The social conservatives have won. Despite overwhelming evidence that most Australians would accept same-sex marriage, the Liberal Party insists its own brand of populism – a plebiscite to determine whether to amend the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriages – is the way forward.
No matter that the Senate has already rejected a plebiscite, arguing it is unnecessarily costly and divisive. The plebiscite, which the Abbott government developed as a way to prevent a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, has become a strategy to protect Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the coalition with the Nationals.
The politics of the plebiscite
But the greatest problem with a plebiscite is that it is not, in itself, binding.
If the plebiscite fails to pass the Senate, the government will adopt a voluntary postal vote. This would put even less pressure on MPs than a plebiscite, and would be no more reliable than the numerous public opinion polls that show support for change.
The claim the government is bound by a mandate ignores the reality that voters also chose the full Senate – a majority of whom opposed a plebiscite.
As former Liberal leader John Hewson wrote recently:
It’s not as if voters were given a second line box to tick in relation to a plebiscite.
But Hewson also criticised those Liberal MPs who pressed, unsuccessfully, to abandon the current policy. He wrote, in uncommonly passionate language:
What the hell is their end game?
The group he is attacking are, with the exception of Warren Entsch, all openly gay men who have come under extraordinary pressure to push for marriage equality. They are largely supporters of Turnbull, whom they might have expected to do more to help them save face.
The former Malcolm Turnbull not only supported marriage equality, but also opposed populist charades.
Turnbull must think with some envy of Angela Merkel, herself an opponent of same-sex marriage, who allowed a free vote in the German parliament only a few months ago. Merkel recognised that social attitudes have changed rapidly, and a smart conservative does not seek to hold back the tide.
He might also reflect on David Cameron, the former Tory UK prime minister who said he supported marriage because he was a conservative.
Marriage equality movement missed an opportunity
Perhaps John Howard deserves credit for creating the Australian same-sex marriage movement. He introduced changes to the Marriage Act in 2004 to specify that marriage means the “union of a man and a woman” and to forbid recognition of same-sex marriages entered into overseas.
Banning what was recognised practice galvanised some in the gay community to start agitating for change.
Over the years the marriage equality movement has proven one of the most successful pressure groups in recent Australian history. It has carried with it the Greens, the Labor Party and – if polls are correct – a growing majority of Australians.
The degree of support that has been mobilised is extraordinary. Labor supported Howard’s legislation in 2004; today Bill Shorten pledges to change it within 100 days of taking office.
“Equal love” is a potent slogan, although there is a deeply conservative undertone to the idea that love always requires marriage. In most instances, federal and state laws recognise same-sex de-facto relationships.
But marriage has become a shorthand symbol for acceptance of gender and sexual diversity, powerful because it can appeal to both radical and conservative instincts.
“Marriage equality” now symbolises total acceptance of gay rights to the exclusion of all else. Thus Peter Hartcher wrote::
Gay and lesbian Americans enjoy greater equality under Donald Trump than gay and lesbian Australians do under Malcolm Turnbull.
But given the absence of federal anti-discrimination protection in the US, this is nonsense.
In retrospect, the equality movement should have supported the plebiscite on condition that its results were binding. The fears of homophobic violence that could result from a vote were real, but so too is the demoralisation caused by successful delaying tactics. The government again putting the plebiscite to the Senate gives the lobby a chance to reconsider under what conditions a public vote could be acceptable.
The Liberal partyroom’s decision asks us all to vote on an issue, but fails to bind MPs to vote accordingly. It is a decision that undermines the authority of parliament, and simultaneously shows contempt for the people whose views are sought.
Sir Robert Menzies would have been horrified by the idea of same-sex marriage – but even more, I suspect, by this perversion of Westminster democracy.
Authors: Dennis Altman, Professorial Fellow in Human Security, La Trobe University