Why would a lesbian Australian senator oppose a public vote on gay marriage? Labor’s Penny Wong did so this week, reasoning that it would lead to forceful, vitriolic ‘no’ campaigns and the kind of homophobia she has fought all her life. She is not alone on this issue.

The plebiscite was blocked on Monday night in Canberra’s Senate or Upper House in a vote of 33 to 29, with Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team party and Independent Derryn Hinch all joining Wong in voting against.

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“We do not want our families and our children publicly denigrated... This hate speech is not abstract, it is real, it is part of our daily life,” said Wong, a mother of two whose partner conceived through IVF.

Wong is not known as a bleeding heart – as many who’ve had to face her in parliament will attest – but has been measured yet adamant in her criticism of what she sees as hate speech and discrimination.

Wong, whose father was Malaysian-Chinese, has argued against repealing Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits behaviour or speech meant to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate people of a certain race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.

Wong, turned her back on attorney-general George Brandis when in 2014 he defended repealing the section by saying people “have a right to be bigots, you know”.

She later said: “For them, it seems to be an abstract philosophical or legal argument. For them it’s a game, it’s a debate about words and abstract principles... For people who have experienced racism, it is a deeply personal debate, and it’s actually a debate about real people and real hurt.”

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How can a country with one of the world’s biggest LGBT events in the Sydney Mardi Gras and the oldest gay club in the Southern Hemisphere (Perth’s 40-year-old Connections) – and that produced cult Oscar winner Priscilla Queen of the Desert – tie itself in such knots over gay marriage?

Australia is not as religious as either the United States or Catholic Ireland and it is now the only part of the Anglosphere that does not allow same-sex marriage. Even communist Vietnam is closer to doing so.

According to most polls, a majority of Australians are in favour of it too, with one survey finding that support grew from 38 per cent in 2004 to 64 per cent in 2012. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in July that Australians supported both same-sex marriage and a plebiscite on the issue.

Australian politics has been sharply partisan in recent years, especially since the Rudd-Gillard years of division in the then-ruling Labor Party and a brutally effective opposition led by Tony Abbott, who went on to become prime minister but forgot to switch gears: you don’t govern effectively by opposing the opposing party.

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The plebiscite was Abbott’s idea as a referendum was not an option. A plebiscite is a non-binding public vote (parliamentarians do not have to vote it in) while a referendum would have changed Australia’s constitution, a long and legalistic document that does not really mention marriage.

In 2004 the Marriage Act was amended to include the passage: “Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” This, or some iteration of it, must be read aloud at all civil ceremonies by the celebrant. Those who disagree are often told to hum or press their ears closed.

Cameron Hawker, a Liberal Party member and international relations scholar in Canberra, said he had a “small involvement in the defeat of the plebiscite as I publicly argued against it in op-eds. I also put my name to a letter signed by 200 prominent LBGT Australians calling for the Parliament to reject the legislation enabling a same sex marriage plebiscite”.

He said the issue of same-sex marriage had become politicised and “in this sense it is another victim of a fractured political system. Reform eludes us in Australia in the current climate as there is little cross party goodwill to draw from and extreme risk aversion from both sides”.

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As recently as a few years ago Labor politicians including PM Julia Gillard vetoed gay marriage, however, now even some Liberals (the conservative party in Australia) are in favour, including PM Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull may have allowed a parliamentary conscience vote but both his knifing of Tony Abbott in September last year and his exceptionally narrow win at this year’s election have left him beholden to the far right of his party – typified by men like Cory Bernardi, who has suggested same-sex marriage may open the way for Australians to marry more than one person, or pets.

The right’s “think of the children” argument holds little water considering gay couples can already adopt and foster.

And the “marriage is a union designed to create children” claim put forward by conservative politician Fred Nile is similarly questionable – some wags have pointed out that Nile himself married a woman past childbearing years in 2013.

Hawker makes the Liberal case for marriage: “The concept that one group of citizens rights should be dependent on the opinion of another group is not actually democratic but enforces a ‘tyranny of the majority.’ I felt strongly on this point as a member of the Liberal Party as it claims to be the party of John Stuart Mill who warned against this.”

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Similar to former British prime minister David Cameron’s championing of marriage equality, he believes an institution becomes stronger, not weaker, when membership is extended.

“Also inherent in the Liberal case for same sex marriage is the idea that the extension of a right does not dilute its value and that encouraging LGBT citizens who so wish it, to settle into recognised unions is in fact a good outcome for society. Liberalism teaches us that the state has no business in impeding an individual’s freedom as long as that freedom does not reduce the freedom of others.”

On that, he is with Tim Wilson, an openly gay member of parliament and former head of the conservative Institute for Public Affairs.

Liberalism is also financially cautious, especially on public spending as recent budgets handed down by the government have shown. The plebiscite, or public vote, would have been costly at A$160 million (HK$950 million) or A$175 million (one report has suggested A$200 million) and would still have been non-binding.

For that reason alone it was seen as a bad idea but rights groups also feared an increase in hate speech. Anti campaigners had already made sure their campaigns would have access to the same funds as same-sex marriage support campaigns – in Australia, campaigns for plebiscites receive government funding.

Lyle Shelton, managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, said there should definitely be funding for both campaigns as there was for both sides of the Republic referendum in 1999. He said the issue was a “bigger decision” than seceding from Great Britain was as it would be “redefining marriage and families” rather than merely a decision about “a ceremonial head of state”.

For Wong and all those who support same-sex marriage, or marriage equality, it is a bigger decision, but a personal one that should be shielded from divisive political rhetoric.

Helen Clark is a journalist based in Australia