A Referendum on Same-Sex Marriage Might Be a Terrible Idea

It's been a big week in politics. So after a Senate inquiry into holding a plebiscite or referendum, let's check in with same-sex marriage.

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Sep 18 2015, 1:16am

This week a Senate inquiry warned the Australian government against holding a plebiscite or referendum on same-sex marriage, and instead backed Parliament to hold a conscience vote. The committee, comprised of senators from Labor, the Coalition, and the Greens, reasoned that $158.4 million was too much to pay for a glorified opinion poll. After all, a Current Affair has clearly got it locked down for a fraction of the price.

Aside from the price, they were also concerned that a public campaign from the 'no' side could be hurtful to the LGBTI community. Chair of the committee, independent senator Glenn Lazarus said "marriage equality involves people, and people will be attacked through very nasty and very aggressive advertising campaigns."

Lararus explained that he initially expected a majority support for a plebiscite, but instead found that "people who are for and against marriage equality would rather have the Parliament decide." The report concluded that making a decision on same-sex marriage is "squarely within the parliament's power," and recommended a bill amending the Marriage Act be "introduced into the Parliament as a matter of urgency, with all parliamentarians being allowed a conscience vote."

For anyone getting lost in the plebiscite discussion, let's take a moment to explain. Both are a kind of "people's votes"—but in different ways. A referendum is a formal vote designed to authorise amendment of the Constitution. You can vote 'yes' or 'no' to proposed changes. If a majority of people in a majority of states approve the changes, the Governor-General gives it the ok and the changes are made without parliament needing to step in. Referendums are a pretty big deal, and they don't have a history of success, either – only eight of the 44 we've held have passed.

A plebiscite is far less binding: it's basically, one big expensive opinion poll (see our ACA alternative above), designed to indicate the view of the public on a particular question. If a plebiscite was held on same-sex marriage, parliament would still have to legislate changes, and we'd have to presume they'd be made on what we'd voted. So it would still be up to parliament to sort it out, which doesn't get us a whole lot further.

The government's approach to same-sex marriage has been scattered this year, beginning when Abbott originally dismissed the idea of a referendum on same-sex marriage in May. His statement came after Ireland became the first country to approve it by a popular vote. At the time, Abbott told reporters, "questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth Parliament" and that "referendums are held in this country where there's a proposal to change the constitution".


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Depending on who you ask, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten either took this opportunity to stand for what's right, or just to make Abbott look like an ass by introducing a Labor marriage equality bill. But the bill failed to find support from the Coalition and the House of Representatives voted to adjourn debate. During their national conference in July, Shorten vowed to legalise same-sex marriage within 100 days should Labor come into power. In August, a cross-party bill was introduced by Coalition backbencher Warren Entsch, with Christopher Pyne and Malcolm Turnbull backing it.

But by mid-August Abbott back-flipped: during a late-night press conference he said it was up to us again. He announced a referendum or plebiscite would be held after the next election, and this would be the Coalition's policy for the rest of the term.

This caused some division—Turnbull questioned the policy, saying "the reason I haven't advocated a plebiscite after the next election is that it would mean "this issue is a live issue all the way up to the next election." Turnbull said a free vote in the Parliament would see the issue resolved quickly, so he could focus on things like jobs and the economy. In light of that recent $158.4 million dollar price tag, it's a semi-understandable stance.

Turnbull has famously expressed his support of marriage equality. But since becoming Prime Minister this week, he's stuck by his party's policy. In his first Question Time as PM on Tuesday, he said that a plebiscite or "people's vote" is a "very legitimate and democratic way of dealing with it." Labor's response was to call Turnbull a "sell-out".

At the moment, the cross-party marriage equality bill is still before the house. There's also pressure on Turnbull to allow a conscience vote. Greens senator Janet Rice, who initiated the inquiry, said "we could have marriage equality tomorrow with the cross-party bill currently before the House. The Prime Minister should show some real leadership and allow his party a free vote."

We know Turnbull supports marriage equality, but will he go against Coalition policy and anger the conservatives? Probably not—all those 'captains calls' are what got the last guy in trouble.

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