Gay Marriage Debacle Will Cost Abbott

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.



9 thoughts on “Gay Marriage Debacle Will Cost Abbott

  1. I think our P.M has done the right thing, the right way.
    He gave everyone an opportunity to speak in the Party room (hence the 5 hours) and ‘the room’ decided the direction the Government would take.
    I have many Gay friends ( always have had) and I adore them; however, changing our whole system to accommodate their wishes (being 2% of the population) is opening too may doors for other small minorities to engage the media and Canberra Press Gallery, as the Gays have done, to bully any government into giving them what they want.
    One must remember that Labor had 7 years to do something about this issue, and did not.
    It is not just a Conservative stand to block the change.
    It would be rather simple to pass legislation to uphold a Civil union between two consenting adults over 18 to be upheld and recognised in the Family Court; should there ever be a split.
    That is what this issue is really about – because these people can jump over to NZ and get married if they want to.
    Leave the Marriage Act alone.

  2. Hi Yale,

    as you say the politics have been botched. It just makes it too easy for Labor to paint the Libs as old fogeys, stuck in the 50s, yesterdays men, etc, etc. The media will follow suit.
    Libs could have allowed a free vote and put the focus on this issue back on Labor.

    Glad to hear your health scare was just a scare

  3. The gay marriage issue is quite clearly being used as a cynical political wedge. We know this because in six years of Government, and control of both houses, Labor didn’t introduce gay marriage legislation.
    During Gillard’s reign, Penny Wong gave interviews indicating her support for the traditional view of marriage being between a man and a woman.

    Yet now Labor are no longer in Government, they’ve found a new, if intermittent, fervour for progressive social change.
    So every now and then, when its politically convenient, Labor whips themselves and the leftist media into a gay marriage frenzy.
    And every time it happens, the Government either doesn’t know they’re being wedged, or they do know, but have no idea how to deal with it; and even if they did, they wouldn’t tell you about it anyway.

    Unfortunately the Abbott Government didn’t just stop the carbon tax, the mining tax and the boats, they stopped being a Conservative Government as well.

  4. You’ve misread the politics on this Yale.

    Abbot has read the electorate like he did on climate change in ’09. Think back to then. The MSM and political class were 99% behind tying Australia into a massively expensive ETS, as Europe has done. But Abbott knew that in the real electorate, the LNP base and party room there was deep scepticism. Plus he knew the issue could be used as a powerful political weapon, e.g. ‘Great big tax on everything’. So he made his play to bring down Turnbull and the rest is history.

    I think Abbott sees a similar opportunity on SSM. The scepticism is hiding due a massive campaign from the SSM lobby to label anyone who disagrees with them as a bigot. But the deep scepticism is there and I believe in a plebiscite, with a clear case for NO change expounded, and with compulsory voting it’ll go down. As he did in ’09 he has read the views of the party room and the electorate well.

    It may be that an SSM plebiscite will get up, but by heck were going to make the SSM supporters sweat and fight tooth and nail. I’d much rather SSM comes that way than via a court (e.g. US), or a political stitch-up (e.g. UK).

    I struggle to see how the Plebiscite option will cost the LNP votes in the electorates that count. It will be very popular with the non-anglos, and bogans in marginal seats, and appeals to those small L liberals.

    The MSM will hate him for it, but I think we’ll look back on this week as a master-stroke of political genius.

    • Hi Scott, and welcome; it’s good to receive comments that add to the debate, so thanks for your remarks.

      I both agree with you and disagree with you, but I don’t think I’ve misread this — the key here is the clumsy disarray with which yet another response to yet another issue has played out, and the implications of that in the electorate. A key point lies in the table in the article I linked, whereby only 13 of the 39 frontbenchers explicitly supported the SSM position Abbott has seen adopted. It looks like what it is — a cobbled-together position designed to kick the issue down the road, as I said.

      There are two broad points I’d make to you: one, that had a conscience vote been agreed to when the concept of a cross-party bill was first floated, a lot of the political grief this is generating would have been nipped in the bud; and two, Abbott has in fact tried to pull a rhetorical swifty to push this into the next term of Parliament, leaning on the 2012-vintage formulation that was designed to get past the last election but which is now being used once again to push it past the next.

      For all that, however, I pray you are right, and as I said, I agree with you to a degree — probably more than I disagree.

      For one thing, an indicative plebiscite is the ONLY way an accurate read of community sentiment can be obtained and, short of a conscience vote (which until the Irish put SSM to a referendum was the extent of activists’ wish lists here) the notion of a plebiscite is one I am not unsupportive of.

      I no more think this change is likely to pass by popular vote than I think it would carry a conscience vote in Parliament — the “nasty shock” I remarked that proponents may be in for — but these people are going to keep coming irrespective of any defeat they suffer. The more democratically-based those defeats are, the greater the disregard that will be shown.

      Some time ago (and the article escapes me for the moment) I made the point that the real interests of the gay community in all of this were irretrievably compromised when this campaign ceased to be one of social activism and was instead taken up by the global Left to make it a political one; gay marriage instead became a battering ram with which to attempt to skewer the global Right (although the Tory Party in the UK seems to have survived it, but of course that administration is only now showing signs of being a truly conservative government after its adventures in Coalition).

      And to this end, I share your obvious disgust for the antics of the US Supreme Court, for judicial activism is a modern blight on democratic societies — Courts are there to uphold the laws of the land, not to change the world — but of course the practice of activist left-wing governments stacking benches with people who boast a “strong pedigree in social activism” is a scourge we seem incapable of defeating. The practice of course extends into every reach of executive authority: a quick read of the career bios of the likes of Gillian Trigg and Quentin Bryce, for example, easily illustrates what I mean. But we digress.

      Where this will damage Abbott and his government is that once again, the government has floundered around on a given issue — this time, gay marriage — flicking seamlessly between trying to kill it off altogether, then enforcing a “solution” that isn’t supported by most of the government, and which resolves nothing. In the process, an awful lot of bad blood and disunity has been aerated, and the damage will flow not so much from the “fix” (although even that’s debatable) but the appallingly shoddy, amateurish, hamfisted way by which it has been arrived at.

      In the end, a plebiscite is probably the best option, but even this is a cause to fight over and act like children; some in the government are out selling the wares of an indicative public vote, whilst others are spruiking a referendum to alter relevant sections of the Constitution. At the very least, it should be held concurrently with the looming election. But by making it contingent on a Coalition win, the likelihood is that it will simply be kicked further down the road — and if my lot lose power, the decidedly illiberal outfit that will take their place will not miss its opportunity to ram this change down the country’s throat with legislation.

      I suspect from your comments your general outlook is very similar to mine on this. I’m not a bigot and I have no issue with gay people at all — and in fact, I think a better option is to remove any further discrimination they face where issues of kinship and the like are concerned.

      But that counts for little in the brutish, brutal world of neo-socialist politics, where opponents must be destroyed and agendas imposed irrespective of democratic resistance.

      I actually hope you are right, Scott, as I alluded earlier in my reply, and that voters look past the machinations and focus instead on the fact they’ll get to vote on this themselves.

      I wouldn’t count on it though. Electoral behaviour is a funny thing. the political ramifications of all of this will damage the Liberal Party at an election. And the reasons I think so are not dissimilar to those that led me to write the LNP off in Queensland more than two years before it eventually lost an election.

      Whilst it strays from the SSM issue to a degree, professionalism and conduct in office actually register (and matter) with impressionable electorates these days. The Abbott government has been a very poor example of both. Which is why — as much as I hate the prospect of Labor governments — I think we’re in deep, deep trouble. The SSM debacle has been but one contributor. There have been plenty of others and, alas I fear, plenty more will follow before this term of Parliament expires.

      • Yale, the success of any issue being played out by our government is always undermined by the pro-left media. Anyone who believes what they see and are told on T.V , radio or blogs are fools if they don’t really look at the issues. This is the very reason we end up with a disastrous Labor every now and then – because the media create its wonder and the sheep believe it.Sorry but I do agree with Scott that our P.M had a stroke of political genius with his handling of this SSM rubbish.

        • Big Sis, I admire your loyalty to the Coalition and I wish I could express similar sentiments to your own — but I can’t.

          Individual issues and the odd minor triumph aside, from an overall perspective this government has been a spectacularly inept exhibition of the worst possible kind; its legislative objectives largely thwarted; its parliamentary strategies and tactics either non-existent or thoroughly misdirected; its mass communication abilities close to zero; and its capacity for shooting itself in the foot unrivalled.

          To be frank, this government is only better than the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government in that a) it’s not Labor, and b) it at least doesn’t mean to worsen the disaster Labor left behind. For all you or I (and millions of other conservative voters in Australia) might wish otherwise, this government has been a failure. Time is beginning to run out now with an election due to be called in less than a year. And on the issue of SSM, the botch that has been made of it mightn’t be evident to you in the outcome, but those looking for reasons to abandon the Coalition are all too aware of the mess (and the division and hostility) that has been made in the process.

          In the end, this government has just two undeniable successes to its credit — abolishing the carbon tax and stopping the boats, and whilst these are worthy of celebration and praise, they are not enough to show for two years at the helm. Both would be reversed by a Labor-Greens government. But because this government has no idea how to control a hostile Parliament, there is no chance of stopping it once any change of government occurs.

      • Yale no doubt this government has handled many things badly. My big bugbear is the lack of zeal on the economic reform. I do wish the PM would lead the electorate on the case for root and branch reform of Australia’s taxation system and economy. The blame lies squarely with Abbott and Hockey on this.

        But Abbott is above all a politician and the LNP pays him to win elections first and foremost. I see the SSM issue really helping the LNP in marginal seats. It goes down great with the base, older voters and minorities.

        Abbott feels he has Shorten’s number and I expect him to revel in what will be a brutal and divisive election campaign.

        • Now you’re talking, Scott. I have been agitating in this column for months for either a second term reform agenda to be outlined and/or to adopt a strategy of lining crucial legislation up for two defeats in the Senate to accrue double dissolution triggers (and thus items to pass at a subsequent joint sitting) but no…three word slogans and rattling on about national security is all that’s forthcoming, among a sea of garbled messages and scandals the government inflicts on itself through shocking political ineptitude.

          I have long argued Hockey needs to be replaced, but the fault doesn’t lie exclusively with Hockey and Abbott as you claim.

          Rather, the back office of this government is stacked out with hand-picked (and largely incompetent) individuals who couldn’t organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery.

          You mightn’t get the brutal, divisive campaign you anticipate — at some point enough MPs might realise nothing will change without a change of leader. But such a change is pointless unless the whole back end is junked and replaced as well (as that’s the REAL source of the problem) and this close to an election the Liberals look increasingly uncertain of winning, attracting good people to Canberra to replace the duds who are already there would be an uphill slog indeed. Would you willingly board the Titanic after it hit the iceberg? It’s just that kind of proposition.

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