By Malcolm Mackerras

This article sets out my latest thoughts on the matter of the same-sex marriage plebiscite. I begin by noting that my first article carried the self-explanatory title Same-sex plebiscite a waste of money and my second article made a prediction: Same-sex marriage referendum on February 11. The first article was posted on Friday 4 September 2015 and the second on Thursday 3 November 2016. I note that the second article made a wrong prediction but contained useful material none-the-less. It is the first article I wish now to re-visit.

My important point is that the article was published during the last parliamentary term. It was reasonable for me to argue the “waste of money” line at that time. However, a general election has intervened. At that general election, Prime Minister Turnbull made a clear-cut promise of a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Several members and senators from the Liberal Party and the Nationals have told me of that promise they made personally to individual voters. They would be very angry if Turnbull cut them loose by joining the ranks of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott among the notorious promise-breakers.

Earlier this year, the government presented the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill 2017, which passed the House of Representatives and went to the Senate. In that chamber, a majority of senators (being Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon team and Derryn Hinch) decided it was not the role of the Senate any longer to “keep the bastards honest”. Its role was to play politics to embarrass Malcolm Turnbull. On this subject, as on so many, the Senate majority ensured that this will be recorded as our worst-ever Senate. It has truly deserved its reputation as unrepresentative swill.

The thinking of that majority was bloody-minded and irresponsible. It thought Malcolm Turnbull would welcome an excuse to break his promise to the people and blame the Senate. They were very wrong. They should have passed the Bill which would have given the same-sex marriage supporters the best chance to win by having a “normal” vote by attendance at polling places with compulsory voting.

They mis-read Turnbull and played their politics badly. That is what so often happens when politicians are too clever by half. Turnbull was determined not to join the ranks of the Gillard-Abbott promise breakers. He thought, and received the over-whelming backing of his party, that the Senate should be given another chance to let him keep his promise to the people. On Wednesday 9 August, the Senate majority refused. They are now hoist on their own petard. Consequently, we shall have a postal vote plebiscite under the worst possible set of rules for the same-sex marriage advocates.

They are now squealing. Well they might. They have kicked an own goal. Both Turnbull and Tony Abbott are delighted. For Turnbull it probably means that it will be recorded by historians that it was HIS parliament (the 45th Parliament) which enacted same-sex marriage. That will mightily disappoint the Turnbull-haters on the left. For them, the last thing they want is for Turnbull to get any credit for being the progressive he is. For them, this issue was tailor-made for his embarrassment. It will so annoy them that he gets the credit – as he will.

On a personal note, I record that there was a referendum in 1999 when John Howard, Tony Abbott and I campaigned together against Turnbull and the Labor Party. We won. We protected the Australian Constitution – or, to be more precise, we protected that institution which lies at the apex of our Constitution, the constitutional monarchy. For this plebiscite, by contrast, I shall campaign with Turnbull and the Labor Party against Abbott and Howard. I wish to see Australia join every other country of the Anglosphere in being a modern democracy. I am confident of our victory.

So my opinion of Turnbull has risen sharply. However, I have still not forgiven Turnbull for his “Senate reform” last year – foisting upon the Australian people the worst-ever Senate voting system. He created the present unrepresentative swill. However, having noted that fact, it is pleasing to see him down face the moralising so and sos who people that place of unrepresentative swill.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)