When Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbott in a party coup in September last year to become Australia’s prime minister, part of the internal party deal to allow him the leadership was an agreement that a national plebiscite on same sex marriage would be held –rather than legislation on the issue being submitting to the parliament first.
In his haste to secure the prime ministership, Turnbull agreed to this proposal, lacking the foresight to see just what a headache it would become.
Same sex marriage is legalized in culturally comparable countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, and also in the United States, where state-level bans were ruled unconstitutional last year. Like these countries, the issue has become a norm within the realm of ideas in Australian society; however, legislation to reflect this norm has yet to be passed.
While opinion polls show a strong majority of the public supports allowing same sex couples to marry, and a vote on any legislation not subject to a party whip would pass through Parliament quite easily, the internal party politics of the Liberal Party stands in the way.
The ultra-conservative members of the Liberal Party are intent on flexing their muscles. They resent Turnbull’s replacement of their man, Tony Abbott, as the country’s prime minister and have no intention of making life easy for him. The issue of same sex marriage represents an affront to their values, but it also serves as a proxy for a wider power struggle within the party.
Their power within the governing Coalition remains disproportionate to the power their ideas have within civil society, and this is a position they wish to maintain. If same sex marriage is an inevitable eventuality, they hope to make the process as messy as possible.
This is where the idea of a plebiscite came from. The result of a plebiscite is not binding, unlike a referendum; it is simply an expensive opinion poll, costing around AUD$160 million (US$120 million) to conduct. But its aim is to create a heated national debate, a final public airing of grievances before the reality of this new social norm is implemented.
Psychologists and public health advocates have stated that this process could be potentially harmful for any LGBTIQ Australians, who may have to suffer a campaign of abuse in the lead up to the plebiscite.
For this reason the Greens, the three Nick Xenophon Team senators, and Senator Derryn Hinch have all stated that they will vote against the legislation required to implement the plebiscite. If Labor decides to also vote against it, the legislation cannot pass. Labor has given a strong indication that they will oppose the plebiscite on these grounds, but they are waiting on their internal party process to formalize the decision.
In addition, there is also the argument that to take this issue to a national plebiscite would fundamentally undermine the idea of representative democracy. It would set a precedent for a string of plebiscites to be initiated for other issues deemed controversial. One Liberal Party senator has broken ranks with his party to publicly state this view, and indicated he will vote against holding a plebiscite.
This week the government presented the Plebiscite (Same Sex Marriage) Bill to the lower house of Parliament, which it controls, indicating it will be held on February 11 next year. It will be several weeks before the legislation is put before the Senate, but it is most likely to fail.
The government has stated that if the plebiscite doesn’t go ahead then the issue will not be returned to in this parliamentary term — indicating to supporters of same sex marriage that it will be a three year wait to revisit the issue and attempting to pressure Labor to allow the plebiscite to take place. This tactic, however, is unlikely to work.
Labor, the Greens, and the Liberal-Democrats all have bills to present to Parliament to legalize same sex marriage via a parliamentary vote. However, the government won’t acquiesce to such significant legislation being passed without originating from their own bench. These bills are designed to create momentum among constituents and to consistently hassle the government over the issue, even if they won’t be passed.
This indicates that it is highly unlikely the issue will disappear for three years should the legislation for a plebiscite be defeated. The pressure on the prime minister, from both outside and inside his party, to allow an unwhipped vote in Parliament will be immense. Should Turnbull maintain his current position on the plebiscite he will make himself unelectable at the next election, but should he concede and allow a parliamentary vote without it a party split and the loss of government becomes a strong possibility.
This kind of no-win bind is exactly the situation the Liberal Party’s conservative elements have sought to place Turnbull in. It is an indication that while he may be in the prime minister’s office, he’s not in power. He has clearly been outplayed politically by members of his own party, who remain his true constituency, rather than the Australian public.
This situation is strong indication of the fragility of the current government as it exposes the increasingly untenable existence of the Liberal Party in its current form.