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So Labor got its platform change, as expected, on same-sex marriage, but the fundamentalists got their conscience vote. Assuming a solid Coalition vote against change — an assumption that has gone largely unchallenged — that means legislation to change the marriage laws would be doomed in the present Parliament.

But there has been, finally, a little scrutiny of the Coalition’s position. With its own battle out of the way, several senior Labor figures have been needling the opposition on its failure to embrace a conscience vote. Now Simon Birmingham, Liberal senator from South Australia, has urged his party to pay heed, saying that he would support a same-sex marriage bill if given the opportunity.

It remains the case, however, that the media narrative is overwhelmingly obsessed with Labor’s position on the issue and that the Coalition’s much larger anti-gay contingent has mostly been given a free pass.

That’s symptomatic of a wider problem. The debate on party reform is another instance; Labor gets plenty of publicity for its internal difficulties, with some very effective media scrutiny of reform options and the institutional obstacles that they face. Hardly anyone ever mentions that the Liberal Party has a very similar set of problems and faces broadly similar options in addressing them, with equally strong forces of inertia standing in the way.

Part of the reason is that journalists and academic experts tend to come from the left, so the Labor Party is much more familiar to them: few of them feel qualified to say much about the internal workings of the Liberal Party, and on the occasions that they try they often get things laughably wrong. The ALP is also in part a victim of its own (relative) openness; its internal disputes are more on display, whereas the Liberals do a better job of keeping things behind closed doors.

Another reason is that the Liberals are currently seen to be in the ascendant, winning state elections and ahead in the polls federally, so the assumption is made that their problems must be less serious — although the truth is that internal strength and external performance are very weakly correlated at best.

Scrutiny for the Liberals is badly needed; just last week, when Queensland’s Parliament passed legislation for civil unions, Labor MPs had a free vote but the merged Liberal National Party voted unanimously against. Only one independent joined the majority of the Labor caucus to ensure passage of the bill, 47-40.

When they’re trying to sound conciliatory, the fundamentalists maintain that they don’t want to discriminate, that they just want to reserve the name “marriage” for heterosexuals but that gays are welcome to have all the substantive rights they need via civil unions. But when put to the test, it turns out they really don’t like civil unions either.

Yet we know from the polls that same-sex marriage has significant support among Liberal voters. While there is no serious doubt that Tony Abbott will succeed in imposing a party-line vote against it, it will involve suppressing a good deal of contrary opinion in the branches and in the party room.

Abbott’s response to the call was to point out that “There’s a sense in which every vote in the Liberal Party is a conscience vote”. He’s right, in that crossing the floor on the issue would not in itself be grounds for expelling a Liberal MP. But in substance, it’s less true than ever.

Where once the party had an assortment of “rebels” and people who were willing to put principle ahead of their careers, that species is now almost extinct. Party discipline is in practice almost indistinguishable from what prevails in the ALP.

This simply reinforces the point that Labor and the Liberals face very similar problems. Both parties have become conformist, hierarchical organisations: decisions are made at the top, the MPs do what they’re told in order to get ahead, and the ordinary members (the few that are left) turn up obediently to hand out how-to-vote cards but do little else.

The threat to our democracy doesn’t come from conscience votes or from same-sex marriage, it comes from political parties that have ceased to function as representative organisations, and from media that have failed to call them to account for it.

Peter Fray

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