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Gay marriage an insoluble political morass for the government

Australians Rally For Free Vote On Marriage Equality Sydney
Liberals voted to continue with policy of holding a plebiscite, rather than allow a free vote in Parliament on same-sex marriage. Photo: Getty
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The Turnbull government is incapable of dealing with the issue of marriage equality. A protracted Liberal Party meeting on Monday decided to keep bashing its head against the wall of the Senate in the delusional belief it will force the majority there to ignore public opinion.

All the while the opponents to same-sex marriage have succeeded in making Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull look even weaker and beholden to a policy he does not really believe in. Beholden in the name of keeping his government together and his hold on the top job.

The way Mr Turnbull, then the communications minister, saw it two years ago holds true. On the very day then-prime minister Tony Abbott ambushed his party room with the plebiscite Mr Turnbull spoke in favour of a free vote and against a plebiscite.

He said “one of the attractions of a free vote is that it would have meant that the matter would be resolved in the Parliament one way or another in a couple of weeks”. Whereas the plebiscite, he said, would keep the issue alive all the way up to the election and beyond.

The Senate majority has not moved. Labor, the Greens, The Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch hold to their view that the Parliament should do its constitutional job as the High Court confirmed.

The Liberal senator behind the push for a free vote, Dean Smith, says a plebiscite is a “D-grade response to a defining A-grade social issue”.

Australia’s current marriage definition discriminates against some Australians on the basis of their sexual orientation. Mr Turnbull is on the record seeing it this way. Conservatives in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada do too, along with a majority of Australians according to the polls.

Veteran Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch is fed up. After 15 years of debate and delay, he says “I don’t give a bugger about process, all I want is an outcome”.

He didn’t get it and there is every indication he and several other backbenchers in both houses will now push ahead with Senator Smith’s private member’s bill.

Dean Smith
WA Liberal senator Dean Smith wants a private member’s bill on same-sex marriage. Photo: AAP

The government is now considering a non-compulsory postal plebiscite to avoid the need for a parliamentary vote. That will certainly face a High Court challenge.

One senior cabinet minister warned against going down that time-consuming and doubtful route. He said it would “make the government look like it couldn’t organise a chook raffle”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says the government is turning itself inside out over “whether or not they should send a letter to 16 million Australians asking if they care if someone else gets married”.

The spectacle of government disarray is sure to remain while the issue is unresolved. Labor will promise to legislate marriage equality within its first 100 days if the Liberal private member’s bill fails.

It’s all just fine with Mr Abbott. On Radio 2GB he piously argued against breaking faith with the voters by abandoning the plebiscite, while in the same interview urged Mr Turnbull to do just that by ditching the Renewable Energy Target which was also an election policy. One that he himself designed.

Mr Abbott says Mr Turnbull should keep bowling up the plebiscite to the Senate and continue it as policy at the next election. He likens it to the 40 times John Howard put unfair dismissal to the Parliament before it passed.

He omits to mention that was in the Howard government’s fourth term with it having a majority in its own right in the Senate.

Oh, and by the way, a free vote is supposed to be Liberal Holy Writ.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

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