Malcolm Turnbull has been dealt a political blow this week after the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) withdrew its support for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. The NXT join the Greens and Labor, which all support marriage equality but oppose Turnbull’s desire for a plebiscite. Normally I would be criticising these political parties for getting in the way of a democratic vote on this issue but because of the structure of the Australian political system, the opposition parties are right to be unforgiving.
The Australian government makes a distinction between a plebiscite and a referendum. A plebiscite is related to statutory issue whereas a referendum is regarding constitutional changes.More importantly, a plebiscite is advisory and non-binding. Australia is already behind the curve on this issue and it would be a tremendous waste of time and money to conduct such a vote.
In their most recent election manifesto the Coalition promised to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality. All the opposition parties have shot down the idea because the result is non-binding and parliament would have to vote on the issue afterwards. With opinion polls putting support for marriage equality at around 64%, the opposition needs to keep hammering away on Turnbull’s hesitance.
What is striking about Turnbull’s hesitance is that it is totally irrational. The conservatives in the Coalition want to have a conscience vote, and Turnbull wants supports same-sex marriage. These two things don’t contradict each other. Back in 2013 it was reported by the Law and Bills Digest that: “a number of Coalition members have indicated…they would support marriage equality if the party room determines a conscience vote is available”. There is no conflict here. Liberals in the Coalition want a conscience vote so they can vote for same-sex marriage, and conservatives want a conscience vote so they can vote against it. But not only will it work on a party management level, Turnbull has nothing to lose. He’s repeatedly said that he support legalizing same-sex marriage and a conscience vote would result it being passed.
In the 2016 Federal election the Coalition won a two seat majority. If all the opposition and crossbench MPs in the House voted for marriage equality only two Coalition MPs would be needed to get the bill to pass. Who could be one of those MPs? Malcolm Turnbull. If the entire Coalition voted against same-sex marriage (which incidentally wouldn’t happen) apart from Turnbull and another socially liberal member of the Coalition, the PM would be on the winning side of the vote. In the Senate the case is much the same. If Labor, the Greens, and the NXT voted in favour of equality they would be one vote short of a majority. This would be problematic if no other crossbench or Coalition Senators had come out in support of same-sex marriage, but many have.
There is no point having a vote on an issue that polls show will only go one way and won’t even count for anything. It is much easier to have a vote in Parliament and put this issue to bed. Turnbull’s response actually doesn’t matter. If he allows for a conscience vote then we win, and if he doesn’t Labor will introduce a private member’s bill and force the PM into a decision. Turnbull needs to be pressured from all political parties, including his own, to act decisively. If he doesn’t he will go down in history as an unprincipled leader that wasn’t willing to do what was right. Change is coming to Australia, it’s just a matter of when.