A new Galaxy poll has shown 80 per cent of Australians want the Coalition to have a conscience vote on marriage equality — and that includes 76 per cent of Coalition voters.
Australians know that this important and popular reform will have the best chance of passing if it has the support of at least some Coalition MPs, particularly now Labor MPs have been given permission to vote as they want.
But a Coalition conscience vote on marriage equality isn’t just good for the issue, it could also be good for the Coalition and for Tony Abbott’s leadership.
Up to the last election I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Labor MPs who openly supported marriage equality.
Fifteen months later it’s party policy.
In between, the Labor Party experienced an intense and sometimes bitter internal division over the issue. Labor’s critics even accused it of losing focus on the economy, health care and education.
Things started to change when party groups such as Rainbow Labor and Young Labor endorsed reform, followed by movement at state conferences, and expressions of support from senior party figures — all despite continued opposition from Julia Gillard.
Finally, grass roots support for the issue overwhelmed all opposition, in the process diminishing the authority of the Prime Minister who is now seen as out-of-touch with her own party on the issue.
Exactly the same thing will happen to Tony Abbott if he doesn’t act decisively to allow a conscience vote to match Labor’s.
Today, the number of Coalition MPs who openly support marriage equality is about the same as it was in the ALP at the beginning of last year.
But, as was the case in the ALP, there are many more who support it privately, aware as they are that many Coalition voters do too. Respected conservative thinkers such as Nick Greiner, Tim Wilson and Chris Berg, have all put forward the conservative case for marriage equality, showing this is not a left-wing issue.
State Coalition leaders are moving towards marriage equality with Isobel Redmond and Campbell Newman giving in-principle support to marriage equality and Barry O’Farrell supporting a conscience vote.
It’s only a matter of time before the issue is aired at Liberal state conferences and endorsed by senior party figures.
They will legitimately ask, if the Liberal and National parties are the parties of individual freedom, how can we allow our MPs less freedom than Labor allows theirs?
Tony Abbott’s choice is to resist the unstoppable momentum of marriage equality and to see his authority gradually eroded, or to act pre-emptively to avoid the divisions that have rocked Labor by allowing a conscience vote.
This would allow him to maintain his own, and his party’s, in-principle opposition to equality, without risking the kind of protracted internal wrangling that will leave voters with the impression the Coalition is divided and distracted by marriage equality and that Abbott himself is not in control.
Some Liberal MPs foresee the coming party debate and hope to head it off with a national policy of a civil unions instead of civil marriage for same-sex couples.
But a national civil union scheme is no longer a politically viable option.
Civil unions offering entitlements in state and federal law are now available to 85 per cent of Australians living in five states and territories with no diminution of the demand for marriage equality. The offer of a second-best national civil union scheme would only inflame the movement for full equality, not assuage it.
Worse yet for the Coalition, some MPs talk privately about crossing the floor if no conscience vote is given.
They will use this as a lever to press for a conscience vote — but if they do carry out their threat they will do irreparable damage to the party’s cohesion and to Abbott’s leadership.
The only realistic way forward if the Coalition is not to split and Tony Abbott is to preserve his authority is for him to respond to Labor’s conscience vote by offering Opposition MPs the same opportunity.
That would finally allow the real level support for this reform among our elected representatives to be properly tested, and, hopefully, for Australia to become a more just, free and equal society through the granting of legal equality to same-sex couples.
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