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Turnbull - best man or left at the altar?

by
August 10, 2017

The postal vote on same-sex marriage is happening, but the fate of the ballot is far from certain.

Yes, it's a political fix.

Yes, it's a very clumsy way of delivering an outcome.

Yes, it's all about the stability of Malcolm Turnbull's leadership.

But the postal vote is happening - at least until the High Court says it's not.

The ballot on same-sex marriage was given the go-ahead after Labor, the Greens and Nick Xenophon Team blocked a compulsory plebiscite this week.

Turnbull says it will give all Australians a say on a "fundamental issue" on which many people have strong views.

But what's more it delivers on an election promise, and "strong leaders" keep their promises, he told reporters.

The prime minister has also bought himself some valuable time among disgruntled conservatives in the Liberal Party.

It's worth revisiting some history.

Tony Abbott came up with the compulsory plebiscite idea as a compromise at a meeting - some Liberal colleagues described as an "ambush" in 2015 - just before he lost the leadership to Turnbull.

Turnbull was then obliged to stick to the plan, despite having strong reservations about it, if he was to keep the Nationals in the coalition and hold onto his job.

Cabinet minister Peter Dutton can take credit for the Plan B postal ballot, and colleague Mathias Cormann found a way to design and pay for it without recourse to the parliament.

What's left is a compromise on a compromise that could well be illegal and unconstitutional.

Labor, the Greens and others who have championed marriage equality are left with a dilemma.

Do they put a massive effort into turning out the vote and then encouraging people to vote "yes"?

The ALP and the Greens are masters at grassroots campaigning and, working with a coalition of other organisations such as GetUp, could run a solid "yes" case and turn out young voters who historically don't cast ballots in large numbers under voluntary systems.

Or do they boycott the vote, run a campaign to de-legitimise it and hope the courts overturn it?

Turnbull has said if the courts overturn the ballot or there is a majority "no" vote, that's it for any government role on the issue this term.

It would then fall to either a minority of Liberal MPs to try to get West Australian senator Dean Smith's bill onto the parliamentary notice paper - an unlikely scenario in the case of a "no" vote - or let the issue lapse until a possible Labor win at the next election.

The risk with a boycott is enabling the "no" vote to succeed - which would not only cruel the chances of the Turnbull government delivering the reform, but undermine any mandate for Labor introducing the change in the next term.

Labor would be running on a platform of changing marriage laws which a majority of Australians do not support.

The court challenge may be a better option, in that it - if successful - would demonstrate to the public the farce and abrogation of responsibility that is the voluntary "opinion poll".

Labor could then re-prosecute its argument for a parliamentary vote, appealing to the prime minister, Senator Smith and others in the Liberal Party to "do it properly".

And it would have a strong case to take the policy to the next election.

Turnbull is unlikely to change his stance on his "no poll, no same-sex marriage" position, given the pressure he is under from the Nationals, as well as Dutton and Cormann, to resist his moderate tendencies.

As politicians and lawyers wade through the legal and constitutional mire, the first votes are set to be cast sometime after September 12.

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