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THE conservatives in the Liberal Party are pushing hard to ensure that their colleagues have no room to move on legislation to allow marriage equality. If they succeed this time, the best they can hope for is to delay the inevitable.Tasmania provides a great case study of this type of political battle. In 1997 it was the last state to remove criminal sanctions for homosexuality. That was less than 20 years ago and even then the legislation only went through the Upper House by one vote. In 1988, one third of Tasmanians supported the reform with the support rising to 60 per cent when the legislation finally passed.
In this context it’s unsurprising that the very conservative Tasmanian, Senator Eric Abetz, has been leading the charge within the Liberal Party to retain a consolidated policy rather than allowing a conscience vote. He came out blasting the Australian media for being “obsessed by a slim majority activist US Supreme Court” and failing to give equal attention to the Austrian Parliamentary vote of 110-26 against gay marriage. He argued in an opinion piece in “The Sydney Morning Herald” that the dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia had put the arguments against gay marriage very soundly.
In his 1994 “inaugural speech”, long before Tasmania had even legalised homosexuality, Abetz declared: “Ours is a philosophy of dealing with individuals and assisting them to develop their personal skills for the nation’s good, as opposed to the dogma that all individuals need to conform, be brought to the lowest common denominator and succumb to the requirements of what the powerbrokers perceive to be the national good.
“Ours is a philosophy of standing positively for the free person, their initiative, individuality and acceptance of responsibility”.
And yet now, when the philosophy is different from his own, the “individuality” seems to have slipped into the background.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott can use the support of people such as Abetz.
There is a quiet revolution going on in Abbott’s backbench, where some Liberals are actually behaving like liberals rather than conservatives.
They believe in the importance of personal responsibility and, unlike the Abetz-style conservatives, extend this belief to social policies as well as economic and financial issues.
There are certain issues on which some of the more moderate Liberal Party members will stand up to the leader. Former MP Mal Washer and some of his colleagues warned Abbott that their votes would never be used to stop Labor’s plain packaging of tobacco laws. Abbott, as the then-Leader of the Opposition, had to choose between party solidarity and opposing the legislation. Solidarity won.
However, the issue of marriage equality is far more divisive, not just for the elected members but for the rank and file of a party that is a mixture of liberals and conservatives.
Although supportive of the Prime Minister, statements coming from Senator Abetz such as “legalising gay marriage would lead to polyamory” and that “Australia should not legalise gay marriage because no Asian country has adopted marriage equality” are untenable.
They are nonsense arguments. In what century does Senator Abetz live? Polyamory is hardly restricted to gay people – high proportions of heterosexuals live together, change partners and have extra-marital liaisons, as do many married couples.
A cross-party attempt to get the legislation through the parliament reveals the issue of marriage equality as one that does not have to be party political. It just requires Abbott to allow a conscience vote. However, with the Prime Minister retaining a strong oppositional stance, he knows that this would be akin to allowing the legislation to pass.
Not all the Liberals will accept this type of bullying on what really ought to be a conscience vote. A Bill has been prepared and will be co-sponsored by Warren Entsch and Terri Butler from the Liberal Party, Independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, the Greens Adam Bandt and Labor heavyweight Laurie Ferguson.
Abbott’s wish that the marriage equality issue for the Liberal Party remains “subterranean” is simply a pipedream. But his wish is understandable and it explains one of the reasons it is pursued so vigorously within his party and by other political forces. This issue, more than any other, illustrates the extent to which his party is a conservative one rather than being genuinely liberal.