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The high political stakes of same sex marriage

  • 16 August 2017


The same sex marriage postal plebiscite will be as intense as most referendum and election campaigns. Indeed, the special characteristics of this subject, advanced by the government as the reason for going beyond parliamentary means to resolve the issue, mean that the campaign may be more intense than most referendums have been.

The issue touches so deeply on our personal attitudes, culture and traditional institutions that we can expect an angry and sometimes vitriolic campaign which may severely shake up our society. The political leadership contest between Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott also means that there is a great deal at stake and personal reputations are at risk.  

This is more so than was the case in 1999, for instance, when John Howard called the republican referendum but did not support it. Howard would have survived a YES vote on that occasion as no one doubted that the process which he had facilitated was the appropriate one.

Despite being criticised by Turnbull—then Australian Republican Movement (ARM) leader—as the man who broke the nation’s heart, he could claim that the majority NO vote was vindication of his position. The then Labor leader Kim Beazley was not seriously wounded by the result as republicans were divided and the ARM took responsibility for the loss.

This time it will be different. Turnbull,in particular, has a lot riding on the outcome. The fact that he feels constrained by his official leadership position from taking to the campaign trail will not lessen his responsibility for the outcome.

If the plebiscite fails he will be blamed by the YES movement for his complicity in failing to insist on a parliamentary conscience vote which is the usual way that socio-moral issues, like abortion and euthanasia, are addressed in Australian parliaments. If it succeeds, the YES campaign, led by Bill Shorten and the marriage equality NGOs, will take much of the credit.

If the plebiscite fails Shorten will receive some criticism, either for his decision to oppose a full compulsory plebiscite or for running an ultimately ineffective campaign. But the ire of supporters of same sex marriage will not fall primarily on him. He will respond by promising a free vote in parliament if Labor wins the 2019 election. The issue will remain on the table.

A YES vote will damage Abbott’s long term reputation, but in the short term he will be credited by his supporters with having fought the good fight. A NO vote