In the wash up from Tuesday’s coalition-party room decision denying a free vote to Coalition Ministers on same sex marriage, a number of Coalition protagonists, most notably the Prime Minister, have come out in support of either a plebiscite or referendum to decide the issue once and for all.
This seems somewhat at odds with the Prime Minister’s formerly stated position, following the unprecedented Irish referendum, that this should be a matter for the party room.
If the motivation behind this is to differentiate themselves from the Labor party, whose majority (but not unanimous) position is to allow a free vote, at least until 2019, it seems a curios tactic.
The cost to the taxpayer of a plebiscite or referendum notwithstanding, the reactionaries within Coalition ranks are falling in behind the Prime Minister touting the party line that the Coalition will let the people decide but Labor want the politicians to decide.
The Coalition, therefore, has made this an election issue despite the fact that the Prime Minister explicitly stated that the plebiscite or referendum would not happen concurrently with the next federal election.
This could prove notoriously poor judgement. In the next three years there will be a general election, a referendum on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders and, either a plebiscite or a referendum on same sex marriage.
Current voter disengagement with politics will be exacerbated by voter fatigue and resentment at the additional cost. And, as Malcolm Turnbull points out, the same sex marriage debate remains live until the plebiscite or referendum “resolves” the issue.
The issue will remain live until after the election and, quite possibly, until after the constitutional recognition referendum. It threatens to stay unresolved for many years to come. Given the apparent appetite for change in the community on this issue, that can’t be good for the Coalition.
Referendums and Plebiscites
As ABC election analyst Anthony Green explains: “[A] ‘referendum' is generally reserved for votes to amend the Australian Constitution…” whereas “a] ‘plebiscite' is … used to mean a simple national vote”. One requires majority support in a majority of states to change the Constitution; the other is merely a decisive indicator of public opinion. The former is notoriously difficult to achieve; the latter, well, it’s merely a decisive indicator of public opinion.
Social Services Minister and Member for the federal electorate of Cook in Sydney’s south, Scott Morrison, is one right faction Liberal minister who favours a referendum.
Morrison outlined his position on Wednesday evening’s 7.30 program, and, while ostensibly falling in behind his leader on this issue, is positioning himself in the party for the long game and for a more self-serving outcome.
Morrison’s stated preference for a referendum to change Section 51 (xxi) of the constitution is designed to fail.
Section 51 outlines the Commonwealth’s powers and clause (xxi) simply says “marriage”. Morrison’s proposal to include “opposite and same-sex” into this clause is both unnecessary and disingenuous.
Section 51 is gender-unspecific so “marriage” in this context neither implicitly nor explicitly excludes same-sex marriage. A change is simply unnecessary. It is disingenuous because Morrison knows, as John Howard ably demonstrated in the November 1999 Australian republic referendum, a tricksy wording of the proposal will almost certainly cause it to fail regardless of the weight of public opinion.
A failed referendum cements Morrison’s reactionary views and his position as a leadership front runner for the LNP’s right faction. A position that he hopes will catapult him into the Liberal leadership.
However, it might be enlightening to commission a poll in Kurnell, Cronulla or Kirrawee (suburbs in Morrison’s electorate of Cook in Sydney’s south) to gauge support on the ground for same sex marriage. If results follow the national trend of 60 – 75% support, Morrison’s 3.69% margin might not be as strong as he thinks.
As same sex marriage becomes a defining electoral issue for both parties Labor’s National Secretary, George Wright, might just be commissioning that poll in the Shire very soon.