How a collection of supposedly rational adults found themselves in the position the Liberal Party room will be in at 4pm today will forever remain a mystery.
Yes, we know the process by which Tony Abbott tried to delay at best, and sabotage at worst, what is now widely viewed, even by opponents, as the inevitable reversal of the Howard government’s ban on marriage equality. Yes, we understand the difficult position Malcolm Turnbull is in with both his Coalition allies and conservatives within his party.
But the sum of all this is greater than its parts. It requires some sinister political curse to drive a political party to gather and endeavour to formulate a way in which it can continue to defy the will of the electorate and the inevitable, preferably via a means that will guarantee the issue of marriage equality continues to suck air from the government’s efforts to communicate its agenda with the force of an industrial vacuum cleaner.
The current, favoured “solution” — accepting that Dean Smith and his House of Representatives supporters won’t get their way — is the junkmail vote idea, followed by a parliamentary vote, in order to “honour” the party’s commitment to a plebiscite. It’s a second-rate version of a fifth-rate idea, a Plan Z for a party unwilling to consider any rational options. It is also, most likely, the least worst plausible option, if only because it will provide a way forward for the short time before a court knocks it (mis)appropriating money without legislative authorisation. Of course, a court might not knock it off, which could be even worse — assuming marriage equality supporters boycott it and younger voters ignore it, what chance a junkmail vote produces a “no” result? Technically, it doesn’t matter — homophobes within Liberal and LNP ranks have already said they’d ignore a positive outcome from a plebiscite. But it will look bloody stupid holding a parliamentary vote after a loss.
Smith and co are actually offering two sound reasons for moving to a parliamentary vote now: one, it gets the issue off the agenda, which everyone except Abbott, Abetz, Andrews and Craig Kelly — who want the issue to continue to burn up Turnbull’s leadership — agrees is a good thing, and two, Smith’s bill provides protections for religious institutions that are less likely to be provided if Labor legislated the issue instead. Smith has overstated that argument somewhat, but it’s a handy point on which to appeal to conservatives.
At some point, these arguments will convince enough Liberal backbenchers to back them. But not yet. There’ll need to be a few more wasted months while the government chases its tail on this. Maybe after the silliness of the junkmail vote is decided one way or another. But it will happen.