The Weird Not-a-referendum in Australia on Marriage Equality

particlfunkThe Australian government has found itself in an absurd situation on marriage equality. As things currently stand a majority of the Australian population wants marriage equality, a majority of MPs in the lower house of parliament want marriage equality and a majority of senators in the upper house want marriage equality. So politically this is a really simple call: pass a bill for marriage equality.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. While there is technically a majority in favour, the majority of MPs in the ruling coalition don’t support it. A minority of centre-right MPs in the ruling Liberal-National coalition strongly support marriage equality but the conservative right are unwilling to allow a straight vote on the issue.

During the last general election, the Liberals had campaigned on the basis of a referendum on the issue. The referendum was a stop-gap measure to avoid an internal party split. As the vote couldn’t be binding on parliament as it wasn’t a change to the constitution it would be called a ‘plebiscite’. If this sounds a lot like the reasoning behind the Brexit referendum then you’d be right – the idea was primarily about maintaining party unity.

This plebiscite, would have had no binding impact on MPs who would still have to vote on legislation. So people quite reasonably asked what the point would be. Given the inevitable homophobic propaganda that would accompany the campaign, i would cause real distress to families at significant financial cost and have no actual legal impact.

The outcome of the general election last year was ambiguous. Malcom Turnbull’s Liberal-National coallition scraped in by the skin of their teeth in the lower house but the Senate was left with the balance of power lying with smaller parties and independents.

When the government proposed the plebiscite, the Senate blocked the legislation. So the government was stuck. The conservative wing of the Liberal party insisted that no other legislation on marriage equality could go forward without the plebiscite. As time progressed, the Labor Party continued to press the government on the issue – embarrising the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who is on the liberal-wing of the Liberal Party and in favour of marriage-equality.

Ironically, the debate was in danger of causing an end to the political marriage of the Liberal Party. That in turn would have led to the government collapsing, which would probably have led to the Labor Party winning and passing marriage-equality.

So…the Liberal-National MPs put their heads together to come up with a way to give the conservative MPs a plebiscite without asking the Senate’s permission. The only way to do this would be to have something that was not technically a VOTE. Now as the plebiscite was never going to be binding anyway…the plebiscite could be legally a ‘survey’ IF instead of being run by the Australian Election Commision it was run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (who run the census – but not very well).

Anyway, this is why Australia is going to have a “postal plebiscite” on marriage-equality. Which is nuts, and of course will be exploited by the nastiest sections of society to attack LGBTI families, will cost a fortune, won’t be very representative and won’t be binding on MPs anyway.

Why? Because conservatives are petulant children.