Imagine if a Labor backbencher joined with a Liberal in federal parliament to introduce a private member’s bill that was contrary to ALP policy. The outcry from Labor ranks would be huge, the intervention of the prime minister would be swift and the media would leap at the opportunity to claim Julia Gillard’s authority was in tatters.

However, that’s exactly what’s happening. Chief government Whip Joel Fitzgibbon has announced his intention to join with Liberal Warren Entch and bring on a federal bill for same-s-x civil unions. Yet Commonwealth civil unions don’t have gay community support, are opposed by key lobby group Australian Marriage Equality, have been denounced by Labor branches as second rate and is not Labor policy. Same-s-x marriage is the federal policy.

This kerfuffle highlights just how poorly Labor has played this issue over the past few years. The ongoing confusion is contributing to Gillard’s failure to provide a clear narrative from the government.

At its national conference last December, ALP delegates finally mustered the numbers to roll the Catholic Right and change the platform. Labor now supports gay marriage, but with the caveat demanded by the Catholic Right that there will be a conscience vote for Labor members.

This means marriage equality advocates now have the Herculean task before them of convincing Tony Abbott of allowing a conscience vote too.

Labor isn’t helping them achieve this. On top of Fitzgibbon’s diverting momentum with this civil union proposal, the Prime Minister continues to oppose gay marriage legislation, saying she supports traditional marriage. This is bewildering to voters who know she lives in a de facto arrangement.

Throsby MP Stephen Jones has been tapped on the shoulder to introduce a private member’s bill to change the Marriage Act and allow equal marriage. But in the two months that have passed since Jones was nominated to champion this issue, he has done little to inspire confidence. His few media comments have been clumsy. He’s not properly across the issues. You won’t find any mention of this topic or the bill on his website. He has not written any opinion columns over the break to highlight the legislation, even when golden opportunities presented themselves and begged response.

When the Pope condemned gay marriage on January 9, Jones was silent. On January 12 when Margaret Court was again denouncing same-s-x marriages and protests were planned for the Australian Open, Jones was silent. On January 13 when it looked like Canada was going to declare the same-s-x marriages of foreign citizens invalid, Jones was silent. More recently, when a former state Labor MP ripped into Jones with an anti-gay bash in the local paper, Jones remained silent.

A sceptic would wonder whether Labor wants this bill to fail? If it doesn’t succeed because Abbott refuses to allow a conscience vote for his party, then Labor can blame the Liberals, shifting the odium of the failure to the Tories and away from its own tensions on this issue.

The mantra would be: “Labor tried to change the law but the Liberals blocked it. We had a conscience vote and the Liberals didn’t. Labor good, Liberal bad.”

It’s hard sometimes not to feel this is the strategy: to set up the bill to fail but to claim to have tried, giving the appearance of supporting gay marriage but not actually changing the law.

The evidence for that seemed to be in the recent haste of Labor strategists to introduce the bill in February and begin debate shortly afterwards, knowing full well the numbers are not there for it to succeed. But could the numbers be there? Are the Liberals a completely lost cause?

Not according to AME, which has been lobbying MPs on this issue for several years, and that claims there may be enough Coalition MPs who privately support equality to make up the numbers, assuming a conscience vote were permitted by Abbott. AME believes that with a few more months up its sleeve it has a chance of swinging it.

This is why AME issued a statement on January 2, urging Labor not to rush ahead with the bill in the new year, but to co-ordinate with it on the timing. Thankfully, within 24 hours Jones gave the welcome assurance that there would be no rush.

To buy time, there will now be a Senate inquiry into the Jones bill. This will allow all of the contentious issues, including reassuring the churches about their exemption from performing same-s-x marriages to be explored. It will allow Labor MPs such as Penny Wong, Trish Crossin, Tanya Plibersek, Gavin Marshall and Louise Pratt to shine, in exactly the way that Jones hasn’t.

In fact, now would be a good time to perhaps remove Jones from this campaign and shift its carriage to Health Minister Tanya Plibersek. The Member for Sydney is articulate and passionate on the topic and the Greens are eroding her base at inner-city polling booths. The protocol purists will say it’s inappropriate for a minister to pursue a private member’s bill, but these same purists have been silent on the fact the chief whip is proposing a bill that runs counter to Labor policy.

Last year’s Labor conference resolution in favour of equal marriage has not provided the ALP with the direction campaigners hoped for. At best Labor power brokers are still in a muddle about how to move forward. At worst they are planning to banish the issue with a rigged failure.

Meanwhile, Kevin Rudd is in the wings acutely aware of the support for this reform in his party and the broader electorate. Given he needs an issue to differentiate himself from Gillard to topple her as prime minister and to contrast himself with Abbott, what better than this one? Despite previously opposing gay marriage, I predict his Damascene conversion before the election.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story listed Penny Wright as a Labor MP. She is in fact a Greens MP. It also said Liberal Warren Truss was sponsoring a gay marriage bill; it should have said Warren Entch. We apologise for the errors.

Peter Fray

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