The fate of the historic plebiscite into same-sex marriage is in the hands of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who has to choose between principle and political opportunism.
The plebiscite remains overwhelmingly the most popular mechanism for deciding whether to make a social change that for a large proportion of the Australian community remains a massive break from the traditional concept of marriage.
The Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull took the plebiscite option to the election, and the Liberal and Nationals parties are, apart from a few exceptions, in favour of taking the issue to the people.
However, Mr Shorten continues to fan the flames of division, claiming the plebiscite debate will bring out “haters” and homophobes, and that the Parliament should simply rubber stamp what he believes is the new normal.
There has been no acknowledgement anywhere in Mr Shorten’s language that some people in the community may have reservations or genuine reasons, both religious and cultural, for wanting to maintain the current concept of male-female marriage bonds.
In fact, in the lead-up to the announcement on the plebiscite Mr Shorten upped the ante by warning Parliament: “Let me be as blunt as possible: a ‘no’ campaign would be an emotional torment for gay teenagers, and if one child commits suicide over the plebiscite, then that is one too many.”
George Brandis, left, and Scott Ryan
Attorney-General George Brandis and Special Minister of State Scott Ryan have now laid out the long-awaited details of the plebiscite, which will be held on February 11 next year.
The question will be a simple one: Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry? It will be a compulsory vote determined by a simple majority of votes cast.
After considerable debate, the Turnbull cabinet decided to fund the two campaigns at a cost of $15 million to the Australian taxpayer.
Two parliamentary advertising committees will also be established to administer the $7.5 million public funding given to each of the Yes and No campaigns — in a similar way to the 1999 republic referendum.
It is likely that the pro-gay marriage campaign, which did not want government funding, will receive large donations from corporate Australia and from high wealth individuals – hence their reluctance to seek funds from the government.
The status quo campaign is more likely to seek funding at the grassroots level, from some conservative groups and from some churches.
If the plebiscite goes ahead on February 11, Special Minister of State Ryan said the result would be determined by a simple national majority (unlike a referendum, which requires a majority of votes and a majority of states).
There will be pre-poll voting, which has become a feature of Australian elections, and rules for advertising will be authorised. The Government is looking at controls on robo-calls and intends to have a three-day electronic blackout before polling day. Donations of up to $1500 to the official Yes and No campaigns will be tax deductible.
The debate over same-sex marriage has revealed once again how anti-democratic the elites are.
They argue that opinion polls are overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage, but refuse to endorse the plebiscite on spurious arguments about cost and the supposed usurping of the Parliament as the “proper” forum to decide on such things.
The most likely scenario is that the plebiscite debate and the campaigns will be civil, reasonable and extremely unlikely to descend into abuse and hurtful comment. It will come down to a debate over whether Australians are ready to change a bedrock institution that has been fundamentally the same for thousands of years.
In reality the elites are so out of touch with people in the suburbs and in the regions that they don’t quite know how the vote will go, and because of this they fear there could be an upset.
Legislation to proceed with the plebiscite is likely to pass through the House of Representatives, but the Senate remains problematic, as Labor is still to decide on the issue.
Most pundits seem to think Mr Shorten will oppose the plebiscite in Parliament, which would mean there would not be a same-sex marriage reform for another three years.
Prime Minister Turnbull, despite his strong personal views in favour of same-sex marriage, will not risk a revolt from his party by then putting the issue to the Parliament.
Mr Shorten will have to decide whether he really does want “marriage equality” after all or whether he wants the change to happen under his time as Prime Minister. If he pushes back against the plebiscite, he may never get what he wishes for.