- Sep 30, 2014
- Reaction score
Malcolm Turnbull determined to push ahead with same-sex vote
FEBRUARY 3, 2016 12:00AM
The campaign against the same-sex marriage plebiscite waged by the Labor Party, the Greens and the same-sex marriage lobby has not deflected Malcolm Turnbull and his cabinet from commitment to the plebiscite and the calculation it is a bonus for the government.
The more the same-sex marriage lobby argues it is wrong to put this issue to the people the more many Coalition figures become convinced that putting the issue to the people is the optimal position for both the public interest and the government’s interest.
Political realism means abandoning the plebiscite would be an act of political lunacy by Turnbull. It would repudiate his pledges as Prime Minister, constitute a breach of faith, provoke an open cultural war inside the Liberal Party that would undermine his authority as leader, trigger a crisis with the Nationals, given the plebiscite touches on the Coalition agreement, and shatter Turnbull’s re-election strategy. The downside is lethal and there is no upside. The government would risk a descent into chaos.
Much of the current fracas about the plebiscite is driven by gesture politics.
The motives of those demanding the parliament immediately legislate same-sex marriage need to be examined.
First, it is most unlikely the numbers exist in the House of Representatives to pass a bill. For the advocates, however, this is a secondary issue — if the bill is passed they have a victory and if the bill fails they also have a victory because they can blame the Coalition side for denying same-sex marriage and exploit this at the election.
Attorney-General George Brandis will take a submission to cabinet around the Easter period for the finalisation of the bill establishing the plebiscite and its precise meaning in terms of changes to the Marriage Act.
The plan is for the bill to pass the parliament this year, setting up the plebiscite in the early part of the next parliament.
The plebiscite bill will need to be approved by the Turnbull cabinet and the Coalition partyroom. That will be a highly delicate operation. There is still a majority within the Coalition parties against same-sex marriage — yet those parties will be required to authorise the framework and the precise legislative nature of the change determined by the plebiscite.
The plebiscite itself does not alter the law. But under the Brandis proposal the draft change to the Marriage Act — the intent of the plebiscite — will be publicised so the entire country will understand what it is voting for and against.
Such clarification will be essential for the Turnbull government at the election when it campaigns for same-sex marriage to be decided by the vote of the people and not the vote of the politicians.
Provided the exercise is transparent, Turnbull should be able to make “the people’s choice” into the superior position at the election. Critical in the legislative change will be religious liberty safeguards.
This is where the cultural conservatives in the Liberal Party and the Nationals will focus their efforts. The failure of the parliamentarians so far to properly protect the religious conscience issue has been conspicuous.
One aspect of the plebiscite that has been overlooked is that it gives the Coalition the chance to draft strong religious protection provisions in the bill that is the subject of the plebiscite vote. This has the potential to become the most contentious aspect of the process.
The actual plebiscite question for the public needs to be unbiased and straightforward. Something along the lines of “Are you in favour of the parliament legislating for same-sex marriage?” is being considered.
The plebiscite will occur only if Turnbull wins the election. Labor’s position is rejection of any plebiscite and leaving the issue to the parliament. Legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus says: “The Labor Party is opposed to this plebiscite. It is an expensive public opinion poll now revealed to be a waste of time.”
Will Labor, the Greens and the Senate crossbenchers give passage to the bill establishing the plebiscite? That is not clear. Presumably, the government would have sufficient backing this year to get the bill through the parliament. It is one thing for Labor and the Greens to oppose the plebiscite; it is another to sabotage it. The public might be distinctly unimpressed.
There is no doubt the parliament will honour any “yes” vote. At that point the Turnbull government would submit to the parliament the bill it had published before the plebiscite.
The Labor-Green anti-plebiscite campaign was given fresh oxygen when former Senate Liberal leader Eric Abetz was unwise enough to say he would not be bound by the plebiscite vote. This highlights the obvious — the Liberals will not bind their parliamentarians on the issue. But that will not be necessary.
Turnbull, as PM, has committed to honouring any “yes” vote in the plebiscite. Tony Abbott, who initiated the plebiscite, has also said the parliament must respect any “yes” vote. Any notion in these circumstances that the parliament would defy the will of the people is a nonsense.
There are three levels at which the Brandis draft bill will consider (or not consider) religious freedom.
First, it will safeguard any minister of religion from being compelled to preside at a same-sex marriage.
Second, it will provide a conscientious exemption for any state public servant who has an objection to registering a same-sex marriage, a provision requiring agreement of state governments.
Finally, it is unlikely to offer protection in relation to commercial operations: for example, allowing florists to exercise their freedom of conscience.
It is, moreover, unlikely to address wider and critical issues such the right of religions to refuse to endorse same-sex marriage in their institutions and schools. In the end the cabinet and the partyroom will have their say. It will be a challenging management task for Turnbull.
The conservatives will press for more comprehensive religious protections. If they are clever enough (and they probably are not) the conservatives will use the religious freedom trigger to split the same-sex lobby.
For years this lobby has been divided between those who see same-sex marriage as an ideological device to weaken religious freedom, thereby achieving greater social change, and those who believe the cause of same-sex marriage is assisted by linking it with religious freedom safeguards.
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