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Federal Politics


Karina Okotel, the 'bleeding heart' lawyer who opposes same-sex marriage

Karina Okotel - federal Liberal party vice president, unsuccessful senate candidate, and the young, fresh face of the No Campaign - wants people to know that conservatives care.

"A misunderstanding people have about the conservative side of politics is that it's uncaring," she says.

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Why Karina Okotel will vote no

An excerpt from Karina Okotel's, the Vice President of the Federal Liberal Party, for a 'No' vote for same-sex marriage at the National Press Club.

"The idea of small government is that it's the community's responsibility to take care of people. The government should be facilitating that rather than the government trying to answer everything and be everything."

As she tells it, Okotel signed up to work for the No Campaign because she cares, very deeply, about the rights of children, which she says would be threatened by same-sex marriage.

And so, last week the 37-year-old Legal Aid lawyer from Melbourne briefly exited her own baby bubble – she is mother to nine-week old Grace, as well as a three-year-old and a nearly-two year old – to address the National Press Club on behalf of the No Campaign.

Her speech contained many poorly sourced claims but did not lack passion, which is unsurprising when you look at Okotel's CV, which could easily read as the resume of a stereotypical bleeding heart.


She is the daughter of hard-working Sri Lankan immigrants who worked menial jobs before becoming owners of a liquor store.

"We spent a lot of time at the bottle shop," she says of her childhood.

After studying arts/law at Melbourne University, Okotel did a stint at an orphanage on the Thai/Myanmar border, in a community of displaced Karen people.

She completed her articles as a solicitor and then travelled to Uganda with Baptist World Aid, where she helped with goat rearing projects and peanut farming.

There, she met her husband David, a Ugandan who was also working for Baptist World Aid. The pair went on to make a documentary about Uganda's internally displaced people and child soldiers.

"It's horrific, absolute human rights abuse," she says of Uganda's brutally anti-LGBTI regime.

The couple married in Uganda in 2010, with Karina wearing her mother's wedding sari, and settled in Melbourne.

As a lawyer Okotel has worked for the Tenants' Union, the Mental Health Legal Centre and the Barwon Community Legal Centre.

She says she has always been a Liberal supporter, having grown up the daughter of small business owners.

"The Liberal party's fundamental principles are equality of opportunity, providing a fair go, and a strong safety net," she says.

"The Yes Campaign have framed the debate as being about marriage equality but I think that misconstrues the issues. Same-sex marriage and heterosexual marriage will always be different, because marriage is for founding and making children," she says, while admitting there are "exceptions" to this rule.

"I don't think there is anything wrong with having greater diversity … we should celebrate diversity and not say anything should be the same."

Okotel joined the Liberal party in 2010, in a surge of enthusiasm after the Liberals won the Victorian state election. She was immediately contacted by her local branch secretary and became an involved member, holding down various branch positions, and standing as the 6th (unsuccessful) candidate on the Victorian senate ticket at the 2016 federal election. In June this year she was elected as one of four vice presidents of the federal party.

"I think our party needs to encourage more members. We can turn it around by promoting and explaining our message, about equality of opportunity and reward for effort and helping individuals to chart their own economic destiny."

Several Victorian Liberal sources who spoke to Fairfax Media on background said Okotel was a placed on the national executive as a proxy for the hard-conservative wing of the Victorian Liberals, who draw many of their recruits from conservative Christian communities. Okotel is a church-going Christian (raised Anglican but non-denominational) but denies she is a member of a faction.

"There are no factions in the Liberal party, no formal factions in the sense of the Labor Party having factions. There are friendships."

She will not say with whom she has political friendships.

Okotel lives in the electorate of the strongly pro-SSM Liberal MP Tim Wilson, and says she would happily campaign for him, despite the fact she says her participation in the No campaign is an expression of party members' beliefs.

"A lot of party members were contacting me expressing that they weren't in support of same sex marriage," she says.

"If you do get into a position of leadership, it's incumbent to speak out. I wanted to be that voice for the party members."

Karina says she gets trolled on social media as a consequence of her views and she "worries sometimes at night" for her family's safety.

She says she will accept the result of the postal survey , whatever it is. She is open to another tilt at parliament, but for now she is focused on convincing Australians to vote no. 

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