We all deserve a little more respect from Turnbull & Co

I'm sorry?: Matthew Canavan recently declared to the High Court that he had in fact been an Italian citizen ever since he was two.
I'm sorry?: Matthew Canavan recently declared to the High Court that he had in fact been an Italian citizen ever since he was two.

One of the great oversights in the voluminous coverage of the same-sex marriage postal survey is that it might not even happen. You might recall there's an impending High Court challenge against its constitutional validity. Media, politicians and campaigners are behaving like this isn't happening.

That's understandable, I suppose. If you're part of a campaign, to wait for the court's verdict is to risk conceding a head start, so you might as well get started. But it's also regrettable because there's plenty to be learned by paying attention to the way our politicians behave in court. Do that and you'll see the things they'll tell a judge have apparently little to do with the things they'll tell us as a public. And it keeps happening.

For instance, you might think we're about to vote on same-sex marriage. Indeed Malcolm Turnbull said it twice in a single sentence once: “Lucy and I will be voting ‘yes’ in the postal vote.” But once the government got to court, we got this: “It is not correct to characterise the activity as a vote.” It needs to say this because it has to justify that the Australian Electoral Commission isn't involved. But it also seems to mean it.

The argument facing the government is that this plebiscite is a disguised vote, and for that reason needs enacting legislation. In resisting this argument, the government is declaring this process isn't even a vote by another name. That is, it isn't a plebiscite at all. And yet it's being sold to us as the fulfilment of a promise to hold a plebiscite.

But if that isn't sufficiently brazen, take recent developments in the dual citizenship saga. Having beseeched the public for understanding on the basis that his Italian citizenship was quietly foisted upon him by his mother at the age of 25, Matthew Canavan declared to the High Court that he had in fact been an Italian citizen ever since he was two. The present story is that his citizenship was conferred by a change in Italian law so that his citizenship by maternal descent was automatic unless renounced. Beyond this automatic process, Canavan's mum had suddenly vanished from the script, presumably because if you're trying to argue you had no idea you'd become a citizen, it's not ideal to have been 25 at the time.

Then there was Malcolm Roberts who first insisted he had never been a citizen of another country at any stage. Then his application form for Australian citizenship from 1974 showed up in public, which he had signed as a British citizen. Roberts, you will recall, said publicly that he sent multiple emails to the British government asking to renounce his British citizenship before the election, and heard nothing from them until five months afterwards when he received an official notification of his renunciation. Then when he got to court, Roberts admitted he had completed official forms to renounce his citizenship, sent by the British government. And he wasn't even prepared to say this all happened before the election, only that, in his barrister's words, “I haven't quite got my head around the chronology”.

In each case, politicians have offered public statements that are either misleading or indefensible. They do it again and again because they know that journalistic attempts at accountability can be brushed off with shameless repetition.

But there's surely a point at which the electorate deserves something approaching respect. Because if politicians have to appear somewhere serious, like in front of a judge, to give some sober honesty, it's hard to resist the conclusion the public isn't being taken particularly seriously.

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax columnist.