Originally published The Australian, 7 August 2017
The real villain in the same sex marriage imbroglio is Bill Shorten. He is the one who’s playing politics with this issue and stopping it from being resolved in this term of parliament via the plebiscite that people want. It’s Shorten who told church leaders before the 2013 election that a plebiscite would be a good way to resolve this issue and it’s Shorten who last week backed a plebiscite to resolve the republican issue but it’s Shorten whose cynical hypocrisy has been ignored because Coalition MPs insist on having public second thoughts about our own policy.
If there is one lesson that MPs and political parties should surely have learned over the past few years it’s don’t break promises. “Say what you mean and do what you say” has to be the cardinal rule and is the only way to keep faith with the electorate. Before last year’s election, the Liberal National Coalition was absolutely crystal clear: there would be no change to marriage laws without asking the people their view at a plebiscite. This issue, the Coalition said, was too important to be decided just by MPs; all of us would have our say. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull never liked the plebiscite policy but fully grasps the importance of keeping commitments and, to his credit, is now resolute that nothing can change without a plebiscite first.
That’s why the determination of a handful of Liberal MPs to substitute a free vote in the parliament for the promised plebiscite is so fraught. Instead of pointing out to the gay community that it’s Shorten who’s blocking the possibility of change, they want the government to break its solemn pledge to ask the people before changing the law. It’s bad enough that the opposition-controlled senate has stopped the plebiscite from happening. But it would be even worse if government backbenchers used the senate’s intransigence as an excuse to drop the plebiscite altogether. It would dramatically deepen the trust deficit that plagues our public life.
Of course, some Liberals sincerely support same sex marriage and want it to be available as soon as possible. That’s a respectable minority view inside the Coalition party room. To accommodate it, after a marathon debate in August 2015, the joint party room decided that MPs would no longer be bound to oppose same sex marriage – but were certainly bound not to make change without putting it to the people first, preferably through a compulsory attendance ballot that would authoritatively settle the matter.
The careers of both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister demonstrate that Coalition MPs do not and should not face punishment for crossing the floor when they honestly and deeply disagree with the party position. On this matter, though, the cohesion of the government and keeping faith with the electorate should weigh just as heavily as deeply-held personal belief. I respectfully suggest that the commitment that all Liberal MPs made to their electorates should tip the balance in favour of a position that they might not personally support but took to the election as part of a team.
At least for this term of parliament, Coalition MPs must remain committed to the position that they collectively and individually took to the election last year. I don’t underestimate how torn some of my colleagues are but ask them to consider how unconvincing it sounds to say that you supported a plebiscite before an election but not afterwards because of circumstances beyond your control. Even worse is the proposition that it would be ok to support a suspension of standing orders moved by a dissident Liberal because that, somehow, wouldn’t constitute losing control of the parliament.
Like it or not, Coalition MPs are honour-bound to oppose same sex marriage in the absence of a plebiscite that’s supported it; and we’re equally bound to oppose any move to bring the matter into the parliament without a plebiscite first. That’s what this week’s party meetings should confirm.
What we might do about same sex marriage beyond this term of parliament is the outstanding question. But it would be odd, when you think about it, to go to one election saying that this is too personal and too deeply felt to be left to the politicians – and to go to the next election saying it should henceforth be a matter for the parliament only. That would make our current position look mere expedience rather than a principled way to treat a concept of marriage that’s stood from time immemorial and long pre-dates the legislation that gives it expression.
The last thing Australia needs is government by opinion poll. But neither do we need political parties that believe one thing one minute and the opposite the next. No one would be shocked should a government hold a plebiscite on compulsory military service. That, after all, is what we did during the Great War. And I don’t recall same sex marriage advocates objecting to a plebiscite in Ireland in 2015 that went their way.
The Australian people should be heard and respected on this. If nothing else, a plebiscite would force the advocates of change to lobby the public-as-whole rather than focus on just 226 MPs. If that means any change is further delayed, people know who to blame. It’s Shorten and the Labor-Green left for obstructing a fair decision.