The Plebiscite Probably Won’t Go Ahead; So What Does That Mean For Marriage Equality?

Marriage equality is probably off the table for the next three years.

Since it looks like the marriage equality plebiscite won’t be going ahead, we decided to update our article explaining what this means for reform in Australia. You can read the original here.

Malcolm Turnbull has finally introduced the legislation required to kick off a plebiscite on marriage equality, but it looks like it will all be over before it begins. Bill Shorten has pretty much confirmed that he won’t be supporting the plebiscite, and if Labor joins the Greens and Nick Xenophon Team in voting down the legislation in the senate, the plebiscite is dead.

But, if that happens (and it definitely looks like the most likely outcome at the moment), what does that mean for marriage equality? To understand the impact the current debate around the plebiscite could have, it’s worth looking at where the idea for one came from and why most marriage equality campaigners are opposed to it.

Why Were We Having A Plebiscite In The First Place?

Between 2013 and 2015, New Zealand, France, the UK, Ireland and the United States all legalised same-sex marriage, increasing pressure on the Australian government to finally take action. Unfortunately for us, our Prime Minister was an ultra-conservative who said he felt “threatened by homosexuality”. But Tony Abbott wasn’t able to completely ignore the public demand for change.

Some moderate Liberal party MPs agitated for a free vote in Parliament, where each MP could ignore party policy and vote according to their conscience. Abbott and the right-wing of the Liberal party managed to withstand that push, but as an overture he flagged a national plebiscite to resolve the issue. Unfortunately for Abbott, he was rolled out of the Prime Ministership a month later by Malcolm Turnbull. Despite hopes that Turnbull might ditch the plebiscite idea, he stuck with it.

This week we finally got the key details on the plebiscite. It would be held on February 11, 2017, both sides of the debate would receive $7.5 million in public funding to run their campaigns, and TV networks would be forced to run ads for and against marriage equality.

But for any of that to actually go ahead, the government needs to pass legislation through both houses of Parliament. Marriage equality campaigners have been pressuring politicians to block the plebiscite for going ahead, and it looks like they’ve been successful.

Why Are Marriage Equality Campaigners Trying To Block The Plebiscite?

In most jurisdictions, marriage equality has become legal due to decisions of parliament or the courts. The exception is Ireland, where a referendum was held to change the constitution. In Australia we don’t need a referendum to legalise marriage equality. All we need to do is update the Marriage Act — something that can only be done through the parliament. The proposed plebiscite isn’t about changing the constitution either, it’s basically just a method of testing what proportion of the country supports marriage equality.

Most marriage equality campaigners are trying to stop the plebiscite from going ahead because it’s expensive (it has a $170 million price tag), won’t actually force MPs to vote for marriage equality in parliament and could have a damaging impact on the mental health of young LGBTI Australians. Instead, they want parliament to deal with the issue with a free vote of all MPs.

The Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team already decided that they would block the plebiscite, meaning the Labor party controlled the swing votes. Now that it looks like Labor’s blocking the plebiscite, is it game over for marriage equality?


This is where it gets complicated. There are currently two identical marriage equality bills before the parliament. One was introduced by Bill Shorten and the other was introduced by the Greens and independents. But neither of them are likely to even be debated, let alone voted on. Why? Because Turnbull is completely beholden to the right-wing of the Liberal party and they just won’t let it happen.

The whole reason a plebiscite was being discussed in the first place is because Liberal conservatives, like Cory Bernardi, really don’t want marriage equality. Their position is that the only way the issue is getting debated in parliament is if there’s a plebiscite. If there’s no plebiscite, then it’s all over red rover.

That’s why Turnbull has been saying that Labor needs to support a plebiscite to ensure marriage equality actually happens. Without one, the issue is theoretically off the table for the next three years of the current parliament. The only alternative, at this stage, is waiting for Labor to win the 2019 federal election and implement marriage equality then.

So the question for marriage equality campaigners is this: should you support an expensive, potentially harmful plebiscite if it increases the chances of marriage equality passing, or oppose it and hope that Labor wins government in three years and legislates for it?

Now that Labor has reportedly decided to block the plebiscite, we’re on the latter path. The only other option is Turnbull risking his leadership by ignoring the conservatives in his party and allowing a free vote. But, given recent history, that doesn’t seem likely.