What Does Australia’s Close Election Result Mean For Marriage Equality?

More MPs than ever before support marriage equality, but will it pass?

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One of the biggest differences to emerge between Labor and the Coalition in the lead-up to last Saturday’s election was on the issue of marriage equality. Malcolm Turnbull stuck to Tony Abbott’s policy of a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, a policy criticised by marriage equality campaigners but supported by 70 percent of Australians. Labor opposed a plebiscite and Bill Shorten promised that if he was elected he would pass legislation in favour of same-sex marriage within his first 100 days.

But what does the close election result, the potential for a hung parliament and an unruly Senate mean for marriage equality in Australia? Rodney Croome, the Director of Australian Marriage Equality, has argued that the election result is a rejection of the Coalition’s proposal for a plebiscite and both parties should allow a conscience vote, where MPs aren’t bound by party policy, to settle the matter. Junkee took a look a the numbers to see what chance marriage equality legislation has of passing in the new parliament.

Plebiscite Or Parliament?

The first question to resolve is whether same-sex marriage will be put to a plebiscite or simply decided by parliament. But here’s where things start to get a bit more complex. Before any plebiscite can be held, parliament will need to pass something called “enabling legislation” to actually fund and run the whole operation. The legislation would authorise the expenditure required to run the plebiscite, estimated to be $160 million, and outline the rules for the national vote, including how both the “Yes” and “No” campaigns would be funded.

Both the Greens and Labor had reserved their position on whether they would support any enabling legislation for a plebiscite prior to the election. But this week a Labor source told Fairfax Media: “We were never going to support it”. Without the support of Labor, the Coalition will find it tougher to get a plebiscite up and running, though they could still negotiate the necessary legislation through the Senate with help from the Greens and other crossbenchers.

Even if a plebiscite is held and a majority of Australians vote in favour of same-sex marriage, there’s still no guarantee a Coalition government would change the law. Just prior to the election conservative Coalition MPs started indicating that even if most Australians backed same-sex marriage, they would reserve the right to vote against it in parliament. So despite Malcolm Turnbull framing the plebiscite as a simple, clear-cut way to resolve the issue, there’s no guarantee we will have one or that it will lead to any actual change.

That leaves the possibility of marriage equality being passed by the parliament regardless of a plebiscite or its result. In order to become law, marriage equality legislation needs to be supported by a majority of MPs in the House of Representatives and a majority of Senators.

Can Marriage Equality Pass The House Of Representatives?

Australian Marriage Equality thinks it can. By their reckoning there are 81 MPs out of 150 in the new parliament that support marriage equality. So if both Labor and the Coalition granted their MPs a conscience vote, the legislation could pass the House of Representatives with the support of the Greens and progressive independents. While Labor policy is to allow its MPs a conscience vote, Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t indicated that Coalition MPs will have the same option if any bill is presented to parliament this term.

If Turnbull doesn’t grant Coalition MPs a conscience vote, any potential bill is likely to fall short by about 6 votes. If Coalition MPs do get a conscience vote, marriage equality legislation will easily pass the House of Representatives, since there are at least 12 Liberal and National MPs in favour of it.

There’s another potential pathway to marriage equality legislation clearing the House of Representatives. If Labor binds all its MPs to support marriage equality and the Greens, along with all the independents aside from Bob Katter, vote for it, only 2 more votes are required to secure a majority. Where could they come from? There are two gay Liberal MPs in the House of Representative: Trent Zimmerman from North Sydney and Trevor Evans from Brisbane. If those two MPs crossed the floor and voted to support same-sex marriage it would pass the House of Representatives.

What Happens In The Senate?

The composition of the Senate is still a few weeks away from being finalised but based on projected results we can pretty accurately estimate whether or not marriage equality can pass the upper house. If Labor binds its MPs to support the legislation it is likely to sail through with support from the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team, even if all Coalition MPs vote against it. Thats good news because the likely election of new right-wing Senators from the Christian Democrats and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party could make negotiating progressive change through the Senate much more difficult.

If Labor gives its Senators a conscience vote some conservative party members are likely to vote against it. That means that unless the Coalition allows its Senators a conscience vote the legislation is likely to get stuck in the Senate and fail to pass.

Hang On, Do We Want A Conscience Vote Or Not?

It really depends on which party we’re talking about. Since Labor’s policy is to support marriage equality, if Labor MPs are granted a conscience vote it’s basically a get out of jail free card for right-wing Labor members to vote against it. But since the Coalition has previously bound its MPs against marriage equality, marriage equality supporters want Turnbull to grant a conscience vote to allow those within the party who support it to vote for it without recriminations. So, conscience vote: Yes for the Coalition, no for Labor.

All in all, the election was a bit of a mixed result for marriage equality advocates. On one hand, more MPs supportive of marriage equality were elected than ever before, but an emboldened right-wing within the Coalition, a Prime Minister obsessed with holding a plebiscite that might not even mean anything, and a more chaotic Senate might make passing the legislation impossible in this term of parliament.