Secret Plebiscite Bill

All aboard the Good Ship Plebiscite
(Titanic, by V Smoothe)

Details Of The Plebiscite To Be Kept Secret Till After The Election

Malcolm Turnbull wants to hold a plebiscite as soon as possible after he wins the election. If he wins it. He says “the people” want a vote on the issue. The Australian reported:

“A study of 1222 people taken early last month found that 70 per cent believed the people should vote on the issue of same-sex marriage, with only 19 per cent believing it should be decided by parliament.”

But what exactly is the issue? The word ‘plebiscite’ is meaningless until it is defined by the enabling legislation – and we’re not going to be allowed to see that till AFTER the election. We won’t be allowed to know what we’re voting for, or against.

There are reasons for concern. There are plenty of people in Turnbull’s own party who don’t want any decision on marriage equality, ever, and certainly not any time soon. They’ve been extracting commitments from Turnbull that he will design the plebiscite in such a way that it has a high chance of returning a NO result. And they will fight to the bitter end to delay it as long as possible, and cripple it as much as possible.

Two different sets of leaks from coalition source – one to Matt Akersten at samesame and one to me Turnbull Agrees To Rig Plebiscite – clearly indicate that Turnbull is preparing to sell the G.A.Y.* community out. He’s already agreed to an electorate by electorate count, which is harder to win than a simple majority.

We’re not the only ones who don’t want a plebiscite. Penny Wong doesn’t want a plebiscite. Nick Xenophon doesn’t want a plebiscite. The Greens and Labor don’t want a plebiscite.

So, given that we’re heading to a government with a very slim majority, of either party, and a large presence of third parties, it’s doubtful a plebiscite, in the face of all these obstacles, will get up in the next parliament. Which leaves us potentially staring down the barrel of another three years delay. Even Labor’s plans to pass a bill within 100 days, without a plebiscite, are looking unlikely.

What is this plebiscite?

But – and it’s a big but – when people say they want a plebiscite, do they really know what they want?Because every plebiscite is different. There isn’t much precedent to go on. And the devil will be in the detail.

At present, we have no idea what we might be voting for, because the enabling legislation hasn’t been published, and the Liberals have released no details of what they plan. But we need to know. Before we vote July 2 we need to see the detailed proposed enabling legislation. We need to know

The exact question that will be put

If it’s a simple “Should the marriage act be amended to allow any two consenting adults, regardless of gender, to marry?”, that might produce a very different response to “Should the marriage act be amended to allow homosexual and lesbian couples to marry?” or “Should we leave marriage as it is, or should we tinker with this hallowed institution by allowing any old rubbish to tie the knot?” OK, so that last is a joke, but you get my drift. The exact wording of the question is crucial.

Would it be an all-inclusive question for all LGTBI, or would they try to omit the more “contentious” Trans and Intersex? Don’t underestimate the possibility that the government might try to divide us in this manner.

Might they propose a vote before the vote to choose the question from among a number of alternatives? Delay is our opponent’s aim, after all.

The form of voting

Will it be like a normal election, all on one day, voting only at polling places?

Will polling stations be situated at churches?

What will be the rules around campaigning outside polling places?

Or will the vote be carried out over a period of time, by post, or perhaps on line?

Campaign funding

Must the two sides only use the money provided by the government, or will they be able to use their own resources? If the latter, what limits will be put on campaign spending? Will rules be put in place to ensure equal television time?

Since religion is supposed to be separate from the state, will churches, mosques etc be barred from campaigning?

Will any organisation be allowed to campaign and apply for funding, and if so, how will they be qualified and how will the money be allocated?

Or will the government set up, fund, and staff a YES office and a NO office, with groups working under these umbrellas.

Will they select a peak body for each side to run these offices, and how will they be selected?

The ACL is known to be bidding to run the NO campaign: is the AMEs tame campaigning to date because they are bidding to run the YES case and hence secure the government funding?

The threshold to pass

It’s virtually certain that Turnbull has given his backbench religious Abbottite rump a promise that voting will be electorate by electorate. We don’t yet know what else he’s promised them.

Will victory be decided by a simple majority of the global total of votes (50%+1), or, as seems likely,  a YES vote in a majority of electorates?

Or, worse, will it structured like a referendum: will there be a requirement to jump both hurdles?

Passing the bill – what bill?

Assuming a YES win in the plebiscite, there must next be a bill.

Given that a plebiscite cannot by law compel an MPs vote, how will the parties discipline members who refuse to vote in line with the result?

Will the bill be a simple amendment to the marriage act, that is then to be read down into all other legislation – full marriage equality – so that all couples will have exactly the same rights and responsibilities?

Or will be there be an attempt to create an apartheid-style marriage-lite for G.A.Y* people only?

Will exemptions be limited to religious institutions only, e.g., churches, mosques, synagogues etc., or will businesses owned/run by such bodies also be allowed to refuse service to G.A.Y.* couples?

Will exemptions be extended yet further, to cover private businesses run or managed by people with a conscientious objection, whether religiously motivated or not?

So, what now?

That’s a lot of questions, none of which are being answered. And no-one is pressuring the government to answer them.

Australian Marriage Equality ought to be out there, on the front foot, demanding answers. But all I hear is the tinkle of teacups as they conduct their friendly conversations.

While this Titanic heads, it seems to me, for the rocks.

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)