Same-sex marriage got as close as it has been to breakthrough in the Coalition party room this week, but was spooked by the budget. By Sophie Morris.

Pressure builds on same-sex marriage for Libs and ALP

“You did it!” spruiked the item on the Australian Christian Lobby website, thanking more than 20,000 people for a “magnificent” email campaign opposing same-sex marriage.

The item, posted soon after the Coalition party room meeting finished on Tuesday morning, claimed victory in persuading the Liberal Party to “continue to vote as one on marriage”.

It was even more hyperbolic than the claims that had preceded the meeting, from same-sex marriage advocates, that there had been a major shift within the party in their favour. Neither claim was borne out on Tuesday.

Liberal supporters of same-sex marriage had expected a formal discussion within the party about allowing its MPs a conscience vote on Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm’s “Freedom to Marry Bill”, which was slated for senate debate this week.

Phone calls were made at the weekend and both supporters and opponents went into the meeting armed with their debating points in the expectation the issue would be raised.

That never occurred. It was a distraction that Prime Minister Tony Abbott would not have wanted in the lead-up to the New South Wales state election and in the last sitting week before the federal budget in May.

A Liberal supporter of same-sex marriage said after the meeting that there was a view the timing was wrong to raise it and that a potentially divisive debate would not have been welcome. The government was, after all, presenting a semblance of unity as it approached the end of a parliamentary session that it had begun in chaos and disarray.

Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg publicly backed a conscience vote on Thursday, saying there was a shift under way in the Liberal Party and that same-sex marriage would, in the years ahead, “be a part of the way of life here in Australia”.

“I accept there are very passionate views on both sides of the argument but I also see that community attitudes are changing,” he told Radio National.

“If you look around the world, there are more than 17 countries now that accept gay marriage, including a number of comparable countries to Australia, namely Canada, New Zealand, also the United Kingdom as well as a number of states in the USA.

“If we are [allowed a conscience vote] many people will probably express a view in favour of gay marriage.”

1 . A major test

But the smoke and mirrors this week, the claim and counterclaim regarding support for same-sex marriage, were just a curtain-raiser for what looms as a test this year for both major parties.

To bind or not to bind, that is the question that the Coalition and Labor are considering, albeit from different perspectives. 

As Rodney Croome, the national director of Australian Marriage Equality, points out: there is something rather peculiar about the current situation, with Labor officially supporting same-sex marriage but allowing a conscience vote and Liberal MPs bound by their policy to oppose it. 

“There’s an irony here that the party of collective action is allowing a conscience vote and the party of individual freedom, the Liberals, is enforcing a party line,” says Croome.

Both parties are under internal pressure to reconsider their official position.

Already, tensions are rising within Labor over a mooted push at its national conference in July, to force all the party’s MPs to vote in parliament in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. The push, by cross-factional group Rainbow Labor, is being led by former senator for Western Australia Louise Pratt, who lost her seat at the last election after being dumped down the party’s ticket in favour of right-winger Joe Bullock.

While the majority of caucus supports same-sex marriage, some MPs so strongly oppose it that they could defy such an edict and cross the floor, exposing them to expulsion from the party. 

The issue could even divide the party’s leadership team. One senior Labor figure estimates up to six senators would abstain or cross the floor in parliament rather than voting for same-sex marriage if the party chose to enforce its official policy. 

Opponents of same-sex marriage argue it would be foolish to have a stoush on the issue at conference at a time when Labor is ahead in the polls and benefiting from disarray in the Coalition.

But the “it’s time to bind” push has the support of some senior figures on the left. Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek backs a binding vote. Labor senate leader Penny Wong’s spokesman says: “Senator Wong’s longstanding position is that marriage equality should not be a matter of conscience, it should be Labor policy.” 

As Labor considers whether requiring a binding vote in favour of same-sex marriage could alienate socially conservative members, the Coalition is weighing up whether allowing a free vote could have the same outcome.

Liberal MP Wyatt Roy, a supporter of same-sex marriage, had been rumoured to be considering raising the issue in Tuesday’s party room meeting, but he never confirmed this publicly. Nor did he put it on the agenda.

Other MPs suspected an opponent of same-sex marriage could have raised the issue and sought a reaffirmation that the Coalition would vote as a bloc against Leyonhjelm’s bill.

In the end, no one brought it up.

Buoyed by a Newspoll that morning, which put the Coalition within striking distance of Labor on a two-party preferred basis, at 49 to 51, the prime minister started the meeting by emphasising the government’s focus must be on the concerns of the regular person in the street.

Then the Liberal and Nationals MPs sat through a slide show from Treasurer Joe Hockey about how the budget on May 12 would benefit families and small businesses, including the undated aspiration that the government would “get the budget back to surplus as soon as possible”.

2 . Crisis averted

It was a crisis averted for Abbott, but it’s one he cannot postpone forever. When asked ahead of the 2013 election whether he would support a conscience vote, he said: “We had a vote in the national parliament about a year ago. It was fairly decisive against same-sex marriage. If this issue were to come up again in the future, it would be a matter for a future party room to determine.”

Some Liberal MPs intend to hold him to the promise that the party room would have its chance to debate the issue. “Logically, it’s going to have to be resolved this year,” says one Liberal, who supports same-sex marriage and argues the issue must be dealt with ahead of the election year.

It has also become a factor in the leadership of the Liberals. Ahead of the spill motion on February 9, conservative groups including the National Civic Council galvanised members to bombard Liberal MPs with emails supporting Abbott, citing among other things his opposition to same-sex marriage. 

Malcolm Turnbull invoked the issue three weeks later in an interview with 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales. When asked whether some Liberals considered him too left-wing on social issues, he argued that there was no great gulf between him and the prime minister.

As Abbott comes under pressure from right-wingers to resist a free vote, Turnbull made it clear he expects Abbott to honour his pledge to allow the party room to decide.

“Both of us believe the party room should decide whether there should be a free vote, a conscience vote so-called,” said Turnbull. “I have no doubt if a private member’s bill comes up … the party room will decide there will be a free vote. That is the longstanding Liberal tradition.”

The only difference, he said, was that Abbott would cast his free vote against same-sex marriage, while Turnbull would vote for it.

Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop has a more ambiguous position. She said in 2011 that she had an “open mind” if it came to a conscience vote and would canvass views of her constituents. 

The other frontbencher who is widely assumed to harbour leadership ambitions, Scott Morrison, is unambiguously opposed to same-sex marriage, arguing his views are based on “a child’s natural right to a mother and father”.

Same-sex marriage advocates believe the best chance of the legislation passing both houses of the current parliament is if Labor MPs and senators are bound to vote in favour of it, while supporters on the Coalition side are free to join them.

3 . Conscience vote

Theoretically, Liberal backbenchers can cross the floor without facing the same dire consequences as Labor MPs. But a growing number of frontbenchers, who are bound by the current policy, want a conscience vote.

Croome, a veteran of gay law reform, says it is possible in the short term that legislation could pass parliament with a conscience vote in both major parties, though numbers are unpredictable, particularly in the house of representatives.

It was Croome who was quoted on Monday as saying that 11 Liberals had privately shifted in favour of same-sex marriage, joining those who have already publicly stated their support, including Turnbull, Roy, Dean Smith, Kelly O’Dwyer, Simon Birmingham and Teresa Gambaro. Frydenberg agreed there had been a shift.

At Labor’s previous national conference, in 2011, the party changed its policy platform to legalise same-sex marriage, in the face of fierce opposition from some delegates, including right-wing powerbroker Joe de Bruyn.

This shift threatened to leave the then prime minister Julia Gillard, who opposed same-sex marriage, at odds with her party’s policy.

She appealed to factional leaders and senior ministers to back her amendment to allow MPs a conscience vote on the issue, which is rare in the Labor party and generally reserved for matters of life and death, such as euthanasia, human cloning and the abortion drug RU486.

Gillard’s opposition to same-sex marriage won her the backing of de Bruyn and his “shoppies” union, but her stance triggered an impassioned response at the conference from lion of the Left, the now retired senator John Faulkner, who argued that “a conscience vote on human rights is not conscionable”.

Andrew Barr, now chief minister of the ACT, who pushed for the change to the party’s platform in 2011, says he is inclined to support a binding vote for Labor MPs but remains open to arguments that a conscience vote across all parties is the best way forward.

“If Labor seeks to bind MPs in favour, it might lead to the Coalition digging in against. That is a real risk,” says Barr. “I want marriage equality as soon as possible but I also want the reform to be enduring. If the reform can be achieved without a binding vote that would be preferable, but I fear that it may not be possible.”

Supporters of gay marriage on the Labor side also have reservations that provisions in Leyonhjelm’s bill allowing civil celebrants to choose not to perform such ceremonies could enshrine discrimination.

If national conference did vote to make support for same-sex marriage binding for Labor MPs, it would be at odds with the position of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who supports a conscience vote. 

4 . Shorten's support

Shorten left the Australian Christian Lobby in no doubt about his views when he addressed their conference in October.

“I believe in God and I believe in marriage equality under the civil law of the Commonwealth of Australia. I know that many of you do not share my view – and I recognise that for some people of faith, this is a most vexed question,” he said. “It is one of the reasons Labor has made marriage equality a conscience vote in previous parliaments, and today.”

Like Abbott this week, he will no doubt be keen to avoid a showdown on the issue that could publicly fracture his party if it becomes a focus of the national conference. 

Leyonhjelm’s legislation was scheduled for senate debate on Thursday but he withdrew it until the Liberals allowed a conscience vote, giving it a chance of passing the upper house.

The managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Lyle Shelton, was quick to declare victory on Tuesday. But he knows there are more battles to come.

“Thanks to everyone who took action this week,” he wrote to supporters. “By God’s grace we have had an influence. Let’s not give up because it is not over.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2015 as "Pressure builds on same-sex marriage".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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