View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Abbott no doubt is recalling Howard’s playbook for the 1999 republic vote

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has dismissed Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s same-sex marriage plebiscite idea. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Tony Abbott is burnishing his lines for a popular vote on same-sex marriage in the next term, if he wins one.

Abbott told parliament on Wednesday: “Going into the next election there will be two parties with very different positions. Members opposite will want the politicians to decide. This government wants the people to decide.

"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?”

It’s easy to see how this dichotomy will be developed in the months ahead.

“This is in essence a national free vote,” enthused Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who had wanted a Liberal parliamentary free vote.

Let’s put aside the spin. This is more like a promise of false gold. Tricky, if you want to be harsh.

Abbott’s intention has been called out by his sister Christine Forster and by Warren Entsch, the Liberal mover of the cross-party private member’s bill for same-sex marriage that will come in next week and then be buried by Abbott.

Both Entsch and Forster urge that if there is to be a popular vote it should be with the coming election.

Needless to say, Abbott has no intention of having it then, even though that would be the logical timing and it would be no more of a distraction than the issue will be as things stand. If held then, he would have limited chance of defeating it.

People will be very trusting if they buy the Abbott line as being a fair and square attempt to gauge community opinion.

Abbott no doubt is thinking back to the John Howard playbook for the 1999 republic referendum.

Howard pledged a vote, said he would be “withdrawn” during the campaign, but used his clout to help ensure the defeat of the referendum. Abbott would be unlikely to bother with the “withdrawn” bit, and the government position would, on present indications, be for the status quo, with individual Liberals able to take whatever position they liked.

Based on his consistent record, if Abbott wins the election and goes ahead with a vote, he will do everything he can to stymie a pro-same-sex marriage outcome.

Even though it is fairly clear what Abbott’s tactic is, Labor will need to be careful. False gold can glitter, and letting the people decide could resonate unless the opposition counters convincingly.

At Tuesday’s party meeting Joe Hockey favoured a referendum to change the constitution, as distinct from a plebiscite.

The one reference to marriage in the constitution is in Section 51 which says the Commonwealth parliament shall have power to make laws in various specific areas, including marriage.

So what would be the question for any referendum? Hockey has not clarified this but Social Services Minister Scott Morrison suggests that the reference to “marriage” could be amended to read “opposite and same-sex marriage”. Morrison says that if this were carried there would need to be an amendment of the marriage act to include same-sex marriage. He would be on the “no” side in such a referendum.

Remember, it is easier to defeat a referendum than to carry one.

Malcolm Turnbull, who spoke passionately at Tuesday’s party meeting in favour of a conscience vote, on Wednesday bluntly rejected the political wisdom of a plebiscite.

“The reason I haven’t advocated a plebiscite after the next election is that it would mean – it will mean – that this issue is a live issue all the way up to the next election.” It would distract from the time to talk about other issues, Turnbull said.

Turnbull went on to say that the popular vote was Abbott’s “disposition”. “Obviously that is a policy as yet unformed. It will presumably have to go through the normal cabinet process before it is fleshed out.”

It’s not hard to read a warning in that, although Abbott seems to have already turned the “disposition” into something more solid.

Turnbull is in the minority in the parliamentary party when it comes to same-sex marriage. But on this, and increasingly on other matters, he is not cowed by the Prime Minister’s Office. He is engaged in catch-me-if-you-can. It’s a risky game, where he is always hostage to his own volatile temperament. Sometimes putting up with the man who deposed him looks almost beyond his endurance.

But Turnbull is not the only frontbencher who wants more discussion of the plebiscite. Simon Birmingham, a junior minister, was echoing the same sentiment on Wednesday, although in a more low-key manner.

Cabinet minister Christopher Pyne, who on Tuesday likened Abbott’s including the anti-same-sex-marriage Nationals in the party meeting to branch stacking, complained about the ploy publicly on Wednesday.

Numbers distributed by Liberal sources on Tuesday night showed that Pyne had a point. The margin among the Liberals was notably closer than the overall result. According to these sources, 16 Liberal frontbenchers out of 30 Liberal frontbenchers asked for a free vote, while 17 Liberal backbenchers out of a total of 49 did so. So, 33 out of 79 Liberals who spoke wanted a free vote.

Total numbers for the Liberals were 46 against and 33 for free vote. Abbott had a majority among the Liberals but a smaller one than the two-to-one majority he had when the Nationals were counted in.

Meanwhile, a swingeing message, going to Liberal philosophy and principle, has come loudly from Victoria. State leader Matthew Guy said: “I think Australians are just utterly sick of federal politics and I’m not surprised why. They are poisoning the well of good will for all other elected politicians in the country. People who feel that members should be bound on matters of conscience by a party vote – well, they need to go back and look at the rationale on which our party was founded by Robert Menzies. It wasn’t one of binding votes, it was one of conscience.”

Menzies! Wonder what he would think of the Abbott government. Something unprintable, probably.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, here or on iTunes.