Attorney General George Brandis is standing affront the media today saying that the issue of gay marriage in Australia will soon be resolved by the Government. In an interview on Sky News, Brandis was firmly backing the idea of a plebiscite to resolve the issue.
“Every adult member in Australian society needs to have ownership of this decision,” he said. “This is a decision so fundamental to the nature and characteristics of our society that it should be made by the people.”
And if that is the case they have several options:
- A parliamentary vote which clearly Abbott doesn’t want to do
- A plebiscite, in which the Government can set the terms for a win, held immediately
- A plebiscite, in which the Government can set the terms for a win, held at the next election
- A referendum limiting the power of the Government
But do you think that is the best use of our finite government expenditure when the issue can easily be resolved in Parliament and does not require an expensive trip to the polls? Tony Abbott this week talked of adding it to the 2016 election poll activity, which might seem sensible given a referendum style vote would otherwise cost the country $120 million.
It is an interesting debate, and what is even more interesting is the difference between a plebiscite and a referendum. The ABC this week did an interesting overview, and explained the difference in a lot of detail.
“According to the Budget Macquarie Dictionary, a plebiscite is ‘a direct vote of the qualified electors of a state in regard to some important public question’. (State here is used in a generic form and doesn’t mean Australian state.)
A referendum by the same dictionary is ‘the principle or procedure of referring or submitting measures proposed or passed by a legislative body to the vote of the electorate for approval or rejection’.
According to the ABC, High Court rulings have clarified that the Commonwealth parliament has the right to define the meaning of marriage under Section 51 (xxi) of the Constitution.
The only reason to hold a referendum would be to restrict the right of Parliament to define marriage.”
That is, a referendum needs to address a constitutional issue, and would be much harder to get the issue to pass in because the way a referendum would need to be structured would be to remove the Commonwealth’s constitutional power to define marriage. A referendum, in order to pass would need to win in four states and as a 50% on the whole nationwide too.
A plebiscite is handled a little differently. The government needs to create an act, and then contract how the act will be won under a plebiscite. In the history of Australia there has only been three plebiscites held. Two on conscription as a yes/no vote in 1916 and 1917 and then one in 1977 on our national song.
According to the ABC, for opponents of same-sex marriage, it would be easier to defeat a plebiscite on same-sex marriage than it would be to pass a referendum constitutionally ruling out same-sex marriage.
Sounds like either way, it will be up to the Government to ensure we don’t go to an expensive national vote on an unwinnable issue that stirs up unnecessary political angst. Here’s hoping they structure it so it can have a good old Aussie “fair go”.
Do you agree?