When John Howard became Prime Minister, Australia's political momentum toward a republic was growing. Howard shored up his monarchist base and invoked his authority as leader by pretty much declaring that Liberals who supported this cause were not Liberals at all. Liberals lose office when they're seen to be on the wrong side of history, and nothing is truer to the Liberal tradition than wanting to win elections: Howard divided republicans and saw off any threat a united anti-monarchy movement might have made to the political structure which he had come to master.
Same-sex marriage advocates have done everything you would hope in a democracy to promote their cause. They have written letters to and met with local MPs. They have raised money and organised peacefully. Any demonstrations have been polite affairs: nobody has been arrested, no conflagrational symbolism as with draft cards and brassieres in a bygone era. No same-sex marriage opponent has suffered personally for their views as Stephanie McCarthy has suffered for being who she is. Proponents may even believe that Abbott is giving them some sort of tacit support, and some Liberal MPs may be under a similar misapprehension.
They have been clever in framing the issue as being about equal rights. But Abbott can frame as well as anyone, and the press gallery are helpless as kittens before his framing (
It is not reasonable to expect that a Prime Minister will sit back and allow legislation to which they're fundamentally opposed to just slip past into law. It has never happened. Again, when Howard was PM the press gallery mused how ironic it would be that lifelong monarchist Howard would usher in a republic: there was no republic, and hence no irony. Now the same people muse how ironic it might be for Christianist homophobe Abbott to usher in same-sex marriage:
- Have they learned nothing?
- Are they stupid?
- Why listen to them?
Just four months ago, Abbott faced down a leadership challenge. Nobody believes that he might sit back and allow a piece of legislation to pass to which he was fundamentally opposed, and that such passage would not reflect negatively on his leadership. This is where we get to Abbott's framing, and why that framing counters the equal-rights framing by same-sex marriage proponents.
Abbott was being too smart by half when he insisted that the only same-sex marriage bill that would pass was one he would move himself, and that any other bill (initiated by Shorten or Leyonhjelm or anyone else) was just 'posturing'. He will never move such a bill himself. The idea that he might is itself just posturing. So too are the timid announcements from Coalition MPs who say they'll vote for same-sex marriage if there's a free vote: there won't be a free vote, so the promise is hollow.
Let's use a sporting analogy to illustrate Abbott's yeah-nah position. Let's assume that former Carlton coach Mick Malthouse could and would have insisted that his team would only take the field if they played with a ball that he owned. Let's also assume there was no penalty for forfeiting games. Malthouse would refuse to let any of his balls onto the field, Carlton players would declare themselves undefeated, other teams would play to their supporters by expressing a willingness to play (one or two Carlton players might do the same). Assuming AFL journalists are as bad as the press gallery, they'd hail him as a wily genius. Nothing would change - and to leave the analogy, that's what Abbott wants, to change nothing. Happy to have the charade of change, happy to frame any and all change as a charade really - but nothing will change so long as Abbott has his way.
Same-sex marriage is not a 'distraction'. Given that Australia is exposed to the ebbs and swells (and reefs) of the global economy, given that the government can't do much about interest rates or property prices or even tax, pretty much everything the federal government does is symbolic. They don't accept that their opponents can do symbolic politics that resonates with people. This is a government that lives or dies by culture war. They love a bit of symbolism. They just don't like having its most potent weapons turned against them.
Many Liberals are as opposed to same-sex marriage as Abbott is; many, if not most, are not. Surely these are the people who will join with most of the ALP, a few crossbenchers and all* the Greens and pass same-sex marriage into law? No.
Those Liberals can take or leave same-sex marriage. Let's face it, nobody who was truly concerned about same-sex marriage voted for the Coalition in 2013. There are no votes to be lost for not voting for same-sex marriage, or engaging in parliamentary shenanigans so that the vote doesn't come up.
Liberals are primarily concerned about looking like a leaderless rabble. They are in government because they framed Labor for acting like that (and the press gallery love a bit of framing). Any same-sex marriage talk makes Abbott look weak. By toeing the party line on same-sex marriage they are protecting their leader, and nobody expects any more or less of any Liberal. If anyone breaks the party line, or if there is no line to toe (i.e. a conscience vote), you put Liberal MPs in a position where their personal moral positions are exposed and have to be justified.
While previous generations of Liberals were more than happy to do develop and justify their own positions on broad social issues, today's line-toeing Liberals regard personal beliefs as an indulgence. Individual-freedom-to-the-max Liberals like Amanda Vanstone get nowhere in today's Liberal Party - just ask John "Third Preference" Roskam. On the rare occasions when the government allows voices from the backbench into the media, it puts up careerist sucks like George Christensen or Andrew Nikolic rather than randoms like Andrew Laming or Dennis Jensen.
Broad philosophical positioning used to be core business for a political party, now it is outsourced to consultants. If you want to know what it means to be a Liberal in 2015, don't ask Tony Abbott or Julie Bishop or Mike Baird: ask Mark Textor.
Don't believe Peter Reith either. Reith opposed four binding referenda in 1988 because they would limit the scope of professional politicians like himself. He spent more than twenty years in politics doing nothing to advance the cause of direct democracy; the nearest he came was to use high office to pollute democracy by lying about asylum seekers.
If the marriage reform is not dealt with this year, political backroom advisers will encourage politicians to focus on bread-and-butter issues, which do not include same-sex marriage.Rubbish. In his budget reply speech Bill Shorten talked a lot about science and technology, which also lies outside what Reith would consider "bread-and-butter issues". The reason why he did that was to frame Abbott as unprepared for the future, of not being open to or equipped for its challenges. Same-sex marriage fits that narrative perfectly.
Consider the past three Labor victories over Coalition governments (2007, 1983, 1972) - in no case did Labor win on "bread-and-butter issues". In every case Labor won on the perception that it was more flexible and credible than the obstinate incumbents in dealing with an uncertain future.
For supporters of reform, waiting for politicians to give the public the right to have a say is a mistake.It's begging the question to claim a popular vote is the only way the Marriage Act can be changed.
To ensure reform the best approach is to demand a plebiscite.A plebiscite is a non-binding vote. Proponents of same-sex marriage want real legislative change, which won't be achieved with a plebiscite. Strangely, those who want a plebiscite on same-sex marriage are dead against the same measure for a republic.
If the reform or its timing is left in the hands of politicians, there is no guarantee.Yes there is: you replace the politicians. It's called democracy. Then again, Eleanor Robertson has a good point about learned helplessness, and if not this what? Here we start getting all Letter-from-Birmingham-Jail about the very question of effecting political change.
... both sides are struggling with the issue.Rubbish. Labor's leader and deputy leader made their position clear. Senior Labor figures who might have opposed same-sex marriage, like Tony Burke, declare themselves supporters while none are going the other way.
During the republic debate in the late '90s, people like Reith insisted that Labor was riven over that issue; I am yet to meet a monarchist Labor voter, and I suspect Reith is happy for such a bunyip to stay out of his sight too.
There is no government bill. Tony Abbott has not said if there will be a party room discussion on the issue. The Coalition party room has not yet decided to allow a conscience vote. They may stick to their current position.This is Scott Morrison's position: the Liberal Party will not be rushed, and if it does not get around to same-sex marriage then it will not happen, and you'll just have to accept that.
Understandably, the Prime Minister wants to keep Bill Shorten at bay and Shorten is desperate to get the kudos of allegedly having championed the issue.One of those guys is desperate: the one trailing in the polls, the one with more to lose, would be the more desperate.
That would work for Abbott in the same way as when John Howard opposed the 1999 referendum. Howard ensured a fair process which empowered the Australian people to decide whether Australia should become a republic. Howard was widely respected for allowing the vote.Howard started from a position of opposing a republic and framed it so that it couldn't win. Reith and Abbott saw that up close. Abbott is playing a similar game with same-sex marriage and Reith is happy to play along.
Reith is dishonest here, as he was in the Irish example, for conflating binding referenda with non-binding plebiscites.
Australia runs a pretty good democracy. We enjoy telling our politicians what we think of them but we have a lot of quality people in the political elite in Canberra, including the media as well as the MPs.Reith's idea of democracy is to minimise real public input, to frame it as something flaky, while the politicians make the real decisions. His idea that there might be "quality people" in the press gallery is almost entirely wrong, until you realise he spent most of his parliamentary career in the press gallery leaking against every Liberal leader who wasn't John Howard.
Tony Abbott's breach of faith with the electorate is every bit as great and irrevocable as that of Julia Gillard in the middle of her term as Prime Minister. Reith is right when he says "Abbott could not switch from his long-standing and principled opposition", because that would be like Kevin Rudd abandoning climate change.
Christine Forster is a bonnet ornament on the same-sex marriage cause, not a driver and not part of the engine. Abbott has been happy to use his wife and daughters and props to create the impression of being more awake to women's issues than he is. Opponents can't simply brush his sister off, but nor is she much use in making the case.
Mind you, this is the site that predicted Abbott would never become Prime Minister at all, and Reith has forgotten more about politics than I've learned; there's your grain of salt. Doesn't mean that Abbott will pass same-sex marriage though. The press gallery can't bear to report on Abbott as he is, as they know him to be. They cling to their fantasy that he might change, that Tony 2.0 is real and just around the corner, and this fantasy prevents us realising properly how we are governed.
* I can't think of a single Green politician who's opposed to same-sex marriage, not even from the perspective that marriage is a patriarchal construct. Is it even possible to be a member of the Greens while opposing same-sex marriage?