Coalition with a conscience?

The Fairfax papers last Saturday reported that federal parliament is again going to be dealing with same-sex marriage in the upcoming sittings, and that this time Liberal MPs are likely to insist on a conscience vote.

New Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm has promised to introduce a private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage, but had initially made this contingent on a Liberal conscience vote. According to the latest report, however, “senior Liberals” have asked him to introduce the bill first, on the promise that they will be able to secure a conscience vote once they have an actual draft on the notice paper that they can work with.

If the moves result in passage of Leyonhjelm’s bill, it will complete a remarkable trio. Three of the classic members of the “Anglosphere” – Britain, New Zealand and Australia – will have legalised same-sex marriage within two years, and all in the same way: by a bill passed under a centre-right government, with most of the votes in favor coming from its political opponents. (Canada is the exception: it made the move first, in 2005, under a centre-left government.)

The difference, of course, is that in both Britain and New Zealand the prime minister of the day supported the move, giving encouragement and political cover to members of his own party who thought the same way. It wasn’t enough on its own: in each case, the majority of the centre-right voted against the bill. But support from the centre-left was strong enough to pass each of them by a comfortable margin.

In Australia, however, Tony Abbott remains a committed opponent of same-sex marriage. He may well have resigned himself to a conscience vote, but without his support it’s by no means clear that enough Liberals will support the bill to ensure its passage. Fairfax reports that “a number of Liberal backbenchers said their ‘gut feeling’ was it would be narrowly defeated even with a conscience vote.”

Passage through the Senate is unlikely to be difficult; the problem is the House of Representatives. Last time the issue was considered there, in September 2012, it was defeated by 98 votes to 42. (Ten MPs did not vote, most of them Labor.) A narrow majority of the ALP’s representatives, 39 out of 72, voted in favor – no match for the solid opposition from the Coalition.

This time the Labor MPs will no doubt tilt more strongly in support of marriage equality, but that will be balanced by the fact that there are fewer of them: 17 of the 39 are no longer in parliament. With a conscience vote, there will be substantial support from within the Liberal Party, but overall there is no dispute that the majority on the government benches will vote against. Quite probably that will be enough to defeat the bill.

The rank and file of the Liberal Party is still deeply conservative. Just as with the ALP, the party structure has largely atrophied, so MPs depend for their preselection on branches that are less representative than ever of the wider community. Causes like same-sex marriage are not popular there. Many MPs would be willing to defy either a prime minister or their own branches; relatively few are likely to defy both.

For Abbott, there is really no good outcome here. There’s no longer any doubt that public opinion is strongly in favor of change, so resisting a conscience vote would mean the issue would just remain as a running sore. But if there is a conscience vote and the bill fails anyway, it will expose the Coalition as backward and out of touch.

If enough Coalition members support the bill to ensure passage, it will at least get it out of the spotlight. But Abbott’s personal opposition will probably ensure that he and those who support him get plenty of publicity for their resistance, while the credit will go to Labor, the cross-benches and the pro-equality Liberals – who no doubt will be tagged as “rebels”.

New Zealand’s John Key, by contrast, having strongly supported reform himself, was able to take much of the credit for it: the media were willing to overlook the fact that the majority of his party voted the other way. (David Cameron in the UK was not so lucky; because the Conservative backbench was already revolting on other issues, there was no hiding the division over marriage equality.)

One way or another, the defences of “traditional” marriage are eventually going to fall; as each year passes, Australia’s position looks more and more anomalous. But there’s no certainty of it happening soon.

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