August 13th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Rating the ratings agencies: FFF and "Watch out"

CANBERRA OBSERVED Despite bumbling, youth detention inquiry is needed

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Erdogan's political coup will transform Turkey

SEXUAL POLITICS Transgender Olympians: what about the AFL?

EDITORIAL Marriage plebiscite: why not a referendum?

SEXUAL POLITICS Gay lobby grasps at normal and natural

MILITARY HISTORY The Western Front, 1916: our costliest theatre of war

MILITARY HISTORY Delville Wood, 1916: South Africa's Gallipoli

EUTHANASIA Disability hate crime: then the rest is silence

BRITISH POLITICS Tories push trans agenda hard in schools, prisons

TAIWANESE HISTORY AND POLITICS Fractious party puts Tsai in a pickle

MUSIC Davis biopic sadly miles off the mark

CINEMA Bourne again, but still lost: Jason Bourne

BOOK REVIEW An empire built on suffering

BOOK REVIEW Freedom of speech


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Marriage plebiscite: why not a referendum?

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, August 13, 2016

With the outcome of the federal election now clear a month after polling day, the Federal Government has announced that it intends to push ahead with the marriage plebiscite promised to the electorate in the run-up to the election.

Uncertainty over the Government’s position has arisen, in part, from the fact that both Malcolm Turnbull and federal Attorney-General George Brandis personally favour a parliamentary vote rather than a plebiscite.

Speaking on ABC TV late last month, the Attorney-General signalled that he intends to put legislation for a plebiscite before the new Parliament, which will meet at the end of August.

“There is going to be a plebiscite and the only way that in this Parliament this issue can be progressed is through a plebiscite,” Senator Brandis told Insiders.

“If it can’t be done before the end of this year, it will certainly be done in the early part of next year.”

Uncertain outcome

While the Coalition has a paper-thin margin in the House of Representatives, the outcome of any vote in the Senate is still unclear, as neither the Coalition nor the ALP has a majority in the upper house.

The Senate debate on a plebiscite could well be a drawn-0ut affair, despite the Government’s wish to accelerate legislation through the Senate.

In the meantime, well-known family researcher Dr Barry Maley, a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, has made a proposal that deserves to be considered.

Dr Maley said that the future of marriage in Australia should not be rushed but should be the subject of widespread debate in the Australian community before any change is made.

He wrote in The Australian on July 26: “Australians are being short-changed and rushed to judgement on same-sex marriage … because the politicians want to get it approved by a plebiscite and finished with as quickly as possible.”

He said that to proceed in this way “diminishes the democratic choice of the Australian people to properly determine the issue by referendum, rather than simply giving an opinion and then leaving it to the politicians”.

He added: “Why not include a referendum on same-sex marriage with a referendum on [indigenous] recognition at the same time? This would solve Bill Shorten’s concern about cost while giving same-sex marriage the supremely democratic opportunity its constitutional stature deserves.”

The idea of holding a referendum on marriage at the same time as a referendum on indigenous recognition is also consistent with past practice, where Australians have been given an opportunity to amend several sections of the constitution at the same time.

Despite the Attorney-General’s announcement that legislation for a plebiscite would be progressed through Parliament before the end of 2016 or early next year, the reality is that the plebiscite may be delayed for other reasons.

It is clear that Malcolm Turnbull already has a very busy legislative program. The budget, introduced into the House of Representatives in May on the day before the Prime Minister went to the Governor-General to seek a July election, has not yet been debated in Parliament.

Some Coalition backbenchers have indicated that they are very unhappy about the budget announcement of changes to superannuation entitlements, and will seek to amend them when Parliament resumes. The passage of the budget will inevitably occupy most of the Parliament’s time in September and October, perhaps longer.

Additionally, the Federal Government went to the polls on the basis of legislation twice defeated by the Senate previously, including legislation for the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which was recommended by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.

Legislation that was the basis of the election must be moved again and debated in both the lower house and the Senate, where Labor and the Greens have vowed to block it.

If the legislation is again defeated, the constitution provides for a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament. However, because the Coalition has only a narrow majority in the lower house and does not control the Senate, the outcome of a joint sitting is unclear.

During the election campaign, Mr Turnbull also foreshadowed legislation to protect the position of voluntary firefighters in Victoria, after the Victorian Labor Government decided to enforce an industrial agreement between the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the United Firefighters Union that gives the union authority over some operations of the CFA.

Once again, both the federal Labor Party and the Greens will vigorously oppose this legislation.

A popular vote on marriage is therefore unlikely this year. There is no need for haste, and that it take place in conjunction with the proposed referendum on indigenous recognition should be considered.

Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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