If Tony Abbott wants to defer indefinitely the issue of same-sex marriage, he really should come out and say so. As things stand, he seems just to be trifling with colleagues in the Liberal Party.
The vibes suggest he is seeking to thwart moves for both the substantive issue and the question of a free vote for Liberals to come up in the partyroom after parliament resumes next month.
Liberals who are pro-same-sex marriage were encouraged by Abbott, directly or indirectly, to bring forward a multi-party private member’s bill, although he personally remained against same-sex marriage. They have one ready to go. But he’s looking for a way out.
Abbott’s office says: “The partyroom has an established position [which is against same-sex marriage]. The party room hasn’t changed that position. The prime minister’s views haven’t changed.”
Either Abbott’s deep ideological and religious beliefs, or his fears of doing anything that weakens his support in the party’s right wing, are strongly driving him. Probably both.
Abbott might also be paying some attention to the comments of Scott Morrison, who is pushing his way forward among the leadership rivals.
Morrison, an opponent of same-sex marriage, told Sky in late June that the question of a Liberal Party conscience vote was “well down the track, because there are issues well before that about the party’s own policy position”. For there to be an “open vote” – a free vote – “the party’s policy position would have to be changed to one which didn’t have a position on this particular issue”.
Morrison this week seized on Labor’s national conference decision to continue a free vote for its MPs in this parliament and the next, going to a binding vote beyond that.
After Sydney radio presenter Ray Hadley had effectively signed off his Monday interview with Morrison, Morrison said he just wanted to raise the issue of the conscience vote. “Labor basically traded away a conscience vote… This is quite a bizarre idea that they put a time limit on a conscience vote,” Morrison said.
“For them to now be lecturing others about conscience votes I think makes a complete mockery of the whole argument that Bill Shorten is trying to make.”
Morrison’s argument is flawed – the important thing is that Labor has endorsed a free vote for the foreseeable future – but that he is making it is significant.
Seven Network reported on Monday that Abbott had canvassed the possibility of a post-election plebiscite. One source described this as a thought bubble. Previously Abbott has made it clear same-sex marriage should be a matter for parliament.
If Abbott is determined to resist the push within his party, he can try to strong-arm Warren Entsch, who plans to move the private member’s bill, not to do so or he can refuse to advance it once it is introduced, although that could set off a revolt from some backbenchers.
Another course would be to have an MP propose the partyroom reaffirm the present policy on marriage. Given the party’s right-leaning composition and Abbott’s stand, this would probably be carried – especially if the Nationals were invited in – which would blow away the question of a free vote.
Bill Shorten would be sending flowers and chocolate. Abbott would be left with an election quandary.
Shorten pledged at the weekend that if he became prime minister, and same-sex marriage was still not legislated, a bill would be brought forward in his first 100 days.
What would be the Liberals’ election policy?
Abbott could say it would be all up to the partyroom in the next term but that would be unconvincing given what had gone before. If he did promise a plebiscite, it would put same-sex marriage at the centre of the campaign, to Labor’s advantage.
The ALP could use it as an illustration of Abbott being out of touch with modern Australian thinking. And how would he justify running a plebiscite, with all its expense, on an issue he had prevented being considered in the parliament, despite saying that was the appropriate forum?
Abbott will soon have to break cover to indicate how he will deal with same-sex marriage in the short term. Whatever he does will upset one side or the other in the Liberal Party. If he follows his current instinct to keep the issue in hibernation, his problem will just grow come election time.
Postscript: In the Victorian marginal seat of La Trobe, Liberal MP Jason Wood has been running a survey of electors on same-sex marriage. Now after seven days of counting, 3,294 responses have been received. As of Tuesday, 57.1% supported changing the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriage; 42.9% did not.