Commonwealth Parliament returns this week, for the final sitting fortnight of the year.
During the previous sitting week, on Monday 7 November, the Senate finally killed off, once and for all, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality.
The welcome actions of Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team Senators, and even Derryn Hinch, have spared the country from what would have been an entirely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and inevitably divisive public vote on the human rights of a minority group.
In doing so, they have also ensured that the public, and political, pressure to finally pass marriage equality sits squarely where it should have been all along – on Liberal and National MPs and Senators.
After all, they are the ones sitting on the Government benches, meaning they shoulder the responsibility to introduce legislation to treat all couples equally, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
From now until the next federal election, likely to be held in the 1st half of 2019, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should put pressure on Coalition parliamentarians to fix this mess.
More specifically, we will need to target one of the three main groupings within the Government, the cohort who are more likely to be receptive to our messages – Moderate Liberals.
It is difficult to see the other two ‘factions’ changing their respective tunes. National Party MPs, who are supposed to represent all people in rural and regional areas, have instead shown themselves completely uninterested in the relationships of the many LGBTI couples that live in their electorates.
In fact, the old ‘Country Party’ rump of the Coalition have been so determined to delay and potentially defeat marriage equality that they included the plebiscite as a core component of its formal agreement with Malcolm Turnbull when he became Prime Minister in September 2015.
Apparently, it is far more important to spend at least $170 million, and probably more than $200 million, on a non-binding opinion poll, than on meeting the health, education and infrastructure needs of non-metropolitan Australians.
The other major grouping within the Coalition – Conservative Liberals – are even less interested in recognising the human rights of LGBTI people. They would prefer just to see marriage equality blocked, and only agreed to holding a plebiscite under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott because they saw it, correctly, as a stalling tactic.
With the plebiscite now dead, the terrible Tory trio of Abetz, Bernardi and Christensen, and their factional colleagues, are comfortable in seeing this issue left off the political agenda – from their perspective, hopefully permanently.
All of which is to say that the only hope of passing marriage equality in the remainder of this term rests with what is, in 2016, perhaps the smallest and least powerful of the Coalition groups – Moderate Liberals[i].
These MPs and Senators are the only ones within Malcolm Turnbull’s Government who could foreseeably take any action on marriage equality, at least in the short-term.
That’s because, if they are genuinely moderate in their beliefs, they are likely to understand the following three things:
- There is no justification for discrimination against people solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status under secular law – and that includes in the Marriage Act 1961.
- The plebiscite was the wrong process to achieve marriage equality. Not only was it unacceptable to the vast majority of LGBTI people, it also contravened the traditions of Australian democracy[ii], which has only ever witnessed three national plebiscites, and none on substantive policy for almost a century, and
- Most importantly, LGBTI Australians have already waited long enough (far too long actually) for their relationships to be treated equally under the law, meaning a parliamentary vote should not be delayed until 2019.
But, while they may understand these points, the real question is: What will Moderate Liberal MPs and Senators now do about it?
Will they stand up for their principles and push for a parliamentary vote, or will they continue their modus operandi from the past ten to 15 years and adopt the path of least resistance against their National Party and Conservative Liberal counterparts, by maintaining their official support for the discredited plebiscite?
Unfortunately, the signs to date are not encouraging. North Queensland LNP MP, Warren Entsch, who has pushed for marriage equality inside the Coalition for several years, has indicated that he is choosing right now, when we arguably need him most, to ‘give up the fight’[iii] on this issue for the remainder of this term.
He has, in effect, walked away from the LGBTI community rather than walking five metres across the chamber floor to vote for reform.
Disappointingly, few if any of Entsch’s colleagues have so far suggested they are interested in picking up where he left off.
What would we ask them to do if they were ‘ready and willing’? There are two ways in which Moderate Liberals could progress marriage equality this term.
The first, and most challenging, path would be for them to push for a conscience vote inside the Liberal Party room (and in the absence of National MPs and Senators who, as Christopher Pyne accurately pointed out, were included by Tony Abbott in August 2015 as a means of ‘branch-stacking’ against equality).
Their arguments would be strong – the Government has tried and failed to implement its election policy (to hold the plebiscite), so it needs to find another way to recognise the legal equality of LGBTI relationships. A free vote also has the benefit of being far more consistent with the past practices of Australia’s main right-of-centre party than a public vote.
But they would also face strong resistance, led by PM-(again)-in-waiting Tony Abbott, among others, meaning it is unclear what the outcome would be.
If they failed, the second way in which Moderate Liberals could help pass marriage equality would be by ‘simply’ crossing the floor.
It would only take one or two principled Senators to secure passage in the Upper House, and probably only a small handful of MPs, perhaps half-a-dozen, to do so in the House of Representatives.
In the absence of a Prime Minister, Ministers or Assistant Ministers who were prepared to give up their positions of power for the sake of the human rights of their fellow citizens, they would all need to come from the backbench. And, by taking such a step, these backbenchers would know they were potentially jeopardising any future advancement within the Party.
It is unclear whether there are enough Coalition MPs and Senators to make that crucial difference. But, it is incredibly important that Moderate Liberals find these numbers, one way or another.
Not just for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and our family members and friends, who have already endured 12 years – and counting – of John Howard’s homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ban on our weddings.
It is also important for the future of Moderate Liberals themselves.
Make no mistake, this is a fundamental test for the section of the Liberal Party who identify as moderate, even ‘progressive’, on social issues.
Their ‘slice’ of the Coalition has been diminishing for decades, and their influence has waned noticeably from even the time when I was growing up.
On many issues, from the (mis)treatment of people seeking asylum, to the prioritisation of ‘national security’ over civil liberties, and even their growing obsession with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, they are now almost indistinguishable from their National Party, and Conservative Liberal, colleagues.
So, if they cannot stand up to the rabid right-wing on this, a straight-forward question of inclusion versus discrimination – a clear-cut choice between granting human rights or actively denying them – it is difficult to see them standing up on anything.
If Moderate Liberals fail to ‘deliver the goods’ on marriage equality by the time the next election rolls around, it will be tempting for most Australians to reach the conclusion that they are ‘good-for-nothing’.
And, in my view at least, the public would be right – if Moderate Liberals cannot make progress on this issue before 2019, then they will have demonstrated that they have no place in contemporary Australian politics. It probably won’t be that much longer before they discover they have no place in Commonwealth Parliament either.
All of which means that, if they want LGBTI Australians to be able to walk down the aisle – and if they want to retain their seats on the ‘right’ side of the political aisle – it’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace.
[i] Irrespective of their actual factual alignment, for the purposes of this article this grouping includes the four out gay men in the Government: Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson, Trevor Evans and Senator Dean Smith.
[ii] The argument made by WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith in declaring that he could not, in good conscience, support the plebiscite enabling legislation.
[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 2016, The same-sex plebiscite is dead. So what happens now?