Same-sex marriage is the issue that won’t go away for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with the Opposition and crossbench separately declaring they will put forward legislation to legalise it as a matter of priority.
Following the official opening of the 45th Parliament on Tuesday, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten lodged of notice of motion to present a bill to amend the Marriage Act.
He then tweeted that he and his deputy Tanya Plibersek had “given notice that we intend to introduce a private member’s bill to make marriage equality a reality”.
Three Lower House crossbenchers, Cathy McGowan, Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt (who were intending to flag their plans on the second day of the new Parliament), immediately announced their intention to introduce a joint bill to legalise same-sex marriage.
Amid the jostling for pole position, it became clear the issue is shaping up as a test of Mr Turnbull’s leadership.
Parliamentary rule road block
Under the current House of Representatives rules, a private member’s bill could be tabled but never debated if the government uses its slim majority to deny it.
But the Opposition Leader is challenging those rules by urging for another motion to change standing orders so a wider consensus can be reached over what legislation should be debated.
All crossbenchers have joined with the Opposition on that push.
With significant numbers within government ranks in favour of marriage equality, the Prime Minister needs to keep a unified team focussed on a plebiscite rather than a parliamentary vote.
Should any of the Coalition ranks vote to allow either Mr Shorten’s legislation or the crossbenchers’ bill, the PM will have a problem on his hands.
Even an abstention from a Coalition MP will give the air of disunity.
Race hate revolt
Mr Turnbull was served up another test to his authority on the first day of the new Parliament, when all but one of his Coalition backbench senators supported a move by maverick conservative Cory Bernardi to water down the nation’s race hate laws.
Senator Bernardi will move a private member’s bill on Thursday to remove the words “insult” and “offend” from the Racial Discrimination Act.
Seven crossbench senators – Derryn Hinch, Bob Day, David Leyonhjelm and the One Nation senators – also added their signatures.
But Senator Bernardi said his motion was not about Mr Turnbull’s leadership.
“Clearly governments, and all of us as parliamentarians, are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time,” he said.
“The government is entitled to set its own priorities but as am I, for my own constituency, and that’s the Australian conservatives who want to see reform in this space.”
On a day when the Prime Minister woke to find his polling having slipped further since the election – now placing the Coalition and Labor deadlocked at 50-50 – Mr Turnbull was left in little doubt about what the 45th Parliament holds for him.
He started the day with a dignified speech in the Welcome to Country ceremony, during which he even greeted onlookers in the dialect of the local Ngunnawal people, before placing Indigenous issues as a high priority on his agenda for this term of government.
“Our Parliament is charged with the responsibility of working with our First Australians as partners and supporters, closing the gap, ensuring that those who were first, will no longer be last…” he said.
“Our role, our duty, is to acknowledge these traditions and the strength of this history and amplify it within the collective voice of our democracy.
“It is our responsibility to ensure the practices of this place work to forge a common way, a shared way, with those of our nation’s First Peoples.”
Chris Johnson is a Walkley Award-winning journalist who has spent the past decade working in the Canberra Press Gallery, most recently as the bureau chief for Fairfax Media. He is now a Political Correspondent for The New Daily.