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To plebiscite or not to plebiscite? Will that become the question?

By John de Meyrick - posted Wednesday, 31 August 2016


If Labor decides to block the Bill proposed by the Government for the holding of a plebiscite on same-sex marriage then, whilst the measure may still pass the House of Representatives, it is unlikely to pass the Senate.

The Government needs the support of nine of the eleven cross-bench senators to pass the Bill and with the Nick Xenophon Team of three declaring they will vote against it, a stalemate situation will surely arise.

Such a ploy is clearly intended to embarrass the Government and attempt to force it into abandoning the proposal for a plebiscite and to have Parliament decide the issue instead.

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The Prime Minister cannot be expected to capitulate on the proposal and will be likely to put it off to another election, blaming the ‘blockers’ for obstructing the measure and in causing the disappointment of the gay lobby.

Such  a situation will just as surely become an on-going stand-off issue with the Labor-Greens-Xenophon ‘alliance’ keeping up the pressure in the expectation that, with the weakening of resolve within some sections of the Coalition together with the stirred-up media public ‘outrage’, a major crisis and back down by the Government might result.

In this, the opponents of a plebiscite will have much with which to hammer the Government: Its stubbornness on the issue. The non-binding effect of the result (although the Bill could make it otherwise). The Green’s pathetic claim that a plebiscite will engender a bitter debate that is likely to cause many young gays to be traumatised and prone to suicide (which surely would only be made more likely by denying them the certainty of a plebiscite). And most of all, its estimated cost ($160m) which, according to a recent ABC conducted poll on Facebook and Twitter with more than 84,000 respondents, is the main reason for 87 percent and 90 percent, respectively thereof, voting against the holding of a plebiscite and in favour of having Parliament decide the matter.

Of course, this scenario may be avoided if Labor decides to support the Bill. But the temptation to cause havoc for the Government and to engage in political bastardry would seem too tempting to pass up.

So what’s so bad about holding a plebiscite on same-sex marriage? We have had plebiscites before. Not as many or as often as some countries like France and Switzerland, and not just on issues involving a conscience vote (eg, the choice of a national song when “Advance Australia Fair” was chosen in 1977).

Whilst there has been only three federal plebiscites (as distinct to referenda), they have been used by our states to gauge public opinion on a range of issues such as: closing times for hotels; adoption of daylight saving; opening hours for retail stores at night and on weekends; local government amalgamations; introduction of casinos; and adoption of electoral systems.

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Plebiscites are becoming more common in a number of countries, especially in the American states where the issue of same-sex marriage has been the subject of a number of plebiscites, among other issues. 

But to some voices in Australia it seems that the right of the public to have a direct “say” on the subject is somehow contrary to tradition and is un-Australian.

In an interview on ABC’s Lateline (26 August 2016), former High Court Judge, Michael Kirby, made an impassioned plea to have the proposal for a plebiscite set aside in favour of the Parliament deciding the issue. He saw it to be “a bad precedent…unfair…and discriminatory”.

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About the Author

John de Meyrick is a barrister (ret’d), lecturer and writer on legal affairs.

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