The view from Billinudgel

Justice delayed
The government’s string of excuses for inaction on same-sex marriage is getting ridiculous


The most recent piece of procrastination in the campaign for same-sex marriage is the news that preparations for Tony Abbott’s plebiscite on the subject are to be postponed again, at least until after the election.

Apparently they are seen as a distraction. In other words, the solution trumpeted as the absolute acme of democracy, the people’s choice, is seen as a contradiction to the idea of a democratic election, the people’s choice.

This gallimaufry follows the slapping down of Attorney-General George Brandis (a proponent of reform) after he suggested that the plebiscite could be held before the end of the year – Malcolm Turnbull, also a (former) outspoken advocate of marriage equality, rebuked the nation’s chief law officer for premature anticipation.

And now that the pre-election veto on even discussing the issue is in place, it is obvious that the actual vote on the plebiscite will drag well into 2017. And even when it comes, it will be hedged around with caveats and loopholes. We are now told that the so-called simple choice will include exemptions not only for religious celebrants, who will be excused from performing ceremonies for same-sex unions; it will also cover far more general get-out clauses to include freedom of religion and freedom of speech –it seems just about anyone who doesn’t like the idea will be allowed to ignore any law the government might make to enact it.

And this is just the way the hardliners in the Liberal and National parties want it. They have already threatened that they will defy the findings of the plebiscite if it suits them. Turnbull argued that surely no member of parliament would gainsay the people’s decision; but several of them, led by the former senate leader, Eric Abetz, have said that they plan to do precisely that, and Turnbull and can put his public verdict wherever he can stick it.

Turnbull could try to bind his party room, or even introduce a bill in parliament to enforce the plebiscite into law; but even if such a bill were passed, it could still leave the recalcitrants determined to hold their ground. Which means that after the plebiscite we will be back exactly where we started: the decision will be one for the parliament, as it always should have been.

The brawling between the conservatives and the progressives will not be resolved by the plebiscite; indeed, the process will only make it more bitter and divisive. All that will happen is that we will be at least $160 million down the tube.

And the recalcitrants cannot really lose. If the plebiscite goes down, that’s the end of reform for the foreseeable future. But if it gains the majority, they get another chance to stop the change in each of the houses of parliament, and even if they fail in that, there will still be plenty of legal opportunities to hinder and delay those who just want to get on with it and put the whole frustrating process behind them.

Another triumphant legacy of the lingering regime of Anthony John Abbott.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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