Coalition MPs, senators and their supporters are this morning are finding new and interesting ways to justify why the party of the individual has agreed to bind its members in voting against same-sex marriage.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott last night declared that “the Coalition has your back” if you are opposed to same-sex marriage, with the joint party room voting two to one against allowing members and senators a conscience vote on same-sex marriage before the next election.

In the lead-up to the next election, the Coalition will consider its options and either announce an expensive referendum or plebiscite in the next term of a future Coalition government or allow a conscience vote for members while still maintaining party policy against same-sex marriage.

The fallout has meant that a number of Coalition MPs and their supporters have had to find new and interesting ways to justify the new policy, and paint what will likely be a delay in something the majority of Australians want to happen as a good thing. These are some of the justifications made in the hours since the party room decision …

We are keeping faith with the electorate.

Before the 2013 election, Abbott said that any policy on same-sex marriage would be decided by the party after the election. He didn’t go to the election promising to maintain the policy against same-sex marriage, but today the argument was made that many Coalition voters would have backed the party on the basis of its long-standing policy.

“So we have supported the traditional position. I think that’s a good thing. We’ve kept faith with the electorate. I think that’s a good thing,” Abbott said.

“The party is sticking with its policy that marriage is between a man and a woman, as was promised by many members of parliament at the last election,” Treasurer Joe Hockey said.

This is a better option than what Labor has on the table.

Sky News commentator and government supporter Paul Murray is in favour of same-sex marriage, but last night after Abbott announced the party would vote against it, Murray still managed to find the upside for those who back the government but want to see same-sex marriage legalised.

He told viewers that because Abbott had vowed at some point maybe to offer a conscience vote to its members after the election, it was still better than Labor’s policy of maintaining a conscience vote until 2019, when the party will then bind members to support for same-sex marriage.

How does that work? Well, if Bill Shorten as prime minister were to introduce a same-sex marriage bill, as promised, in the first 100 days of his Labor government, then Labor MPs would still have a free vote but the Coalition could vote against it, and it could then fail if Labor didn’t have the numbers in the Senate.

So Labor’s policy is bad because the Coalition will vote against it.

Gay people don’t want to get married.

One argument reportedly advanced by staunch conservative Senator Eric Abetz in the six-hour party room meeting was that gay men don’t want to get married. He cited Italian fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana, who were once in a relationship but never wed.

As one Twitter wag pointed out, we always thought he was more of a Hugo Boss man. Abetz has since denied he told the party room that gay men didn’t want to get married, but he wasn’t the only one to suggest some gay men don’t want to get married as a reason against advancing the cause.

Abbott, in attempting to argue that same-sex marriage is a recent phenomenon whose consequences are not yet known, said that it wasn’t long ago that gay people did not want to get married.

“I can remember my own university debates with gay friends, and the idea that the gay community would in those days have wanted to embrace a bourgeois institution like marriage would have been unthinkable, but things change,” he told AM.

It is not too dissimilar to the argument former PM Julia Gillard herself has made since leaving office. In her own convoluted logic over the issue of same-sex marriage, Gillard advanced the idea that while she was an atheist, she still believed in “traditional” marriage between a man and a woman. After she left office, this argument quickly turned to one of a feminist belief that marriage was an outdated institution that gay people did not want for themselves.

Labor will expel its members.

At the ALP national conference in July, the party ultimately voted to keep a conscience vote until 2019, at which point all members and senators will have to vote in favour of same-sex marriage.

Liberal MP Andrew Laming told 3AW the conscience vote was only lost for the Coalition because former prime minister John Howard had made the ban on same-sex marriage party policy in 2004, and that effectively removed the conscience vote.

In the Coalition, members can cross the floor and vote against party policy if they are backbenchers, but as Abbott and Cory Bernardi have been quick to point out today, frontbenchers would be expected to resign their positions if they voted against the policy of the Coalition.

In Labor, however, members who vote against party policy face expulsion from the party. On Sky News today, Liberal MP Jamie Briggs said he fears for conservative Labor politicians like WA Senator Joe Bullock, who would face being kicked out of the party if they vote against the policy after 2019.

Bullock’s departure would clearly be a devastating loss for Labor.

It’s a distraction from the economy and jobs.

Briggs turned to this argument when it was clear that the argument against Bullock’s expulsion wasn’t going to win.

Hockey disagreed that a plebiscite should be held in tandem with the next election because he said the election should be fought on “broader issues” than same-sex marriage.

“I think the next election has to be about issues that are of much broader interest to the Australian people,” he said. “The next election will be about many, many issues. It is a plan about the next three years.”

Other MPs argued it wasn’t a major focus for the party.

“It is such a low order issue for me and my constituents,” Senator Ian Macdonald told journalists after the Coalition spent six hours debating the topic.

“What people want us to do is get on with the job and provide jobs to Australians and try to fix Labor’s mess.”

The people, not Parliament, should decide.

This is the argument for the plebiscite, in which all Australians would get a vote on the policy. It has been advanced by both Abbott and Hockey today.

“I don’t think the public mind having a say on these things,” Abbott said this morning. On the issue of the cost of a vote, he said that while the government wanted to minimise expense, it was important for the public to have a say.

Laming argued that a “binding vote for every Australian” was needed, or the legislation would just get tied up in the Senate.

“While they’re not on social media, those who want to keep marriage as it is have a very strong view, and they mostly come out and support the Coalition, and we rely on them to win elections,” he said.

Laming argued three-quarters of Australians “don’t care” about the issue, while the other quarter is deeply divided, so it was important all Australians had their vote.

“I think the people of Australia do want a say, and to give direction to their parliamentarians,” Liberal Senator Chris Back said.

“We don’t want this to be an overarching issue at the election.”

The difficulty is that a plebiscite isn’t binding and a referendum to change the constitution is much harder to pass; only eight of the 44 held in Australia have been carried. As Labor’s Penny Wong and others have suggested, the High Court has ruled that the Parliament has ultimate responsibility for the Marriage Act.

We have yet to see those in the Coalition, such as Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg, who argued strongly for a conscience vote, vigorously defend the party’s decision — in fact Turnbull distanced himself from the plans for a plebiscite — so there are still more twists and turns yet to come.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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