Coalition Senator Dean Smith

One by one, the marriage equality amendments went down, yesterday. Division by division, the dead-enders lost. And not just lost narrowly. They were thumped, time and time again. Mostly they were amendments from Liberal senators David Fawcett and James Paterson, trying to shoehorn into Dean Smith’s marriage equality bill provisions protecting those prepared to act on their dislike of same-sex relationships. Civil celebrants would be allowed to refuse same-sex couples. Opponents of marriage equality would have an unmitigated right to “manifest that belief”. Parents would be allowed to withdraw their children from classes where marriage equality was mentioned. Other, more minor, amendments followed.

Down they went. Ayes 24; Noes 42. Ayes 20; Noes 44. Ayes 20; Noes 42. Ayes 22; Noes 41.

Then Attorney-General George Brandis, who had delivered an eloquent and heartfelt speech to close the debate before it moved to committee (amendment) stage, rose to move his own amendments, jointly with right-winger Matt Canavan. They would have inserted an adapted version of the religious freedom article from the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and allowed civil celebrants to refuse same-sex couples. 

Down they went, too, almost as decisively. Ayes 27; Noes 36 for the UN bit, Ayes 25; Noes 38 for civil celebrants. The margin was surprising given they reflected an effort by the government to address right-wing objections.

Part of the reason was that Labor is point-blank opposing all amendments, so even its few anti-marriage equality senators, who have a conscience vote, aren’t voting for them. The only change Labor supported was a long list of consequential amendments to the bill moved by Brandis that tidied up other Commonwealth legislation affected by the Smith bill. That didn’t even go to a vote, everyone backed it.

But voting with Labor and the Greens and pro-marriage equality crossbenchers like Derryn Hinch were a group of Liberal moderates, who fronted up time and again to ensure a strong majority against the insertion of discriminatory clauses into their colleague Smith’s bill. Interim Nats (actually, Country Liberal) leader Nigel Scullion. Victorian Liberal Jane Hume. WA Liberal Linda Reynolds. Simon Birmingham. Defence Minister Marise Payne. And Dean Smith, of course. Brandis himself didn’t vote on the Fawcett-Paterson amendments. Birmo voted against the Brandis-Canavan amendments as well, while the other moderates either didn’t vote or backed Brandis.

As of writing, only amendments by the Greens, Hanson’s crowd and David Leyonhjelm remain to be dealt with. They’ll all go down, given Labor’s opposition, and it’ll be all over today, most likely. Which is more than a little embarrassing for the government given it explicitly cancelled the House of Reps this week because the Senate wasn’t going to finish marriage equality until tomorrow. Perhaps there’ll be some filibustering to pad things out.

There’s been much talk about how the dead-enders and their far-right allies like Paterson are trying to protect “freedom”. In truth, there’s nothing about freedom in their efforts to maintain, or extend, the capacity for people to discriminate against others. It is the Liberal moderates who have joined Labor, the Greens and most of the crossbench to protect the basic freedom that comes from being able to do what the rest of the community can do without being interfered with or discriminated against. Dean Smith, most obviously, but Birmingham, Payne, Scullion, Hume and Reynolds as well. They are the ones remaining true to the traditions of the Liberal Party. 

Correction: This article initially stated that Senator Payne did not vote on the Fawcett-Paterson amendments. This was incorrect, she voted against them. The text has been amended accordingly.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey