In just a few months, Tony Abbott has undergone a profound shift in position on same-sex marriage, from dismissing any popular vote in Australia in the aftermath of the Irish referendum to now embracing a referendum here as a way of solving his political difficulties on the issue and, as Phil Coorey explained in the AFR today, trying to maximise his chances of preventing marriage equality from ever happening.

Yesterday in question time what had the previous night been a mere “disposition” to conduct a referendum after the next election on the issue hardened into an actual policy, without any intervening partyroom discussion. “This government wants the people to decide,” Abbott told Parliament. “Over there they want the politicians’ choice. Over here we want the people’s choice, and what could be fairer than leaving this to the people of Australia?”

What could be fairer, indeed, than leaving major policy issues to the people of Australia, rather than having a group of politicians decide them? It’s a reprise of Abbott’s argument against the republic back in 1999, that a president appointed by Parliament was inferior to a popularly elected president. “You can’t trust politicians,” Abbott warned back then — although he took a radically different view about ministerial powers to prevent Australian women accessing RU-486, which Parliament stripped him of in 2006.

What could be fairer than leaving some other issues to the people of Australia? If Abbott thinks a plebiscite or referendum is fair and appropriate for same-sex marriage, why not for these issues?

  • Tax reform: Australians support forcing multinational companies to pay a minimum tax rate on Australian earnings 76% to 8%, support high taxes on high-income earners 65% to 23% and reductions in super tax concessions 55%-25%. With the Prime Minister unable to lead on tax reform, why not put some reforms to a vote?
  • Pension age: The government is keen to lift the pension age to 70 years, but can’t get the bill through the Senate. Let the people decide! Except they oppose it 69% to 21%.
  • Or there’s renewable energy: the government has slashed Australia’s Renewable Energy Target, but Labor wants to have a goal of 50% renewables by 2030. Surely the people of Australia should have a vote on this key issue? They back it 65% to 16%. But we know how much Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey hate wind farms. Why not ask voters what they think of wind farms, with a view to closing the lot of them? Oops, they back them 76% to 11%.
  • How about penalty rates? Business is pushing hard for penalty rates to be abolished or severely reduced but the government is wary of the risks. Surely the perfect issue to put to voters, who are the ones paying more for their Sunday morning coffee. They back penalty rates 81%-13%.

Or perhaps economic issues are too hard for voters to properly think about and they should be left to the politicians. Maybe Abbott just wants popular votes confined to social issues. So let’s try:

  • Euthanasia: If Abbott is so big on popular votes, surely he’d let Australians decide whether the terminally ill should have access to options for peaceful death. After all, they back it 72% to 12%.
  • Restricting election spending: What could be more democratic than allowing voters to determine how much money is wasted by political parties every election campaign? After all, the bulk of it comes from taxpayers. And 84% of voters support a limit on election ad spending. While we’re at it, we can ask them if they want to cap political donations. That’s a 65%-17% split — in support.
  • And while Abbott might blanch at the thought, why not a referendum on forcing religious groups to comply with the most basic requirements of discrimination law? More than half of Australians want to end the capacity of religious organisation to discriminate in their hiring practices.
  • Or the government could ask Australians whether government agencies should have to get a warrant before they go fishing through Australians’ communications data. Fifty-eight per cent of Australians say they should get a warrant; just 12% say not.

And let’s see the government put the question of Australia’s repeated military interventions in the Middle East to a vote. In 2014, twice as many Australians thought the Howard government’s decision to invade Iraq was the wrong decision one as thought it was the right one, while 50% of Australians oppose sending Australian troops to help “train” Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State.

In fact, here’s a much better idea for a referendum than all of those: let’s ask voters to decide whether they actually want the extraordinarily expensive cost of having over 200 federal politicians if they’re just going to dump politically inconvenient issues off to plebiscites rather than lead the country.

Peter Fray

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