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A ‘People’s vote’ on marriage equality: Abbott’s latest Truthiness phrase?

Following last week’s cabinet discussion on marriage equality, Tony Abbott announced that:

“going into the next election, you’ll have the Labor Party which wants [marriage equality] to go to a Parliamentary vote and you’ve got the Coalition that wants it to go to a people’s vote”
(12 August 2015)

According to our Prime Minister, he is champion of the people’s will when it comes to marriage equality – offering a ‘people’s vote’ over a ‘politician’s vote’ dictated by what he calls ‘stalinist rules.’ Certainly sounds like a no-brainer. Who would pick Stalin over the good people of Aus? We do live in a democracy after all – not Stalinist Russia – we should get a say.

But is Abbott’s claim to be the people’s champion true – or is ‘people’s vote’ just the latest entry in the Truthiness dictionary. (In case you missed my earlier article on Abbott-speak, ‘Truthiness’ is something which feels true, but isn’t necessarily backed up by facts. Or truth.)

Is Abbott really trying to facilitate the possibility of an outcome that might go against his stated position against marriage equality? Or is he taking a leaf out of his favourite ex-Prime Minister, one Mr John Howard’s playbook. Let’s roll back the clocks and have a look.

Roll back the clocks to late January 1996 …

Toy_Story Aussies have just passed a summer rapping to Gangsta’s Paradise and singing along with Seal. Toy Story is one of the most popular movies. And more importantly – for our story at least – an election has just been called for March and one of the key election issues is whether or not Australia should become a republic.

The push for this change had been mounting for a while. As early as 1977, polling showed that 58% of Aussies accepted that we don’t need a Queen. By the early 90s, the republican movement had critical momentum. In 1993, Prime Minister Paul Keating created a ‘Republic Advisory Committee’ to look into what changes would be needed to the constitution for Australia to become a republic. The chosen chairperson for this committee was then banker and lawyer, one Mr Malcolm Turnbull – but that’s another story….

This brings us to January 1996, and by this point it was fairly clear that the cry to consider that Australia become a republic – much like the current cry for marriage equality – was not going away. With an election pending, the leader of the Liberal party at that time – staunch monarchist John Howard – was left with no choice but to put considering that Australia become a republic on the table for discussion. Not wanting to adopt becoming a republic as Liberal party policy, Howard instead promised that if elected, he would make Australia becoming a republic a people’s issue – it would go to a people’s convention, and then to a people’s vote via a referendum. (Sounding familiar?)

Roll forward to 1999 – and Australia becoming a republic is looking good

Following his election in March 1996, John Howard kept his pre-election promise, and set up a ‘people’s convention’ to consider whether Australia should look at becoming a republic, and if so, what that would look like. He said he didn’t want to rush this because after all, ‘things won’t really change too much’ and there are ‘more important things to focus on than a republic’.

So it’s not until early 1998 that the people’s convention meets and comes up with a number of different models for an Australian republic – which mainly focused around who would replace the current Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Australia).

Support for Australia to become a republic had not waned during the 90s. The following graph shows opinion poll results on the question of Australia becoming a republic from 1993 to shortly before the referendum in late 1999. The green line represents the percentage of people who were for Australia becoming a republic, and the red line is people who were against it.


Clearly the number of people who were pro-republic was materially higher than those against it. So how exactly did John Howard get the ‘people’s vote’ to go his way?

Tricky Howard divides and conquers

For Australia to become a republic, a referendum is needed to change the constitution. Howard clearly knew that a majority of Australians were pro-republic – so a simple vote as to whether or not Australia should become a republic was very very VERY unlikely to have gone the way he wanted it to. But like Abbott today, Howard never let a little thing like public opinion get in the way of him achieving his goals.

The key to reducing the ‘Yes’ vote was to divide and conquer. Simply put – those who were pro-republic didn’t all agree on which republican model Australia should adopt. The most popular model that came out of the people’s convention in 1998 was one where the public voted in a President to take the place of the Governor General. In fact, over 70% of Australians said that they were in favour of this model. A less popular model was one where the parliament voted for who was President (instead of regular Aussies).

And this was how Tricky Howard pulled a rabbit out of his monarchist’s hat – or should I say crown? He divided the pro-republic vote, by:

  • Combining the issue of whether or not Australia was to become a republic with the issue of what model should be used – asking only one question, and not two.
  • ONLY offering one republican model to the Australian people – and not the one that most people were in favour of. Instead he put forward the less popular model where politicians got to choose who the President was.

The actual referendum question put to Aussies was whether or not they approved of:

A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Howard could have split this into two questions, asking first if people approved of Australia becoming a republic. And secondly, asking people which of two republic models they preferred (in the event that sufficient people voted yes in the previous question). But he didn’t do this.

By tying the question as to whether Australia became a republic to the less popular republican model, Howard all but guaranteed that the ‘Yes’ vote in favour of a republic would fail by dividing the pro-republic camp. And it worked. Instead of uniting against the ‘no-voters’, a portion of the ‘yes’ side switched camps, many under the mistaken belief that support for an Australian republic was so strong, that if the model they disapproved of was voted down, they would get another go at a vote for the model that they favoured.

And so the ‘no-vote’ – against Australia becoming a republic – triumphed. Howard’s divide and conquer strategy wasn’t the only reason of course – there were a number of others, including that the ‘no’ campaign utilised the popular campaign strategy of fear mongering – arguing that the republic would give even more power to politicians than they already had. In the words of the High Court Justice Michael Kirby:

“it was a belief that constitutional monarchy is a safer and more temperate form of government because it denies to political ambition the top office which such ambition commonly most prizes.” (Hon. Justice Michael Kirby, March 2000)

The vote for Australia to become a republic was defeated – 55 to 45.

And so tricky Howard, the staunch monarchist, was able to say that ‘good sense’ won out – that Australians had abandoned their desire for a republic, successfully hosing down the republic movement, which has been unable to gain any significant ground since then. Certainly it is not an issue that is commonly on the public agenda today.

Back to 2015, and Tricky Tony is facing his own battle on Marriage Equality

“From time immemorial in every culture that’s been known – marriage, or that kind of solemnised relationship, has been between a man and a woman.” (Tony Abbott, 23 October 2013)

This is not true of course – it’s another of Mr Abbott’s Truthiness phrases – but it does reflect Tony Abbott’s view on marriage equality. And just like Howard, he is faced with the fact that a clear majority of Australians don’t agree with him. In fact, according to regular polls which indicate that around 70% of Australians support marriage equality, an even greater proportion of Australians support marriage equality than did a republic.

So what is Tricky Tony to do? Well the two most honest options would be to:

  • Remember that he is the servant of the Australian people, our representative and not our ruler – and allow a ‘conscience vote’ permitting representatives in the LNP to vote in a way that represents their particular electorates. But if he did that, he’d risk not getting his way.
  • Come out strongly against marriage equality and seek confirmation from his LNP colleagues that this is their ongoing policy. Certainly based on last week’s party-room vote it seems that a majority of LNP representatives and senators do not support marriage equality – so he’d be likely to get backup in the party room for this. But if they did this, Abbot would risk Labor making this an election issue which might win them valuable votes – and let’s face it, he’s already looking pretty shaky.

Since neither of these options would lead to Abbott’s desired outcome on this issue, what he did instead was to ‘stack’ the party-room with National party imports, just to be doubly-sure that he had the numbers to stop marriage equality going to a conscience vote. But that wasn’t enough.

Abbott knows that he needs to neutralise marriage equality from becoming a problem for him at the next election – just as Howard did with the republican issue back in 1996. So Abbott, like Howard before him, has committed to putting this important issue to a people’s vote. And just like Howard, he has committed to do this in his next term of office – not straight away of course, but within three years of being elected. Just as Howard did.

According to Abbott, a vote for him is a vote for a people’s choice on marriage equality! Finally a story that is salable to the electorate and can potentially neutralise any advantage Labor has from its pro marriage equality policy.

But do we even need a people’s vote to introduce marriage equality?

No we don’t.

Unlike if Australia were to become a republic – which does require a referendum in order to change the constitution – a change to marriage laws doesn’t require a change to our constitution, and therefore doesn’t need to be put to a referendum (or plebiscite – which is essentially just a large opinion poll).

And people’s votes aren’t cheap – at least the way we do them currently. And while I’m all for people getting more involved in our democracy, at a cost in excess of $100 million, this is a HUGE expense, and will probably mean funding needs to be cut elsewhere.

Abbott could ask people what we think about marriage equality at the next election

We’re already going to the polls to vote at the next election. If Abbott is so committed to a people’s vote, he could put the question to us then. This would be a much cheaper and quicker way to give the people a vote on this issue than by undertaking a completely separate vote. But of course, according to Abbott, that would be distracting for us poor little voters. Apparently we’re unable to make more than one decision at a time.

Beware the politician bearing gifts – in this case a people’s vote

On the face of it, a people’s vote on marriage equality sounds like a good thing to do. But if Abbott is following Howard’s Playbook, then he will be looking for a way to divide and conquer on this question, just as Howard did with the republic. And if he succeeds at this – as Howard did with stopping the republic movement – at the end of the day, we’d be over a $100 million worse off, still not have marriage equality in place, and potentially set back the marriage equality movement for decades.

And so ‘People’s vote’ enters the Truthiness to English Dictionary

I’m calling it. The evidence is fairly conclusive – ‘People’s vote’ is a Truthiness phrase. When Abbott uses it, he makes it sound like he is supporting popular opinion on marriage equality, when all indications are that he is doing everything he can to make sure he gets his way on this issue.

I’ve provided the appropriate English translation below and it will shortly be entered into the official Truthiness to English dictionary as follows:

Truthiness: People’s Vote (as in ‘We’re going to put Marriage Equality to a People’s vote’)
English: Holding pattern – as in ‘I’m going to put Marriage Equality into a holding pattern until I can figure out how to make sure it doesn’t get through’

This article was first published on Progressive Conversation.


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  1. Matters Not

    Very well described and argued Kate M. Seems to me that you have identified (most) if not all the ‘issues’ involved and explored same with great insights.

    BTW, I am waiting for some journalist to explore the issue(s) of why it’s now a ‘good’ idea for the people to decide on the issue of ME but was never considered when Howard changed the Marriage Act all those years ago.

    Further, given now that ‘let the people decide’ mantra has suddenly become legitimate, why that ‘common sense’ can’t be extended to ‘issues’ such as the push to bomb Syria? Or whether Australia should be in the region at all?

  2. Kate M

    Matters Not – I agree completely re the people decide. In this day and age, with the technology we have, it would be possible to come up with a model that didn’t cost millions to enable people to better engage with democracy. The reality is that politicians would be incredibly threatened if they started to give away some of their decision making power to us. Ironically the only thing they let us have a say on typically is the stuff they have to – ie constitutional stuff – and the stuff like the national anthem and the flag. And the later two are only when they have to.

    I really do believe that Abbott has only put this to the vote so that he can find a way to scupper it. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. I mean he doesn’t even get the opinion of his own party room. We’re kidding ourselves if we think he really wants to know what we think!!

  3. corvus boreus

    These are “tricky processes” used for mean purposes, impure and simple.
    If Abbott truly gave a shit about giving ‘the people’ a say regarding same-sex marriage, he would have vowed to hold a plebiscite at the next election (you know, that time we all go down to the local school on a weekend for a say in our mutual futures).
    I reckon his dictate that such a vote should only occur after the next election came partly from a cynical desire to increase the possibility of him retaining power (us/them; an electoral wedge!), and partly from an ideological wish to ensure that if marriage equality did occur, it would not be during his reign.
    Even in the unlikely event that he regained power next term, he would probably lie about his promise with a barely concealed smirk, claiming unfortuitous circumstances for a plebiscite due to some concocted crisis.

  4. Matters Not

    would be possible to come up with a model that didn’t cost millions to enable people to better engage with democracy blockquote>

    Indeed! Apparently we can do it with the Census, due next year.
    As for:

    do believe that Abbott has only put this to the vote so that he can find a way to scupper it.

    Can you perhaps provide a ‘link’ to any credible source that argues ‘otherwise.? (Just jokin ..)

    By the way, there is no case for a ‘referendum’ re the Marriage Act because as Bookcase Brandis, and others have pointed out, the issue of who decides ‘marriage arrangements’ has been determined by the courts.

    Can’t understand why the current government chooses to deny it’s legal options. And obligations.

    (Actually, I can).

  5. keerti

    By now any self respecting population of a democrasy would be plotting revolution, australians will continue to suck their apathy in with their beer until they have no democrasy left

  6. Kaye Lee

    It is the job of our government and legal system to protect minorities from discrimination – not to put it to a “people’s vote”. It really doesn’t matter what the majority of Australians think. If the government feels it has the right to make laws about the social institution of marriage then it must protect the rights of all society to take part in that institution.

    As MN points out, Howard didn’t ask us before he changed the marriage act. His changes should be annulled.

    Interestingly, the High Court decision overturning the ACT same sex marriage legislation said “whether same-sex marriage should be provided for by law is a matter for the Federal Parliament.”

    Constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey said “I think most people would not want to turn our system into the American Supreme Court where all decisions on social issues are ending up in the High Court. It’s much better that the elected representatives of the people are the ones who get to decide on those sorts of issues. That’s the appropriate forum for this, not the High Court.”

    After the decision Lyle Shelton from the Australian Christian Lobby told ABC1’s 7.30 that he wants a referendum to kill off same-sex marriage once and for all.

    Don’t listen to the courts or constitutional lawyers or anti-discrimination laws – let the Christian Lobby dictate.

  7. Carol Taylor

    My first thought on learning that Abbott wanted “people” to make the decision. Why, when he won’t even permit his own people a conscience vote, would he expect us to believe that he would allow the rest of the country to do so?

  8. Rossleigh

    Indeed, Carol, it does sit rather strangely with his whole “I love the Monarchy so much I have to give Phil a knighthood” stance. Perhaps we could have another referendum on the Republic at the same time as the SSM vote.
    Thanks for the article!

  9. David

    Trust that lying sewer effluent to keep his word?….not bloody likely

  10. Kate M

    Rossleigh – yes, the republic should be back on the agenda. It had so much momentum in the late 90s.
    Howard clobbered it, and then becos he was PM for so long, it just got lost.
    It should come back ON the agenda.

    We could do a double referendum at the same time as next election and on one day:
    1. Vote out Abbott
    2. Vote in Marriage Equality
    3. Vote in a Republic

    I can dream…..


  11. jimhaz

    I have no issues at all with this article.

    For the LNP making it a peoples vote is a win-win. Either the plebiscite doesn’t get up (unlikely) or it does and the LNP does not cop the blame. The bulk of the anti-gay marriage brigade are ultra-conservatives – hard line LNPers who just would not graciously accept a government decision on this issue, and this method prevents that occurring as the blame is diffused by shifting it to “those darn lefties or ignorant” who voted for it.

    It is lose-lose for gay people even if successful. The penalty obsessed Schutzstaffel-like LNP front bench will do everything they can to polarise and we could see the sort of rampant public aggressive stupidity that we saw in relation to the carbon tax (though to a lesser degree, as money issues are more important to them). Once polarised then people’s views are much harder to change – the more one argues about an issue the more it becomes an emotional issue rather than a rational one and this leads to the reactive use of offensive-defense. It will cause unnecessary hurt in gay people.

    Those who could be open to a change of view on gay marriage (I was against it 5 or so years ago) have already been converted, those who are not are unlikely to change their view – they are conservatives after all and closed to societal progression.

    I’m an advocate of tough love (making people overcome hurdles for their betterment) – but it must be for a positive result and no such result exists in this situation as it is 100% obvious that gay marriage will rightfully eventuate at some point relatively soon. In playing politics in this fashion, the LNP are abusing gay people.

  12. Kaye Lee

    Howard taught Abbott how to lie about superannuation as well.

    In 1985 the ACTU negotiated a deal, endorsed by the Arbitration Commission, which saw workers forego a 3% wage rise in return for 3% paid in compulsory superannuation. Howard slammed the deal.

    “That superannuation deal, which represents all that is rotten with industrial relations in Australia, shows the government and the trade union movement in Australia not only playing the employers of Australia for mugs but it is also playing the Arbitration Commission for mugs”.

    In the 1995 budget, Ralph Willis unveiled a scheduled increase in compulsory super from 9% to 12% and eventually to 15%. It was to be one of the Keating government’s major legacy reforms.

    In its superannuation policy for the 1996 election, Super for all, the Coalition, which had hitherto been implacably opposed to Labor’s policies, promised it:

    “Will provide in full the funds earmarked in the 1995 — 96 Budget to match compulsory employee contributions according to the proposed schedule”

    John Howard and Peter Costello nixed it in the 1996 budget barely six months after it released its policy, insisting it was too expensive.

    In February 2013 Joe Hockey said the “Coalition remains committed to keeping increase in compulsory superannuation from 9-12%.”

    In May this year Tony Abbott said “There will be no changes to super, no adverse changes to super in this term of Parliament, and we have no plans to make adverse changes to super in the future,”

    No adverse changes for those who benefit from huge tax deductions perhaps. He seems to have forgotten that he froze the superannuation guarantee at 9.5% for 6 years to 2021- it will not go to 12% until 2025 instead of the gradual increase to 12% by 2019 – and he abolished the low income co-payment.

    Trust NOTHING these lying scum say.

  13. Matters Not

    There will be no changes to super, no adverse changes to super in this term of Parliament, and we have no plans to make adverse changes to super in the future

    He made that ‘promise’ in response to the Labor ‘policy’ that superannuation income above $100 000.0 would be subject to normal taxation arrangements. Some calculations might be in order.

    Imagine a retired couple (A and B) have a $1 000 000.00 each in Superannuation accounts. Imagine in Year X each account earns 10% (after fees and the like) their combined superannuation account ‘earnings’ would be $200 000.00. Tax payable would be zero, because the first $100 000.00 (under the ALP policy) will be tax free.

    Imagine their Super accounts have a good year and earn 15% which equates to $150 000.00 or $300 000.00 combined which is a ‘reasonable’ income for a retired couple. Now tax will have to be paid. The first $100 000.00 is tax free for each, but the excess of $50 000.00 will be subject to a tax of $7 862.00 (approximately) $15 724.00 combined.

    So instead of their Super accounts (combined) growing by $300 000.00 in this particular year, they will now only grow by $284 276.00.

    How unfair is that? Not!

    Remember the calculations are based only on combined accounts of $2 million which, while towards the top end of the range, it’s way below some accounts which are measured in the tens of millions.

    Talk about protecting the rich – and powerful.

  14. Neil Woodgate

    EQUALITY: While purporting to represent his electorate, he actually represents his Church and its social policies………….Conflict of interest?

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