The Politics    Thursday, October 22, 2015

Plebiscite ploy

By Nick Feik

The new same-sex marriage proposal from Warren Entsch and Malcolm Turnbull is an attempt to outmanoeuvre their own party

When Tony Abbott came up with the idea of a plebiscite to decide the legality of same-sex marriage, it seemed an ingenious, conniving new way to delay a social change the public clearly supported.

Better still, from the point of view of his supporters, the majority of the public thought a plebiscite was a good idea, even though its problems were manifold: Who would write the question? Would it involve government funding for a divisive and potentially homophobic ‘No’ campaign? Even if the plebiscite passed, how would that translate into legislation, given MPs are not bound by plebiscites? As many sceptics pointed out, a plebiscite organised in bad faith was just as likely to damage the same-sex marriage cause as it was to help.

Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t in favour of a plebiscite before; now he is. It is Coalition policy and he’s upholding it because he promised he would, in order to gain support in the Liberal leadership contest.

But a Turnbull version of this policy will be different from an Abbott one – and the Coalition’s hard-core conservatives are now ropeable, fearing they have been outmanoeuvred again.

According to a proposal being floated by same-sex marriage advocate Warren Entsch, a Queensland Liberal MP, and tacitly supported by Turnbull, a piece of legislation would be introduced into parliament before the popular vote, setting out the wording of the plebiscite question and including a provision to automatically trigger the change of law should there be a ‘Yes’ vote. In other words, even MPs who are opposed to change will have a hand in ushering in the new law, if they are in favour of a plebiscite – as they promised they were. 

It’s as ingenious as was Abbott’s initial plan, and best of all, from Turnbull’s perspective, it doesn’t break any promises or diverge from official Liberal party policy. To make conservatives even angrier, the proposed plan will bring the plebiscite forward to the start of the next parliamentary term, rather than 2017.

Eric Abetz today called the new idea both an ambush and a thought bubble. His colleagues who defend the religious conservatism of their party will fight on: to extend the timetable; to influence the wording; to be given a free vote regardless of the plebiscite vote. The latter only highlights the absurdity of their position: these MPs want a plebiscite that won’t influence their vote, even if it succeeds. They want to torpedo same-sex marriage, however they can, no matter what the public wants. They’re hypocrites, and this was the problem with the original plebiscite proposal – it was deeply insincere.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek described the Entsch proposal as “kooky”, calling a plebiscite just an expensive opinion poll “on whether we’ve voted the right way”. She’s right, and this is the kind of complex mess that occurs when MPs can’t bring themselves to actually represent their constituents, or are forced into positions they won’t own up to. There’s always a price to pay. 

 

Today’s links

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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