only a ‘yes’ case for marriage equality but a ‘n’o case and what are the consequences… the consensus in the community just being ripped up?”

In his opinion piece, Mr Shorten writes that marriage equality is a “simple, overdue change to Australian law that our Parliament could deal with in one day of considered debate”.

If passed, “it would be a wonderful day, a unifying national moment.”

He said a national poll would cost $140 million, but the bigger risk was the divisive public debate that would ensue and he feared would take a toll on the mental health of LGBTI Australians, particularly young people.

“A plebiscite could act as a lightning rod for the very worst of the prejudice so many LGBTI Australians endure,” he said.

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