If Malcolm Turnbull Loves The Plebiscite So Much He Should Prove It To The Voters

There's another way to do this thing, Malcolm.


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The Prime Minister supports it. The leader of the opposition supports it. A majority of both houses of parliament support it. The public support it. Yet we’re still no closer to actually legalising same-sex marriage.

The issue has dominated the political conversation for the past couple of weeks, after a now-failed attempt by a group of so-called “rebel” MPs to bring on a free vote in parliament and just get it done. Instead, we’re going to get a voluntary, non-binding postal plebiscite. A horrific, Frankenstein’s monster-esque invention of the Liberal Party that’s all about shoring up Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.

The postal plebiscite idea is not just dumb for all the obvious reasons. It’s dumb because there’s already a way out of this mess and it’s been part of Australian politics since 1901.

We Don’t Need A Stupid Postal Plebiscite

The government has been arguing that they are honour bound to stick with their plebiscite policy because it’s what they took to the last election. Of course this is an incredibly spurious justification since the Coalition has had no qualms about breaking numerous promises over the past four years on issues like funding public services, but for argument’s sake let’s take them at their extremely dumb word.

So we’ve got a situation where the government is trying to implement a policy (a plebiscite on same-sex marriage) but they keep getting blocked by the Senate. It was first voted down in November last year, but yesterday the the government announced they will be re-introducing it next week. Unfortunately for Malcolm Turnbull, Labor, the Greens and enough of the crossbench have already said they’ll be voting it down again, killing off its chances of getting through.

Thankfully the government already has a backup plan! A non-binding and voluntary postal plebiscite. It’s the terrible idea you have when all your other terrible ideas have been rejected for being straight-up terrible. On one hand, it’s an extremely creative solution to the vexed issue of marriage equality Malcolm Turnbull keeping his job. On the other hand, it’s an awful, pointless and expensive exercise without precedent.

But here’s the thing: the old white guys who wrote our constitution and set up the rules governing our political system actually predicted this exact situation and came up with a solution! Ok, they didn’t predict that marriage equality would become such a vexing issue, but they did predict a situation where a government was unable to get its agenda through the Senate and they developed a way around it.

It’s something Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition should be familiar with since they used it just last year. It’s called a double dissolution and the current stoush is exactly what it’s supposed to be used for.

Remind Me, What’s A Double Dissolution?

Because the federal government is formed in the House of Representatives and the Senate is theoretically about ensuring state interests are represented, the constitution contains a provision to resolve deadlock between the two houses.

That provision is known as a double dissolution. Basically if a piece of legislation is passed by the House of Representatives but blocked by the Senate twice after a period of at least three months the government can dissolve both houses of parliament and go to an election.

That’s precisely what happened last year. The Senate blocked a raft of industrial relations legislation the government was trying to enact so Malcolm Turnbull called the first double dissolution election since 1987 to try and clear out the minor parties. Did it work? Not really, lol. The government scraped in with the barest majority and a whole bunch of new Senate crossbenchers were elected.

What Does This Have To Do With Same-Sex Marriage?

A lot of the focus in recent weeks has been the internal Liberal divisions on same-sex marriage. The party’s far-right are deeply opposed to change and keep throwing up ideas like a postal plebiscite to delay the inevitable. More moderate MPs are sick of waiting and want a free vote in parliament to deal with it once and for all.

But the line from Turnbull has always been pretty consistent: a plebiscite is the policy we took to the election and it’s what we’re sticking with. Where it all falls apart for him, however, is the idea of a voluntary, postal plebiscite as a backup. There’s just no precedent for that, while there is a clear pathway, through a double dissolution, to resolve things.

If the government is so convinced that it needs to keep its promise to the public, but is faced with a hostile Senate, then the right thing to do in terms of how our democratic processes are supposed to work is to call an election. Not a fake-ass postal election, but a real one. Those are the rules, you don’t get to just make up new ones. Malcolm Turnbull isn’t Frank Underwood and this isn’t House of Cards.

So Are We Going To Have Another Election?

Even though there’s a very clear way to resolve the deadlock (in addition to just, you know, passing the damn thing in parliament ASAP), there’s no chance that the government will hold a double dissolution election on plebiscite.

For all their talk of “keeping promises”, they know it’s an incredibly dumb idea. And they know there are basically no voters out there for whom the plebiscite is a make or break policy. The government is also trailing in the polls and would probably get an annihilated if an election was held this year.

Instead, we’ve got this postal vote idea. It’s the vote you have when you’re too cowardly to face the people and have a real vote. It makes a mockery of our democracy and of an issue of human rights. Parliament, for all its enormous, enormous flaws, is supposed to be about representing the public. Instead the government is doing everything it can to avoid representing the public, going as far as creating an entirely new, and very bad, form of postal democracy.

Just to be clear, another election is not the ideal way to pass same-sex marriage. There’s a majority in both houses of parliament in favour of it right now. They should just vote for it. But if the government seriously thinks its plebiscite idea is so important to voters then it should follow the rules and take it to a double dissolution, instead of the absurd envelope election we’re about to get.

Feature image via Dominique A. Pineiro/Flickr.

Osman Faruqi is Junkee’s News and Politics Editor. He tweets at @oz_f.