George Brandis

The Attorney-General’s Department is refusing to release discussions George Brandis had with the Australian Christian Lobby about the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

It’s widely expected the ACL will lead the “no” campaign in the plebiscite, expected to cost at least $160 million and which could be held as early as November. Before the election was called in May, the Attorney-General said he had conducted “extensive” consultation with the ACL, the Catholic Church and Australian Marriage Equality over the form of the plebiscite, telling an estimates hearing in May that plans were “well advanced”.

Crikey filed a freedom of information request for communications between the ACL and the Attorney-General’s Department and Brandis’ office at the time. The department found documents, but delayed making a decision on releasing the documents twice, citing the election campaign as the reason Brandis’ office was too busy to deal with the matter, despite caretaker mode meaning ministerial obligations remain.

On Friday night, the department officially refused the request. In the decision, AGD’s acting assistant secretary Sue Harris said the document could not be released as there were still “a range of issues surrounding the plebiscite that are yet to be resolved and that remain under consideration by government”:

“It is important that government is able to explore a range of options for issues relating to the plebiscite fully and frankly, and that the government is able to engage with a range of stakeholders in seeking views on issues relating to the plebiscite. I consider that disclosing this information would limit the government’s ability to fully and frankly explore particular issues relating to the plebiscite, and as such it would not be in the public interest to disclose this information at this time.”

Harris indicated that part of the censored document can be made public if a third party — believed to be Brandis’ office — does not object to the release by August 16.

Despite the document’s existence, and Brandis’ earlier confirmation that there had been consultation with the right-wing lobby group, ACL managing director Lyle Shelton told Sky News last night that he believed there hadn’t been enough consultation on the plebiscite yet and it shouldn’t be rushed:

“I think the most important thing is it should be held when adequate consultation has occurred, and it isn’t rushed, and we take our time to make sure we get the process right … there’s been very little consultation so far; the election has obviously interrupted that.”

Shelton said there had to be “clarification and consultation on what the question is” — and given the make-up of the Senate it’s uncertain whether it would be practical to hold this year if Labor and the Greens vote against the enabling legislation for the plebiscite.

Shelton’s comments are echoed by the far right of the Coalition, with Liberal senators Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi signalling the plebiscite shouldn’t be rushed. While Turnbull said multiple times during the election campaign the plebiscite could be held before the end of the year, Bernardi said this was a “rider” and was not put to the Coalition party room before the election.

Both Labor and the Greens have not flatly refused to pass the plebiscite legislation yet, given the draft has yet to be released. On the wording of the question, Shelton has said it shouldn’t have the words “marriage equality” in it:

“I think that’s a misleading slogan because so-called marriage equality … it’s not equality for children. It requires a child to miss out on their mother or father.”

When confronted with polling that states a majority of Australians are for marriage equality, Shelton said — after spending time talking about parenting and freedom of speech issues — that his side had not had a chance to speak about parenting and freedom of speech issues.

Lobbyists for gay marriage haven’t given up on parliamentary change. A BuzzFeed analysis of the changing make-up of the House of Representatives shows 16 seats have changed from opposed or undeclared to supportive of marriage equality, largely through Liberal MPs retiring or losing their seats — meaning there’s now a majority in favour of marriage equality in the House, if the Coalition allowed a free vote.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey