Tony Abbott and the Coalition should have been celebrating a victory when the High Court overturned the Australian Capital Territory’s same-sex marriage legislation in December 2013.
Liberal Attorney-General George Brandis had launched the challenge to the laws. But their attempt to stick with a minority position against same-sex marriage is not doing the Coalition any favours.
If anything, the High Court ruling has only added to the pressure building on the government to pass federal same-sex marriage legislation and support a conscience vote. Though the High Court struck down the ACT laws, claiming the ACT did not have the power to legislate over marriage, they confirmed that the federal government certainly does have the power to extend marriage to same-sex couples—meaning the focus of anger is now back on Abbott and the Coalition.
The government’s defence of their court challenge relied on a weak justification about conflicting state and federal laws, rather than what they knew would be an unpopular conservative crusade to defend “traditional marriage”. This now makes them even more vulnerable to the argument that the federal law should be changed.
The pressure is building from all directions. In a symbolic defeat for the government, the five-day gap between the ACT laws passing and the High Court decision gave a window for over two dozen same-sex marriages. Images of exactly what Abbott didn’t want—same-sex couples celebrating their relationships—were broadcast all over the country.
Compounding Abbott’s problems is the possibility of another attempt at same-sex marriage legislation in Western Australia, designed not to conflict with federal laws.
On top of that are the emerging divisions in the Coalition. The WA Liberals are supporting a conscience vote in their state. Arch conservatives in the Liberals like Senator Cory Bernardi, who rails against same-sex marriage (again) in his new book, The Conservative Revolution, are only confirming how far the Coalition’s fringe bigotry is from majority public opinion.
Abbott is openly opposed by Coalition members, including Malcolm Turnbull, and the candidate for the Griffith by-election, Dr Bill Glasson.
A December 2013 Galaxy poll show 64 per cent support same-sex marriage and 75 per cent believe the reform is inevitable. A majority of Christians, 53 per cent, support it. Remarkably, 76 per cent of Coalition voters support a conscience vote—in direct conflict with Abbott’s view.
After former leaders of Labor Rudd and Gillard both opposed same-sex marriage and a conscience vote in power, allowing for the defeat of same-sex marriage, a majority of Labor, including leader Bill Shorten, now support it. (Shamefully, however, the votes of Labor MPs, including Left MP Luke Foley, tipped the balance against NSW same-sex marriage legislation in November 2013).
Abbott has so far stuck with opposing same-sex marriage and binding Coalition MPs to vote against it. There are two main reasons: the importance of conservative ideas about heterosexual marriage and family responsibility; and his desire to curry favour with conservative organisations like the Australian Christian Lobby.
But Abbott and the Coalition have long lost the argument and now cannot bury the issue. They may have won the ACT battle, but the campaign for marriage equality could ensure they lose the war.
By Amy Thomas