This will be a week of drama on the plebicite bill

This will be a week of drama on the plebicite bill

When Parliament resumes on Tuesday, there will be high drama in Canberra about the plebiscite bill.

The Government has signalled that it will present the plebiscite enabling bill for a second reading in the House of Representatives on Tuesday. The Labor caucus does not meet until Tuesday, but subject to a vote in effect of no confidence in Bill Shorten’s leadership, the ALP will take a firm position against the plebiscite. It is likely at that time that the plebiscite will be doomed.

Once the Bill is debated upon, it is highly likely that the Government will apply the guillotine to cut debate short, so that the bill can get through the Representatives and go to the Senate. The Government has the numbers in the Representatives for the bill to pass there.

The Bill is scheduled to be before the Senate on Wednesday. There it is unlikely that there will be any swift passage of the bill. It will be interesting to see what happens in the Senate, but the most likely outcome is that there will be several weeks before the bill is killed off. The mess will then be in the Government’s hands as to what to do. The Government could seek to amend the bill to placate Senators- but that is unlikely to work. Or the Government could wait the required time (3 months) and then use the bill as a trigger for another double dissolution of the House of Representatives and the Senate if its rejected by the Senate a second time. One could hardly imagine a more unpopular way of calling an election. Or the Government could allow a free vote- but that’s unlikely while the plebiscite and the PM’s Leadership are in lockstep. Or the Government could say that it puts everything off until after the next election. That seems the most likely course.

So what is the Senate likely to do?

The numbers are against the Government- if the ALP does come out on Tuesday and say it is opposed to the plebiscite. Currently in the Senate, one Government Senator, Dean Smith, who is openly gay, will vote against the plebiscite bill. Pauline Hanson’s four senators will vote in favour. Derryn Hinch and Nick Xenophon’s three members, the Green and Labor will vote against. In short, subject to the PM and Attorney-General George Brandis pulling a rabbit out of the hat- it appears as dead as a dodo.

Oh and don’t forget the most improbable scenario. Senator Eric Abetz, one of of the architects of the plebiscite proposal- as a means of defeating equal marriage- said at one stage that he intended for there to be a Senate inquiry- as a means of slowing the Bill down. Of course, to get his inquiry up and running, Senator Abetz needs a majority in the Senate- and that looks unlikely at this point, to say the least.

For all their talk of the psychological impact on young LGBTI people in particular from the plebiscite campaign, one could not imagine Nick Xenophon, the Greens, Derryn Hinch or Labor supporting an inquiry.

Last week I was lucky to take part in meetings of LGBTI community members with both George Brandis and his Labor counterpart Mark Dreyfus. Both sides seem locked in their positions with little movement. No surprises there.

But we shall wait and see.

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