The Politics    Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A sad day

By Sean Kelly

Same-sex marriage delayed

Oh, you thought Australian politics could not get more ridiculous? What adorable naivety!

This morning, Prime Minister Tony Abbott set about explaining what happened yesterday. What happened yesterday was that he had, to the surprise of his colleagues, called for a joint Liberal–National partyroom meeting to decide whether government MPs would be granted a free vote (or conscience vote) on the question of same-sex marriage. Six hours later, the partyroom votes were counted: there would be no free vote. This pretty much killed off the chance of same-sex marriage passing this term (unless Abbott is removed by his party).

But, said the PM, that would change after the next election – there may even be a plebiscite of voters to see what they think. Here’s what the PM said on ABC’s AM: “precisely because I think there is a general acceptance that this is a very personal issue, we will not be attempting to bind anyone beyond the life of this Parliament.”

Let’s rephrase that slightly, while preserving its meaning: “this is such a personal issue that we believe our MPs should be given a personal choice about how they vote on this deeply personal matter – in a few years’ time. Until then, though, we’ll bloody well tell them which way to vote.” 

Or to put it yet another way: “We know this is what our policy should be. But we’re going to stick with our current policy for the next few years anyway.”

That is obviously stupid, even once you’ve got past the fact that the Liberal party, historically the party of individuality and free choice, has decided to bind its MPs on a question of social policy. (Technically Liberal MPs can always vote another way, but the PM has said he would be disappointed if they did, and Liberal ministers who do so will have to resign their posts.)

But what is absolutely absurdly crazily technicoloured ridiculous is that the Labor party are doing almost the exact same thing, just in the opposite direction.

In the ALP’s case, it believes its MPs should all have to vote in favour of same-sex marriage – but not until 2019. Before that they can vote however they want. It’s the same whacky stance as the Coalition: we believe in this policy so very much that we’re going to implement it – just give us a few years. Until then, we’re happy with what we’ve got.

Yep, that’s where politics in this country has got to.

A second point. This is an issue which – rightly – raises a heap of passion. There has therefore been a lot of overblown rhetoric taking wing. I want briefly to try to correct three of the most egregious examples.  


  • Tony Abbott said this morning he wanted any plebiscite to go ahead at a different time to the election, so that it didn’t distract from the issues: “the next election will rightly be a contest between two political movements … and then I think we can have a separate discussion about where we should go with this important subject.”

Not wanting to be gazumped, the PM was the first to say the PM was wrong, just a few paragraphs later asserting that same-sex marriage would in fact be an election issue: “going into the next election, you’ll have the Labor Party which wants it to go to a Parliamentary vote and you’ve got the Coalition that wants it to go to a people’s vote.”

Malcolm Turnbull was the second to call this furphy out, a few hours later: “the reason I haven’t advocated a plebiscite after the next election is that it would mean, it will mean, that this issue is a live issue all the way up to the next election.”

It’s nice to see Abbott and Turnbull agree, isn’t it?

  • The Telegraph reports: “Greens leader Richard Di Natale accused Prime Minister Tony Abbott of stacking the party room with Nationals MPs, most of whom oppose same-sex marriage, because he knew he was ‘going to be rolled’ on the issue by Liberals.”

We know now that Tony Abbott would not have been rolled – the same article gives us this, from a man with an impeccable record of honesty on this issue: “in the end [Liberal MP Warren] Entsch said it became clear to him that there wouldn’t have been support for a free vote, even if the Nationals hadn’t been in the room.”

Di Natale is trying to make this something it isn’t. He needn’t have bothered, because these facts make things slightly worse for Abbott: it turns out he did not even need to create the chaotic process story he did to achieve the outcome he wanted. Another example of poor judgment his enemies can point to.

The other point worth making here is that Abbott was not a passive victim of votes here. He did not have to simply lie down and accept the will of the party room. If he had believed a free vote was the best way forward he could have made that view clear, and he might have prevailed. He did not, because this was the outcome he wanted.

  • Bill Shorten told Sunrise: “I don’t understand for the life of me what Mr Abbott and some of his team have against marriage equality.”

That’s all very well. But of course some of Shorten’s colleagues are also against marriage equality.

Now, Shorten admits this – but is doing everything he can to paint the picture that Labor are for same-sex marriage and the Liberals are against.

Shorten is right that same-sex marriage is unlikely to become law under Tony Abbott, who seems determined to do what he can to stop that happening. But he is wrong to pretend Labor are the pro-same-sex-marriage party. They are, for the moment, and until 2019, merely the pro-free-vote-on-same-sex-marriage party.

When Shorten says “Labor hasn’t given up pushing for marriage equality in this term of government”, he should remember Labor isn’t pushing for marriage equality. He might be. But the party’s position is quite different.

Myth-busting aside, last night was very sad. The hope that marriage equality would become law in this term of government appears to have been crushed. That is – or should be – an affront to all Australians. We like to tell ourselves our nation stands against discrimination; that we believe in doing right by all. Until this injustice is overturned, we should stop pretending. 


Today’s links

  • Yesterday I wrote that the same-sex marriage vote process may be leading to crisis for Abbott. It’s worth noting that some people have claimed it as a victory for him.
  • Peter Hartcher asks whether Tony Abbott is out of time.
  • Quick videos: Penny Wong gives Joe Hockey the cold shoulder. Republican protests.
  • Peter Chen says Abbott needs to embrace some policy boldness.
  • Ross Gittins writes: “I’m not a believer that things we should be doing for social or cultural reasons must first be asked to justify themselves on economic grounds. We’re rich enough to afford to look after those among us with problems, and to pursue knowledge for its own sake. But the argument that doing better on mental health would improve economic outcomes seems unassailable.”
  • The head of the British government’s climate change advisory body, a former Thatcher minister, has called Australia’s climate targets “pathetic”.
  • An independent auditor takes aim at the ABC.
  • NSW Labor’s general secretary has denied allegations he assaulted a female staffer. He has not been charged.
  • Fox vs Trump. And the Hillary Clinton email controversy ain’t over yet.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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