A big ruling on gay marriage from Australia's highest court

Earlier this week we looked at the prospective derailing of the upcoming Australian plebiscite on gay marriage. The tenuous agreement on how to proceed on this question was already threatening to undo Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s majority in the Parliament and the direct mail vote looked like his only way out of the trap. But a last minute challenge to the legality of the vote was taken to the High Court there.

Now, in relatively short order, the court has made its decision. The Plebiscite will move forward as scheduled. (Reuters)

Australia’s High Court rejected two legal challenges on Thursday against a proposed postal ballot on whether to legalize same-sex marriage, clearing the way for a vote on an issue that has wide support but which has also threatened to divide the government.

Australians will now begin voting in the non-compulsory ballot as early as next week, with a result expected some time in November.

The court’s decision to reject the legal challenges, both of which argued that the center-right government needed the support of parliament to hold the ballot, comes as a welcome relief for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

This really takes some of the heat off of Turnbull, at least for the time being. As I described in the previous article, his ruling conservative coalition is beyond tenuous at this point, holding only a one seat advantage in Parliament. If gay marriage (which Turnbull personally supports) was going to be approved legislatively and he gave it his blessing, the more hard right elements of his coalition were going to bail out on him and that could spell the end of his tenure in short order. But if he refused to back the measure some of the more liberal members of his coalition were similarly threatening to bolt. Either way he could have wound up out in the cold.

But the plebiscite allows him to toss the decision directly to the voters and then shrug his shoulders when anyone from either side came to him to complain about it. If the most recently polling in the country is anywhere near accurate, this measure should pass by a relatively wide margin. But nothing is ever definite in the world of politics and that’s as true Down Under as it is in America. There’s an expensive advertising campaign already grinding into gear by the opposition seeking to undermine support for the proposal. If they can dampen turnout for supporters sufficiently and rile up the more conservative elements of the population it could be closer than anyone is currently predicting.

But either way, they won’t be able to pin it on Turnbull. And with that in mind, he probably lives to fight another day, at least in political terms.

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