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Press Conference with Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann, Acting Special Minister of State
PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon. I am here with Senator Cormann, the Acting Special Minister of State.
At the last election, we made a very clear promise to the Australian people that we would not facilitate the introduction of a bill to legalise same-sex marriage until the Australian people had had their say.
And we made a commitment to give all Australians a say on the matter of same-sex marriage and we did so again and again.
Now, typically Bill Shorten during the course of the election campaign did not say where he stood. He reserved his position so he was able characteristically to tell people that opposed a plebiscite that he would be with them and that those that favoured it that he might be with them also.
Since the election, we have come back into government, we have gone to the Parliament, gone through the House, we’ve gone to the Senate with a bill to enable a compulsory attendance ballot, a plebiscite. And that has been rejected by the Senate.
We will be presenting it to the Senate again this week.
But if that bill is rejected by the Senate again, then we will hold a postal vote on this issue asking the same question in which all Australians will have their say – they will get the opportunity to express their opinion on the issue of whether the law should be changed to enable same-sex couples to marry, fulfilling the commitment we made at the election.
Now, fundamental to political leadership is integrity and trust. We all know what happens to governments that break their promises.
We all remember Julia Gillard's ‘There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead’, and how she broke that promise and what followed.
Now, we have made a very clear commitment here and we are sticking with it.
It's been considered in both our party rooms - in the Liberal Party Room and the National Party Room - and both our party rooms, as you know, overwhelmingly support the commitment that we made.
And today in the Joint Party Room we presented and had, again, overwhelming support for the option of the postal vote.
And that will, again, operate in the same way in terms of its impact on the Parliament's work as the plebiscite proposal that will be going back into the Senate this week, that is to say if there is a ‘yes’ vote recorded in the postal vote then we will facilitate the introduction of a Private Members Bill to legalise same-sex marriage. And if there is a ‘no’ vote we will not.
I'll now ask the Acting Special Minister of State to go into some more detail on the mechanism.
SENATOR THE HON. MATHIAS CORMANN, ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: Thank you very much Prime Minister. The Government went to the last election with a very firm commitment that we would give the Australian people a say on whether or not the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act should be changed to allow same sex couples to marry. After the election we introduced legislation into the Parliament to give effect to that commitment and that reflected our preferred option, which was a compulsory attendance plebiscite. That legislation was unsuccessful in the Senate. I will be giving notice in the Senate today of a motion to restore that plebiscite Bill back to the notice paper and to recommence, to revive the second reading debate in relation to that Bill.
Should that attempt be unsuccessful, the government believes that we have a Constitutional and legal way forward to keep faith with our commitment to the Australian people to let them have their say on whether or not the definition of marriage should be changed. Under our Constitution, the Commonwealth Parliament has the power to make laws in relation to census and statistics. The Commonwealth Parliament has made laws in relation to census and statistics, namely the Census and Statistics Act and the ABS Act. Under those pieces of legislation and the undoubted Constitutional powers of the Commonwealth, the Treasurer will be directing the Australian Statistician to ask, to request on a voluntary basis information, statistical information, from all Australians on the electoral roll as to their views on whether or not the law in relation to same sex marriage should be changed to allow same sex couples to marry.
Incidentally, there is a precedent in Australia for an Australian Government asking Australians for their opinion in relation to a matter of public policy. Namely the Whitlam Government in 1974, conducted a phone survey of 60,000 randomly selected Australians through the ABS as to what their view was in relation to Australia's national anthem. At the end of that process 51.4 per cent of Australians so surveyed by the ABS opted for the Australian national anthem to be changed to Advance Australia Fair. This is essentially the same process using the same Constitutional head of power, using the relevant legislation underpinning the operations of the ABS and the Australian Statistician. The ABS has the power. The ABS has the power to expend funds in relation to its functions under its legislation.
As the Finance Minister, I have the power to make the relevant appropriation to the ABS. I pause here under the Appropriations Act, the current Appropriations Act passed by the Parliament, there is what is called a Finance Ministers advance, a long-standing arrangement that has been in place under governments of both political persuasion, where I am able to make appropriations under certain circumstances of up to $295 million. That is more than enough to be able to fund the postal plebiscite should the Senate not support the government's preferred scenario, the government’s preferred option of a compulsory attendance plebiscite.
The ABS has the power, I have the power to appropriate the necessary funds. Furthermore, the ABS under its legislation is able to enter into an arrangement with other Commonwealth entities in relation to the secondment of officers to the ABS. There will be an arrangement between the ABS and the Australian Electoral Commission under those provisions in the ABS legislation for Electoral Commission officers to be seconded to the ABS to assist the Australian Statistician in conducting this process. This is a process that will enable every single Australian on the electoral roll to have their say on whether or not they believe our laws should be changed to allow same sex couples to marry or not.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, how much will it cost? And do you have the legal advice to back it and how confident are you that you can contend this in the High Court if necessary – the postal vote?
PRIME MINISTER: The answers to your question in reverse order are yes we are confident. Two, yes we do have legal advice. And the cost is-
ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: $122 million.
JOURNALIST: I take your point about the election promise. I was on the campaign, I heard you talk about it many times.
PRIME MINISTER: Poor you!
JOURNALIST: Well, indeed, however I never heard you promise a postal plebiscite. I never heard you mention a plan B - so it is not really an election promise. Isn’t this an issue where the country is crying out for leadership? Isn’t a postal plebiscite just a way to have the Parliament follow? Why aren’t you leading? Why are you following?
PRIME MINISTER: Strong leaders carry out their promises. Weak leaders break them.
I'm a strong leader. I made that promise again and again, as you lamented, on the campaign trail, on that long campaign. And you heard me, again, say again and again that every Australian will have a say on this issue.
Now, we have sought to have a compulsory attendance plebiscite. The only reason it has not been held is because of Bill Shorten's opposition.
This is the same Bill Shorten, Mark, that went to the Australian Christian Lobby in 2013 and said he favoured a plebiscite.
Bill Shorten has a habit of telling any audience he goes to what they want to hear and he went to the ACL in 2013 and he said the people should make up their minds on this. Yes, he said - he supported a plebiscite, you've all got the video, you’ve all run it-
JOURNALIST: But you also promised-
PRIME MINISTER: And in the campaign he did not say whether he would support or oppose our plebiscite proposal.
So in the campaign the only statement of his on the record about a plebiscite was supporting one, so voters were entitled to expect that he would be consistent - those that didn't know him as well as everyone in this room does.
So he's come back and for purely political reasons he has opposed the plebiscite. If he had not opposed it it would’ve been held in February and in my view it would have been carried, in which case same-sex marriage by now would have been legal for some time.
Bill Shorten is the barrier to that.
So the postal vote, however, will give everybody their say. Everyone will get a say.
ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: Let me make a very important point in response to your question too, Mark. The commitment that the government made in the lead up to the last election and the commitment that the Prime Minister made in the lead up to the last election was to give the Australian people a say on whether the definition of marriage should be changed through a plebiscite. We did not actually determine the specifics on what form that plebiscite would take until after the election. It is true that we determined after the election that our preferred approach would be a compulsory attendance plebiscite. But there is absolutely no doubt that a postal plebiscite still keeps faith with the commitments that we made in the lead up to the last election on this point.
JOURNALIST: You must be very confident that same-sex marriage would be legalised had that plebiscite gone ahead - do you remain as confident as you were?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes, that is my sense of it Mark, of public opinion but ultimately that’s just an opinion. The important thing is that every Australian gets their say. So every Australian, as Mathias said, on the electoral role will get a ballot paper and they will be to fill that in and express their say and their vote will be counted.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, if we could stop talking about Bill Shorten for a moment and actually talk about the issue - you support same-sex marriage, why? And will you campaign for it and campaign for change during this plebiscite?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I have explained why I support it – because I believe that relationships, marriages should be available to people like Lucy and me, people of different sex, different men and women and also to people of the same-sex.
Look, other people have different views on that fundamental issue and I respect their views and they’re entitled to them and I will certainly, as I've said before in respect to the plebiscite that is before the Senate, that I will be voting yes, as will Lucy, and I'd encourage others to do so.
JOURNALIST: Why subject the gay and lesbian community to two, nearly two months of people commenting on their relationships and saying hurtful things?
PRIME MINISTER: There are arguments against having a plebiscite, I understand that. There are arguments against it but the weakest argument of all, which I think has no basis, is that the Australian people are not capable of having a respectful discussion on this issue.
I mean, do we think so little of our fellow Australians and our ability to debate important matters of public interest that we say: ‘You're not able to have a respectful discussion about the definition of marriage’, which is a very significant, important, fundamental element in our law and in our culture.
Australians are able and have demonstrated that they can have a respectful discussion. I am committed to that.
Now, there are plenty of other arguments about plebiscites for and against, but that one that you've just described, Sam, is the weakest of them all.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, your own office has brought in this device into this press conference – called a Mevo, apparently it live streams to Facebook.
PRIME MINISTER: Yes.
JOURNALIST: The Facebook community-
PRIME MINISTER: Are you offended by that? Is this because you’re from the ABC? You’re offended by that? Does the Internet threaten you?
JOURNALIST: The Facebook generation -
PRIME MINISTER: Yes?
JOURNALIST: - are classically and very typically people who have moved on in the debate. They might not have ever posted a letter.
PRIME MINISTER: I think they’ll all be looking forward to having their say.
JOURNALIST: What do you say to the Facebook generation who say: “How do we vote? Should we vote?
PRIME MINISTER: Have your say. Have your say. I mean, I am encouraging them to have their say.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister if the plebiscite returns a ‘no’ note and your government decides not to pursue the issue in Parliament, do you have any reason to believe that the MPs who’ve expressed support for a conscience vote won’t still follow through on their threat to cross the floor?
PRIME MINISTER: Well we obviously, we always encourage – I, our leadership, the party - we encourage all of our members always to vote in accordance with government policy, with the decisions of the Party Room. So that is the answer to that.
JOURNALIST: PM can I just ask for some specifics, could you give us the dates for both the plebiscite and the dates for the postal ballot? Will there be public funding for a postal ballot for the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases if it is a postal ballot? And just personally, will you personally campaign for the ‘yes’ vote?
PRIME MINISTER: I will answer the last one - I have many other calls on my time as Prime Minister but I will certainly support a ‘yes’ vote, as I’ve said I would in the past, but I have many other calls to my time.
I just make this point and Sarah Martin knows this well because she accompanied me on my trip to Western Australia recently - in the course of that trip, I would think, Sarah, I would have met close to 1,000 people, hundreds of people, all the time, in many different environments, some of them organised, most of them not. In the course of that visit, to the best of my recollection one person raised the issue of same-sex marriage other than journalists.
So I have many calls on my time - national security, energy, the economy, ensuring that Australians have the security and the opportunity they deserve.
There’s a very, one of the newspapers, I think it was The Courier-Mail on the front cover today said, referring to the anticipated decision of the Party Room, gave us the advice: ‘Now get back to running the country’. Can I tell you, that is my focus - running the country, securing Australians' security, keeping them safe and ensuring they and their children have great opportunities to get ahead.
JOURNALIST: Can I get the details?
ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: If the Senate supports the government's preferred option of a compulsory attendance plebiscite, that would take place on the 25 November, the Saturday before the final sitting fortnight. In the case of such a compulsory attendance plebiscite, if it returned a majority yes vote, as the government has indicated we would then facilitate the consideration of a Private Member’s Bill in the final sitting fortnight. If that is not successful and we pursue the alternative postal vote option, our timetable is to secure a final result by the 15 November, which equally would facilitate consideration for the final sitting fortnight of the relevant Private Member’s Bill should the plebiscite vote be positive. The intention would be to have ballot papers arrive in people’s letterboxes from 12 September onwards. All of the relevant timetables will be published in the usual way.
JOURNALIST: On enrolments, will young people who have turned 18 since the last election have the time by the 12th of September to enrol to vote? Is there a chance for them to enrol and vote?
ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: There will be appropriate provision consistent with the provision that usually applies for electors and potential electors to update their enrolment details and all the specific announcements will be made in the usual way.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister and Minister, can I ask both how you would feel about a ‘no’ vote in the public?
PRIME MINISTER: Just from my own – I will respect the decision of the Australian people.
As I've said to you, I’ll be voting ‘yes’, as will Lucy. I'm very open about that.
But if the Australian people vote, the Australian people are never wrong. You know, when they vote, whether it’s for governments or on matters like this, their vote will be respected.
We've been very clear about this, we will facilitate a Private Members Bill to change the law with respect to same-sex marriage so that same-sex couples can be married if there's a ‘yes’ vote. And if it is a ‘no’ vote, we won't. Mathias, do you want to add to that?
ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: I am on the public record as indicating that I will respect whatever the verdict of the Australian public through this process. I will respect the yes or the no vote.
JOURNALIST: Can I just talk about the turnout? I mean, how many people need to vote for this to have any legitimacy? I mean less 50 per cent? If you get 10 per cent it will be seen as a fizzer, wont it?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, a vote in which every Australian is given an opportunity to vote -
ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: 100 per cent.
PRIME MINISTER: Is – 100 per cent - everyone on the electoral roll will be getting a ballot paper and that is where its legitimacy comes from.
Compulsory voting which as you know, we have in Australia, obviously, and a number of other countries have it, it is not the norm, it is the exception to the norm. Most countries have voluntary voting systems and in fact there are people that advocate it here. And postal voting is very common in Australia for many organisations, unions, companies and local government.
JOURNALIST: How much is a full plebiscite as opposed to $122 million?
PRIME MINISTER: Mathias.
ACTING SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE: It is a matter of public record. A full compulsory attendance plebiscite is up to $170 million. A postal plebiscite and it does depend on participation, is up to $122 million.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you all very much. Mathias will put out more details.