Despite countries across the world legalizing same-sex marriage, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is still passionately committed to being on the wrong side of history. In a joint meeting of the Coalition parties, MPs voted to deny a free vote on the issue of same-sex marriage in this parliamentary session, thus appearing to prevent Australia from having marriage equality for same-sex couples until August 2016 at the earliest.
With Abbott’s favourability consistently below 50%, reaching a low of 24% in February, and with around 68% of the Australian public supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage, Mr Abbott is sticking to his homophobic principles at the expense of electoral success. If rapid progress on this issue is to take place the Australian people need to throw the Coalition out of government and send Tony Abbott back to Warringah.
The interesting thing to come out of this setback is that in an attempted olive branch from the most socially conservative Prime Minister in Australia’s recent history, Abbott suggested that if the Coalition was re-elected next year he would hold a referendum on the issue. I see the logic that he’s trying to employ, that he’s making the Coalition seem more open on the issue thus appealing to the majority of the country that support equal marriage, but this logic is flawed.
If you are an Australian supporter for same-sex marriage, why would you vote for the Coalition, whose leader has repeated his personal opposition to it, in order to get a referendum when you could vote for Labor or the Greens and get legislation passed through Parliament? In addition, why would pro-LGBT activists vote for Abbott’s colleagues knowing that they would overwhelmingly support the ‘No’ campaign in a same-sex marriage referendum.
The other fascinating thing to come out of the Coalition meeting was the vote result: 66-33 opposing a free vote on the issue. The reason that this result interested me is that because a promise to legalize same-sex marriage was not in the 2013 Coalition manifesto, those who oppose equality would have voted against the motion citing a lack of a democratic mandate to mask their bigotry. However the inverse, to a certain degree must also be true; the people who support same-sex marriage would have supported a conscience vote. Tony Abbott gave a press conference and said that half a dozen of the 33 votes were from people who aren’t in favour of equal marriage, but as a result that means that the other 27 oppose the Coalition’s current policy.
The electoral maths is what interests me because, if the overwhelming majority of these 27 were MPs and not Senators, a vote on the issue in the House of Representatives would be a close run affair. Only 20 Coalition MPs are needed to pass legislation supporting same-sex marriage, provided that all Labor and Green MPs made up the other 56 votes; the key challenge to Abbott’s government is now whether, if those 20 Coalition MPs exist, is persuading those MPs not to defy government whips instructing them to vote against their conscience. In such a situation Abbott’s government would be forever remembered as on the wrong side of history as the pro-equal marriage parties have a majority in the Senate without the need of Coalition support.
Despite what appeared to be a blow to the Australian LGBT movement, I take a more optimistic view. With Abbot reaffirming the Coalition’s official position in opposition to equal marriage, the overwhelming support for equal marriage among the Australian people has forced Abbott to concede to a referendum in the next Parliament at the very least.
With opinion polling suggesting the Australian Labor Party will either win the majority of seats or be the largest party after the election, Abbott has put himself into a Catch-22. The weight of public opinion has forced the PM to promise a referendum if re-elected which, if opinion polling is to be believed, will see same-sex marriage endorsed overwhelmingly in the not too distant future. We, as LGBT rights supporters, must encourage the Australian people to kick out the Coalition to get equality established as quickly as possible, but if we fail to discourage the current government’s re-election we can take heart in the knowledge that the Australian people are so forcibly on our side.