Progressive Labor forces are wondering whether The Australian has been anointed as the 105th member of federal caucus after an extraordinary front-page salvo this week left Julia Gillard and Simon Crean looking like dills and internal party bickering once again taking centre stage.

The unhinged decision of SDA groupers Don Farrell, John Hogg and Steve Hutchins (Hutchins is aligned with the Transport Workers Union but has a soft spot for the shoppies after they assisted with his pre-selection), to lob a pipe bomb in the PM’s direction on gay marriage has been labelled in some circles as a pre-emptive strike before a showdown at December’s national conference.

At issue was a Bob Brown private members bill that would withdraw the ministerial veto over the territories, sensibly mandating instead that legislation could only be disallowed by both houses of federal parliament. Far from controversial, it simply extended privileges already enjoyed by the six states and has widespread support from the ALP’s ACT rank and file and local leader John Stanhope.

On Tuesday, caucus backed the bill, seemingly without incident. But just 12 hours later Labor, according to The Australian, was “removing obstacles to the social agenda of the Australian Greens”, apparently because of the gay devil buried in Brown’s detail.

The left are fuming, with Maria Vamvakinou, Doug Cameron, Stephen Jones, Gavin Marshall, and Graham Perrett storming the PM’s office yesterday to register their supreme displeasure at the right’s tactics.

There are two schools of thought on how it came to this.

One theory goes that the bill thrill kill was cooked up by shoppies national supremo Joe de Bruyn, who relayed his displeasure to Senate cipher Farrell, who, in league with Hogg and Hutchins produced The Australian‘s Wednesday front page with the memorable headline Greens’ gay marriage victory’. The wily trio then met with Gillard the next morning to demand the debate be referred to a senate committee.

But this seemed strange, given the Senators had already acquiesced to the bill in caucus, apparently without incident.

The other, more plausible, explanation is that dissent from the gang of three only ratcheted up after the story appeared in The Oz. The paper’s Matthew Franklin and James Massola had sparked the ire of the ALP’s anti-abortion paramilitarists who had in turn picked a fight with Gillard and Crean. Crean especially came off second best because he was responsible for shepherding the bill through a day earlier.

The Oz‘s original yarn was backed up by a searing comment piece by Dennis Shanahan and followed up yesterday — also on the front page — by one of those “how we broke the story” brags, coupled with a ‘Labor Revolt on Gay Marriage’, more editorialising from Paul Kelly, an anonymous editorial and finally, an opinion rant by Jim Wallace from The Australian Christian Lobby railing against his foes in the “homos-xual lobby”.

But it was an interview with Brown by Ben Packham that gave the game away, containing this curious line:

“The Labor caucus approved the Greens bill on Tuesday, but its implications were not fully realised by many Labor MPs until yesterday, when they read The Australian‘s front-page story.”

So could the national broadsheet have finally crossed the Rubicon to become the serious political player it clearly imagines itself to be? It seems that nothing, owing to its stellar join-the-dots efforts, had suddenly become something.

On the substance, the gay Trojan horse theory is ridiculously far-fetched.  The states already have the right to legislate for gay marriage, but as was explained over and over last year, the federal government could simply argue in court that the federal marriage act overrides the states. Stripping away the power of ministers to slap down the territories is simply bringing the law into line with the existing reality for the vast majority of Australian parliaments.

To maintain its logic, The Australian should be plastering its front page from today to eternity with its gay marriage fears until the Federal Government gets its day in the High Court.

And amusingly, when debate on the Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthanasia Legislation) Bill 2010 commenced in October, barely a peep was heard from Labor’s conservative wrecking crew, probably for good reason.

This morning, the Canberra Times hit back with an unprecedented front-page editorial salvo of its own, in exactly the same front-and-centre positioning allocated by The Australian. It took issue, not with the prospect of gay marriage per se, but with The Oz‘s assumption that the ACT should continue to be held to ransom by the federal government.

“Over the years, we’ve grown accustomed to a certain level of Canberra bashing – that favoured hobby of lazy thinkers and political oppositions – particularly around elections,” it opined.

“But this week’s insults go too far. We can be certain that The Australian would never tell readers in Queanbeyan, Sydney or Hobart that they cannot be trusted. Nor would the quislings within Labor – led by a trio of right-wing senators, Don Farrell, John Hogg and Steve Hutchins – dare snatch away the political rights of voters in their home states.”

Which is true, but for a Labor party struggling to maintain a facade of unity, the damage may have already been done.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off