The phoney war on same-sex marriage is over, and the real contest starts now.
The High Court has spoken and the plebiscite will go ahead.
From next week, voters will start receiving their survey papers. (We should not call them ballot papers, since the process is explicitly a survey not a vote.)
The “yes” and” no” campaigns will now get into their stride. Let us hope that, as all Australians deserve, those campaigns can be carried on with respect and restraint.
The Turnbull Government will be mighty relieved at its victory, even though it is as thin as tissue-paper.
Although the Plebiscite or rather survey, is entirely unnecessary in law, it has become vital in politics. Not the politics of the country but the internal politics of the Coalition, which remains deeply divided on the issue.
It is a devastating commentary on the current state of the nation that this exercise, for which taxpayers must shell out $122 million, has had to be conducted solely in order to convince the governing parties’ recalcitrants to back a measure that Australians, according to opinion polls, already overwhelmingly endorse.
It is an equally devastating commentary that the survey has no legal force.
A majority vote for or against same sex marriage binds no one. If ”yes’ wins and MPs who oppose same-sex marriage find their consciences as inflexible as ever they can vote against change.
If “no” wins, and the Government loses the next election, an incoming Labor government could simply change the Marriage Act with a majority vote in both houses of Parliament.
To pile absurdity onto costly absurdity, as we have reported, the government was preparing, if it lost yesterday in the High Court, to go ahead with the plebiscite anyway by other, undisclosed, means.
Never has an essentially meaningless vote apparently mattered so much.
Even so, a loss yesterday would have made an already struggling government look impotent and incompetent, tripped up by constitutional details, and unable to manage the processes of governing which means, in this case, the internal squabbles of the Coalition.
For Mr Turnbull, who is looking more and more bedraggled as the roll of negative opinion surveys grows longer, the win is a lifeline. He will be voting “yes”, encouraging others to vote “yes”, but stopping short of “campaigning” for the cause – those tricky Coalition politics contriving yet again to make him look something less than a leader. Rather paradoxically, the decision will also give heart to those in the government who oppose same-sex marriage. Their spoiling tactic is still on foot, an d they can hope to make inroads into support for change.
But that the High Court has declared the plebiscite legal and constitutional does not make it right.
Let us hope this flawed, optional, unscientific postal survey sets no precedent as a mechanism for governments.
If it has value, and that is debatable, it is that a majority for the “yes” campaign may persuade those who take a conservative view of marriage that the future has arrived: times have decisively changed, and they will have to accept that the assumptions behind the “no” campaign are no longer shared by the mainstream.
Given that marriage is a central institution in our society – as it is in all societies – that might be something positive to salvage from this absurd episode.