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An offer he can’t accept

August 29th, 2016

Now that the Greens and Xenophon group have rejected the idea of a plebiscite, the only chance of getting one through is if Bill Shorten agrees. Turnbull obviously hopes to wedge Labor on this, by saying that this is the only way of getting equal marriage through the Parliament, and that there is no way he will allow a free vote on the issue. What should Shorten do?

In my (not original) view, Shorten should announce support for a binding plebiscite beginning with a bound vote of both parties. That is, the Parliament should pass legislation stating that equal marriage will come into effect immediately on receiving majority support in a plebiscite. Labor’s support should be conditional on all Coalition MPs voting for the legislation.

It’s obviously unlikely that Turnbull would accept such an offer or that he could deliver on it if he did. So, the primary effect would be to point up the bogus nature of the proposed plebiscite. But, supposing he did accept, I don’t see that this would be a disaster. There’s no fundamental principle that plebiscites are a bad way of deciding things. And the whole idea of a splecial “free vote” makes it clear that this set of issues has always been regarded as exceptional,

It’s true that the campaign over a plebiscite would be divisive. But this has been a divisive issue ever since Howard ramped it up more than a decade ago. An outright win at a plebiscite might be a good way of silencing the haters.

To repeat, though, there’s almost zero chance of a plebiscite happening on these terms. For Turnbull, it’s an offer he can’t accept.

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  1. Ernestine Gross
    August 29th, 2016 at 15:41 | #1

    There is also the ‘small’ matter of the costs of a plebiscite, both in terms of monetary expenses of tax revenue and time. There is a budget repair job at hand.

  2. Apocalypse
    August 29th, 2016 at 16:09 | #2

    There’s no fundamental principle that plebiscites are a bad way of deciding things.

    But there is a recent practical example, Brexit, where the campaign was wall-to-wall emotion, distortions and outright lies.

  3. John Quiggin
    August 29th, 2016 at 17:04 | #3

    @Apocalypse

    I can think of some elections that fit that description!

  4. Apocalypse
    August 29th, 2016 at 17:46 | #4

    @John Quiggin

    Election results can be reversed. Referenda and plebiscites are one-shot deals, which is why they are so dangerous. Look at the Republic referendum of 1999. Mightily botched by the Republic campaigners (led by you know who), 17 years later we are still a monarchy, and it could be another generation, or two, or three, before the question is seriously revisited.

    But that at least involved a change to the constitution, which had to be by referendum. There is simply no need to put the SSM question to a plebiscite. It would also create a terrible precedent. What do you think the outcome would be of a plebiscite asking whether the death penalty should apply to terrorists or child molesters?

  5. rog
    August 29th, 2016 at 17:47 | #5

    I don’t think it necessary to make the results of the plebiscite mandatory on MPs, it would be political death for the LNP to go against popular opinion. I do think Shorten should support the plebiscite to affirm popular support, after all the 2004 vote to exclude SSM from the marriage act was bipartisan and the ALP have since reiterated their opposition to SSM.

    Shorten is in danger of painting himself into a corner;

    1 to be consistent ALP should make it a conscience vote on plebiscite.

    2 Turnbull went to the election on a plebiscite so it’s his mandate not Shortens

    3 the majority of the public are overwhelmingly pro SSM

    4 rejecting the plebiscite will mean that for a minority group equality will be denied by a smaller group of MPs, who are not representative of the majority.

    Xenophon has dealt his cards, at least with Trump you are in no doubt who the bad guy is.

  6. tony lynch
    August 29th, 2016 at 18:29 | #6

    @Apocalypse
    Indeed it was. On whose side, I wonder. Perhaps here we are all equal.

  7. August 29th, 2016 at 18:41 | #7

    Since its expensive to run a plebiscite, perhaps we can save some money by adding some extra issues? I’m thinking that politicians would never want to vote on their own pay, because, well, they have a conflict of interest.

    So lets include a question or two on MP’s pay. I’m for putting backbenchers in the $50 – 75K range, with ministers getting around $180k. And I guess we need to know all about their allowances…

  8. John Goss
    August 29th, 2016 at 18:45 | #8

    I don’t think people are really getting the politics of this iconic issue. Both the Greens and the conservatives are going to lose political support when same sex marriage legislation gets through, so it is in their interests to delay it as much as possible. The Greens will have lost 1 of their 3 iconic issues – (the other two being refugees and climate change, and those 2 may be resolved over the next 5 years). So although the Greens really want same sex marriage, I suspect their reluctance over the plebiscite is partly due to an unconscious desire to keep same sex marriage as a live political issue.
    The conservatives though have even more reason to delay, as this is also an iconic issue for them, and although they know they will lose in the long run, they want to make it as long run as possible, because they haven’t got a lot of other issues which are important to their support base.
    So in this case it is in the political interest of Labor and the centrist Coalition members to get same sex laws through as soon as possible. Labor have the whip hand so they will be able to get almost whatever they want with the plebiscite legislation.
    But Labor won’t need a law which John Quiggin is proposing, because as was mentioned above, when the plebiscite passes, there is nothing on God’s earth which could stop same sex marriage laws getting through.

  9. August 29th, 2016 at 18:47 | #9

    @rog

    How is it Shorten who is painting himself into a corner? You seem to think that the LNP will introduce SSM if the plebiscite succeeds. If so, then Turnbull will have no problem if Shorten proposes a binding plebiscite, and neither Shorten nor Turnbull are in a corner. Of course I highly doubt Turnbull will agree to a binding vote.

  10. Ikonoclast
    August 29th, 2016 at 19:08 | #10

    I can see no reason that “Labor’s support should be conditional on all Coalition MPs voting for the legislation.” Why stipulate this? I honestly can’t see a reason for it unless Labor considers its own version of “playing politics” and “wedging” more important than the bill.

    Just pass the bill already, dependent or not on the plebiscite. What’s so difficult about this? Opinion polls on this issue average about 65% to 75% in favour of marriage equality for all. Too easy, get it done, move on.

  11. Apocalypse
    August 29th, 2016 at 19:16 | #11

    It’s obviously unlikely that Turnbull would accept such an offer or that he could deliver on it if he did.

    It’s obvious that Turnbull could never make Corey Bernardi and his ilk vote for any binding legislation. He has no leverage over them at all. They are never going to be promoted to the front bench (not by him in any case) and he can’t threaten their pre-selections. (Bernardi isn’t up for 6 years, by which time Turnbull will be long gone.)

    What Turnbull could do, if he was of a crash or crash through mind, is let it be known that if a private member’s bill legalising SSM was put to the Parliament, that members of his party would be free to vote as they please. But he won’t do that. He lost his leadership the first time by antagonising the right wing of his party. He is not going to risk it happening again.

    SSM might just have to wait until the Labor Party wins office.

  12. Apocalypse
    August 29th, 2016 at 19:22 | #12

    @Ikonoclast

    unless Labor considers its own version of “playing politics” and “wedging” more important than the bill.

    But that’s exactly it. If they roll over on the plebiscite, and it passes, then that would be a massive boost to Turnbull and his version of Liberalism. If Labor blocks and stops, and prosecutes the case that Turnbull is a captive of his right wing, then that makes him look weak and a loser.

  13. Ikonoclast
    August 29th, 2016 at 19:39 | #13

    @Apocalypse

    Everyone is trying to play fancy when a simple slam dunk puts the issue away. Pass the bill and it’s done as a factor. If Turnbull gets a poll bounce it will last all of two weeks. Then Turnbull will stuff up something else in his inimitable way and Voilà! Poll bounce gone. Remember, two weeks is a long time in politics.

  14. Apocalypse
    August 29th, 2016 at 20:03 | #14

    @Ikonoclast

    From Labor’s point of view, this looks a lot like 2010 just after the election. While no doubt most of them would like to see SSM, the bigger game is the centimetre by centimetre destruction of MT, with the aim of fomenting enough fear and loathing in the Liberal Party that they bring back Tony Abbott. Labor then waltzes in in 2019. That’s the idea anyway, and that’s what Sam Dastyari was doing by trolling them on the weekend.

    As for SSM itself, Labor’s strategy is getting a huge amount of cover from prominent gay Australians (like Michael Kirby and Kerryn Phelps) who are lining up to oppose a plebiscite. Even the SSM lobbying organisations are split. That does not augur well for a successful plebiscite.

  15. John Goss
    August 29th, 2016 at 20:22 | #15

    There will be a number of amendments to the plebiscite legislation which Labor will be able to force Turnbull to accept, and those amendments if done well will enable the plebiscite to be less destructive than it otherwise would be. So Labor will get political credit for doing that, and then when the plebiscite passes and the same sex marriage legislation passes, they will get credit for that too, while the purist Greens and Xenophons will look silly and irrelevant.

  16. paul walter
    August 29th, 2016 at 22:26 | #16

    Yes, ffs, what is this?

    $160 million wasted on a plebiscite when a simple vote in parliament would sort this issue, what is going in this age of sober “budget repair”, when the unemployed are expected to pay for tax cuts for the oligarchy?

  17. E
    August 29th, 2016 at 22:30 | #17

    The wording will be critical. Anything that creates a separate piece of legislation other than the Marriage Act will be a non-starter. It is, alas, quite likely that any motion, plebiscite or eventual legislation will leave intersex people in limbo as far as marriage is concerned. Indeed, the current situation, affirmed by court rulings, is that there is some doubt as to whether intersex people can marry.

    In an ideal world, ‘sex’ would be absent from birth certificates and all these problems would disappear. Until then, it would be nice if the gay lobby avoided the temptation to throw intersex people under the bus.

  18. Ernestine Gross
    August 29th, 2016 at 23:26 | #18

    If I understand correctly, there is no need for a plebiscite on constituional grounds and the Parliament has the power to legislate. This would suggests that those parlamentarians who insist on a plebiscite are effectively refusing to do their work at taxpayers’ expense (ca $160m worth). They are on strike, so to speak. Perhaps those who insist on a plebiscite should pay for the cost of organising it and a token of say 1 hour at minimum wage for every voter out of their after tax income or personal wealth.

  19. Ivor
    August 29th, 2016 at 23:32 | #19

    A so-called binding plebiscite would be an insult to Gays and misunderstands the issue.

    It is not up to the majority to decide whether a minority has equal rights.

    It is up to Parliament.

    Also if either pathway ends up in a disaster – a parliamentary negative decision in 2016 can be easily revisited in the near future.

    A negative result in a plebiscite will set the Gay movement back for decades.

  20. August 29th, 2016 at 23:58 | #20

    Absolutely nothing like this again, please – JQ

  21. D
    August 30th, 2016 at 01:53 | #21

    Simple vote in parliament?

    That has been attempted about 16 times since 2004. Still hasn’t happened.

    Interestingly, about 4 times the ALP defeated it one way or another.

  22. Ikonoclast
    August 30th, 2016 at 06:51 | #22

    SSM has become a pretext in politics for scoring points against opponents rather than an issue to be resolved. It seems many endorse this approach and care more about the potential to score points in the party political battle and waste time rather than simply resolve the matter and move on. I deduce from this that such people don’t really care about the substantive issue. People who want to play interminable politics on this issue are sending mixed signals. Draft the bill, pass the bill and move on. The world has more serious problems.

  23. Apocalypse
    August 30th, 2016 at 08:43 | #23

    @Ikonoclast

    Some things just have to wait until the Labor Party is in government. A good analogy is the apology to the stolen generations. Howard, being Howard, dug in and just wouldnt do it. As soon as Rudd was elected, he made the apology essentially unopposed. Five minutes later everybody was scratching their heads and wondering why it took so long. The same will be true of SSM once Labor wins an election.

  24. John Goss
    August 30th, 2016 at 11:03 | #24

    I think SSM is an important issue and I am disappointed at the way Shorten is using it to maximize Labor’s political advantage as he sees it. He should say, ‘Yes I think the plebiscite is unnecessary, costly and divisive, so a vote in the Parliament would be the best way. But I recognize that Turnbull promised this before the election, therefore he is obliged to push it, and though a plebiscite is a second best option, I will work with the Government to try to ensure the plebiscite is conducted in a fair tolerant respectful and timely manner. I am doing this, so as to enable rapid passage of SSM laws’.
    I think Shorten would get credit for such a cooperative approach, but he has chosen instead to go the ‘attack the government as much as possible’ route.

  25. Moz of Yarramulla
    August 30th, 2016 at 11:39 | #25

    I don’t think there’s anything in it for Labour either way. The far right politicians and media are determined to vilify the ALP for this (as well as the gays). If the ALP support a plebiscite the nonsense will just continue because the plebescite wording has to be decided, then the vote held, then parliament has to vote on what to do with the result. If they run a hard line as Q suggests they’re going to cop it from the anti-plebescite side, but also by the far right for “playing politics” and “not negotiating”. As they are right now. Whatever happens, the far right are having “gay stuff” forced into their attention and that is unacceptable. Won’t someone think of the rich, straight, white, men?

    I do love the theory that The Greens will lose support if SSM gets through. The idea that teh gayz are only supporting The Greens to get this passed and will then wander off is right up there with the idea that “climate change will be solved”. If you want to play that line, I suggest complaining (as many do) that The Greens are not arguing for marriage equality but for this watered-down compromise of “extend marriage to two men, or two women” which is awful for people not in the gender binary or in binary relationships. We somehow manage to cope with blended families that result from divorce and remarriage, how hard can it be to allow them to be created from scratch?

    I want consent-based marriage, no more and definitely no less.

  26. Moz of Yarramulla
    August 30th, 2016 at 11:42 | #26

    @John Goss

    I am doing this, so as to enable rapid passage of SSM laws

    It’s not going to be rapid, it’s too late for that. The far right want to drag it out for as long as possible. The least tedious option would be Turnbull throwing himself on the grenade, saying “it’s a free vote, bring it on” and watching the private members bill sail through. Shorten can’t make that happen.

  27. NathanA
    August 30th, 2016 at 12:12 | #27

    @Apocalypse4

    Actually, that’s not true, I can come up with an example of a referendum that failed only for the law to change 8 years later. In 1955, Sweden voted not to switch to driving on the right hand side of the road by 83-15. Then, in 1963 the parliament changed it, so one night in 1967 everyone changed from driving on the left to driving on the right.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish_driving_side_referendum,_1955

    But on this occasion, I’d call the bluff and have the plebiscite if I were Shorten. You’re going to win so why not?

  28. Apocalypse
    August 30th, 2016 at 12:13 | #28

    @Moz of Yarramulla

    The least tedious option would be Turnbull throwing himself on the grenade, saying “it’s a free vote, bring it on”

    If he does that, Tony Abbott will be PM again within a week.

  29. Ivor
    August 30th, 2016 at 12:27 | #29

    @D

    So do you want to go through 16 attempts at a plebiscite?

  30. Nick
    August 30th, 2016 at 12:29 | #30

    Moz, am I missing something? This seems pretty clear cut to me:

    http://greens.org.au/lgbtiq

    I’m happy to be corrected, but I’m not sure where the idea that Greens only support a ‘watered down policy’ has crept in? “SSM” or “Same-sex marriage” might be shorthand for the issue, but even Turnbull regularly uses the phrase LGBTI, not LGB.

    I’d be surprised if words very similar to ‘any two people, irrespective of gender’ weren’t included in amendments to the Marriage Act.

    But again, am I missing something?

  31. FREDDO
    August 30th, 2016 at 13:00 | #31

    If I was Malcolm (that is, a sniveling greedy fool) I would wait for a SSM bill to come from the Senate and then encourage a few MPs to cross the floor and vote in favour of the suspension of standing orders so it can be voted on in the House. There are at least three known gay Liberal MHRs. Shouldn’t be too hard. I think there is a good chance that will happen (and Malcolm will stuff it up in some way). Then it will be open warfare

  32. J-D
    August 30th, 2016 at 15:56 | #32

    Ivor :

    It is not up to the majority to decide whether a minority has equal rights.
    It is up to Parliament.

    If you mean that our system does, as a matter of fact, enable Parliament to grant rights and to deny them (to majorities as well as to minorities), that is obviously true.
    Whether that is a good system is less clear.

  33. John Quiggin
    August 30th, 2016 at 16:04 | #33

    My opposition to the plebiscite (as proposed) is mainly based on the fact that it is a hypocritical dodge that shouldn’t be rewarded.

  34. GrueBleen
    August 30th, 2016 at 17:29 | #34

    @Ernestine Gross
    Your #1 of 29 Aug.

    You said: “There is a budget repair job at hand.” and is that ever a mouthful – or perhaps a mindful. There’s nothing I’d like better than a long, slow discourse on just what this all means and why a bunch of not-very-bright economic ignoramuses (such as Turnbull, Morrison and the Chris Richardsons of the world) get to set the agenda.

    But I guess that might be a marathon like ProfQ’s periodic resuscitation of the nuclear power nonsense, and this particular post and it’s presenting topic isn’t the place for it.

    Is there a place for this in a sandpit (or is that really a ‘snakepit’) and does anybody have the stomach, and the lifetime, for it ? Again.

  35. Ben
    August 31st, 2016 at 06:11 | #35

    John Goss :
    I think Shorten would get credit for such a cooperative approach, but he has chosen instead to go the ‘attack the government as much as possible’ route.

    The plebiscite seems like a false choice to me because so many Coalition MPs have said that they will not vote according to the result. So, if it’s non-binding, we might as well skip it and go straight to a free vote.

  36. Collin Street
    August 31st, 2016 at 06:38 | #36

    The far right want to drag it out for as long as possible.

    So does the ALP.

  37. Moz of Yarramulla
    August 31st, 2016 at 07:51 | #37

    @Nick

    I’d be surprised if words very similar to ‘any two people, irrespective of gender’ weren’t included in amendments to the Marriage Act.

    I doubt it. The conservatives who are upset at two men or two women marrying will be even more upset at someone slipping legal recognition of gender diversity in. I would love to see that part. But I think the current process is designed to fail in a nasty way so no-one wants to repeat it.

    Dropping gender restrictions is not equality. I expect the other restrictions on marriage to remain, meaning that the change will be “fewer people are unable to marry now” and when marriage equality activists keep pushing after SSM they’re going to face push-back from well-meaning folk who’ve fallen for the idea that what’s being discussed now *is* equality. It’s no more equality than “let’s count aborigines in the census, but they still can’t get their stolen land back” is racial equality.

    Marriage equality is when any two people who wish to, can marry. Not “any two citizens not already married, imprisoned, incompetent or subject to a detention order, may marry”. As Cory Bernadi would put it ‘I want to be able to marry both my sisters, and my dog'”.

  38. Moz of Yarramulla
    August 31st, 2016 at 08:11 | #38

    FWIW, if you want to really set The Greens off, ask them what their position is on marriage for intellectually disabled people.

    The NZ Greens spent some tense time discussing that, before deciding that they didn’t want to have a policy (they do at least support a ban on involuntary sterilisation, unlike the Australians). But at least they *have* a decent policy on disability rights. Mojo Mathers is largely a symptom, not a cause, of their approach. The Ozzies want to “support cripples better”, rather than dealing with disabled people as if they are actually people too (and no, I’m not disabled, except in the sense of being rendered speechless by the bigoted idiocy I see in politics).

    Rights-based approaches can lead you into unexpected territory very quickly. I quite like them for that reason. But unfortunately sheltered members of the privileged majority recoil in horror when faced with the prospect of the changes that result. Loss of privilege feels like oppression, as the SJWs like to say.

  39. David Irving (no relation)
    September 5th, 2016 at 20:23 | #39

    One problem is, of course, that the plebiscite cannot be made binding. (I’ve seen arguments from Constitutional lawyers pointing this out in tedious detail.)

  40. Ikonoclast
    September 5th, 2016 at 21:59 | #40

    @Moz of Yarramulla

    Forget the Greens, I don’t know what my position is on marriage for intellectually disabled people. Should marriage, like one of the activities that happens after marriage (and before marriage come to think of it), require informed consent? Of what meaning is a wish to marry if one can form no adequate concept of marriage or what it might entail? I am no fan of contractual thinking in general but marriage is contractual both ethically and legally. A person needs to be able to understand the contractual aspects. But I admit intellectually able people can be ethically or empathically disabled so to speak, so being intellectually able is no guarantee of being fit for marriage (of the de jure or de facto kind) either.

  41. anthony nolan
    September 6th, 2016 at 16:33 | #41

    The main argumnt against a plebiscite is that it would create an insufferable culture of abuse towards the LGBTI community and one that would probably last long into the future. Very vulnerable young LGBTI people, it has been predicted, may suicide. At the very least we will have a toxic debate especially with the fascists seeking to weaken 18c and the ACL campaigning for State laws that protect people from comments that offend, vilify or ridicule someone on the basis of sexuality to be repealed or suspended prior to a plebiscite. That shows how they intend to play their cards.

    Both my kids are queer and I don’t us to have to go through this.

    Notwithstanding all that, my substantial opposition to a plebiscite is that rights are either inherent and implicit and waiting to be discovered in the process of the extension of recognition of various previously unknown rights or they are privileges. Having a popularity poll on whether or not human rights ought to be extended to the LGBTI community in the form of equal legal rights and recognition in marriage establishes a disastrous precedent. The corollary of extending rights by popular vote is taking them away from some other group by the same process.

    Besides, imagine taking a popular vote on the civil rights of Jews. Outrageous, right?

    So, no to a plebiscite on all fronts. No-one is entitled to vote on the value of others in our community by any imaginable identifier – sexual preference, religion, “race”, ethnicity, appearance, culture, beliefs.

    This plebiscite will entrench Australian’s right to be a bigot because it is an exercise in bigotry.

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