Campaigners for the yes and no same-sex marriage cases have called for more civil and informed debate, with parliament passing rules banning hate speech during the survey.
Advocates of both sides of the argument say they have faced abusive comments for holding their views and expect more to come.
To keep a lid on the worst forms of hate speech, Labor backed a government bill on Wednesday to put in place a set of rules – backed up by penalties of up to $25,200 – for the campaign, which will end on November 15 with the declaration of the postal survey result.
It will be an offence to vilify, intimidate or threaten to cause harm to a person on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status or religious conviction during the survey.
Advertisements will need to be authorised and broadcasters must ensure opposing views go to air.
“We want this process to be fair and for Australians to get the opportunity to have their say in an appropriate environment,” cabinet minister Mathias Cormann said.
Liberal Party vice president Karina Okotel said she had witnessed a “phenomenal” level of vitriolic abuse for opposing same-sex marriage, which she said was a “fundamental shift” in a long-held tradition.
“A culture has developed whereby it’s acceptable to vilify, mock, abuse and shame anyone who stands in the way or even raises questions about whether we should legalise same-sex marriage,” she told the National Press Club.
One Nation leader Pauline Hanson told parliament legalising same-sex marriage could result in a ban on children calling their parents “mum and dad”.
Senator Hanson said she would ignore a majority “yes” result of a postal survey.
“I feel it’s a sham, it’s farcical and it’s a waste of money,” she said of the $122 million exercise.
Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek agreed the survey was unnecessary but the protections were needed to put some rules around what was already an “awful debate”.
Greens senator Janet Rice – who married her transgender wife Penny 30 years ago when she was Peter – said she wanted to be able to hold her partner’s hand in public, the way they used to, without fear of abuse.
“We used to hold hands, we used to kiss in public but over the last 13 years we self-censor,” she told parliament.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has written to the prime minister calling for more funding for counselling services during the survey.
The NSW Gay and Lesbian Lobby told a Senate inquiry such funding was vital following a flood of offensive messages.
“Suchmaterial hassignificantimpacton the mentalhealthofsomanyLGBTIQAustralians,” it said in a written submission.
“YoungLGBTIQpeopleareatasixtimes greater riskofsuicide andthismaterialwhich perpetuateshatefulandoffensive commentsis notlikelytoimprovethissituation.”
The Australian Bureau of Statistics is aiming to get the survey forms out to 16 million voters by September 25, with the first in mailboxes this week.