Malcolm Turnbull

There’s a view, especially among some press gallery cognoscenti, that Labor has done the Prime Minister a real favour by deciding against a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, freeing him from the distraction of a nightmarish campaign of bile and hatred over the next four months that would likely culminate in an open split in his party as some reactionary MPs ignore the result. Now, Turnbull can point out that he did his best to bring about same-sex marriage but was stymied by, as the Coalition portrays it, a petty, bloody-minded opposition that prefers to play politics.

As it turned out, Bill Shorten was able to offer a pretty reasonable set of reasons for opposing the plebiscite yesterday — the cost, the fact that the result wouldn’t be binding on MPs, and the impact on people, and especially LGBTI people, of the campaign of vilification that would result. They scrub up better than most reasons cobbled together to justify a partisan position. Especially when the government has all but acknowledged that yes, the campaign would expose LGBTI Australians to the risk of harm.

[Penny Wong is right: plebiscite hate speech will hurt good parents]

But the knockback will only be a win for Turnbull if the issue is now shut down. The Prime Minister yesterday — having heard a hysterical threat from far-right Western Australian Nationals MP Andrew Broad to desert the government in joint party room — was steadfastly refusing to countenance any Plan B if the plebiscite failed. Under repeated questioning from Katharine Murphy yesterday, Turnbull refused to even accept that the plebiscite bill would fail given the opposition of Labor and that of the Greens and NXT.

But there is a Plan B, even if the Prime Minister won’t discuss it. It’s to hope the issue that has hovered over federal politics for more than a year goes away, put off until at least the next election, so that the government can get on with discussing issues it wants to discuss (whatever they are — they’re not at all clear).

Two groups within Parliament are keen to prevent that particular plan from eventuating. One is, naturally, the opposition, which will persistently try to do exactly what it tried last night in Parliament — bring on a vote on same-sex marriage. The other is on Turnbull’s own backbench. While some MPs, nearly all of them on the Coalition side, genuinely simply want to continue discrimination against LGBTI Australians and want same-sex marriage to go away, others are so obsessed with the issue, or so determined to use the issue to undermine Turnbull — or both — that they won’t stop talking about it. Exhibit No. 1 for that is sacked minister Eric Abetz, whose bizarre comments about celebrating gay people who “come out” as heterosexual are only the latest in a long line of interventions on the matter. How much clear air will the government have if Abetz and those like him continue their jihad against LGBTI Australians?

[Not-so-accidental death of a plebiscite: how the right killed their own idea]

There’s a third group who might also have a view on the matter: voters, more than half of whom want the issue to proceed to a parliamentary vote if the plebiscite bill fails.

If Plan A is doomed because of the simple maths of the Senate, Plan B looks highly problematic as well, especially with a government that so far as displayed little skill and had even less luck. Turnbull needs a Plan C for the possible failure of his hope-based Plan B — something that will get the issue off the political radar, at least for Labor if not for the obsessives. The government copped a terrible kicking when it lost several votes in the House of Representatives several weeks ago. Be a shame if, due to more carelessness, chaos and absent ministers, it lost another vote, on something substantive. Like same-sex marriage.