Some pro-same-sex 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.