COVER STORY by Our Canberra ObserverNews Weekly
Bill Shorten imposes his political will on the nation
, October 22, 2016
For the foreseeable future same-sex marriage in Australia is on hold – ostensibly at least until after the next election. The only question now is whether there will be sufficient pressure placed on Coalition MPs in favour of the change to result in a conscience vote in Parliament.
Such a vote would unleash such chaos and wreckage within the Coalition, and probably precipitate a chain of events that would lead to a leadership change and possibly an election, that it is difficult at the moment to envisage anyone taking such a self-destructive course.
Conservative Nationals MP Andrew Broad said he would withdraw his support for the Coalition and sit as an independent if the Coalition moved to grant a free vote on the issue; thereby eliminating the Government’s knife-edge majority.
Now may the real debate
Nonetheless, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull still left open the possibility of a free vote in Parliament after the Labor Caucus decided to block the plebiscite, scheduled to take place on February 11, 2017.
Pro-same-sex marriage groups vowed to begin campaigning immediately for a vote in Parliament and will be putting pressure on Coalition MPs to waiver.
But there may not be the stomach for the internal rupture this would cause.
Liberal MP and same-sex marriage advocate Warren Entsch said Labor’s decision “could see this process delayed for an extended period of time”.
In a statement ahead of Labor’s Caucus decision on October 11, Mr Entsch said that if the plebiscite bill were to be voted down he would step back from the issue to put more of his political focus into other areas.
“I can’t do any more,” he said.
As The Australian’s political correspondent, David Crowe, put it: “There are many Liberals and some Nationals who support marriage equality, but not to the point of weakening their Prime Minister and tearing apart their Government.”
Labor’s decision to rebuff a plebiscite was said to be based on two reasons: the cost; and claims that the ensuing debate would produce so-called hate discussions that would cause deep distress to people in the “LGBTI community”, and especially to the children of same-sex couples.
“This country does not have the right in a plebiscite to pass judgement on the marriage and relationships of our fellow Australians,” Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said after the Labor Caucus voted overwhelmingly (and possibly unanimously) against the plebiscite.
Mr Shorten also revealed another reason to oppose the plebiscite; which was that it was a problem of Mr Turnbull’s making. In other words, Mr Shorten used the issue to inflict maximum political pain on the Prime Minister.
Attorney-General George Brandis had released amendments to the Marriage Act to facilitate the plebiscite, including changing the definition of marriage from between “a man and a woman” to between “two people”, recognising foreign same-sex marriages in Australia, and allowing marriage celebrants the right to refuse to marry same-sex couples.
But this and other overtures, including an offer to withdraw funding for the “for” and “against” cases, were also rebuffed.
The contrast between the Coalition and Labor could not be starker.
The Coalition still wants a “people’s vote”; whereas Labor does not trust the people to have a public debate on this social issue without distressing those involved.
It is a spurious argument and one few people in the Labor Party really believe.
Many voters don’t believe Labor’s story and are only softly supportive of same-sex marriage.
Rodney Croome, who quit Marriage Equality and now works with just.equal, admits that a significant portion of those Australians who support marriage equality are “soft supporters” whose support is conditional on the issue appearing safe.
There are numerous consequences of redefining marriage that are yet to be debated and understood, particularly in marginal Labor electorates where many ethnic voters are horrified when they learn about the implications of redefining marriage.
As Paul Kelly observantly noted in The Australian in 2011: Labor’s commitment to same-sex marriage “is a fundamental break from Labor’s social origins and values. This is how many Australians will interpret a vote for gay marriage. The party’s repudiation of the cultural and religious foundations of marriage will be an epic event in its history.
“It is noteworthy that only a few people will gain directly; that is, the number of gays who will marry. While this change matters deeply to those affected, rarely in Labor’s history has the party become so focused by a policy alternation that affects such small numbers.”