WTF Is Actually Going On With The Marriage Equality Plebiscite?

What, where, when, why, how.

26/09/2016 11:01 AM AEST | Updated 26/09/2016 7:50 PM AEST

Australia is the last English-speaking developed country in the world to not allow same-sex marriage. With calls mounting for many years to legislate for marriage equality, the Coalition government has committed to a plebiscite vote on the issue, planned for February 2017. Labor has been vehemently opposed to the idea, but both sides met in Brisbane on Monday to talk details and possible compromise.

However, the hour-long meeting didn't really go anywhere. Labor's Mark Dreyfus and Terri Butler claim that the Coalition did not offer any concessions, while Attorney-General George Brandis claims Labor's representatives wouldn't put forward any suggestions to compromise on the plebicsite.

"We were prepared to listen to anything that Mr Dreyfus and Ms Butler put forward, but unfortunately they put forward nothing," Brandis said at a press conference following the talks on Monday.

Speaking on The Project on Monday night, Dreyfus said the Coalition could have indicated "some preparedness to change the plebiscite that they have put forward, and they didn't."

That's the issue in a nutshell, and the blame game continues. But for those of you who haven't been following every incremental update, you might be wondering 'why is this happening?', 'it's going to cost HOW MUCH?', and 'seriously what's going on here?'

Let's go through some of your questions and try to figure out exactly WTF this is all about.

What is a plebiscite?

"A plebiscite is a vote by citizens on a matter of national significance, but one which does not affect the Constitution. Moreover, plebiscites are normally advisory, and do not compel a government to act on the outcome" -- Parliament of Australia website.

A plebiscite, also known as an advisory referendum, is basically a national vote where the government asks a question of the Australian people. Imagine a big massive national opinion poll. It's a little like a referendum, but the difference is, a plebiscite is not necessarily binding; our politicians aren't bound to honour or legislate the result of the vote.

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We might be back to the voting booth by February

Not binding? Then why are we having one?

We're having a plebiscite because Tony Abbott was opposed to legislating marriage equality in the parliament. As pressure from Labor, the Greens and the public grew in support of same-sex marriage, the conservative then-Prime Minister avoided bringing on a parliamentary vote on the issue, but proposed a national vote to see if the Australian people were 'ready' for it.

"The disposition, as I said, is that it should happen through a people's vote rather than simply through a Parliament's vote," Abbott said in August 2015.

Just a month later, Abbott was deposed by Malcolm Turnbull but the plebiscite idea remained. Turnbull has committed to keeping the national vote, rather than pushing for a parliamentary vote; some saw his retention of the policy as part of a deal with the party's conservative wing that saw him topple Abbott as leader.

A plebiscite's result does not necessarily bind the parliament to follow that result. Indeed, conservatives like Eric Abetz have said they will make up their own minds. This is one of Labor's biggest criticisms of the vote, and the opposition has said the vote would need to be "self-executing" (ie, that a 'yes' result would automatically lead to legislation being passed) to give their support.

However, both attorney-general George Brandis and Turnbull have promised that if the plebiscite returns a 'yes' vote, then legislation to allow marriage equality will be introduced soon after.

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Marriage equality has turned into a political headache for Malcolm Turnbull

So is the plebiscite going to happen?

The government recently laid out their plans for the plebiscite -- February 11, a compulsory vote, $7.5 million in public funding for the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns, the question being "should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?" -- but it may not happen at all. The government has a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives, but not enough support in the Senate for the plebiscite legislation to pass the upper house. The government needs 39 votes to pass the Senate; they only have 30 senators, and one of those, Dean Smith, has said he won't vote for it.

That means the Coalition needs up to 10 votes in the Senate. The Greens won't help them. That means they will either need to enlist almost all of the diverse crossbench, some of whom have already voiced opposition to the idea, or Labor. Labor don't want a plebiscite.

If Labor supports marriage equality, why won't they support a plebiscite?

Labor want a free parliamentary vote on marriage equality. They say it would save money, be faster, and less damaging than a plebiscite campaign. Labor have been praised for opposing the plebiscite plan so far, citing the cost, the public funding, the non-binding nature of the public poll, and especially the feared damaging impact of a negative anti-equality campaign. Labor leader Bill Shorten has warned of potential suicides in the wake of such a campaign.

It's also going to cost $200 million for the national poll, which includes money to set up the poll, pay for staff to run it, the $15 million in public funding, plus $32.5 million in an increased "average annual regulatory burden" of "the time taken for people to cast a vote in the plebiscite". In other words, lost productivity and time for businesses who have to let their employees head out to vote.

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Bill Shorten has strongly opposed the plebiscite

However, attorney-general George Brandis and his shadow counterpart Mark Dreyfus are meeting in Brisbane on Monday to talk details. Labor have a list of demands that they want before they even consider supporting the plebiscite, including scrapping public funding for the respective campaigns.

What are the politicians saying about it now?

"The whole essence of the 'no' campaign is going to be one which says 'treat some of our citizens as less than equal' and its implicit that there will be offensive given," Dreyfus said on ABC Radio on Monday.

"I've had dozens and dozens of emails just in the last couple of days from the LGBTI community urging that there be no plebiscite, urging Labor to hold the line saying this is a harmful, divisive plebiscite that they don't want, and they are prepared to wait some time for that vote in the Parliament that will bring marriage equality about."

Turnbull has put the pressure back on Labor.

"What we've said is if you have something to put to us, we'll listen carefully and consider it," he said on Monday, of the Brisbane meeting.

"The ball is in Labor's court on this issue. We've set out a plan."

Shorten has, in turn, taken aim at Turnbull, and said he will be pushing for significant changes to the plebiscite before agreeing to it.

"We want to see if the Government is prepared to make concessions at all in the process. They want Labor to vote in the measure but they present a take it or leave it approach. It is the height of arrogance," Shorten said on Monday.

"Senator Brandis has to confirm nobody will suffer hate-speech because of the debate. How does he explain the wasting of $20 million and the fact that the Australians have to vote but politicians don't?"

So, what next?

Labor has, so far, all but ruled out ever supporting the plebiscite. But with Monday's Brisbane meeting, negotiations are definitely on, and Brandis told reporters he would be willing to meet with Labor again before Parliament resumes on October 10.

Most likely, Labor will continue to oppose the plan, the plebiscite legislation will fail in the Senate, and calls for a parliamentary vote on marriage equality will start anew.

On Monday night, Dreyfus said a Labor caucus meeting on October 11 would decide whether the ALP block the plebiscite bill.

However, Brandis has said that blocking the plebiscite will not lead to a parliamentary vote, and that it may in fact delay marriage equality "for many years to come".

On Monday night, Brandis renewed his plea to Labor leader Bill Shorten.

"Stop playing politics with the lives of gay people," the attorney-general said on The 7:30 Report.

"We have put forward an electorally-endorsed, credible, feasible way of taking this forward,which I believe, very firmly, is likely to see a 'yes' vote succeed."

In the meantime, yes. We're still waiting.

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