SYDNEY -- Federal Labor has questioned the Prime Minister’s commitment to holding a marriage equality plebiscite soon after the next election, as no funding for a people’s vote appeared in the mid-year budget update.
Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, who supports the Labor policy of a conscience vote but has previous advocated for an ALP binding vote, has told The Huffington Post Australia that the more expensive route of a plebiscite in 2017 was not allotted in Tuesday’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO).
“Having announced it, after the budget and before this mid-year update, I would have thought that $158 million or so would have been reflected in the mid-year update,” Plibersek told HuffPost Australia.
“If it is going to be in the next few years, why hasn’t provision been made for it?”
“And if it is not going to be in the next few years how does Malcolm Turnbull answer to the Australian people?”
Turnbull is a confirmed supporter of marriage equality, who has previously stood out in the Liberal Party as a backer of a conscience vote.
In deal with the right factions in the Coalition, Turnbull committed to Tony Abbott’s plan for a plebiscite. While the finer details such as timing and wording have not been worked out, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) had provided the cost estimate of $158 million to a Senate hearing.
“I think many Australians were disappointed when Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister that his previous support for marriage equality seemed to have evaporated with his ambition to become Prime Minister,” Plibersek said.
Plibersek cites a Labor precedent for reflecting referendum costs in the Budget papers.
“Certainly when Labor was in Government and we had a commitment to a referendum about the recognition of local government, we did make provision in the budget papers for that,” she said.
“We set aside, about, just under $56 million to hold that referendum at the time of the next election so our principle has been that if you do have a firm commitment to have a referendum it makes sense to make financial provision for that.”
She says the Treasurer Scott Morrison should show the details for a same-sex marriage plebiscite no differently when trying to balance Australia’s books.
“Well I don’t think you get to make it up as you go along if you are Treasurer really do you? This is a very substantial spending commitment,” the Deputy Leader said.
“I think it is a big mistake to have a plebiscite and I think the very high cost of it is a very strong reason not to do it. Nevertheless, it is government policy. They have made a very firm announcement that they will be doing it.”
A private members bill, co-sponsored by Liberal MP Warren Entsch and Labor’s Terri Butler, to change the Marriage Act and introduce same-sex marriage is sitting idle in the House of Representatives.
Labor’s official policy, if elected, is to hold a parliamentary vote within the first 100 days of a Shorten Labor Government. The ALP would stick to a conscience vote for the next term of government, until a binding vote would be introduced in 2019.
“Malcolm Turnbull has been on the record saying that a plebiscite is a dumb idea,” Plibersek told HuffPost Australia.
“Now he is in a position where he’s defending a proposal from Tony Abbott that he was very critical of at the time.”
In October, Turnbull was asked if Liberals and Nationals would be bound by the plebiscite if it returned a "yes" result.
"I think it's an absolutely reasonable request and the answer is that the consequence of a 'yes' vote in the plebiscite will be that same-sex marriage will be legal in Australia,” the Prime Minister told parliament.
Asked if the absence of financial details could give the Prime Minister "wriggle room" or greater options after the next election, due next year, Plibersek said that was unlikely.
“I think that is an extremely generous interpretation," she declared.
The Prime Minister and Treasurer's offices have been contacted for comment.