It’s been a scrappy first week of the parliamentary winter break, in which the major party leaders were faced with battles they’d rather not have. One MP had a better week than the rest though.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott may have thought he’d rid himself of an uncomfortable debate within government ranks on gay-marriage by pushing the matter off until later this year, but it has come back with a vengeance.
The unlikely marriage equality advocate, north Queensland Liberal MP Warren Entsch, had talked to the PM after the Irish referendum on marriage equality in May. According to Entsch, the two men had “made a decision to do something this year.” Mr Abbott reportedly told Mr Entsch to “talk to like-minded individuals, come back and have a yarn to me and we will say where we go with it”.
It seems Mr Entsch took the PM at his word, particularly the bit about the Liberal party room being able to decide whether to have a free vote if legislation supported by all the parties was introduced into the parliament.
But this week, when news emerged that a cross-party bill to legalise gay marriage was being prepared, the PM hastily back-tracked, saying there were more important things for the parliament to consider, and that the draft law won’t be debated in the parliament and so there is no need for a party room decision whether to have a free vote.
Unfortunately for Mr Abbott, the rainbow-coloured genie is well and truly out of the bottle and now the issue has become a turf war between the hard-right (on which the PM depends to keep his job as Liberal leader) and the moderates such as wannabe Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull.
What planet are they on?
There’s something about gay marriage that causes the arch conservatives in the Liberal Party to flick the switch to hyperbole.
In the past, Senator Cory Bernardi warned it would lead to people marrying their pets, and now a much more senior Liberal Senator, Eric Abetz, is trying to convince the overwhelming majority of Australians who support marriage equality that it will open a “Pandora’s box” that could lead to people marrying in bulk lots.
Bill’s bad week
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has had another very bad week. The latest source of grief for the Labor leader is the impending discussion at the ALP National Conference on turning back boats carrying asylum seekers.
A number of right-wing Labor MPs stepped forward this week to reaffirm their support for the party to keep its turn-back policy. One was Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon who said there was a need to have a “whole range of tools to ensure that the flows [of boats] don’t begin again,” and that “one of those tools currently is boat turn-backs. Personally I believe turn-backs will remain part of Labor policy”.
This sets the scene for an ugly debate on the conference floor, and the likelihood of an interesting outcome given the Labor Right no longer has a majority of conference delegates. Mr Shorten may well end up with a conference motion opposing asylum seeker turn-backs that he and the Labor parliamentary wing will be technically obliged to implement.
We saw what they did there
Even more troubling for Mr Shorten is that the rule introduced by former PM Kevin Rudd, to prevent another uprising like the one that dethroned him, has been left out of the draft ALP constitution that will be debated at the National Conference.
The rule requires 75 per cent of all Labor MPs to sign a petition for a leadership vote when the party is in government, and 60 per cent of the MPs to do so when in opposition. If this rule isn’t formalised in the party constitution, then it can be overturned by a simple majority of those same MPs.
Given their time over
Someone who was smiling this week was Treasurer Joe Hockey, who was awarded a sturdy payout from Fairfax media in his defamation case against the media organisation.
Although the article about the fund-raising activities of the Treasurer’s local Liberal Party branch was considered not to be defamatory, the headline “Treasurer for sale” used on a poster and in tweets was considered to be damaging to his reputation.
Mr Hockey ends this week $200,000 richer, while Fairfax seems to be carrying on like Monty Python’s black knight, and the important question of political donations has slunk quietly away while everyone’s been distracted.