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Post-plebiscite conscience vote on same-sex marriage is not the risk

Malcolm Turnbull would be fully aware that an attempt to bind ministers on same-sex marriage would cause more trouble than it is worth. AAP/Lukas Coch

Is it a problem that, according to Malcolm Turnbull, cabinet members would get a free vote on legislation enacting same-sex marriage after a successful plebiscite?

If it is – and the logic suggests otherwise – it is one of the more minor ones on the path to changing the law.

Critics are over-reacting. Much more of a worry, in the event Turnbull wins and the plebiscite is put to the people later this year, is the danger of the “yes” case being blown off course by side issues, highly organised opposition, and division in the government in the campaign.

Questioned on Friday, Turnbull said: “The tradition in the Liberal Party is that on matters of this kind it is a free vote.” But he sought to reassure by instancing Scott Morrison, an opponent of change: “Scott has indicated that he would abide by the decision of the Australian people” – something Morrison later confirmed.

Turnbull said: “I have no doubt that if the plebiscite is carried, as I believe it will be, that you will see an overwhelming majority of MPs and senators voting for it”.

It is true Turnbull has taken the line of least resistance in not seeking to bind cabinet members. One can argue that if the government takes a question to the public, ministers should be bound to back the result whatever their view. Under the principle of collective responsibility, ministers often have to accept and defend decisions they may have opposed in cabinet.

The case for a conscience vote on the marriage law is not of the same order as that on “life-and-death” matters, like euthanasia and abortion.

But some in the party, regardless of their stand on the substance, would maintain there should be a free vote. Turnbull himself over the years has strongly advocated a conscience vote on same-sex marriage, although on the matter itself rather than the process.

Anyway, Turnbull would be fully aware that an attempt to bind ministers would cause more trouble than it is worth. Those on the Liberal right determined to try to stop change would scream blue murder. The last thing Turnbull needs, going into the last week of this difficult election campaign, would be internal backbiting on this issue.

If the vote was carried the numbers of Liberals and Nationals abstaining or crossing the floor would likely be small – including very few ministers.

Critics will say Turnbull is being a wimp or cowardly. But what is important here? Surely, achieving a positive result.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said: “Why are we spending A$160 million on an opinion poll that the government is going to ignore?”

She’s right that the plebiscite is a much less desirable option than a parliamentary vote. But she’s not right that Turnbull’s stand means a re-elected government would ignore the result. That claim is either nonsense or just point-scoring.

Presumably the latter. Labor will be anxious to drag what campaign advantage it can out of Turnbull’s stand, which will be unpopular among those for whom same-sex marriage is a high-priority issue.

But remember, as a campaign spokesman confirmed on Friday, Labor’s current policy is to give its MPs a conscience vote (until 2019).

If the chances of change in the marriage law being scuttled at the implementation stage are virtually nil, getting to that stage shapes as an uphill battle.

Assuming the parliament voted to run the plebiscite, people favouring a “yes” case would be unwise to take too much for granted from the polling that has shown support, or from the successful result in Ireland.

As has been widely remarked, the campaign would be divisive and probably nasty. There would be great scope for scares, with claims that religious and other freedoms were being compromised.

We have to be wary of parallels but the Brexit result shows what can happen with popular votes. Hopefully after the election, if Turnbull wins, partisan differences among “yes” supporters will be put aside to maximise the prospects of a successful result.

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