View from The Hill

Same-sex marriage plebiscite manoeuvring has become a charade

Nothing was achieved in a Monday meeting between the government and Labor on the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Dan Peled/AAP

We have reached the point of absurdity. Neither the government nor Labor can or wants to compromise on the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Yet they continue the charade.

Nothing was achieved by or at Monday’s meeting – which the government called – between Attorney-General George Brandis, Special Minister of State Scott Ryan, and Labor’s shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus and equality spokeswoman Terri Butler.

Unlike the recent genuine negotiations over the omnibus bill, this meeting was all about the covering of backs before the seemingly inevitable defeat of the legislation in the Senate.

Each side claimed it was the obligation of the other to put something on the table. Brandis said he had asked nine times what Labor wanted. Labor feigned surprise the government went into the talks empty-handed.

But if concrete demands or offers had been made, they might have been less than welcome.

For example, logical demands by Labor might have been: cut the level of proposed public funding and make a yes result “self-executing” – that is, not needing to be separately legislated. But the government could not have delivered on either.

Even before the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce had told News Corp papers the legislation should go to the Senate without change, including the A$7.5 million for funding each side.

“You don’t put it up and then start talking about what we want to change,” he said.

Joyce expressed concern that the no campaign would have more trouble than the other side raising funds. “You can see massive funding going to one side of the case. There’s a lot of corporate interest and banking interests that are supporting the ‘yes’ case,” he said.

As for a self-executing plebiscite, can anyone imagine that going through the government party room? The conservative opponents of same-sex marriage would want to preserve their right, if defeated at a plebiscite, for a last hurrah in parliament. They would not have the numbers to stop implementation – it would be one of those cases of the impotent staying pure.

It’s a similar story on the other side. Bill Shorten would be in a pickle if the government did actually make an offer of major concessions.

Shorten has already flagged that he expects to recommend to caucus that the ALP vote down the plebiscite legislation. He has talked at length about the opposition to it he has heard in his discussions with representatives from the LGBTI community. Labor has stressed the damage it could do to the mental health of young people.

Shorten has gone so far that he could not now credibly walk back to say Labor would give support on this or that condition. His colleagues would be flummoxed; many LGBTI people would turn on him.

Anyway, if by some Damascus-like conversion the plebiscite legislation was approved, the chances of the reform being passed might well be compromised by the trashing the process has received. The gay community is split; the politicians supporting a yes case would find it hard to put the sniping behind them for a united campaign.

Both Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull are hypocrites in their stands. Shorten, who talks about how destructive a plebiscite would be, was willing to countenance one several years ago but now can find only reasons against it. Turnbull, who extols the virtues of a plebiscite, condemned the idea when it emerged under Tony Abbott and then embraced it for his own expedient reasons.

This issue has brought out the absolute worst on both sides of politics. A change that is overdue, dealt with already by comparable countries, and not really that hard, is proving beyond politicians whose only skill on this issue has become playing the blame game.