Eric Abetz
Senator Eric Abetz (Image: AAP)

The Coalition is refusing to outline how the plebiscite on same-sex marriage will work until after the election, sparking concerns that conservative MPs dead against the idea of same-sex marriage becoming legal in Australia will throw up every hurdle they can to ensure that the supposed “popular vote” fails to pass. But with broad public support for legalising marriage equality, can conservative MPs sabotage the vote?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, himself opposed to the idea of the plebiscite, has been stuck with it as a result of the deals he made to become prime minister. He is now its strongest advocate, suggesting that the polls back a popular vote on same-sex marriage, rather than the politicians just getting on and doing what we elected them to do. Turnbull said this week:

“The truth is that if we win the election, we will have the plebiscite, it will be conducted in a respectful manner. People do have different views on the issue, they are entitled to those views. It will be conducted in a respectful manner and we the Australian people will make a decision. As you know, I will be voting yes in the same sex marriage plebiscite but I respect the views of those who will vote no. I believe it will be carried, time will tell.”

But details about what the plebiscite — expected to be held before the end of this year — will actually look like remain scarce, aside from a basic $160 million set aside in the contingency reserve in the budget. The government has been drafting legislation to support the plebiscite before the election was called but refused to release it, with The Australian reporting that there were fears within the Coalition that the wording of the question, or how the plebiscite was set up would split the party in the lead-up to the election.

[Why is Abbott pushing for a referendum or plebiscite? And what’s the difference?]

Unlike a referendum, there are no set rules on how a plebiscite would need to be run or whether voting would be compulsory, and it is ultimately not legally binding. It can be designed in a way to make it easier or for marriage equality to pass. Gay news website SameSame reports this week that some within the Liberal Party fear that there will be a push to hamstring the plebiscite by requiring a majority of electorates — rather than a majority of voters — to support the change.

A spokesperson for the Coalition told Crikey in a statement that the party had no set guidelines for how the plebiscite would operate, stating it would be a matter for the Coalition party room and cabinet after the election:

“Similar to the development of any policy commitment, the mechanics for the plebiscite and amendments to the Marriage Act, will be subject to the usual Cabinet, party room and parliamentary processes after the election. If the majority of Australians vote ‘yes’ in the plebiscite, their decision will be respected by the government and the parliament and same-sex marriage will be legalised in Australia.”

The fear that conservatives will seek to spoil the plebiscite process has been largely sparked as a result of conservative politicians such as Eric Abetz suggesting politicians would need to decide if the plebiscite accurately reflected the views of Australians, and their individual electorates. That is the other way the plebiscite could fail — because it is not legally binding, politicians are free to ignore a positive result and still vote against same-sex marriage.

The wording of the question could also potentially throw up a road block on the path to equality for gay couples. A question along the lines of: “Do you support letting same-sex couples get married?” or “do you support Australia allowing marriage between two people regardless of their gender?” would be more likely to pass than the questions proposed by Lawyers for the Preservation of the Definition of Marriage, for example:

“Should s 51(xxi) of the Constitution be amended to read ‘Marriage, namely the union of two persons of the opposite or the same sex to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life and which is determinable only by law’ or should s. 5(1) of the MA be amended to read ‘Marriage means a union of two persons of the opposite or the same sex to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life’.”

The more complicated the question, the more likely it is to fail.

Then there is the question of what the government would do if the Senate voted against legislation supporting the plebiscite. Turnbull this week would not entertain the possibility of it not passing, but both Labor and the Greens have not said whether they would vote to support the legislation after the election if Labor does not win the election. Greens MP Adam Bandt said earlier this week that the party would need to see the legislation first.

[Abbott’s same-sex marriage plebiscite might not happen after all]

Greens Senator for South Australia Robert Simms told Crikey that the Coalition should explain its plans for the plebiscite in detail.

“I don’t think it’s good enough for them to take this policy to the election and to not give the Australian people any of the information they need to make a decision on this. They’re effectively saying ‘vote now, and you get the details after the election’,” he said. “The reality is the plebiscite plan is completely in tatters. It’s not clear who would get public funds, it’s not clear what would constitute a victory in a plebiscite, it’s also not even that clear that members of the Coalition would have to follow the outcome of the plebiscite.”

The Australian Financial Review suggested this morning that the vote on marriage equality could be delayed for the entirety of the next term in parliament if the Senate blocks plebiscite legislation. This is based on comments from Lyle Shelton, the managing director of the fringe group the Australian Christian Lobby — who has a stake in delaying marriage equality — rather than comments from politicians.

Simms, who has called on the government to rule out funding for the ACL, said the ACL “does not dictate what is on the political agenda in this country”.

In a statement, Labor’s shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said Labor intends to win the election on July 2, and legislate marriage equality within 100 days.

“Australia doesn’t need a plebiscite to legislate marriage equality. We need leadership and a vote in the Parliament,” he said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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