A ‘No’ Vote Means No Bill

Ordinary Australians engaging in respectful debate on gay rights: Facebook

Ordinary Australians engaging in respectful debate on gay rights: Aeyrton Kee, Facebook


If the plebiscite is lost, there’ll be no bill in parliament, sources say.

As the details of the PMs shabby marriage equality plebiscite deal start to slouch into the sunlight, we are learning a little about what Malcolm Abbott paid for his Prime Ministership. In coin stolen from the G.A.Y. community.

I can’t vouch for the absolute accuracy of what follows, because the people closest to the action are very reluctant to talk. This is the best I can do with what I’ve managed to glean, plus a little educated guesswork and reading between the lines.

First, a quick outline. We are to have a plebiscite – a public vote – asking voters if it’s OK to let us marry.  We’re having a plebiscite because National Party MPs are said to have blackmailed the PM into holding a plebiscite, rather than giving MPs a free vote, by threatening to walk out of the Coalition and bring down the government. In what looks like the beginning of a pattern, Cowardy Mal caved. This is confirmed.

This is not a stable, united coalition, despite what they say.

The plebiscite process starts with an enabling Bill, which sets out all the details of how the plebiscite will work, the question that will be asked, the date, and so forth. This must be passed by both Houses of Parliament.

Once the votes have been counted, and if equal marriage is given the green light, a second Bill will be put to parliament to amend the Marriage Act, if a majority of both houses agree. They will be allowed to vote according to their consciences and can ignore the plebiscite result.

A draft enabling bill is known to exist, drawn up by Attorney General George Brandis. It was supposed to be published before the election, but it currently lurks in the darkness of George Brandis’s bottom drawer, after it was decided it was too divisive.

That’s too divisive for the Coalition, not for the country. Cowardy Mal just couldn’t face one almighty internal shitfight just before, or worse, during, an election. This is also confirmed. This is not a stable, or a united party: the fight will break out sooner or later. They’re just holding themselves back till the election is over.

So, less than a week out from the vote, we do not know what sort of plebiscite we might get if we return him to the Lodge. We know bits, and can figure out more.

We know that the opponents of equality have demanded the count be conducted electorate by electorate. And this has been agreed.

(George Brandis denied making any such agreement. This is true. The agreement was not made by Brandis, but by Turnbull.)

Then there are the rumours, hints, the “you might say that, I couldn’t possibly” conversations. It has been suggested that perhaps the winning threshold might be set higher than a simple majority of votes cast in each electorate, e.g., 60%, rather than the usual 50% +1. That the bill might require a majority of all votes, as well as all seats. I think these are unlikely.

The exact question to be put to the voters is unknown. This is crucial, as the wording of the question will almost certainly skew the answer. Indications are that it’ll be couched in legalistic and confusing terms, to reduce the number of Yes votes. Research shows that the more complex you make the question, the less likely people are to answer yes.

Then there’s the question of how and where we vote? In person, at a polling place? By post? Probably not online, not just due to security concerns, but also because that would deter older voters, who are more likely to say no.

The religious right are said to be pushing for the vote to be voluntary, not compulsory, because they reckon opponents are much more motivated  than supporters. Plus, they can drive mosque-loads and church-loads of elderly voters to and from the polling stations, and help the old folk in their church-owned homes with their postal votes.

Who will be allowed to campaign? How will campaigns be funded, and who will run them? Will there be spending limits, and how will they be policed? Will equality of advertising time and space be enforced? Will cashed-up third parties, like the Catholic Church, be allowed to run their own separate campaigns? No-one is saying, but there is pressure not to provide government funding.

If it’s a free for all, with everyone having to pay their own expenses, the religious lobby reckon they can steamroller us.

Next question: will it be possible to get an enabling bill through parliament?

The religious right have a vested interest in packing as much objectionable content into the enabling legislation as possible, bringing on a bill that’s effectively designed to be contentious and hence fail – having first delayed it as long as possible. Turnbull, on the other hand, wants to pass a bill quickly and have the plebiscite done and dusted before Christmas. This looks very very unlikely, especially in a tight parliament.

Since the election looks likely to give us another hung parliament, or a small Turnbull majority in the lower house and a large crossbench in the upper, the squabbling may go on a long time. The enabling bill may not pass at all. No one – except the religious right – wants to think or talk about what happens then.

The Godboys will demand the whole issue be taken off the table for the term of the next parliament. The real Liberals will demand the whole plebiscite idea be dropped and a free vote held immediately. Cowardy Mal will probably hide in the cellars of the Lodge and tremble. Assuming he hasn’t already been rolled by Abbott and/or Morrison, which is a distinct possibility.

But let’s assume we get past that hurdle, the enabling bill is agreed and legislated, the plebiscite itself organised, Yes and No campaigns funded, a date set. The plebiscite is held, and the votes are in. Now what do we do?

There is no obligation for parliament to act on the result of the plebiscite.

If the plebiscite produces a majority in favour of marriage equality, a bill must be introduced. I understand there is no timeframe for this in the draft enabling bill. Parliament will be under no oblogation to act immediately. Equal marriage could be delayed for months, if not years, on the grounds that ‘more important’ matters need to be dealt with first.

The proposed text of the new marriage act has not been disclosed: it only needs a simple amendment to the current marriage act, but we could be faced with a more complex bill setting up a ‘separate but equal’ form of marriage for same-sex couples. Which is what the religious right want and are pushing for. My understanding is that no commitments have yet been made on this point.

Assuming that a marriage amendment bill is brought before the house, all members of Parliament, including Cabinet ministers, will be given a free vote. MPs will be free to vote “No” even if their electorate voted “Yes”. The same courtesy will also be extended to MPs who wish to vote “Yes”, even if their electorate voted “No”.  And if they are brave enough.

But only if the plebiscite returns a majority “Yes” vote. My sources say that if the “No” vote wins, the government will not introduce legislation into Parliament. “What would be the point, the people have said No”. Marriage will remain closed to us. For how long, no-one can guess.

The religious right in the Coalition, including Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, Corey Bernardi, Andrew Hastie, George Christensen, and Scott Morrison, along with the Nationals, have sworn to do everything they can to prevent marriage equality ever happening.

I hope to hear more of the dark deals they have done before polling day.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)