Exhibits A and B of why Tony Abbott is deeply unhappy same-sex marriage is back on the legislative agenda were offered this morning in the form of Eric Abetz and Andrew Nikolic, two reactionary Tasmanian MPs determined to attack proponents of same-sex marriage whether they’re Liberal colleagues or not.

Attacking your colleagues is one thing, but having a worthwhile argument with which to do so is quite another. The problem conservative opponents of same-sex marriage face (unlike left-wing critics such as Helen Razer, who argue both that the issue is a distraction from the ongoing challenges faced by non-heterosexuals and that marriage is not the social Nirvana same-sex marriage advocates claim it is) is that they basically have no coherent arguments against it. Right-wing Christians of course can invoke supernatural justification, but even many of them implicitly understand that name-checking “God”or “Allah” isn’t a compelling argument, being not just lame “appeal to authority” reasoning, but “appeal to authorities that don’t exist” reasoning.

Thus the fallback arguments: 1. that same-sex marriage will lead to me marrying my dog, or (worse) several dogs; and 2. the unsubstantiated argument that kids only really prosper when raised by two-sex heterosexual couples (yes, the religious institutions responsible for the systemic cover-up of industrial-scale child rape actually have the hide to argue for the protection of children).

These two arguments are dumb enough in themselves, but they’re the best conservative opponents have got. That’s why Eric Abetz made an arse of himself today when he strayed beyond them, arguing that Australia should be following the social policy lead of Asian countries because this is the “Asian Century”. Even if confined strictly to laws regulating sexual conduct (rather than, say, following the Asian lead on the death penalty) that would presumably mean making homosexuality illegal again, to reflect the law of India, Singapore, Malaysia and a number of Indonesian provinces.

Andrew Nikolic also left the relative safety of “the wedding cake was made of Pal” and someone-think-of-the-kids to argue that national security and economic matters needed to be given priority over same-sex marriage in parliament. Given that parliament is sitting for just 19 weeks this year, that would seem to be an argument for lazy MPs like Andrew Nikolic to work harder — maybe six months of the year? — if they haven’t got time to debate everything. Or perhaps they can abandon such productive activities as Cory Bernardi’s inquiry into halal food, or the lunatic windfarm inquiry, if they’re pressed for time.

Nikolic is Abbott’s handpicked attack chihuahua, and his yapping reflected Abbott’s own line on same-sex marriage, that the government has more important things to worry about. Voters agree — same sex marriage is simply not a key issue for them, but it is an issue on which the community, and even, increasingly, Liberal voters, are at odds with conservative Liberals. Nikolic’s attack on colleagues for having “rocks in their head” is a clear signal from Abbott himself to his backbench that he’s deeply aggrieved at this new outbreak. Remember, this is a man who still says he feels “threatened” by homosexuality. It can’t play well politically for Abbott unless he moves quickly to get the reform done, dusted and off the political agenda — an outcome that, despite the frothing at the mouth of types like Nikolic, might yet happen.

Abbott has been through all this before: his views on reproductive health were the target of a successful cross-party private member’s bill in 2006 that stripped the then-health minister of his power to withhold RU-486 from Australian women, a humiliation inflicted by a surprisingly wide margin in the House of Representatives. Now he’s on the wrong side of another social issue that is developing strong momentum even within his own party.

Worse, Abbott has devoted enormous time and effort to trying to terrify voters. Unable to fix the budget, stuck with a flatlining economy and weak consumer and business sentiment, Abbott has been relentlessly hyping the threat of Islamic State, argued by the Prime Minister to be coming to get every single Australian, aided by Labor, the ABC, Islamic leaders who don’t advocate peace enough, and other foes. The prospect of Australians cheering and dancing in the street with rainbow flags, similar to the scenes from Ireland and the United States recently, is thoroughly at odds with Abbott’s narrative that we need to be cowering in fear.

Without a quick resolution, there are no good options for Abbott in this. His colleagues are now openly attacking each other. Buffoons like Abetz and Nikolic will continue to make fools of themselves with ridiculous arguments. Abbott himself will continue to be portrayed as an impediment to a change that most Australians — 60% at least — regard as a no-brainer. The longer any vote is delayed (which is what Nikolic is insisting will happen), the longer it will be a distraction from Abbott’s terror campaign.

Labor has its own divisions on the issue, but they’re over whether to have a free vote or override the wishes of a shrinking homophobic rump and make same-sex marriage party policy. The opposition’s primary role in the debate will be to sit on the sidelines and watch the Liberals yell at each other.

No wonder Abbott wishes the whole issue would go sit in the car.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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