Penny Wong

“It is necessary in politics to place decisions and actions in their context,” Labor Senator Penny Wong said in a speech in Parliament in 2004, when Labor teamed up with the Howard government to insert a clause into the Marriage Act that is causing so much pain and anguish to remove today.

It was a quiet and subtle acknowledgement from the senator that although she was going to vote with party policy, she knew history would look back on this time and wonder why it had happened.

The context back then was a looming election campaign and John Howard wanting an issue to wedge Labor on (back in the heady days when people weren’t fully aware of Mark Latham’s … quirks).

Wong said that in rushing to ban same-sex couples from getting married, Howard was attempting to make lesbian and gay Australians “the asylum seekers of this election”.

“Perhaps the next Liberal slogan will be ‘We will decide who gets married in this country, and the circumstances in which they marry.’”

[Plan B from outer space: Turnbull’s SSM strategy now relies on hope]

Twelve years on, and that slogan rings true for the government’s policy on marriage. Every voting-age Australian should have a say on the rights of gay people and the circumstance in which they are granted.

Plebiscite or nothing, you ungrateful gays. Actually, that was Miranda Devine.

Many Coalition (and Greens) MPs like to remind Wong and others in Labor that they voted for that amendment in 2004. In 12 years, it will probably be the moderates in the Coalition who will be reminded that they argued for a public vote on gay rights.

There is some confusion over how Labor rejecting a plebiscite on same-sex marriage this week can be seen as a victory for the LGBTI community given it means that marriage equality could be off the table for the next few years.

Firstly, as Malcolm Turnbull said before he was prime minister and suddenly for the plebiscite, this isn’t going to go away as an issue. The defeat of the plebiscite this week will mean that every day from now until the next election, people will be demanding marriage equality be passed by free vote. Polling companies will ask about it, other countries will enable marriage equality, states will push for it. It’s not going to be put in a drawer for a discussion later in 2019.

As we’ve seen so far, the Turnbull government is almost never able to control the agenda. Why would it be able to on marriage?

[Not-so-accidental death of a plebiscite: how the right killed their own idea]

Secondly, it’s not about just getting marriage equality by any means necessary. As one popular meme about the plebiscite floating around says, instead of just asking the father of your spouse, it’s like asking 26 million strangers for permission to marry. It’s demeaning and sets a precedent to have popular votes on every contentious issue.

Thirdly, the exposure draft of the legislation to change the Marriage Act, released at the 11th hour (literally on Monday night at 11pm), essentially just entrenched discrimination against same-sex couples. There were massive exemptions for religious organisations and celebrants from having to have anything to do with same-sex marriage. The exemptions proposed only have to do with non-hetero marriages. Could this be that if anyone were allowed to discriminate what sort of marriages they want to involve themselves with we could see people refusing to perform interracial marriages? Surely not.

[Why is the Coalition suddenly making room for ‘conscientious objectors’ in gay marriage debate?]

The draft legislation meant that LGBTI groups faced having to fight the battle on two fronts. They’d have to deal with a plebiscite and also have to argue for the subsequent legislation to be amended while The Australian and the Australian Christian Lobby argued the legislation didn’t go far enough because Christian bakers would still have to bake cakes for same-sex weddings. That likely would have been the argument used in the plebiscite against allowing marriage equality.

As an aside, it would be good to get a list of all the businesses that want to refuse same-sex couples. Surely the free market will do its thing.

Even if the plebiscite passed, that battle when the legislation finally hit Parliament would have dragged out anyway. Eric Abetz, George Christensen and Cory Bernardi certainly wouldn’t let it “sail through” Parliament as the Prime Minister has suggested, given their actions to date.

In the United Kingdom this week, where marriage equality has been the law of the land for a few years (weirdly, there does not seem to be chaos in the streets), people I talk to find the whole plebiscite concept bizarre. And they think it is even more strange that Australia is one of the last Western countries to make the change.

The absurdity of the whole proposition of the plebiscite was on full display this week when conservative columnist Angela Shanahan was filmed telling an audience she had told her son she didn’t see his marriage to his male partner to be the same as his siblings’ heterosexual marriages. When Shanahan was asked about this in a 3AW interview afterwards she refused to discuss it. She said she was only there to talk about the plebiscite, not her own family experience with same-sex marriage and she only wanted to discuss her son among “like-minded” people.

Shanahan wants a public vote on all LGBTI relationships but doesn’t want anyone to judge her relationship with her son.

The (likely) defeat of the plebiscite does look like another delay in marriage equality. Conservatives are celebrating, but so are LGBTI groups.

In 12 years’ time, it won’t be seen as a victory for the right, it will be seen as LGBTI groups standing their ground. For the first time ever they are being listened to, and have the power to say back to the government: “We will decide when we get marriage equality and the circumstances in which it is achieved.”