View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Turnbull would need to prevent ‘protections’ fight delaying legislation after a Yes vote

John Howard wants the government to lay out protections on religious freedoms and rights ahead of the same-sex marriage vote. Lukas Coch/AAP

In the same-sex marriage battle, Malcolm Turnbull finds himself fighting two former Liberal prime ministers, while somewhat uncomfortably aligned with an aspiring Labor one.

Just as in the republic referendum, it is John Howard and Tony Abbott urging a No vote, with Turnbull on the progressive side.

If the polls are a guide this time the result should be a happier one for Turnbull, but given the nature of this voluntary postal ballot chickens aren’t being counted.

Meanwhile Howard, a canny campaigner, struck out this week, with a statement going to what is perhaps the most vulnerable point for the Yes campaigners – that they haven’t spelled out just how the legislation would be cast in terms of protecting religious freedoms and rights.

While there were arguments for keeping the issue as simple as possible and leaving the detail for later, this certainly has given the No side more room to raise doubts and scares.

Howard called for the government to lay out the safeguards “in advance of the vote”.

It should say “what steps it will take to protect parental rights, freedom of speech, and religious freedom” if same sex-marriage is legalised.

He raised the spectre of bad consequences if it did not. “The case for these protections is compelling, given the experience of other countries, such as the UK, US and Canada, in the wake of those countries changing their marriage laws.”

Arguing the issue must be addressed before the ballot was completed, Howard claimed that “leaving it as something to be taken up only in the event of a Yes vote prevailing is the equivalent of saying that it does not matter”.

He said that so far the government had washed its hands of responsibility “merely stating that it will facilitate a private member’s bill”.

While Howard has hit a weak spot he also must know it is one the government could not deal with at this point, even if it had a change of heart.

For one thing, the voting is now underway. It would be an odd time to produce such detail. More importantly, members of the government are divided on the question being put to the people. They would hardly be in a position to agree – with the campaign running – on the protections.

Turnbull has replied to Howard’s call with some canniness of his own.

Noting that earlier in the process there had been an exposure draft bill, considered by a Senate inquiry, he said: “We will welcome John Howard’s contribution to the fine-tuning of that exposure draft bill, and its improvement [after a Yes result].

"I’m sure John can make an enormous contribution. He didn’t make a submission to the Senate committee but with his experience and expertise I look forward to him doing that.”

The comment was double-edged – appearing to be open to Howard’s later input, while noting a previous opportunity for him to make a contribution had not been taken.

Turnbull pointed out that when the private member’s bill to implement a Yes result came forward in parliament, there would be a free vote.

“It’ll have to go through the Senate so there will be the opportunity for every member of parliament to make a contribution and for Australians like John Howard with a passion about the detail here to really be of enormous assistance,” Turnbull said.

Howard argues that if there is a Yes vote “there will be overwhelming pressure to ‘move on’, legislate as quickly as possible”, with “scant opportunity” to consider broad protections seriously.

He’s right to the extent that the government would want the issue done and dusted by Christmas and there are only two parliamentary weeks after the vote is announced.

But in the event of a Yes vote it could be Turnbull on the spot, rather than the losers, in this period.

Turnbull says: “I think people will see parliament at its best if the postal survey returns a Yes majority”.

Let’s hope so, but there is another possible scenario.

It’s likely the losers would make a last-ditch stand – and that would be around “protections”. Some conservative Liberals could put forward their own private member’s bill, leaving the government with a choice of which bill to facilitate. There could be a call for an inquiry into whatever bill had the government tick, as it went through parliament.

With an already tight timetable running into Christmas it would not be hard for things to slip.

At every point the opponents of change have used the tactic of delay. If Turnbull secures a Yes result, he will then have to make sure they don’t manage to do that again.