The view from Billinudgel

An ugly same-sex marriage debate is just beginning
Malcolm Turnbull got his postal survey win in the High Court but still stands to lose


It was not the end; it was not even the beginning of the end. But it was, finally, the end of the beginning.

The High Court has at last fanned the long-smouldering same-sex marriage debate into flame, and now it has become a question of not if but how the inferno will play out and how many victims it will consume.

But for the moment, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s only emotion was one of joy and relief – had the High Court found the other way it would have precipitated yet another crisis for his government, yet another shit fight in the party room.

The fact that the shit fight will now engulf the entire nation is a relatively minor problem. But it is one that will have to be faced, both in the confrontation, which will now ramp up in earnest, and then in the outcome when, as was always inevitable, the decision must be made in parliament.

Turnbull insists that the debate will be respectful anyway. But just in case, he is talking – in the manner of a man proclaiming that nuclear warfare can really be contained under Queensberry rules – of legislating some kind of framework to restrain any excesses.

At the time of writing there are no details beyond the suggestion that advertisements on both sides would need some kind of authorisation. And if he attempts to go beyond that – as Labor, the Greens and even some of his own followers say he should – there would undoubtedly be screams about restrictions of freedom of religion and speech by the zealots of the religious right.

But more importantly, any such measures would be ineffective – the offensive material would have already been promulgated before it could be challenged. So close your eyes, hold your nose and prepare to dive into the cesspool.

Turnbull has made it clear that he is backing the Yes case. He has been warned, however, that he may have to be a touch more vigorous, if only in order to deny Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (who is rather more enthusiastic about the cause) the claim of ownership if the campaign succeeds. In any event he will still have to face the count when the numbers come up in November.

If they say no, we are back to square one; the issue will not go away and the divisions, both inside and outside the party room, will continue. But if, as he says he hopes and expects, they say yes, it will be Turnbull’s task to guide the implementation of same-sex marriage through parliament.

He may try to throw a hospital pass to a backbencher to propose it, but the nitty-gritty about the extent of exemptions – devices to allow those demanding their religious privileges to maintain and extend them – will eventually land on his own prime ministerial desk.

And this is when it may become the beginning of the end. Our leader will hope that this judgement will apply only to the tortuous argument, and not to his timorous and dysfunctional regime.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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