The groundwork is being laid to delay the ultimate delaying tactic — the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

Barnaby Joyce this morning used horrific revelations of abuse of children in juvenile detention to suggest that the plebiscite might not happen as quickly as we would like. He’s not the first to suggest as much — Malcolm Turnbull did so last week as well on 7.30, though he didn’t have so topical an excuse.

The royal commission into the abuse of children in juvenile detention should be a top priority, but the government can walk and chew gum at the same time, and nothing should prevent both matters from being undertaken quickly.

Before taking the leadership, Turnbull warned his party that if this matter wasn’t dealt with quickly, it would linger and be a continual distraction for the government. His words then were arguing against a plebiscite, but ring true now of the conservative push to delay the plebiscite. Cory Bernardi and Eric Abetz tried to use the election result (which turfed many same-sex marriage opponents out of Parliament) as some sort of need for the government to reassess its priorities. Now Joyce is finding new excuses to delay the inevitable.

Attorney-General George Brandis said on Sunday that, subject to AEC advice and passing legislation for it, the plebiscite could be held before the end of the year or early next year. If the divisive and expensive plebiscite is the only way, the government has an obligation to stick to this timetable, and tell us when exactly it will be held as soon as possible.

Of course, there is a way to deal with same-sex marriage that would take a minimal amount of time and effort on the part of Australia’s parliamentarians. The government could simply allow a free vote to take place. It’d mean parliamentarians would have to vote only once, as opposed to once to allow a plebiscite, and again to implement it (not counting the cost to the public purse of a plebiscite). But this has never been about dealing with the issues quickly and efficiently. On same-sex marriage, the government is stalling.