Fear And Loathing In Canberra: Malcolm Turnbull Goes Postal On Marriage Equality


Hate and fear are two very powerful political motivators. The first one is why Peter Dutton put up the idea of a postal vote on marriage equality, and the second is why Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t stop it. Chris Graham explains.

If we know Peter Dutton’s lying when his lips are moving, then how do we know when the Minister for Immigration and opportunist-in-chief is scheming?

It’s certainly not when his eyes are closed, because in all likelihood, Dutton plots in his sleep. And that’s probably where he came up with the idea for a postal vote on marriage equality… in his dreams.

And yet, Dutton’s best nightmare has become our worst. This morning, news broke that the Turnbull Government was moving forward with plans for a non-binding, non-compulsory postal plebiscite on marriage equality… which could equally be read as ‘an enormous waste of time and money to tell us what we already know’.

And all for the bargain basement price of, wait for it… $122 million.

It’s hard for mere mortals who struggle along on an average wage to understand how any responsible person – let alone a minister or prime minister of the Crown – could be prepared to waste so much money, particularly given this same mob told us only a few years ago that it was ‘the end of the age of entitlement’, and we all needed to tighten our economic belts.

Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton.
Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton.

But ours is not to question why. Ours is simply to foot the bill… and the ‘question’ will arrive in the mail, sometime around November.

Still, it begs the question, why, given the overwhelming community support for marriage equality in Australia, would the Turnbull government risk widespread condemnation by wasting so much taxpayer money in such lean times? Surely, they’re on a hiding to nothing?

Well, don’t be so sure, at least not in the short term. That would be to underestimate the cunning of Dutton, the weakness of his leader Malcolm Turnbull, the general apathy of the Australian population when they tire of a political debate, and the bone-idle laziness of the mainstream media who are supposed to be there to help make sense of it all.

Unlike some pundits, I don’t think Dutton’s plan is a delaying tactic. I think Dutton believes he can have his cake and eat it too… i.e. I think he genuinely believes he can sink marriage equality altogether, at least for the foreseeable future. In the process, I think his goal is to bolster his personal profile, strengthen his position within the Liberal Party… and then wait for things to implode. As they inevitably will.


Here’s what I think the mind of a scheming Liberal opportunist has worked out.

The Turnbull government needs majority support in the Senate to force an ordinary ‘turn up to a ballot box’ plebiscite through parliament.

It’s highly unlikely they’ll get it. Kudos to Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and Senator Derryn Hinch (although not too much kudos to Labor… true to gutless-type, they didn’t oppose Howard’s 2004 amendments to the Marriage Act, which is partly what landed us in this unedifying national debate in the first place).

But the Turnbull government doesn’t need any external political support to spend vast swathes of taxpayer dollars on a postal vote. It just needs malleable ethics, and a capacity to suspend basic reason.

Hence we’re getting a postal vote. Obviously, the government also requires access to a lot of money (preferably someone else’s). Tick on that front as well.

With the political hurdles out of the way, it’s important to understand how it all will likely play out.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell)
Greens leader Richard Di Natale. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell)

Australia has a compulsory voting system. You don’t vote, you get fined. Simple. Even plebiscites – of which there’s only ever been three – are compulsory, albeit non-binding on parliament. This has resulted in a consistent voter turnout at national polls above 90 per cent.

Dutton’s postal vote, however, is not compulsory (nor is it binding on parliament).

The government will simply mail you out a ballot, and you can ignore it if you want to. Doubtless many of the seven in 10 Australians who support marriage equality will, because they’re tired of the debate, they don’t understand what the delay is, and they just want it done.

But the people who definitely won’t ignore it are the remaining 30 per cent of the population who polls consistently suggest oppose marriage equality. Because hate.

Now here’s where the numbers come in, and shed a little more light on Dutton’s cunning.


There’s no national precedent for a non-compulsory postal vote. It’s simply never happened before. But there is a state precedent. In 2007, the Queensland Bligh Labor government held one over plans to merge local councils.

As you might expect, the voter turnout was 55 per cent.

That’s one of the lowest votes in recorded Australian history. The only national vote I can find lower was the 1922 federal election, the ‘crisis’ which actually triggered the compulsory voting system we have now. Even so, it still recorded a turnout of 59 per cent.

Here’s why that is important. Mainstream political parties have long banked on the fact that people motivated by fear and loathing are more likely to turn out to vote. It’s why conservatives (and parties in Australia like Labor and the Liberals) work so hard to keep issues like race, crime and religion in the headlines.

It’s why, for example, the Liberals introduced the Northern Territory intervention, and Labor supported it. It’s why both major parties still routinely run on ‘law and order’ tickets around election time, despite the fact most categories of violent crime in Australia have been stable or dropping for years.

It’s why both major parties lock away innocent men, women and children seeking refugee in camps on faraway islands.

It’s why war is great for politics. It’s why bashing Muslims is now a national sport.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten, pictured on ABC's Four Corners program.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten, pictured on ABC’s Four Corners program.

If we get a similar turnout at a national non-compulsory postal vote on marriage equality as we did in Queensland – 55 per cent – things get very interesting.

If 30 per cent of Australians (or a large majority of them) who oppose marriage equality turn out to vote, and half of the rest of us use our ballot papers for drink coasters, see if you guess what the result of Dutton’s marriage equality poll will look like?

Around about 50-50 support for marriage equality.

Cue the headlines in the mainstream media that marriage equality is not that big a deal among Australian voters after all.

The issue will be a dead rubber, once again. At the very least, Bill Shorten won’t be able to go to the next election beating the Turnbull government over the head with marriage equality.

In the process, see if you can guess what it will do for Peter Dutton’s standing within the Liberal-Nationals.

Not only has he already defeated Malcolm Turnbull by getting a postal vote across the line, but if the vote comes back and damages the marriage equality cause… Dutton will be front and centre at the late night Liberal medal pinning ceremony in November. Turnbull – who has long spoken out in support of marriage equality – will look even less in control of the extreme fringes of his party, and even more like the gutless fool that he so clearly is.


Would it be enough to install Dutton in The Lodge? Hard to say, but just as it appears that putting someone like Dutton up as Prime Minister would be political suicide for the Liberals, I’m willing to bet Dutton doesn’t see it that way, anymore than Tony Abbott ever did. And who could forget that crazy ride.

In the long-run marriage equality will come to Australia. Humans evolve, even Liberal-Nationals. But the personal damage done to the LGBTIQ community in the debate that is about to ensue, and in the likely outcome of this poll, will be immense. It will literally kill people. But then, Peter Dutton is the Minister responsible for Manus and Nauru.

For his part, Malcolm Turnbull has shown that as leader, he doesn’t have the political will – or the currency – to prevent it.

And so, in the absence of the political leadership required to get a basic, rights-affirming job done, it comes down to ‘we, the people’.

We have to do the work.

On that front, the greatest weapon against fear and loathing is love and understanding, and in this case, all you have to do to show it is tick a box. It really doesn’t get any easier.

So when your ballot paper arrives in the mail, by all means use it a drink coaster, just don’t forget to send it back when you’re finished.

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Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.