Gay marriage heading to cross-party bill

Bill Shorten’s gay marriage push has been described as ‘all about Bill’. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Some pro-gay marriage Liberals might be railing against Bill Shorten’s pre-emptive private member’s bill but its effect has been to suddenly raise the prospect of common political ownership of the issue.

Liberals remain divided on marriage equality but united on not wanting Shorten, who has given notice he’ll introduce the bill next week, to have carriage of the push for reform.

Tony Abbott’s opposition to marriage equality won’t change, but one gets the impression he’s realising this tide can’t be held back for much longer.

Abbott might be thinking about how to avoid personally looking too bad in defeat – and also the way to prevent Shorten or the Greens taking all the kudos on a popular issue if a vote is carried before the election.

In parliament on Wednesday, Shorten asked whether Abbott would join with Labor and allow time for a proper debate on marriage equality legislation, as well as giving his MPs a free vote.

Abbott said the Shorten private member’s bill would be dealt with “in the ordinary way” such bills were handled (which is usually very slowly).

If a private member’s bill were to be brought on for a vote, “at that point in time, this matter … would be handled by the Coalition party room”.

“I do not know how this parliament will proceed in the months and years ahead,” Abbott said, adding that “if our parliament were to make a big decision on a matter such as this, it ought to be owned by the parliament and not by any particular party.

“So I would ask the leader of the opposition and all members of parliament to consider this as we ponder these subjects in the weeks and months to come.”

The logic of this is a bill co-signed across the political divide – a pretty interesting position given that Abbott would be voting against such a bill.

The result in the Irish referendum has meant that gay marriage has stormed onto the federal agenda just when the government wants all the attention to be on the most positive aspects of the budget – namely the measures for small business.

Abbott is caught – if he is seen to be trying to smother debate on the marriage issue he risks a backlash on something that polling shows has public support. Anyway, it will grab considerable attention over the next few days.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale has written to both Abbott and Shorten asking them to encourage their colleagues to attend a cross-party meeting open to all MPs on Monday.

In his letter to Abbott (drafted before the PM’s comments), Di Natale writes that “this is an an issue that transcends party politics. The best way forward now is to work together to make sure that the issue receives the considered attention and debate it deserves and that a parliamentary vote can proceed unencumbered by political considerations such as competing and overlapping bills.

“If we can co-operate we can reset the debate, agree on a bill that will allow the parliament to properly debate the issue, and bring on a vote in an orderly process.”

Pro-gay marriage Liberals have attacked Shorten. Backbencher Warren Entsch said his action was “unbelievable” and “all about Bill”. He said the Shorten bill had no hope of getting up. “It’s bullshit.”

Entsch said he and other Liberals who were pro-marriage equality had been planning “to get this to a [parliamentary] vote towards the end of the year”, although he could not predict what the result of such a vote would be.

“I’m getting back to the PM on a process,” Entsch said. He would meet pro-change Liberal colleagues next week and report to Abbott. He expected a free vote for the Liberals.

“I want to do it in a respectful and dignified way – not a partisan way,” Entsch said.

However, Liberal outrage is somewhat disingenuous. Deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek has been trying since last year to get a Liberal to co-sponsor a bill she’s had ready to go. Having been invited to do so, the Liberals can hardly complain when Shorten engages in a bit of political one-upmanship.

But there’s some awkwardness for Labor too. Plibersek was on the spot on Wednesday over her earlier call for the July Labor conference to endorse a binding vote for Labor MPs on gay marriage.

Shorten this week has been emphasising the virtues of Labor’s current position of a free vote.

Given how the issue is unfolding and assuming the vote would be held after the Labor conference, it would be divisive and unhelpful for the ALP to have a conference brawl over whether to bind. Labor would be wise to stick with its free vote, which would require a retreat by Plibersek and some astute management at the party conference.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest, Greens leader Richard Di Natale, here.

Hockey’s expensive night out

Joe Hockey made policy on the run when he appeared on ABC television’s Q&A. AAP/Lukas Coch

Treasurer Joe Hockey has always been wary of going on Q&A. He was right.

Hockey made policy on the run on the program when he agreed that GST shouldn’t be applied to women’s sanitary products and promised to take the issue up with the states.

Hockey had been confronted with a question from university student Subeta Vimalarajah about her petition to remove the tax that had more than 86,000 signatures. Should the GST be removed? “It probably should, yes. The answer is yes,” he said.

Praising the questioner – “good on you for getting the petition together” – Hockey said he needed the agreement of the states to make a change, and “I will raise it with the states at the next meeting of the treasurers in July”.

But Tony Abbott was less than keen on the exemption, telling his Tuesday news conference that the government had no plan for this. It was a matter for the states to decide whether they wanted any changes to the GST and if they did, to come to the Commonwealth, he said.

Hockey is pressing on, saying late on Tuesday he’d asked Treasury for a costing and then would write to the states for them to consider the issue ahead of the July meeting.

Labor, which in the 2001 election proposed rolling back the GST on these products, said it would support an exemption. Bill Shorten suggested it could be a trade off for the government’s planned extension of the GST to Netflix.

Hockey’s agreement that the exemption should be made was odd, to say the least. This was a fiercely debated issue at the start. It’s true that there were inconsistencies in the exemptions, which include for instance condoms. But does the government really want to revisit individual items, when exempting one could open the way for argument over others?

Removing sanitary products would cost some A$30 million annually, according to Chris Richardson of Deloitte Access Economics.

And, as Richardson says, it is taking the debate off in the opposite direction to the one in which it should be going.

“Australia has too little reliance on indirect tax and too much reliance on direct tax,” Richardson says.

A year ago Hockey was, not too subtly, trying to get the states to push for the GST to be increased or broadened.

Now the pressure is on them to exclude something, or wear the political odium for not doing so.

The three Labor states – Victoria, Queensland and South Australia – have quickly said they would support the exemption. The Labor government in the ACT is also on board.

Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas said: “We’ve supported the removal of GST on sanitary products for a long time, so we welcome the federal treasurer’s statements … We look forward to Mr Hockey now putting his proposal to the states and territories, and allowing them the opportunity to back it in.”

South Australian Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis said sanitary products “should be exempt”.

The NSW Liberal government is much more cautious. NSW Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian said the states would have “an opportunity to discuss the GST and tax reform more broadly in July”.

Tasmanian Treasurer Peter Gutwein said he was “happy to have that discussion with my state and federal counter-parts”.

West Australian Treasurer Mike Nahan said that “any change to, or removal of, exemptions from the GST process should be part of broader GST reform.

“Western Australia considers broader reform of the GST distribution process, a process that currently results in Western Australia receiving an unacceptably low share of the national GST pool, to be our main priority.”

The way things are shaping up, with Labor taking a unified position at federal and state level, Hockey has managed to have the Liberal states cornered on the issue – one that resonates with many women – and the federal government as well.

Abbott prefers to stay on the high moral ground in a war mired in murkiness

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who casts the conflict against Islamic State in terms of a crusade against evil, simplifies and sloganises it. AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Abbott was asked on Monday whether, if the United States increased its troop numbers in the fight against Islamic State (IS), Australia would consider boosting its commitment.

Abbott replied that, as always, Australia stood ready to work with its partners and allies – the US, Iraq and other countries – “to do what we can to help”, while pointing out that it was already making “quite a substantial contribution”.

That contribution currently amounts to some 900 personnel – 400 in the air support task force, 300 just-arrived trainers of the Iraqis, and a couple of hundred special forces who’ve been in Iraq in an advising and assisting role (these latter will be reduced this year). This is far more than any other country except the US.

There is no suggestion of upping the commitment at the moment. But there’s little doubt that if the US did ask (couched as the Iraqis inviting) Abbott would always want to say yes. That’s how he is.

One wonders whether, in a decade, we’ll look back at the conflict against IS as being no more successful than the Iraq war and (after the initial attack) the long Afghanistan war.

As it deepens, the complications and difficulties become more obvious – just highlighted by the recent fall of Ramadi.

Abbott, who casts the conflict in terms of a crusade against evil, simplifies and sloganises it.

In the wake of Ramadi’s fall US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said that “what apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force and yet they failed to fight, they withdrew from the site, and that says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”

When it was put to him on Monday that the fall of Ramadi might indicate we were training an army that didn’t want to fight, Abbott said the serious setback in Ramadi emphasised how necessary the task was. “So if anything this should cause us to be more committed, not less committed.”

He also found a silver lining in relation to the defeat. The element of the Iraqi forces “that most stuck to its post and withdrew from Ramadi as a formed unit as opposed to a disorganised group” was one that had been advised by the Australians.

As for the view of David Kilcullen, formerly an adviser to the US, UK and Australian governments, NATO and the International Security Assistance Force, who maintains it’s a mistake not to accept that IS is operating like a state, Abbott said: “I refuse to use that terminology, because I think that dignifies a death cult.”

The Prime Minister went onto a rather bizarre comparison. “If some entity was to start killing people and call itself ‘the true Vatican’ I would not use that terminology, and similarly I am not going to use that term that they seek for themselves.”

Kilcullen argues in his recent Quarterly Essay that “the Islamic State is, or is on the verge of becoming, what it claims to be: a state”.

He acknowledges the desire of leaders to deny IS the legitimacy of statehood by using other language but finds it meets the generally agreed criteria for statehood. These are that a state must control a territory; the territory must be inhabited by a fixed population; the population must owe allegiance to a government; and the government must be capable of entering into relations with other states.

If IS is a “revolutionary, totalitarian, aggressively expansionist” state it is no longer an insurgency nor a transnational terrorist movement in the al-Qaeda sense (while using terror as a tactic), Kilcullen writes.

Defining IS as a state has implications for the strategy to combat it. “This is a straight-up conventional fight against a state-like entity, and the goal should be to utterly annihilate ISIS as a state,” Kilcullen says.

The implication, he writes, is “a larger, more intense, conventional war against ISIS than the one currently being contemplated (though emphatically not an occupation or a counterinsurgency campaign)”.

Beyond the propaganda value of the “death cult” term, maybe it is not so surprising that Abbott does not want to contemplate, at least publicly, the consequences of treating Islamic State as a state, given what Kilcullen advocates.

Kilcullen says the longer the West refuses to recognise we are already in a full-on conventional war with IS, “the worse things will become”. His strategy would involve “a moderately larger number” of ground troops, with Western troops being able to fight offensively.

The recent developments in the conflict inevitably raise fundamental questions: about the best way for the US and its allies to conduct the fight; about whether the Iraqi forces can ever be trained into an effective force; about the implications of the dangerously complex regional and religious situations; and about the uncertain course of future politics in Baghdad.

But the Abbott government will not be open about such questions - difficult anyway when there are Australian troops deployed and debate carries the implication of doubt - and the opposition is sticking to bipartisanship.

Pressed on recent reverses in the conflict against IS, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on Monday: “It’s early days. This is a fight that will go on for some time.”

How long, and how America’s and Australia’s commitments will evolve, are not issues on which either side of politics wants to engage with the public.

Abbott, who ties the conflict with Islamic State firmly to the domestic threat, prefers to stay on the high moral ground in a war now mired in murkiness.