While last night’s Liberal Party meeting was the least-worst outcome for Malcolm Turnbull — he’s still Prime Minister, his party hasn’t torn itself apart, Coalition MPs haven’t decamped for the crossbench because they despise LGBTI people so intensely — it remains a thing of wonder. All but a handful of the Liberal MPs attending yesterday afternoon’s meeting want marriage equality to go away as an issue. Even advocates for marriage equality within their ranks — echoing the Prime Minister, before he seized that job — make their pitch on the basis that the issue can be done and dusted with a parliamentary vote and the government can get on with talking about something else. Anything else.
The only people who want marriage equality to continue to make life difficult for the government are the far-right trio Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, plus assorted hangers-on like Craig Kelly. They oppose marriage equality, but that’s entirely incidental to the more important goal of knocking off Malcolm Turnbull.
And yet, remarkably, last night’s outcome was the single best way of ensuring the marriage equality will continue to occupy a prominent place on the political agenda. It would almost be impossible to craft a process that would be more likely to maximise the level of distraction and debate. Even simply declaring that there would be no action on marriage equality before the next election would have been a better outcome in terms of the impact on public debate.
Instead, the government has proposed a three-step process for guaranteeing that, no matter what, the issue will be incessantly talked about for the rest of the year and, probably, beyond. First, the plebiscite bill will be returned to the Senate, to waste more time there before it is defeated (should, by some remarkable change, the bill succeed, there would then be a plebiscite campaign that would preoccupy the country for months). Then, the government will pursue this weird junk mail plebiscite, without legislation, which will either be blocked by a court as an unauthorised appropriation of funds or go ahead and be subject to boycotts and dominate the agenda. And then, if the junk mail vote produces a “no” vote, there’ll be no parliamentary vote, guaranteeing the issue continues to haunt the Coalition and MPs cross the floor (marriage equality opponents refuse to abide even by a compulsory referendum outcome, let alone a junk mail vote, so why should marriage equality advocates be bound by it?). And if there’s a “yes” vote, then we’ll finally get a parliamentary vote.
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You could construct a whole decision tree about this process — if yes, then this, if no, then that, but all the options, yes and no, lead to further painful debate and distraction. And, for voters, the conclusion that Malcolm Turnbull is a weak leader hostage to his own backbench. Labor must be unable to believe its luck.