After two years of intense campaigning by the Greens, half the Labor Party, the gay lobby and progressive media, same-sex marriage was voted down this week in both houses of the national parliament with the virtual certainty of its defeat in the next parliament as well.
Australia is now consigned to a lengthy culture war over same-sex marriage.
For a while the issue will shift to state parliaments, creating the potential for different concepts of marriage in different jurisdictions, with the High Court almost certain to be asked to rule on the constitutional validity of any state-based same-sex laws.
Meanwhile, Greens leader Christine Milne pledged this week that the intensity of the campaign would continue unabated.
“It certainly will be an election issue in 2013,” Milne said. “I think it is going to come sooner rather than later because the community is going to demand it.”
Labor’s Finance Minister and same-sex marriage advocate Penny Wong called for an ongoing campaign “in each state and federally”. Labor MP Stephen Jones, who moved the private member’s bill in the House of Representatives, predicted victory sometime in the next decade. Liberal champion Malcolm Turnbull said the case against gay marriage was “very weak” and “the numbers will be there in due course”.
This sense of “inevitability” is pivotal to the same-sex case.
Yet the defeat in the house – 98-42 – was substantial. The politics are far more difficult and complex than the propaganda slogans imply. For example, Tony Abbott’s denial of a conscience vote on the Coalition side would have made no difference to the result, as Turnbull conceded.
The 42 votes for same-sex marriage were made up of 38 Labor MPs, three independents and one Green. No Coalition MP voted for the bill. Coalition figures estimate only eight to 12 votes would have been added to the same-sex numbers had a free vote been allowed inside the Coalition. Sentiment within the Liberal and National parties is overwhelmingly against same-sex marriage.
If the Opposition Leader wins the next election with a hefty increase in Coalition MPs, such a result cannot help the cause. Even if a free vote is allowed in the next parliament Coalition support will still be relatively small, particularly if Abbott is leader. From this a critical conclusion emerges: the conscience vote pathway in the two major parties will not deliver same-sex marriage in the near future in the national parliament.
The real problem is obvious: same-sex marriage does not have the degree or intensity of support its advocates claim. Indeed, the defects in their case are rarely discussed in a debate that is as superficial as it is unsatisfactory.
Abbott’s immediate tactic is to “let the dust settle”. Ideally, he wants this decisive house vote, along with the far tighter 41-26 Senate vote, to settle the matter for some time. But this issue, unlike the republic, won’t fade away.
Opposition Whip Warren Entsch says he has a civil unions bill in his drawer, ready to go, and wants to discuss this with Abbott. Turnbull says “it is better to get something than nothing” and backs Entsch.
So will many Coalition MPs. But Abbott isn’t keen and, more significantly, the same-sex marriage lobby is unenthusiastic.
It decided, some time ago, on an “all or nothing” approach. The Greens Sarah Hanson-Young dismisses civil unions as a device to “entrench discrimination”. Wong is unpersuaded about the idea. So, while the current parliament might have a majority sentiment for civil unions (and Abbott could not deny a free vote) it is unlikely to materialise.
The next issue for Abbott is whether he can keep the Coalition tied into a “no” position for the next parliament. That is his preference. But if the resistance is too great then Abbott would be pragmatic and follow John Howard’s technique as PM on the republic and allow a conscience vote.
The tougher politics, however, will be played out inside the Labor Party. The critical question is apparent: will Labor at its next national conference deny a conscience vote and impose upon the caucus the requirement to vote the ALP policy of gay marriage?
Critical to this decision is whether Julia Gillard is still leader. The Prime Minister nearly came to grief at last year’s conference when her plea for a conscience vote prevailed only 208-184, with many same-sex marriage advocates saying they would not allow this concession next time.
Labor is divided against itself on the issue. Yet the trend is decisive: the ALP is becoming a same-sex marriage party as it abandons its religious ties and moves towards a new post-Christian identity in the European mode. This is the single most important event in recent years in the gay marriage struggle.
This week less than a third of the Gillard cabinet opposed same-sex marriage. The total caucus votes were 54-33 in favour of change. Both Gillard and Kevin Rudd voted against. However, beyond the Gillard-Rudd leadership era, any future ALP leader is a supporter of same-sex marriage – witness Greg Combet, Bill Shorten and Jason Clare, who all voted for change.
It is not inconceivable in future that the Coalition may have a conscience vote and Labor a tied vote. A tied vote for Labor would be fatal for party unity and internal respect but the ideological passion of the same-sex cause may impose this from within.
At last year’s national conference, when Wong tried to argue to the Left caucus to support the conscience vote, she was rolled by advocates for whom this issue was non-negotiable.
If Labor retains a conscience vote then, even with incremental gains to its pro-gay numbers, it is still hard to see how a same-sex marriage majority will be constituted in the next several years.
This is where the states, however, may be decisive. In the Tasmanian parliament a bill is through the lower house and comes to the upper house within days. Same-sex tourism may offer a dose of therapy for Tasmania’s failing economy.
The South Australian parliament will be examining a bill in the near future.
In the NSW parliament a cross-party group is pushing for action. Unlike Abbott, NSW Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell extends a conscience vote to his side. It is possible Coalition support for same-sex marriage will be firmer at state level than at federal level.
Any state law will be tested in the High Court. “We would encourage a High Court challenge,” says the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace. Constitutional expert George Williams says it is “difficult to predict” how the High Court would react. This suggest the same-sex cause may turn into a “falling domino” state-by-state strategy.
Meanwhile, this week became a dramatic template of the politics of the past two years, defined by poor organisation, intellectual mediocrity and plain stupidity from traditional marriage advocates. In the week they won, that victory was barely noticed (much of the media relegating the story of the votes) because of Abbott’s removal of senator Cory Bernardi as his parliamentary secretary for his comments about bestiality.
This move was a political necessity for Abbott. It came with the dividend for him of being able to promote Arthur Sinodinos and Jamie Briggs. Yet the real story was overlooked: the comprehensive victory of traditional marriage advocates turned into another public relations disaster. They had the numbers but they lost the minds and hearts. Again.
A conspicuous feature of the past two years has been the inability of the traditional advocates – religious leaders, conservatives, Gillard, Abbott and others – to explain their position with persuasion. The gay marriage lobby is entitled to think victory is inevitable.
The key to its campaign is the new ideology of marriage equality. This is its strength and its weakness. While same-sex marriage is seen to be about equal rights, then it will prevail, and its backers restrict their arguments to these narrow confines. The intellectual truth, however, is that this project is about changing the concept of marriage as the core institution of our civilisation. It needs to be addressed at this level.
The proposal is to strip from the law the idea of marriage as a union between “a man and a woman” and substitute “two people”. This means the removal of concepts of motherhood and fatherhood from law, governance and administration in favour of parenthood. Once enshrined in law, the education systems from primary schools upwards will teach your children the ideology of marriage equality, namely equality of homosexual and heterosexual unions, as the foundation for cultural norms, and a philosophy of family that is dictated by constantly evolving social behaviour and fashions.
This is a vast change in Australia’s secular and cultural values. Same-sex advocates say the public is not only ready for this change but demanding it. That seems a dubious proposition. It would hardly surprise if the more people focused on the ramifications of the marriage equality ideology, the more they developed doubts and concerns.
This change will institutionalise a new division: the state’s concept of marriage will stand in conflict with the church’s concept of marriage. During the parliamentary debate same-sex marriage advocates pointed to statutory guarantees that religions from Islam to Christianity would be exempt from any compulsion to marry same-sex couples. That is vital but a touch of realism is also required.
Once the state authorises same-sex marriage then religions will come under intense pressure and another campaign based on the further application of marriage equality will begin. Looking at the passions of the same-sex movement, can this be doubted? At that point the ideology of marriage equality runs into direct conflict with the idea of religious freedom. Something will have to give. The point is this debate has many twists and turns ahead.