The infamous legislation enabling for a plebiscite into same-sex marriage within Australia was defeated in the Senate on Monday night, 29-33 votes.
As was a secret to no-one, Jacqui Lambie, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the Liberal Democrat’s David Leyonhjelm joined with the Government, but they were opposed by Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team Senators, along with Derryn Hinch to block the legislation. The Plebiscite was doomed – and has been for many weeks.
Marriage Equality activists and opposing political parties celebrated the defeat of the plebiscite on Monday night, yet another group of seemingly unsuspecting celebrators metaphorically (or, perhaps, actually) commemorated the plebiscite’s defeat.
Conservative, anti-equality Government MPs.
If we take a small trip down memory lane, you’ll recall that the plebiscite was originally proposed and championed by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, along with other staunch opponents of the marriage equality movement; Joe Hockey, Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Eric Abetz and Cory Bernadi.
Yes, it seems counter-intuitive, but it was the single, most effective way to stall reform for as long as possible, whilst simultaneously handballing the responsibility from the Government to the electorate for legislating marriage equality. It was political genius; designed to distract the public and the media from a clearly divided party room.
And guess what? It worked. For the past year, we have been debating – both in and out of Parliament – the protocols for a Plebiscite itself, rather than discussing or even voting on legislation to allow same-sex marriages. The initial policy to hold it after the 2016 election, again further delayed the change. (Yes, the Government went to a poll seeking a mandate to hold another poll to seek a mandate to legislate for marriage equality).
When Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbott in September last year, the continuation of the ‘plebiscite-after-the-election’ policy was written into the agreement Turnbull made with Warren Truss and Barnaby Joyce, as they re-negotiated the terms of the Liberal-National Coalition. The Nationals are typically more socially conservative than their Liberal counterparts and ‘Mr. Moderate Malcolm’ was resolute at the time in his support of a free parliamentary vote, or (at the very least) a public vote on or before the 2016 election.
Not only have the hard-right ensured the policy remained until the election (delaying same-sex marriage for a mere 18-months or so), but the rejected plebiscite vote last night all but ensures the matter of marriage equality is off the table during this Parliamentary term. Turnbull is so beholden to the Conservative wing, that he wouldn’t dare raise this issue again.
However, if the Government thinks that marriage equality activists and lobby groups will suddenly fly away on a gay-ol’ holiday for the next two years, he’s got another thing coming (out). Prominent equality groups — Australian Marriage Equality, just.equal, Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays, GetUp! along with political parties and many other organisations — are getting ready to turn up the heat in search of a free parliamentary vote this term.
Analysis by Lane Sainty for BuzzFeed earlier this year, showed that for the first time, both houses of parliament had a majority of MPs who support marriage equality, but only if a conscience vote was held.
When Liberal MPs voted to change their leader, the public breathed a sigh of relief. “Finally!”, sang a chorus of social media users across all political spectrums in perfect harmony. Australia was glad to have a socially progressive, yet economically prudent Prime Minister. However, unlike his predecessor, Turnbull has shown little in the way of stamping his authority over the party. The vast majority of the Federal Government’s policies are Abbott-era legislation. If anything, Turnbull’s knife-edge House of Representatives majority, combined with a strong Conservative base means he is less likely to side with his moderate-leaning colleagues, for fear of keeping the revolving door of the Prime Ministerial suite operational for yet another parliamentary term.
By changing Prime Ministers, the Liberal Party likely saved the Coalition from electoral defeat this year, but this might not last long. Voters are quickly catching on that their progressive Liberal hero is less progressive than they thought. Both Malcolm Turnbull and the Government’s latest approval ratings echo Coles’ catchy advertising theme.
— GhostWhoVotes (@GhostWhoVotes) November 7, 2016
— GhostWhoVotes (@GhostWhoVotes) November 7, 2016
If marriage equality remains on the backburner until the next election, the attacking rhetoric from both sides will be equally damning. The Liberals will claim “we could’ve legislated for marriage equality in 2017, but Labor and The Greens blocked our plebiscite”, whereas the progressive parties will avow their ‘hero’ status in blocking the “unnecessary, expensive, divisive” plebiscite, while concurrently attacking the Government for not allowing a free vote on the issue.
By 2019, Labor MPs will be bound to support any proposed changes to the marriage act, as ratified at their 2015 National Conference. Currently, the opposition has a conscience vote on the issue. Some pundits have hypothesised that Labor’s binding vote in the next term may hinder the prospects of the Coalition moving away from their binding vote (against reform), but this remains to be seen.
Many analysts believe that marriage policy played a significant role in the 2016 election, but I feel in three years time its effect on the campaign will be exponentially greater.
Malcolm Turnbull clearly wants to be the Prime Minister that finally gets marriage equality across the parliamentary lines. His Conservative colleagues may finally realise that this single issue could obliterate their electoral chances in three years time, against a united and insurgent Labor opposition.
But by then, it might be too little, too late.