Dunkley: Why we called marriage referendum

  • Divisive issue: Michael Dunkley, the Premier, is to table the Referendum (Same-Sex Relationships) Act 2016 in Parliament this morning (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

    Divisive issue: Michael Dunkley, the Premier, is to table the Referendum (Same-Sex Relationships) Act 2016 in Parliament this morning (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Michael Dunkley agreed to call a referendum on same-sex marriage because without one he could not be certain his MPs would back civil union legislation.

The Premier told The Royal Gazette last night: “When you take a Bill to the House [of Assembly] you want to make sure that people are comfortable and it will pass, even with a conscience vote.

“Everyone in the room has strong opinions on it. The last thing we want is to take a Bill to the House and have it fail.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate to take it up there and have it fail.”

The Referendum (Same-Sex Relationships) Act 2016 will be tabled in Parliament this morning by Mr Dunkley, after he announced plans for the ballot on Monday.

That same day, Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, the Minister of Community, Culture and Sport, tabled draft legislation on civil unions for “consultation only”.

The civil union Bill will not be tabled officially until the result of the referendum is known.

Mr Dunkley said the “vast majority” of the One Bermuda Alliance’s parliamentary caucus supported marriage between a man and a woman and “colleagues didn’t feel it was appropriate” to legislate without seeking the public’s view.

He said the OBA parliamentary caucus agreed that Bermuda had to do something to recognise same-sex unions after recent court rulings here and abroad, and it was felt a draft Bill was most appropriate at this stage.

“We thought the best thing would be to table the Bill as a consultative draft so people get an understanding of what same-sex unions mean and [to] allow people to continue to get a better understanding of all of the different facets of a very difficult and emotive subject,” the Premier said.

He added that he made a “bit of a misspeak” at his Monday press conference when he said: “This Government is of the view that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.”

“What I meant to say is that the vast majority of our caucus members are like that,” he clarified, acknowledging that some members support same-sex marriage. “My personal opinion is that I support human rights and I believe civil unions is the way forward.”

He said the civil union Bill would ensure same-sex couples had all the rights of heterosexual married couples but would “protect the institution of marriage”.

He would not be drawn on whether the Government plans to pursue another piece of legislation tabled two weeks ago: an amendment to the Matrimonial Causes Act that would restrict marriage to heterosexuals and allow discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in relation to weddings.

“It’s still tabled in the House,” he said. “That’s all I will say. It can sit there and if it’s not picked up then Bills can easily be moved over [to the next legislative session].”

The Premier also would not comment on whether Sylvan Richards, the Junior Minister of Home Affairs, and other opponents of same-sex marriage threatened to cross the floor of the House if a referendum was not held.

“You’ll have to ask them that question,” he said. “I didn’t see it like that. One of the things that I love about the OBA is that we have a very diverse group of people in our room.

“We have great caucuses where issues are … discussed and nobody holds anybody back.”

He added that his party was showing leadership on the subject, unlike the Opposition, whom he said were “taking the easy way out” by staying largely silent on same-sex marriage.

The Referendum Act is likely to be debated in the next few weeks. Once approved by MPs and enacted, the Premier has 90 days to publish a referendum notice. The ballot must then be held no sooner than 30 days and no later than 60 days after the notice is published.

The Bill tabled today will reveal the yes or no question to be posed on the ballot paper. Voter turnout will need to be at least 50 per cent for the result to be valid.

The answer will be deemed affirmative if more than 50 per cent of those who vote mark their ballot “yes”.

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Published Mar 4, 2016 at 8:00 am (Updated Mar 4, 2016 at 9:00 am)

Dunkley: Why we called marriage referendum

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