Karina Okotel is a 37-year-old Australian lawyer who has volunteered for charities in Thailand and Africa and made a documentary about refugees and child soldiers. She lives with her Ugandan husband and three children in Melbourne and her parents were Sri Lankan immigrants. She’s not a person you’d immediately expect to be fronting a campaign to stop gay and lesbian Australians from having the right to marry.
But Ms Okotel is not only those things. She has been a member of the Liberal party since 2010 and vice president since June. She is a devout Christian, meeting husband David while working on farms for Baptist World Aid. She is in fact more conservative than many in her party, with Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal president Nick Greiner and her local Liberal MP Tim Wilson all in favour of same-sex marriage.
Ms Okotel decided to come out of maternity leave – her youngest daughter is just 10 weeks old – to throw her weight behind the Coalition for Marriage. And her star has been rising ever since.
“Members felt they were being ignored,” she told news.com.au. “We had passed motions of traditional marriage, especially in Victoria.”
On September 1, she wrote an emotive opinion piece for The Australian about “our freedoms” – of speech and religion. She debated the issue on ABC Radio national with Liberal gay rights supporter Christine Forster, who confronted her on how changes to civil marriage law – on divorce, for example – previously took place without affecting religious schools.
But it was after Ms Okotel gave a dramatic speech opposing same-sex marriage at the National Press Club two weeks ago that she really started gaining attention, with Fairfax Media dubbing her “the ‘bleeding heart’ lawyer who opposes same-sex marriage” and Crikey noting that, “Unlike Lyle Shelton, she has come seemingly from nowhere to become one of the faces of the No campaign”.
And unlike the white, male Australian Christian Lobby chief, she may have a bigger impact in hammering home the “OK to vote no” slogan across the community.
The mother of three used her Press Club speech to read out shocking examples of online abuse towards No supporters.
When she speaks to news.com.au, she is eager to share stories of racist and sexist abuse she has endured, as well as listing the examples we know. “I’ve received a lot of support and encouragement but now I’ve got trolls,” she says.
“There are a lot of derogatory comments, the c-word, telling me to go home, a lot of sexual comments … It’s quite strange.
“I was campaigning even out on the streets, holding signs and someone said, ‘Yes to marriage equality, no to immigrants.'”
Ms Okotel was with two fellow campaigners of Chinese and African descent. “We thought that was very strange,” she repeats.
She sprinkles her conversation with references to the importance of “caring” and “compassion” in her life. “I hope I am a person who is compassionate, I try to be someone who is caring and that’s really important to me,” she says. “[The No campaign is] not a campaign that’s uncaring or unkind, it is caring about the impact of future generations, religious freedoms, kids and freedom.”
The young lawyer, who has worked at a soup kitchen and pro-bono health centre in Victoria, is perfect for the benign image the No campaign wants to project, although her arguments are nothing new.
She focuses closely on freedom of speech, potential effects on education and the effects on children of same-sex parents who will never know a biological parent – despite the fact that gay couples can already have children.
“What I understand from the Left’s view is that marriage is all about love,” she says. “That’s a red herring. It was never just about that.
“In Sri Lanka, you see arranged marriages, they work. Marriage has always been about family and a stable environment for kids.”
Her goal is simple – to be calm and measured while painting ‘Yes’ advocates as rabid and aggressive. It’s a tactic that has been proving increasingly successful for the Coalition for Marriage following weak support in the polls for its viewpoint.
Ms Okotel appears to be just the character the No campaign needs, with the determination to match.
Last year, she wrote an article describing herself as a lawyer who had worked in family violence calling for more regulation of advertising, because “all advertisements visible to children in public should demonstrate respect for women and not sexual objectification.”
The Victoria Legal Aid employee is firmly behind the Government’s hard line immigration policies – speaking passionately about deaths at the hands of people smugglers.
She has dire predictions for what will happen if the ‘Yes’ campaign succeeds, but if it happens, she won’t be going anywhere.
After a running as a Victorian Senate candidate last year, she may be ready to aim high once more.