Malcolm Turnbull has been sworn in as Prime Minister, after defeating Tony Abbott in a ballot for the leadership of the Liberal Party.
Australia has now had six prime ministers in the last eight years. The Coalition campaigned on a platform of stability in the wake of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, telling voters “If you vote for the Labor party in 2013 who knows who you will end up with”, and promising stability.
However, Abbott’s leadership of the Liberal Party came under pressure due to his continued poor results in opinion polls. He survived a challenge in February after he asked for six months to prove he could improve the Coalition’s popularity, declaring that “It’s the people that hire, and frankly it should be the people that fire.”
However, the polls did not turn around, and after being informed that he was losing support, Abbott called a leadership spill. After a ballot in which he lost by 54-44, he resigned by sending a fax to the Governor-General, recommending that Malcolm Turnbull be sworn in.
The new Prime Minister promised to return to “thoroughly traditional cabinet government”, characterised by greater consultation and ministerial independence from the Prime Minister’s office.
With separate private members’ bills introduced to parliament by the Greens, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Labor Party, and most recently a multi-party group, the Coalition Government has come under pressure to allow its members a conscience vote on the issue.
After an extensive debate in caucus, the Coalition decided defer a decision on a conscience vote until after the next election. While the Coalition allows its backbench MPs to vote against party policy, the decision locks all Ministers in to opposing the bill.
During the meeting, Abbott told his colleagues he thought a referendum to settle the issue was “extraordinarily attractive“. There is speculation that his position is motivated by a belief that a “no” vote would make the reform difficult to justify, and referendums are historically unlikely to pass without strong bipartisan support.
This new position reflects a sudden change of mind on the part of the Prime Minister. In May, following Ireland’s referendum on the issue, Abbott said, “Referendums are held in this country where there’s a proposal to change the constitution. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that the constitution needs to be changed in this respect. Under the constitution, questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth parliament.”
That view reflected the precedent established by the Same-Sex Marriage Case (2013), in which the High Court unanimously held: “the federal Parliament has legislative power to provide for marriage between persons of the same sex”.
Other Coalition members are pushing for a plebiscite, which is a non-binding national vote on an issue. In the past, plebiscites have been held on military conscription and the national anthem. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, a plebiscite held at the same time as the next election would cost $44 million to administer, and a stand-alone plebiscite would cost $158 million.