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Shorten shoots down plebiscite

Bill Shorten will miss two days of parliament this week for meetings in Canada and the US. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Bill Shorten has now signalled he will kill the same-sex marriage plebiscite, but he seems determined to make it a slow death.

As Shorten departed on Wednesday for Canada and the United States, Labor sources said he was expected to recommend to caucus that the opposition vote against the legislation to set up the February 11 plebiscite. After Thursday, parliament is up for three weeks, making the next caucus meeting a long way off.

Strangely, Shorten decided to miss Wednesday and Thursday in parliament to go on this trip, which will give him facetime with Canada’s progressive prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

The unkind might quip that Shorten really does think he won the election. Tacticians might argue that when parliament is sitting the opposition leader should be present unless there are very compelling reasons why not. This is especially so as Shorten and Labor have been on a roll and keeping the momentum is vital for them.

Also, Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday introduced the legislation for the plebiscite – it’s a big issue and it wasn’t a good look for Shorten to be missing.

That Labor (with the votes of Greens and some crossbenchers) will torpedo the legislation is not a surprise. Shorten and the ALP generally have been winding up the rhetoric against it.

Shorten’s position has hardened as opposition to it has risen in the LGBTI community. Earlier this week, presenting a private member’s bill which would have the matter decided by parliament, he invoked the danger of a divisive debate in the run-up to the plebiscite leading to possible suicides. He told reporters that Labor would consult mental health experts.

Cabinet’s decision to provide public funding for the “yes” and “no” cases added to Shorten’s armoury of arguments against the plebiscite.

In comments issued as he left Australia, Shorten said: “The fact the Liberals announced public funding to give a platform to bigotry shows no interest from the government to work with Labor on this.

”[Turnbull] is deliberately sabotaging the process to make it difficult for even the most ardent supporters of marriage equality to back it. It’s clear the extreme right wing of the Liberal party are setting marriage equality up to fail.

“History will record Malcolm Turnbull as a fraud on marriage equality, the man who had the opportunity to make it happen but cowered in the face of Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz, the prime minister who broke the nation’s heart.

"It shows how weak he is – that he’s willing to put extremists above what he genuinely believes, that a plebiscite is a terrible idea.

"I am gravely concerned about the plebiscite and over the coming days and weeks, we will be sitting down with people affected, families and mental health experts about the harm a plebiscite will cause.

”[Turnbull] has no idea of the harm this could inflict on so many people and their families.“

There are a few points to be made about these comments.

First, now that Shorten has indicated what he expects to recommend – a recommendation his party would follow – the time for sitting down with people to talk about the plebiscite’s consequences would seem to have passed, at least in relation to making a decision.

If Labor is going to vote against the plebiscite, that means it won’t be happening. The consultations would only be for purposes of justifying a position that Shorten has already arrived at. He wants to make sure he shores up his own case to the maximum, especially given the plebiscite is popular.

Second, Shorten’s playing up the mental health issues seems to me to be a questionable line of attack.

After all only a few years ago he was willing to contemplate a plebiscite. Was he not concerned about the mental health consequences then?

More important, by focusing on this possible danger, there is a risk of unintentionally causing harm. Words can be potent.

An alternative set was open to Shorten.

He could have said: "The plebiscite is much less desirable than settling this matter by a parliamentary vote. But it was a Coalition election pledge and Turnbull won the election. So let’s join together – all those who believe in marriage equality – and make a second-best process deliver a first-best result.

"For some, the debate will at times be difficult. But they will have the moral support of very many people across the political spectrum. And at the end, on all the indications from the polls, a very worthwhile outcome will have been achieved.”

Shorten chose not to adopt that more optimistic script. Between now and the caucus meeting we’ll see if he gets any backlash for his tough play on the issue.

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