25 June 2016
by Mark Kenny
Same-sex marriage: Secret moves within Coalition to hobble plebiscitePrime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Friday that Coalition MPs would be free to ignore the result of the plebiscite and vote with their conscience.
A secret push is under way within the Coalition party room to hobble any positive public vote in favour of same-sex marriage equality by giving conservative MPs and senators express permission to vote in Parliament against reform if their individual electorates had voted in a majority for "no".
The ploy, which was to be kept under wraps until after the election, has been crafted to allow conservative anti-marriage equality campaigners to concentrate their resources in conservative-leaning regional and outer-suburban electorates where there is the greatest chance of winning enough individual contests to frustrate an expected popular vote, in Parliament.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is coming under increasing pressure to outline the precise details of the same-sex marriage equality plebiscite, which he says he fully expects will succeed when it is held sometime before the end of 2016 – assuming he is re-elected.
But crucial aspects of the ballot – including the wording of the question to be put – remain scant, and public support for the legally non-binding vote appears to be falling away amid fears it will unleash vitriol and abuse, prove costly, and, because it will have no legal force.
An online poll of 2998 people conducted by RealPoll and the Centre for Applied Political Psychology for the Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays, challenged the frequent claim of support for a public vote, finding instead that some 60 per cent of Australians were either undecided, or against resolving the marriage question via a plebiscite.
Less than half of voters at 40.4 per cent favoured the plebiscite and those numbers dropped away further when respondents were asked to take into account the expected $160 million cost, the fact that the plebiscite would not be binding on the parliament, and the potential for the public expression of prejudice against same sex couples and gay during a plebiscite campaign period.
Speaking for PFLAG, Shelly Argent, said the survey exposed the myth of the plebiscite being popular, branding it instead, a "cowardly" move.
"This national survey found that support for a plebiscite is lower than politicians assume, and collapses once voters understand it will be a burden on taxpayers, won't bind politicians and will damage the mental health of vulnerable people", she said.
"This matter needs to be dealt with sensibly in the Federal Parliament and not reduced to a slanging match in the public square with our children used as political punching bags."
When Mr Turnbull was asked on Friday if cabinet members would be bound to support the plebiscite result, he said: "The tradition in the Liberal Party is that on matters of this kind it is a free vote," before 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."
Mr Turnbull told ABC's 7.30 program that he understood his colleagues and was confident the vote would "sail through the Parliament".
However, Fairfax Media has been told by dual sources that backroom discussions between Attorney-General George Brandis and disgruntled conservative MPs opposed to any change have centred around an understanding that after the election it would be stated that MPs would be free to vote according to the will of their specific electorates.
It means MPs voting "no" in the parliament could be made up of those doing so on the basis of their conscience as well as a number who claim their electorates support a "no" vote.
An MP who backs change described that arrangement as "a disgrace" that would make a mockery of the plebiscite.
"It's already non-binding, and now they're finding other ways to ignore a majority vote as well," said the MP.
A spokesman for Senator Brandis on Friday said the government will respect the decision of the plebiscite.
"As the Prime Minister said today, MPs will be guided by the outcome of the plebiscite and if it carries, the bill will pass the Parliament," he said.
"Similar to the development of any policy commitment, the mechanics for the plebiscite and amendments to the Marriage Act, will be subject to the usual cabinet, party room and parliamentary processes after the election," he said.
Any public licence granted to conservative MPs and senators to follow their individual electorates would seriously reduce the positive numbers on the floor of the Parliament, although a majority would still be likely given strong Labor/Greens support.
However, pro-reform campaigners warn that the groups opposed to same-sex marriage equality such as the Australian Christian Lobby, and the Catholic Church, would be able to focus on lifting the "no" vote in particular areas and then on pressuring Liberal and Nationals MPs and senators to faithfully reflect the "democratically" expressed will of their constituents.
Several anti-change conservative figures including Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott have already stated they would comply with the plebiscite and vote "yes" if that is the result.