eric abetz
Eric Abetz

It was the far right of the Liberal Party that devised the ludicrous idea of a plebiscite on same sex marriage, a desperate ploy to head off a parliamentary vote on an issue that had been handled with the Abbott government’s usual remarkable incompetence. And it was the right that is ultimately responsible for killing off the idea. It’s the big winner from that as well.

This morning, Nick Xenophon announced NXT would not be supporting legislation establishing the plebiscite, after consulting with his now-numerous colleagues. A short while later, Bill Shorten re-emphasised to Caucus that there was no case for what he termed “a $250 million publicly funded opinion poll”, although he stopped short of ruling out support altogether. But it now looks highly unlikely Labor will come around to backing the bill — preferring instead its own bill enabling same sex marriage. That means the plebiscite bill will fail in the Senate, saving taxpayers a nice wad of cash and sparing LGBTI Australians, and same-sex parents in particular, the ordeal of being vilified by religious groups for months on the basis of fictional claims that their parenting is a form of child abuse.

However, it was Eric Abetz who provided the means to kill off the whole idea. It was Abetz who, while presiding over a party that would cop a belting in the July election and lose all three of its House of Representatives MPs, declared in January that he would be ignoring the result of any plebiscite and voting against same sex marriage anyway. In doing so, he contradicted his enemy, Malcolm Turnbull. A number of far-right MPs then followed suit.

As Abetz would surely have understood, his declaration handed opponents of the plebiscite a deadly weapon: what was the point of a national vote if politicians were going to ignore it? That’s the reason why Shorten is now calling it an expensive opinion poll — because that’s all it will be. Abetz’s announcement provided the perfect pretext for Labor to oppose something that was, and is, electorally popular.

The government response is that blocking the plebiscite will kill off any progress on same sex marriage in this parliamentary term. Perhaps they’re right — the government controls what happens in the House of Representatives, and can prevent a bill enabling same sex marriage from ever coming to a vote or even being debated. But killing off the possibility of progress won’t kill off the discussion. Indeed, each time the government blocks a bill enabling same sex marriage, voters will be reminded of how much Turnbull, famously a strong advocate for same sex marriage, is controlled by the far-right, even those in exile like Eric Abetz. It can only undermine Turnbull further.

Which, of course, is the goal of Abetz and co — and of Tony Abbott, who seriously believes he has a chance of returning to the Prime Ministership as Turnbull’s leadership collapses. Having crafted the plebiscite to protect Tony Abbott, the far-right have destroyed it in order to damage the man who removed him — to the advantage of Abbott.

So, the far-right wins, Abbott wins, Labor wins, those who would have been vilified for months win. It’s hard to think of anyone who loses — except, of course, for Malcolm Turnbull. And, for that matter, same-sex couples, who continue have their rights violated. But the plebiscite was never intended to address that abrogation of a basic right — it was always about the internal politics of the Liberal Party.