A Plebiscite Holds Real Risks For Achieving Marriage Equality

We could win the national vote but still lose the vote in parliament.

30/08/2016 3:02 PM AEST | Updated 31/08/2016 11:11 AM AEST
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"The LGBTI community has said overwhelmingly in a recent survey that it can wait for marriage equality if it means avoiding a plebiscite."

Having dedicated myself to campaigning against a costly, divisive, unnecessary marriage equality plebiscite I am pleased the Senate looks increasingly likely to block it.

But I'm shocked by how many otherwise pragmatic commentators and skeptical journalists and have fallen for the government's line that a plebiscite is the only way forward on marriage equality. Their argument is that Malcolm Turnbull's leadership depends on having a plebiscite and blocking a free vote. They say the situation preferred by an overwhelming majority of LGBTI people -- blocking a plebiscite and allowing a free vote -- is a vain dream. Their conclusion is that same-sex partners who want to marry any time soon should put aside their concerns and get behind a plebiscite.

That's nonsense for two reasons: A plebiscite is by no means a sure-fire way to achieve marriage, and a vote in parliament, even if it relies on Liberals crossing the floor, gives marriage equality a better chance of success.

First, let's deal with the false hope offered by a plebiscite.

Some public figures believe a plebiscite could be lost, and have pointed to Brexit as a example of a public vote that went terribly wrong, largely because of successful fear-mongering.

There is a risk of an outright loss at the ballot box, especially if the question is poorly framed or voters are given the option to tick "abstain" or be "undecided". But if the plebiscite is fairly framed, I'm pretty confident Australians will vote 'yes' in a plebiscite. A greater concern is that the result won't be as high as some opinion polls suggest.

Whenever marriage equality is associated with controversy, is seen as "political", or has been subject to sufficient scaremongering, support falls by up to 10 percent. I've seen that happen whenever the issue hits the headlines over the past decade and it will doubtless happen again during a plebiscite.

Galaxy research puts the current level of support at 65 percent and Essential at 58 percent. If "the controversy effect" is the same now as it has been in the past, the plebiscite result will be in the early 50s.

And there's the rub: a national result of 50-55 percent means that the result in a swath of individual rural, regional and outer urban electorates will fall below 50 percent. These include electorates where sitting members currently support marriage equality, but may well feel they have to vote against it because their constituents have.

Remember, a plebiscite isn't binding and Malcom Turnbull has confirmed MPs will be free to vote according to the result in their electorate. In short, we could win the national vote but still lose the vote in parliament.

Groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby know this, which is why they are gearing up to throw all their resources at these seats. It makes no sense to me that supporters of marriage equality would risk the majority support we currently have in parliament by going to a plebiscite.

Now, let's take a look at that majority support in parliament and if it can be harnessed to pass marriage equality without a plebiscite.

If the Senate vetoes a plebiscite, the landscape changes and there will be pressure for the issue to return to the Liberal Party room. It's impossible to see how Malcolm Turnbull, Kelly O'Dwyer, Simon Birmingham, Trent Zimmermann and other Liberal supporters of marriage equality could go to the next election without any progress on the issue.

Blaming Labor won't cut it for long, certainly not by the time of the next election.

On top of this is the fact that last year, at the same time he announced a plebiscite, Tony Abbott said there would be a free vote on marriage equality for Coalition members after the election.

Right there is the Coalition's Plan B, should Plan A (a plebiscite) be voted down.

But even if I'm wrong and there is no free vote, there's still a parliamentary path forward.

A majority of Senators back marriage equality (41 out of 76) of whom eight are Coalition members who don't have a free vote. This means we need six more votes to make up a majority.

In the Lower House there is also majority support (86 out of 150) of whom eighteen are Coalition members who don't have a free vote. This means we are short just eight votes.

In both houses, the extra votes needed to pass marriage equality could come from a combination of Catholic Labor members who have yet to vote "yes" and backbench Coalition members willing to cross the floor (under Coalition rules Cabinet members must follow party policy but backbenchers can cross the floor with impunity).

In the Senate, the pool from which the required six votes could come include seven Catholic Labor senators and four backbench Liberals -- a total of 11. In the House of Representatives the pool from which we need to draw the extra eight votes is made up of three Catholic Labor members and ten Coalition backbenchers -- a total of 13.

I'm hopeful about the possibility of making up the required numbers for a number of reasons.

The Catholic Shoppies Union that has policed its Labor members up until now has softened its stance against marriage equality. Bill Shorten is putting more political capital into marriage equality than any other major party leader ever.

On the other side of the aisle are backbench Liberals who would be doing Malcolm Turnbull a favour removing marriage equality as a source of destabilisation within the Coalition and as a culture war battlefield in the electorate.

There are plenty of precedents for all this.

Last year, several long-time right-wing Labor opponents of marriage equality changed their position and became supporters. At the same time, in the absence of a free vote, two Liberals co-sponsored a marriage equality bill. Only two years before, Liberals crossed the floor in the Senate to vote for such a bill.

Even without a free vote there is a path forward for marriage equality in both houses of parliament. I'm not saying it's an easy path. Neither am I saying a plebiscite will categorically not deliver marriage equality. I am simply saying the government's spin about "a plebiscite or nothing" is shallow and self-serving.

A plebiscite holds real risks for achieving marriage equality and in parliament there are real opportunities for moving it forward.

When we stack these risks and opportunities up against the damage a plebiscite will cause, and the fact the LGBTI community has said overwhelmingly in a recent survey that it can wait for marriage equality if it means avoiding a plebiscite, the best way forward for marriage equality is obviously through parliament.

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