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Firstly: It’s a postal vote.
Yes, our antipodean cousins are taking a step that none of the other 25 nations which have legalised Same Sex Marriage (SSM) have taken, staging a non-binding postal vote for the entire country on the issue.
It wasn’t always this way.
At first the government wanted to hold a plebiscite, which is basically the same as a referendum. Everybody in the nation votes on a legislative question; however, the result is not binding. Instead, plebiscites indicate to the government popular opinion on non-constitutional issues, with the government of the day then somewhat honour-bound to pass legislation that matches public opinion.
BUT, they’re not having one of those.
The governing Liberal-National coalition proposed a plebiscite last year and could pass it in the House of Representatives (the equivalent of our House of Commons) where they have a majority. However, lacking a majority in the Senate, they had to enter negotiations to pass a bill for a plebiscite. They had the support of some members of the crossbench (a menagerie of independents and minor parties holding immense power in the upper house) including the right-wing One Nation Party. However, the Nick Xenophon Team rejected the idea, as did media personality-turned Independent Senator Derryn Hinch. These rejections meant the government needed the support of either the Green Party or the opposition Labor Party to pass the bill. Neither of these were forthcoming, so the plebiscite died.
In Australia, Zombies exist…
Debate rumbled on in the media and in the silly season of the winter break it gained serious traction. Rumblings began that a group of Liberal rebels, led by the openly gay senator Dean Smith and representative Tim Wilson, were prepared to vote to suspend standing orders in parliament and then cross the floor to vote on a Private Members’ Bill to bring SSM into law. This forced PM Malcolm Turnbull to hold a meeting of the Parliamentary Liberal Party to debate the issue. The meeting reinforced the party’s support for a plebiscite and quashed the Smith-Wilson mini-rebellion.
So back to the Senate we go!
The first time the plebiscite went to the Senate Labor passed the bill on first and second reading (for non-politics nerds, those are procedural votes allowing the bill to be debated and for debate to be held on potential amendments) before rejecting the bill at third reading to kill it. This time, they rejected the bill at first reading- joined by the Greens and the NXT. This meant the Senate vote was tied 31-31, which in the Senate means a bill dies. Thus the plebiscite fell for the second time.
Which leads us to the postal vote.
The government was left with a choice between either dropping the issue from the agenda entirely, impossible in the current media climate; holding a free vote in parliament on the issue (which would likely mean Turnbull being knifed by the conservative wing of his party); or the current scenario: a postal vote.
This does not require parliamentary legislation to take place as it’s entirely non-binding and will be run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, not the Australian Electoral Commission. It’s subject to a legal challenge in the High Court which will be heard in September. The postal vote is also unusual because it’s not mandatory, as voting is in Australia, and there are already questions over how ‘silent voters’ will be included, and even if 16 and 17 year olds will be eligible as they are on the electoral roll.
Now: What happens next?
Labor leader Bill Shorten blasted his opposite number in the House, making what was probably the best speech of his career in criticising Turnbull for allowing a public campaign which many suggest will see new levels of vitriol towards Same-Sex couples (disgraced former speaker Bronwyn Bishop has already been on Sky News comparing equal marriage to allowing polygamy) and their children. Shorten has committed Labor to supporting and campaigning for SSM, stating that the only thing worse than having the postal vote would be losing it.
Malcolm Turnbull has ‘bravely’ declared he is too busy being Prime Minister to campaign (he is a supporter of equal marriage rights), proving his priority is retaining his job. Senior Liberals such as former PM Tony Abbott and Senator Eric Abetz will likely campaign for a No vote, alongside the Australian Christian Lobby. In the press, the Murdoch-owned NT News has become the first paper to declare, in favour of equal marriage- it will be interesting to see if this is a trend in the media mogul’s outlets, but Murdoch owned Sky News is continuing to become an Australian version of Fox News, and the evening shows may skew hard towards a No vote.
So which side will win?
The postal vote was supported by anti-SSM campaigners, as it will likely suppress the turnout among younger, more pro-SSM, voters and a yes vote would lead to a free vote in parliament on the issue, in which SSM would be passed. If the vote comes back no, the issue is dead for this parliament, but Labor are favourites to win the next election in 2019, and have said they will pass SSM regardless of the outcome if they win power. This postal vote could be close, but it is likely to be the last stand for SSM opponents.