Wishin’ and hopin’ on gay marriage

It’s only three weeks ago that I ventured the opinion (along with many other commentators) that Julia had her mojo back, or at least was on the kind of roll that Labor hadn’t enjoyed for at least a couple of years. For the first time in her Prime Ministership, momentum seemed to be with her. Perhaps we should have known in advance that a stumble couldn’t be far away.

When the carbon tax bills were passed in early October, she spoke about being on the right side of history. She was correct. Whatever the Coalition crows about in opposition, they will not be able to escape the cost – be it political, economic or environmental – of climate change in even the short term. No amount of wishin’ and hopin’ will make this issue go away.

So too for same-sex marriage. Yet, for reasons best known to herself, Julia’s decided to put herself on the wrong side of history. I’m guessing it’s something to do with keeping those “faceless men” from the Right faction who installed her in power happy – notably the Catholic, socially conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association secretary Joe De Bruyn.

De Bruyn has issued dire warnings that Labor stands to lose up to 15 seats at the next election should it change its party platform to allow “equal access to marriage … irrespective of sex” at the ALP’s national conference this weekend. Yet the polls don’t indicate any such thing, with a clear majority of voters supporting the legal recognition of same-sex unions. According to a Herald/Nielsen poll two weeks ago, even 50 percent of coalition voters are in favour of change.

Here in Queensland, the state ALP has heaped further pressure on its federal colleagues by legalising same-sex civil unions overnight. The arguments against by the LNP were predictably risible, with opposition legal affairs spokesman Jarrod Bleijie telling parliament that “Civil partnerships is not on a priority list in the minds of Queenslanders … The passing of this bill will not save Queenslanders money, it will not ease cost of living pressures, it will not get our triple-A credit rating back.”

Well, so what? As Tim Dick writes for Fairfax online today:

“The arguments for the secular state admitting gay couples into civil matrimony are so clear, so well traversed, and those against dismissed so soundly, that we are left dealing with the twin remaining forces of opposition: political fear, and prejudice. There is not one valid reason to oppose civil marriage for gay people. None.Yet some think it ought not to be a priority, as if doing the right thing by fellow citizens should wait until the mythical day on which the rest of the public agenda is exhausted, when schools and hospitals want for nothing, when plagues and pestilence have been banished and when eternal peace has descended upon all the world. Until there is nothing else to do. Only then can the gays have their day.”

If gay marriage is not on anyone’s priority list (other than those who are directly affected by discrimination) then it’s hard to see how it’s going to have a major impact on the ALP’s electoral fortunes, other than perhaps win a few votes back from the Greens. Which in turn makes it harder to understand why Gillard has chosen to fight another battle she can’t win.

To recap, Gillard’s tried to shore up her right flank without doing herself any damage on her left by opting for a conscience vote. It’s backfired badly. Conscience votes are usually reserved for life and death issues (abortion and euthanasia), not human rights issues. For a supposedly progressive party which believes in equality of opportunity, this issue has long since passed the point of being a no-brainer.

Intellectually, she’s been totally outgunned. Repeating the blandishment that marriage is between a man and a woman doesn’t cut much ice when you have the likes of Penny Wong (from the Left) and ACT Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr (from the Right) inside your own party, writing cogent and very personal arguments for change for both the broadsheet and online media alike.

The vote at the conference will be tight, but even if Gillard manages to hold her breath and the numbers with it, I can’t see it doing anything but damage to her authority and her dignity. Should the numbers go against her, there’s the risk of a party split, with some members on the Right indicating they’ll thwart any attempt to change the laws in parliament by crossing the floor. Should she hold sway, the issue will only continue to fester, with the party risking losing more votes and members to the Greens.

Labor has far more to gain than lose by rolling with the tide here. Hold it back and they’ll continue to be swamped. Oh, and there goes your mojo, Julia.

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