Malcolm Turnbull believes he has found a solution to settle the question of whether same sex marriage should be legalised in Australia. He will fulfil the Coalition’s commitment to hold a plebiscite on same sex marriage by holding a voluntary postal plebiscite costing $122 million that will be conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This is after the Senate again rejected the compulsory attendance plebiscite legislation.
Turnbull believes that once the plebiscite returns a result one way or the other and the parliament carries out the will of the people, that will be the end of the matter and it will be off the agenda so he can focus on other areas of policy in the lead up to the next federal election. Or so he thinks.
Malcolm Turnbull has been eager over the past six years to highlight what a firm supporter he is of marriage equality, and he initially opposed a plebiscite when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister but has been forced into it because it is the overwhelming preferred policy for the Coalition party room.
But Turnbull may not have thought through the political implications for himself if the plebiscite returns a no vote, which despite the polls is still a possible outcome. A no vote would demonstrate that the Prime Minister has seriously misread the will of the Australian people. Therefore, it would be right to ask the question, should he be called upon to resign in the face of this public repudiation of his political position?
This is not some wishful thinking from conservatives, but is standard political practice when leaders face defeat in such a manner. There are numerous examples. Alex Salmond resigned as First Minister of Scotland after the failed Scottish independence referendum in 2014 which he campaigned in favor of. David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister of Britain after the triumph of the Brexit referendum which he campaigned against.
After the voters have rejected a policy position of yours so decisively in a single-issue vote there is no way you can continue as their leader. Malcolm Turnbull may have thought about this possibility which is why he has stated that although he will vote yes, he most likely will not actively campaign for the yes case.
But it is worth highlighting Tony Abbott is leading the no campaign, who Malcolm Turnbull claimed was so unpopular that he had to be replaced. If you factor that in and the plebiscite returns a no vote then it would show that Tony Abbott’s position on same sex marriage is more popular than Malcolm Turnbull’s.
Under such a scenario leadership questions would begin to be asked more seriously as commentators would ask how did Malcolm Turnbull get this so wrong? Plus, the media and the rest of the Liberal Party could no longer write off Tony Abbott and the party’s conservatives as an irrelevant vocal minority.
Of course, such an analysis excludes what a no vote would mean for the Labor Party after actively campaigning for a yes vote. They would go into the next election promising to thwart the will of the people on this issue and still legislate same sex marriage anyway. If the Liberal Party had a real conservative leader they could put the Labor Party to shame over this policy position.
Labor and Bill Shorten could suffer the same humiliation at the polls as Malcolm Turnbull may face if they ever put forth another Republic referendum. The Labor Party has a binding position on the republic and if they hold a referendum and the Australian people vote no to a republic then Bill Shorten would be under immense pressure to resign and the Labor Government would look mortally weakened.
This is probably why politicians dislike exercises in direct democracy, because if the voters return a result they do not like it completely shreds their credibility and legitimacy. But there is nothing wrong with the public having a more direct say in the policy direction of their country. Our leaders are meant to represent the will of the Australian people and if they don’t then their positions should rightly come under question.