Grattan on Friday: Time for Labor and Greens to find common ground with government on marriage plebiscite

Hundreds gathered on the steps of Victoria’s State Library to rally in support of same-sex marriage in June. Melissa Meehan/AAP

If they genuinely want to get same-sex marriage achieved, and as soon as possible, Labor and the Greens need to do some hard thinking.

Neither party supports the proposed plebiscite, to which the government is committed. But if they managed to thwart its running by frustrating the passage of legislation to bring it about, the alternative might be nothing at all for a long time.

Labor’s opposition to the plebiscite is driven by two motives. It genuinely believes it would be divisive, and it wants to make life difficult for Malcolm Turnbull.

We don’t yet know what Labor and Greens will do when the government presents the legislation.

Bill Shorten has hinted Labor may pre-emptively try to get a parliamentary vote on the marriage issue, in line with its policy. Turnbull would have no option but to head off such a move. While he personally believes parliament should decide, he gave pledges within his party and to the Nationals on a plebiscite, and went to the election with it.

Quite apart from the not-so-small matter of breaking an election promise, Turnbull would not be in a strong enough position to defy the conservatives in his party and accept having a parliamentary vote, with a conscience vote for Liberals, instead of the plebiscite.

We won’t know the final Senate results for a while but on how the count is going, the Greens might be able to give the government the upper house numbers to set up the plebiscite, regardless of what Labor decided. That’s assuming no Coalition defections.

What the Greens do may depend on the details of the plebiscite bill. If Labor and Greens opposed the bill, the government would have the seemingly impossible challenge of mustering almost all the non-Green crossbenchers.

Turnbull has already flagged that it may not be feasible to hold the plebiscite this year, as he’d earlier foreshadowed. Parliament is not resuming until August 30 and it could be hard to get things in place to go to the people before Christmas.

But it would be important for the legislation, with a firm date for the vote, to be through this year. If the bill were still unresolved over the summer there could be an attempt from within the Coalition to delay the issue. While hardline Liberal conservatives last year accepted the plebiscite as their least worst option, they would use any opportunity to stall.

A delay beyond this year, incidentally, would have flow on consequences for the timing of the Indigenous recognition referendum.

Progressing the marriage issue is complicated by opposition within the marriage equality movement to the plebiscite.

Writing in the July issue of the gay street magazine MCV, marriage equality advocate Rodney Croome claims the Coalition lost votes at the election because of its pro-plebiscite stance. Turnbull “must immediately drop the plebiscite policy … If he doesn’t, it must be killed on the floor of parliament,” Croome writes.

“Minor parties and independents will play a major role in the new parliament. The task for marriage equality lobbyists is to ensure they block any attempt to move forward with a plebiscite and instead focus parliament’s attention on a free vote.”

Croome says that if a free vote was held now same-sex marriage “would sail through parliament”. But this ignores the difficulty of getting that conscience vote in the Liberals in the absence of a plebiscite, when Turnbull’s authority is much diminished. Turnbull says there would be a free vote after a successful plebiscite on the implementation legislation, but that’s a separate matter.

The main arguments against a plebiscite are that the debate would be hurtful to many gay people, and that it mightn’t pass. There is also the A$160 million cost, unfortunate in fiscally difficult times, but not central.

Both the hurt and the risk of defeat could be minimised with a strong cross-party coalition for the yes case.

Inevitably there would be some unpleasantness and a danger of the plebiscite going down. But if Ireland could get a popular vote carried, surely Australia can – provided the political supporters of the yes case co-operate to help make it happen rather than continue their pre-election argument about process.

Tiernan Brady knows something about successful campaigning. A former long-time mayor of Bundoran in Ireland’s county Donegal, Brady was political director for the yes case in the Irish campaign. He’s in Australia, sponsored by marriage equality proponents, “till it’s done” here.

Tiernan Brady. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

While he’d much prefer the more straightforward course of a parliamentary vote, he says pragmatically: “Our power to decide the cards we’re dealt is minimal. Our power is how we play them.”

He’s optimistic, on the basis of the polling, about the outcome of a plebiscite but warns there is “simply no room for complacency”.

“It’s all about running a positive, engaging, respectful campaign – an aggressive campaign that shouts at people rather than holds their hand will lose.” It must be about “allowing people to genuinely ask their real questions”, with those on both sides of the debate being conscious of the importance of language, tone and atmospherics. “I think people are capable of having a conversation that is not vitriolic.”

There is wide recognition that a plebiscite is not the preferable option for changing the marriage law. But when it is the only realistic one, it should be made to work – as soon as possible.

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