So, the Prime Minister has just confirmed that Coalition MPs will not be bound by the result of the $160 million national plebiscite on whether or not Australia should recognise same sex marriage, and that they will enjoy a “free vote” (ie: not bound by the party’s position) on the matter.
As Malcolm Turnbull explained on Friday 24 June, once the plebiscite is done and if a majority of Australians vote yes, then… um, parliament will vote on legislation to pass marriage equality, which then may or may not happen depending on whether there’s enough support for it among the individual MPs and senators.
“The tradition in the Liberal Party is that on matters of this kind it is a free vote,” Turnbull announced, adding “I have no doubt that if the plebiscite is carried, as I believe it will be, that you will see an overwhelming majority of MPs and senators voting for it.”
In other words, rather than have the federal parliament legislate over marriage (which, as we discovered when the high court overturned the ACT’s brief attempt at legalising same sex marriage in December 2013, is the sole and exclusive preserve of the federal parliament), we’ll have a plebiscite to… um, determine whether or not marriage equality should be debated in parliament.
And that’s an interesting – some might say “nonsensical” – sort of an argument, since the entire justification of the plebiscite was that the Liberal Party could not settle the issue this via a free vote. The very existence of the plebiscite, in other words, undermines the justification for the existence of the plebiscite.
Or, to put it another way, if we can apparently have a free vote, why not just have a goddamn free vote?
The argument is that we can’t, obviously, since legislating about the legal definition of marriage is far too important a change for the parliament to do. You know, despite having done exactly that in 2004.
When marriage equality bills were introduced into the 44th Parliament by senator David Leyonhjelm, the Greens and Labor, then-PM Tony Abbott refused to even table them on the grounds that “If our parliament were to make a big decision on a matter such as this, it ought to be owned by the parliament and not by any particular party.”
Weirdly enough, when a bill which was owned “not by any particular party” was subsequently introduced by Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch and Labor MP Terri Butler and seconded by a multi-party coalition of Liberal MP Teresa Gambaro, Labor MP Laurie Ferguson, independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, and the Greens’ Adam Bandt, the song abruptly changed.
No longer was it enough for the matter to be owned by the parliament: “The disposition,” the PM Tony Abbott proudly explained in August 2015, “is that it should happen through a people’s vote rather than simply through a Parliament’s vote.”
Turnbull maintained this line after taking power, partially because it was a condition that the National Party set in order to maintain the Coalition.
“When the Australian people make their decision, that decision will stick. It will be decisive. It will be respected by this government and by this parliament and this nation,” he insisted. “Let me tell you this. If you imagine that any government… would spend over $150 million consulting every Australian on an issue of this kind and then ignore their decision, then they really are not living in the real world.”
However, the problem was that many members of the government were perfectly happy to ignore the decision: Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz made clear that “Every member of parliament will make up his or her mind after the plebiscite is held,” and questions were asked about how a non-binding public vote was going to somehow oblige MPs and senators to vote in a law.
And it turns out the answer is simple: it can’t! And it won’t!
As we just learned, in the event that the majority of Australians (calculated in a way yet to be determined) vote yes on a question (which is also yet to be determined) to recognise same sex marriage, that will not actually result in a law, which will evidently be passed or defeated in the usual way – almost as though this is just like every other law, and maybe doesn’t need some huge song and dance around it.
And of course, this wildly contradictory series of obvious rule-changing and evasions would all makes sense if the plebiscite was just an expensive, time-wasting method of placating the special terror-feelings of social conservatives in the Liberal and National Parties, but that would be cynical.
No, clearly the plebiscite was a great way to settle a controversial issue by spending $160 million in order to decide… er, whether or not to have a free vote.
You know, identical to the one which is apparently not an option.