Malcolm Turnbull is hoping enabling legislation for the same-sex marriage plebiscite is blocked, according to sources inside both the government and opposition who insist the PM doesn’t want the issue to hijack his agenda.
Labor has given every indication it will block the legislation in the Senate, but will not announce its official position until caucus meets again on October 10.
But while opposition members are openly accusing the Prime Minister of introducing legislation he doesn’t want, some inside the government are quietly agreeing with them.
Opposition Senate Leader Penny Wong said it was obvious Mr Turnbull didn’t want the plebiscite to get up.
“It was pretty telling (on Wednesday) wasn’t it? Malcolm Turnbull introducing a bill on his one-year anniversary. A bill that is Tony Abbott’s policy that he doesn’t believe in,” Senator Wong said.
“It says everything about Mr Turnbull’s leadership.”
While the Labor commentary is to be expected, sources inside the government have agreed it would suit the Prime Minister’s purposes if the plebiscite didn’t go ahead.
“If it gets up it will be a vicious campaign that will completely railroad everything else he wants on the agenda,” said one source who asked to remain anonymous.
“Then, whatever the outcome of the plebiscite is, it will still be divisive.
“But if the enabling legislation goes down, he can at least say he tried. He can put it away and get on with other social and economic reforms.”
Another Coalition source put it more bluntly.
“Five more months of this. Do you really think Malcolm wants that?”
Leading the charge from the sidelines is former Labor minister Craig Emerson, who insisted Mr Turnbull was quietly happy the opposition could block the plebiscite.
He had only put it up because it was the price Coalition conservatives had extracted for the party leadership, Dr Emerson said.
“It would dominate political coverage for the next six months and MPs opposing same-sex marriage would ignore the outcome anyway, making it a divisive waste of money,” he tweeted.
“The PM never supported a same sex marriage plebiscite.”
PM says no free vote in Coalition after a SSM plebiscite, but he can't enforce a binding vote under party-room rules. So what's the point?
— Craig Emerson (@DrCraigEmerson) September 15, 2016
On Wednesday, Mr Turnbull introduced legislation for a February 11 plebiscite, insisting that while he was in favour of marriage equality he also wanted all Australians to have their say.
He said marriage equality could be delayed years if the plebiscite doesn’t go ahead.
“For our part, we put our faith in the Australian people,” the Prime Minister said.
“We know that their answer, whether it is yes or no, will be the right answer.”
The plebiscite will cost taxpayers $170 million, including $7.5 million for both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns.
Two private member’s bills – one from Labor and another from the crossbench – have also been tabled in the House of Representatives seeking to make same-sex marriage legal by a simple vote in parliament.
The government won’t support them, but it is in the Senate where the Coalition won’t get the numbers to support its plebiscite legislation if Labor votes against it.
The Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and even one Liberal senator (WA’s Dean Smith who is openly gay) have already declared their opposition to the government’s bill.
A senior Labor operative suggested the opposition might be playing political games by taking so long to declare its position, while indicating it will oppose the plebiscite.
“It could completely undo Turnbull’s leadership. Morally, Labor should vote against a plebiscite and keep insisting on a vote in parliament instead.
“But politically, it could be wise to let the Prime Minister have his plebiscite.”
Chris Johnson is a Walkley Award-winning journalist who has spent the past decade working in the Canberra Press Gallery, most recently as the bureau chief for Fairfax Media. He is now a Political Correspondent for The New Daily.