Many of my constituents have written to me about the same sex marriage debate and so with the aim of clarifying some of the issues they have raised I have written this blog on 16 August 2015 - I have updated it on more recent events at the end of the blog.
Prior to the election
Prior to the 2013 election the Coalition's position, as stated by Tony Abbott, was that while the Coalition's policy remained that same sex unions would not be recognised as a marriage, there would be an opportunity for the party room to consider whether there should be a free vote on the matter.
A free vote means that members of the party room are able to vote on the issue according to their own individual conscience and in particular front benchers may do so without having to resign from the ministry.
Historically, issues relating to marriage or sexuality have been treated as free votes by the Liberal Party.
My position in the lead up to the election was very clear. I said I supported a free vote and if one were allowed I would vote to recognise same sex unions as a marriage. A number of other coalition members made similar commitments. I set out my views on the substantive issue of same sex marriage in this lecture in 2012.
Last week this issue was considered in a coalition party room meeting and it was clear that a majority of members - about 2 to 1 - did not agree with a free vote.
At the end of the meeting the Prime Minister said:-
- there would not be a free vote in this Parliament
- however this is the last Parliament in which Coalition members can be bound to vote in accordance with the current party policy.
- he had a disposition to have a public vote on the issue in the course of the next parliament.
What sort of public vote?
Neither the Cabinet nor the party room have considered this matter and so there is not yet a concluded Government position, but there have been two options mentioned.
The first is a plebiscite which simply means a public vote. There is no standing legislation to enable plebiscites so Parliament would have to authorise it. One approach would be for Parliament to settle the terms of a bill to amend the Marriage Act to allow same sex marriage and then ask the people whether they approve of it or not.
Another may be to simply ask whether the people approve the Parliament legislating to enable same sex marriage provided that religious freedom is protected and in particular no person, including any church or minister of religion, would be required to solemnise any marriage other than in accordance with the principles of their own faith.
The parliament would determine the manner in which the plebiscite is conducted, I would expect that voting would be compulsory (as is our tradition in Australia).
Some people have suggested there should be a referendum to amend the Constitution. As the Attorney General has spoken about this on Sky Agenda today I will just recap what he has said.
In 2013 the High Court held, unanimously, that the power given to the Parliament to legislate with respect to marriage does extend to legislating for same sex marriage. In other words the Constitution does not need to be amended to allow same sex marriage.
An amendment to provide, for example, that "marriage" can extend to same sex couples would, therefore, involve the expenditure of well over $100 million in an exercise in futility. If the amendment were approved, the Parliament's current powers would be unchanged. If the amendment were rejected, the Parliament's current powers would be unchanged.
The only constitutional amendment which would have any relevant effect on this matter would be one which expressly stated that Parliament did NOT have the power to describe same sex unions as a marriage. I have not heard any opponents of same sex marriage propose such an amendment.
The best approach to this in my view therefore is to consult the people openly and honestly, to set out the proposition before them and ask them to approve it or not. I would expect that voting should be compulsory as is our Australian tradition.
Timing of the Plebiscite.
The Government has not made a final decision on the timing of a plebiscite. The Prime Minister has indicated a disposition to have this considered after the next election. The Party Room has not debated the matter nor indeed has the Cabinet.
As you may have seen I have expressed the view a plebiscite should be before the next election. This is more a matter of political timing as opposed to political principle and I recognise others would have a different view. But I want you to understand why I have expressed that opinion.
The definition of marriage and the manner in which same sex unions are recognised are very important issues and they deserve to be considered calmly and thoughtfully.
My own view for what it is worth is that it would be better if same sex marriage were not a contentious issue at the next election - there are sincere, conscientious differences of opinion throughout the community and on both sides of the political divide and issues like this are better dealt with outside of the frenzied hurly burly of an election campaign.
An election campaign is about 35 days - I would rather spend every single one of them talking about economic management, how we ensure Australia's prosperity, how our free trade agreements will drive prosperity, how we are promoting innovation, technology and science and so on.
Important though the matter is, every day talking about same sex marriage will distract from the Coalition's core messages.
Events subsequent to this blog - an addendum written on 27 August 2015
The position now is that on the motion of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Party Room have decided that:-
- the policy supporting marriage as only between a man and a woman will remain the same for the course of this parliament.
- after that Coalition members will not be "bound" to that policy.
- there will not be a free vote in this Parliament.
- if the Coalition is returned at the next election, the question will be determined by a vote of the people in the course of the next parliament
- the detail of the terms and form of that popular vote will be announced shortly, the Prime Minister has said he will develop a proposal to bring to the Cabinet for its consideration.