POLITICS

Turnbull: The Plebiscite Is Not Dead

It can't be held in February, but the Prime Minister is refusing to move on.

15/12/2016 12:41 PM AEDT | Updated 19/12/2016 1:22 PM AEDT
Andrew Meares, Fairfax
Malcolm Turnbull says the plebiscite is still government policy.

CANBERRA -- Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declared there is no change to the government's policy on the same sex marriage plebiscite in a message that will delight conservatives and potentially dash the hopes of moderates hoping for a new year re-think on marriage equality.

In an end-of-year interview with The Huffington Post Australia, Turnbull also put forward his hopes for a more inclusive Australia in 2017 as he prepares to put a firm stamp on his prime ministership.

In October, Labor combined with the Senate crossbench to scuttle the government's plans for a February 17 people's vote to change the Marriage Act by refusing to support enabling legislation.

The opposition said the plebiscite was too expensive, non-binding and more than likely to cause harm to LGBTQ people, possibly to the point of suicide. Mental health experts agreed on the potential harm. There was also criticism, including from within the Liberal Party, that a plebiscite bypassed Westminster tradition by giving away important decisions that parliamentarians should be making.

On logistics alone, it is now impossible for the plebiscite to be held in February, but Turnbull has told HuffPost Australia the proposal for a people's vote over a vote from parliamentarians is not a dead policy.

"Well the plebiscite remains the government's policy," Turnbull told HuffPost Australia. "Obviously we were not able to secure support of the senate and that was entirely due to Bill Shorten.

"This is the same Bill Shorten who in 2013 no less supported a plebiscite. He actually advocated one. And so the reason why same-sex couples will not be getting married in February is because of Bill Shorten. He has got to face up to that."

With the failure to pass the plebiscite legislation, Liberal MP and marriage equality supporter Tim Wilson is now of the view he has "discharged" his responsibilities on the measure and is now free to advocate for his preferred option of a parliamentary free vote.

Turnbull is on record, before becoming prime minister, as also supporting a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. HuffPost Australia asked the PM if he had also "discharged" his responsibilities, but he stood by the plebiscite as "our policy".

Asked if he would support moderates in the Liberal Party who are reportedly pushing to bring on a free vote in parliament before the next election, Turnbull stood firm.

"The party's position, the coalition's position is that the issue should be determined by a plebiscite and that policy remains," he stressed.

"If we thought the Senate would pass it, if Bill; Shorten called and said 'I have changed my mind', of course we would legislate for that."

That option appears extremely unlikely, and so Australia is in a state of marriage equality deadlock.

"We present legislation to the Senate when we believe it can be passed," Turnbull said. "If we feel we can't, if it is clear that it won't be passed then we have many other items of legislation to present to the senate where we do have prospects of agreement.

"But the position in the Senate on that issue I think is clear."

Now almost a year and half into the top job after toppling Tony Abbott, the start of 2017 is shaping up as Turnbull's moment to truly carve out his leadership. A major headline speech from the Prime Minister is expected in the new year.

After the return of One Nation on the federal scene in the July 2 election and with more than a nod to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the prime minister is striving for more inclusive Australia.

"Everything I do, every element of policy is designed to support and inclusive Australia," Turnbull said.

"When I talk about an inclusive Australia, I am talking about an inclusive Australia where we are going though considerable economy change. An Australia where we must ensure that as our economy changes, nobody is left behind."

There has not been the best news of late. The economy has shrunk, the budget deficit has expanded and the big mining construction projects are largely done.

Australia has just come through its worst three-month period of economic growth since the Global Financial Crisis.

The half year budget update, the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO), will be released in Monday. It is expected it will show that net commonwealth debt will rise yet again and there are warnings that Australia's treasured Triple A credit rating is at risk.

The Prime Minister told HuffPost Australia his government is focused on regional communities, citing the defence deal done with Singapore to spend $2.25 billion in central and north Queensland.

"It is important that all Australians are benefitting from this great Australian project," he said. "So inclusion and fairness are absolutely fundamental to my political, my economic and my government's economic agenda."

Australia's good times can't roll on forever and there's a whole lot more than political futures on the line.

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