10 June 2015


Tony Abbott will never, ever pass same-sex marriage into law while he is Prime Minister. He will support those who resist it so long as he lives. All the Canberra-insider hints that he might accommodate it are just bullshit, beating up a story that does not exist.

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 (even especially the 'experienced' ones).

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?
There are many in the Coalition who feel as Abbott feels about this issue. There are those in the ALP, and on the crossbenches, who oppose same-sex marriage too, and they will cast their votes as they see fit. Like any politician, Abbott shores up his base when his overall position is weak. Any credit Abbott gets from rock-ribbed conservatives on terrorism and the ensuing loss of civil liberties (inside or beyond the Liberal Party) would be wasted were he to let same-sex marriage pass.

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?


  1. It's probably possible to be a Green and oppose equal marriage, Andrew, but I've not met any either. If there are any, they'd almost certainly keep it very quiet. (I get funny looks because I'm not totally anti-nuclear, and I own guns, so a member who openly opposed equal marriage would be about as popular as a fart in church.)

    1. Don't tell me the Greens are becoming a broad church ...

    2. To some extent, although there's still a bit of groupthink ...

  2. Same sex marriage opposition is just plain old fashioned bigotry for many conservatives

    During the post war migrant period ,Greeks and Italians were subjected to the same crap Tony Abbott is engaging in...his old fashioned father probably was as homophobic as his son thus his sister coming out later in life because of that stifled environment.

    It's a thorn in the side of small l liberals who can't stand these nasty conservatives in the party who are just homophobic dickheads.

    Sad really they're seen by the public as being so backward and ridiculous.

    Christine Forster isn't very popular with the gay lobby and is an Uncle Tom to many glbti activists

    These career gays want a nice big gay wedding at taxpayer's expense with the shallow symbolism attached to it all.

    Tim Wilson is a gay for pay advocate really.

    His Reagan picture in his bedroom speaks volumes about what an interesting gay conservative he really is...bloody weirdest thing I've ever seen for a young liberal. ..hilarious

  3. Thankyou Andrew for your consistent refusal to take Abbott at his word. That is what makes your analysis far more interesting to read than much msm commentary.

    Many commentators avoid tackling the dark chasm between Abbott's words and action (if any) by using words like 'gaffe' and 'back flip' or the all encompassing 'Tony being Tony'. Interesting, that last one, which is not so evident these days. Tony being Tony. I, for one, would like to know who they think Tony is. I think I know but I am uncertain they do.

    What it TBT who threw himself on a raw onion that day? Annabel Crabbe seemed to be amused. But why did he do it? What was happening that day that he had to send the pack baying in the opposite direction. After what? Nuffink.

    How much more rewarding would it be for all of us, including for those having to produce metres of copy, if they held fast to that basic guide for reporters and addressed Who, What, Why and When.

    Perhaps they would be less likely to describe some utterance, which seems to divert from a party line, as a 'gaffe'. Maybe that 'gaffe' indicates that the government is concealing a position which may be unpalatable to some voters. Maybe that 'gaffe' should be seen as a clue that some matter requires further investigation. But hey, he has just eaten another raw onion! Skin and all? Yeah. Skin and all.

    1. Eating the onion distracted the media from legislation that effectively criminalised journalism. This doesn't worry the press gallery because they don't really do investigative journalism. After the legislation passed, Crabb wrote a piece headlined wtte "I just can't get past eating the onion".

      Had the press gallery reported what Abbott said and what he did, rather than developed a fantasy that made them take him at his word, he might never ave become Prime Minister. Even today, they still believe in Tony 2.0.

  4. The more Abbott behaves like Abbott, the more space they give him.

    It's like one big running gag with most of the Press Gallery. They love him because he suits their intellectual and professional idleness. He basically writes their stories for them. Why bother analysing anything when you can just sit back and laugh at the current Abbott misstep.

    Except they aren't missteps, there is a pretty clear and very nasty plan at work to destroy the social compact in Australia and return us to some brutal roots where those with the means get the ability to lord over the rest of us again.

    It's no surprise that Downton Abbey is Abbott's kind of television - and he certainly doesn't identify with those Downstairs.

  5. Journalists seem to be dimly aware that most of them could be replaced by an algorithm which processes press releases. Story here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/technology-changing-newsrooms/6537244

  6. And here I am, currently in Auckland, where this morning I took a picture of a sign in front of a city central church "Welcoming two of every kind" - where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community services are held every Sunday evening.

    Australian, with it's inherently conservative population along with an equally shallow political class, is again behind the curve. But hey, if it's not related to sport, it's not important, right?

  7. Anon...sorry I'm a Melbournian and we're not conservative at all...

    Very gay friendly and have Joy Fm radio station as Australia's premier gay station..

    So there Dear Conservatives...our city is pretty cool

    Come down for a coffee Andrew anytime!!

    1. That's why most of the MPs who've said they'd vote for same-sex marriage if only Tony would let them are Victorian.

  8. Some people think God said marriage is between a man and a woman, but it turns it it was John Howard, just as he wedged the Republic vote with a rigged question.

    Having a single politician decide how the population should vote is not democracy.

  9. So Andrew, is this your attempt to do something for the cause? Predict that the government won't allow marriage equality, thereby *forcing* them to do it just to prove you wrong ;P

  10. Mark Kenny used graphs today, and almost made a conclusion.

    - Joe (apologies for the too-harsh replies recently)

  11. Paul Keating once declared: Change the government. Change the country.

    How right he was.

    Something very peculiar has happened to the Liberal Party which calls itself conservative. Under Abbott it seems that rule-of-law is now dispensable. That is not liberal. It is not conservative. It is very radical.

    I have been taken aback by the latest revelation that the government has been paying protection money to people smugglers. Abbott, as we know refuses to confirm that this is happening but our near neighbour, our most important ally, clearly believes it is.

    Abbott responds to every question about the matter by sounding off about stopping the boats, keeping Our Country safe, whatever it takes, hook or by crook, evil people etc etc.

    Why then is he not outraged by accusations that the government is paying people smugglers? In effect our accusers both here and abroad are saying that Australia is taking part in the people smuggling trade.

    What can we make of that veil of respectability that we treat asylum seekers harshly out of compassion: to deter others from making a perilous journey to Australia in leaky boats.

    It could be that we are paying those same smugglers to take their passengers back to whever they came from in those same dangerous vessels.

    Under Abbott this country has lost its way. It is very distressing.

  12. "The press gallery can't bear to report on Abbott as he is, as they know him to be."

    After all the excitement Fran and Michelle had generated the last couple of weeks over Abbott's revival in the polls and the way he was getting himself in a position to - incredibly! - call and win an early election, I was listening this morning to how they would react to the 47-53 Ipsos.

    The result? One sentence.

    Surely they would have put their pom poms in mothballs by now? Just bizarre.

  13. Victoria has just appointed a Multicultural Commissioner in the lovely Helen Kapalos

    Furthermore there's also a gender and sexuality Commissioner as well that was appointed

    Melbourne is now the most liveable and progressive city in Australia

    Smart, cultured and cool!