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.