ALREADY REELING from the fiasco over former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and a travel rorts scandal that seems to be damaging the government far more than the opposition, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s maladroit shenanigans over the fraught issue of gay marriage stand to cost him dearly: if not to signal the end of his leadership once and for all, then to perhaps seal a historic defeat for the conservative parties after a single term in office.
Sorry, sorry, sorry…firstly, an apology to all readers for disappearing for the past few days; not only has my heavy schedule impacted my ability to post as often as I would like, but Tuesday night saw me cause the diversion to Sydney of a flight from Brisbane to Melbourne with a medical issue.
That issue — after an uncomfortable night in a Sydney hospital — seems to be resolved, but as ever with these things, it’s a reminder to look after those around you, and to remember things can change in a flash: and I beseech you all to take care of those close to you, and if you were on that flight and I inconvenienced you, then I am very apologetic.
But back to our discussion…thanks to my iPad I was nonetheless able to stay abreast of what has developed over an explosive 48 hours in Australian politics, and where the fraught issue of gay marriage is concerned I think it entirely possible that we may well have entered the final days of the Prime Ministership of Tony Abbott.
Let’s be clear: readers know that from a liberal perspective, my view is that gay people should be free to do as they please (provided — just like the rest of us — they’re not hurting anyone); as a conservative, I am inclined to the preservation of the traditional definition of marriage, and of the competing strands of philosophical thought it is the latter that prevails where my overall opinion is concerned.
Even so, as former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen might have said, there are ways and means of doing things; and just as Abbott, his closest colleagues, and the advisory pool of alleged tacticians and strategists around them have botched so many other things since the Coalition returned to office two years ago, it now seems they have completely botched this.
It is important to remember, at the beginning of my remarks today, that at roughly the same stage of the last term of Parliament — and as opposition leader — Abbott arrived at a carefully nuanced position designed to kick the problem of dealing with the gay marriage issue down the road and out of sight, lest it impede his ability to win the looming 2013 election.
At that time, Abbott claimed that the Coalition party room as it was then constituted had gone to the 2010 election promising to maintain the traditional formulation of marriage spelt out in the Marriage Act — that marriage in Australia consisted of the legal union of one man and one woman — and that the matter would be reviewed “if it again came before Parliament in the next term,” meaning after the 2013 election.
Few would attempt to argue that gay marriage has not, once again, landed before Parliament for its consideration.
Yet now, the Abbott formulation has changed: according to the crafty but slimy position enunciated this week, the Coalition — it is now claimed — went to the 2013 election on a platform of traditional marriage, and that any change to the Marriage Act is now a matter for the next Parliament: the one due to be elected by the Australian public at some point in the next 12 months or so.
In other words, anyone holding Abbott to a literal interpretation of his remarks on this subject is perfectly entitled to conclude that the formulation used in 2012 to avoid the gay marriage issue is, well, being used again to avoid it now on the basis it may be dealt with after another federal election.
And in turn, a public vote — if the Coalition is returned, naturally — will be held; not in conjunction with the election, which would be cheaper as an electoral exercise, and after a possible vote in Parliament on gay marriage which has also received the “kick it down the road” treatment from the Prime Minister and his people.
Some may be surprised to learn that as an opponent of legalising gay marriage I am nonetheless mortified by the tactics that are being used here; in some respects the issue itself — gay marriage — has nothing to do with it, but rather amounting to yet another highly disturbing exposition of Coalition politics at its hamfisted worst: the only variety this government, stewarded by those duds to whom Abbott remains stubbornly and misguidedly loyal, appear capable of executing.
But indefinitely killing off issues any way possible — especially those that have an indisputable but unquantifiable level of rising community support, the disproportionate noise emanating from some quarters notwithstanding — is not the way to govern in a liberal democratic country; yet Abbott and his cabal appear to have determined to do precisely that.
On this occasion, a “Coalition position” has been decreed: surely, even where the confines of party discipline are involved, the Liberal and National party rooms should have devised their own separate positions. But by including the Nationals in a “Coalition position” in the knowledge National Party MPs are overwhelmingly opposed to gay marriage, the eventual vote in Parliament has effectively been rigged to secure a predetermined result.
I don’t actually have a problem with the concept of Cabinet ministers being required to resign if they want to vote against the government and support a gay marriage bill (or, indeed, to vote against an agreed Cabinet position on any other piece of legislation): this is, after all, wholly appropriate, and goes to the heart of the principle of Cabinet solidarity.
The problem is that I don’t think, on what is effectively a conscience matter, there should be an agreed Cabinet position at all: all MPs from all parties, should a bill to legislate for gay marriage come before Parliament, should be entitled to vote according to his or her conscience.
Ironically, were a conscience vote to occur, such a bill would most likely be defeated anyway, but by forcing Coalition MPs to vote against to make that defeat a certainty merely means the issue will return to the agenda the moment the Coalition is ejected from office — and once a Labor/Greens government, far more inclined to allow the measure to pass, is elected.
When that happens, Abbott’s stonewalling and tackily clever footwork will have been for nought and in fact, will probably only have served to push some waverers across the threshold to support the change purely as a reaction to the tawdry way it has been repeatedly kicked down the road to date.
I should also observe that binding Coalition MPs to vote a gay marriage bill down is every bit as objectionable as Labor, as per the wont of wannabe leader Tanya Plibersek, contemplating binding its own MPs to vote in favour, and is every bit as deserving of contempt and ridicule.
Members of Parliament are elected to govern, not dodge issues; if there is one criticism of the Abbott government above all others that I would make from its conservative flank it is that very little has happened on the watch of this government, and that much of what has actually been done has been botched. Spectacularly mishandled. As I said earlier, it is getting to the point the actual issues are secondary to the mechanisms with which they are being dealt. And the latest formulation on gay marriage is an object lesson in precisely the kind of thing I’m talking about.
This article from The Australian rather neatly sums up just how much grief the Coalition has inflicted on itself; only when it is noted that two-thirds of the government frontbench sits outside the “Against” grouping can the full extent of the stitch-up to boot the gay marriage issue at least two years further down the road that has occurred be realised.
In the meantime, the “unified” Coalition position comprises no fewer than seven completely different positions on the issue — and one overriding directive to vote against it for the duration of this term of Parliament. It scarcely smacks of “good government,” let alone any coherent kind of response.
I think that if a “people’s vote” — be it an indicative plebiscite or a referendum — were held, the “yes” lobby would get a nasty shock: Australians are essentially conservative folk who might vote Labor governments to power from time to time, but at heart we’re a naturally cautious lot who are inherently wary of anything more than incremental change — and legalising gay marriage is far from incremental.
But there you have it: a “people’s vote” it will be, until or unless either a re-elected Coalition finds a pretext on which to kick it down the road another three years, or a Labor government just legislates it. As a conservative opposed to gay marriage, I’m horrified by the way this has been handled. And as I have argued previously, as opposed as I am, this issue demands a conscience vote, not some cynically stitched-together fix.
But there are bigger issues at play here, and at some point soon (perhaps over the weekend) I intend to do an umbrella piece on the Coalition’s state of political health, which on any criteria is far from robust; I had in fact started working on it on Tuesday night as I waited to board my flight back to Melbourne — and as I shared at the outset, that particular journey didn’t end where, or when, I expected it to.
Yet with the mutterers muttering over Abbott’s leadership even before this latest bickering and indulgence over gay marriage — even if orthodox wisdom suggests it’s too late in the parliamentary cycle to switch leaders — the events of the past 48 hours are scarcely going to cool things down; in fact, there are credible suggestions doing the rounds of a Julie Bishop-led ticket with Malcolm Turnbull as deputy and Treasurer. Should such a ticket firm into a serious prospect (and provided, of course, Malcolm is genuine about any stated preparedness to limit his ambition to service as deputy Liberal leader) then Tony Abbott might yet find himself under the real threat of losing his job.
Readers will recall that when the Liberal leadership appeared in play back in February, I backed Bishop as the most credible replacement option in any leadership change and the likeliest to lead the party to an election win — and if push comes to shove, I still do, even if she’s a moderate and I’m a conservative.
The simple fact is that there’s only so long the numerical support of the dominant Liberal Right can be counted on to continue to back Abbott in the face of a repetitive cycle of botched initiatives, own goals, thoroughly inept communication and media activities, and abysmal political strategies and tactics.
At some point, one of these snafus is going to represent a trigger point for the hardheads of the Right abandoning Abbott and seeking out an alternative leadership arrangement that, whilst not perhaps comprised of its own people, is at least palatable and can be supported as the price to pay for a return of cohesion and political effectiveness.
At least if Abbott is rolled, some of the incompetents who have “led” government activity behind the scenes will find their careers in politics terminated, which is no more or less than they deserve.
I don’t think gay marriage is an issue that will ever swing the result of a federal election on its own, but the way this has been handled could alienate enough additional ordinary people to do so: after all, nobody would accuse this government of having deft political touch, or silky skills where its relations with the broad community are concerned.
At some point, something is going to signal the beginning of the end for Abbott — either sooner, at the hands of his own colleagues, or later, at the hands of voters at an election next year.
If the disgusting circus over Bronwyn Bishop’s travel entitlements wasn’t enough to do it, this issue just might be. And were it to prove so, the irony — given the staunch and active opposition to gay marriage that has marked much of Abbott’s time as Liberal leader — would be an exquisite one indeed.