2 August 2017
James Allan – Garrick professor of law at the University of Queensland
Liberal Party MP Tim Wilson tells us again that he wants to push for a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. And he’s clearly not the only Liberal MP who wants to do this. So what’s wrong with that?
Well, first there is the old-fashioned notion that a political party ought to honour its explicit campaign promises. The Liberals ran at the last election on a straight-out promise to hold a plebiscite on this issue before legislating for same-sex marriage. What does Wilson say about that? He says he has honoured this commitment by voting for the plebiscite and that with its having failed to get through the Senate we can move on to another way to bring in same-sex marriage.
But that is just sophistry, the worst sort of Jesuitical dissembling. No voter understood the Liberals to be promising some version of “‘we’ll try once or twice to have a plebiscite but if we can’t, heck, we’ll have a conscience vote”. That is nothing like what they promised and Wilson and Dean Smith and the other Liberal MPs pushing this know it. Indeed, had the Liberals gone to the election, or the one before it, with such a “we’ll try this for a bit and then go for a conscience vote” they would have lost those elections, and lost badly.
This becomes even more obvious if you try a little thought experiment and imagine that come the next election we still have not held a plebiscite or legislated for same-sex marriage. At that point does anyone want to make a bet on what policy and promise the Liberals will take to that next election? Anyone?
I can tell you right now it will not be to hold a conscience vote. Anything like that would be political suicide for a right-of-centre party that has promised up and down that this would not happen. It would reek of disdain for the voters, and more particularly for the party’s base, and Wilson and Smith know it. That’s why they desperately want to run this backdoor option now while there just may be enough time to hope that right-of-centre voters will have the patience of Mother Teresa and forgive and forget yet another broken Liberal Party promise, joining other express or implied ones such as “we won’t touch superannuation”, “we won’t ever give up on fixing the deficit”, “we’re not for Gonski”, “only Labor would attack the banks” and so on.
Now to lay my cards on the table: I’ve always been sure I’d vote yes in any such same-sex plebiscite but I have to say that the level of Wilsonian casuistry and (best case view) self-delusion is such that I’m starting to have second thoughts. The political class in this country is shockingly out of touch, not just with the voters but with the core notion of “we promised that this is what we will strive to do, come what may”. Look, if the Liberals wanted to do so they could have a double dissolution on this issue, perhaps tied to emasculating section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. It would be a much more substantive double-dissolution call than the one Malcolm Turnbull made in 2016.
And a last point. This tactic by what we may think of as the black-hand wing of the Liberal Party can be stopped in its tracks today. All it takes is any two Liberal Party MPs in the house to hold a press conference and announce that if any such staged and bogus crossing-the-floor conscience vote goes ahead these two MPs will make it the cause of an immediate election as they will vote against the government on all votes, thereby causing an election. If Wilson and Smith want to break the clearest of clear promises to the voters then they can immediately face an election over it. Or if there aren’t two principled Liberal MPs left, which I can’t rule out completely, then the Nationals could make this threat and mean it. If it doesn’t go ahead we know it is because Barnaby Joyce decided it wouldn’t.
Look, the Liberal Party in this country desperately needs to re-establish at least a scintilla of trust with its long-time voting base. Wilson’s suggested dissembling to the voters — no, let’s call it what it is, which is a dressed-up form of lying to the voters — is an awful idea. So on their recent track record it’s got to be a 50-50 call on whether Team Turnbull will be dumb enough to let it happen.
Emphasis added by Save Our Super