View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Managing same-sex marriage plebiscite would be a challenge for Turnbull within his own ranks

Managing the same-sex marriage issue could be extremely difficult for Malcolm Turnbull after the election. Lukas Coch/AAP

The same-sex marriage debate, mostly at the margins of this campaign, has erupted between the parties and within the Liberals in a foretaste of the free-for-all a plebiscite would bring.

Malcolm Turnbull is under fire from conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi for how he handled questioning on Monday’s Q&A.

Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong this week declared the government’s plan for a plebiscite would “license hate speech”. Treasurer Scott Morrison, who opposes change, responded that he’d been “exposed to hatred and bigotry for the views I’ve taken”.

Turnbull says he’s confident there can be a respectful, intelligent debate, but Bill Shorten argues the plebiscite would be “a taxpayer-funded platform for homophobia”. Turnbull counters: “The big difference I think between me and Mr Shorten on this is that I respect the common sense and the values and the decency of the Australian people.”

Australians do have common sense and decency but it is still pretty certain the plebiscite fight would be bitter and divisive – one reason why Turnbull would have preferred to confine the issue to a parliamentary vote.

In many ways it would have been better if, when he became prime minister, Turnbull had reversed Tony Abbott’s policy of a plebiscite. Certainly that would have prevented the charge against him of hypocrisy, because he had been critical of it.

But while Turnbull is criticised for not changing the Abbott position, he’d have been attacked if he had. Once the prospect of a popular vote was held out voters embraced it.

Bernardi lashed out at his leader after a questioner on Q&A asked Turnbull about comments by the senator “suggesting that homosexuality leads to bestiality”.

Turnbull said he condemned any remarks that disparaged Australians on the basis of sexuality, religion, and the like, prompting host Tony Jones to ask whether he had said that to Bernardi. Turnbull responded: “I have said – yes, I have had firm discussions with a number of colleagues. Yes.”

Bernardi said this reply gave implicit support to the claim he and other Coalition MPs were “homophobic” and implied Turnbull had had a conversation with him about “homophobia”. He’d had no such conversation, Bernardi said. The questioner had misrepresented what he’d said and it was unfortunate that Turnbull “didn’t correct the record and instead sought to appease the baying crowd”.

Wong, who is gay, said in her Lionel Murphy memorial lecture that not one straight politician advocating a plebiscite knew “what it’s like to live with the casual and deliberate prejudice that some still harbour.

"I don’t oppose a plebiscite because I doubt the good sense of the Australian people. I oppose a plebiscite because I don’t want my relationship – my family – to be the subject of inquiry, of censure, of condemnation, by others. I don’t want other relationships, and other families, to be targeted either.”

It was both gratuitous and unwise for Morrison to talk about also being exposed to hatred and bigotry, given the vast difference in his and Wong’s circumstances.

All this points to the longer term issue of how, if Turnbull is re-elected, he and his government will manage this plebiscite.

The first challenge would be getting the legislation for the plebiscite through parliament. Labor has declined to say whether it would facilitate it – the opposition hasn’t seen a bill and, anyway, it doesn’t want to concede any point on the plebiscite.

That’s a reasonable position at this stage. But if Labor remains in opposition after the election, it should support the legislation, because that would at least provide a path to an early change of the marriage law.

For Turnbull, the next challenge would be to achieve a yes vote. On the basis of the polls, one would expect the support to be there. But the no side would be determined and well resourced and nothing could be taken for granted, especially given the split within Coalition ranks.

It would be a rather bizarre situation, with a unity ticket between Turnbull and Shorten (or whoever was Labor leader) in favour of a yes vote, while a significant number of Coalition MPs would be fighting their leader.

Coping with this issue internally could be extremely difficult for Turnbull, especially if the election had left him weakened within his own ranks.

Would he want the yes case to get government funding? That would imply funding for the no case. What if any rules would be set for frontbenchers participating in the plebiscite debate?

Turnbull would be out there seeking a yes victory, so colleagues who were for preserving the status quo would presumably have to be given the same spruiking rights.

It is not as though those who oppose change are just a few minor figures on the backbench. They include, apart from Morrison, other senior ministers such as Peter Dutton, Mathias Cormann and Barnaby Joyce, as well as former prime minister Tony Abbott and former ministers Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz. Some would presumably want to keep their heads down – others would not.

The same-sex marriage issue helped debilitate Abbott’s leadership and in that sense helped Turnbull. But now Abbott’s legacy of the plebiscite would likely overshadow the early months of a re-elected Turnbull government. A win would be a big achievement for Turnbull, but it certainly wouldn’t come without some pain for him.