Same sex marriage is obviously an issue of interest to same sex couples who want to marry and those committed social conservatives who oppose it – and Liberal politicians who are, by and large, neither.
What is happening here is that same sex marriage is being used as an internal political football in the Federal Liberal party, much as it was an internal political football in Labor a few years ago. Then it was taken up and used by the “modernisers” around Rudd to undermine Gillard and the unions who opposed it.
The issue is now caught up in the undermining of the current Liberal leadership but is now even messier, since it all hinges around a plebiscite, that most of the country may want (hardly relevant right now), but arose out of a hash compromise by Abbott to hang on to his leadership. This forced him to adopt a position in support of a plebiscite that he himself opposed only a few months before but has now been turned into a major point of principle as only Abbott can. It symbolises the way that Abbott has been able to (almost) get away with passing off a Conservative agenda barely two years after a Premiership where the only Conservative Principle most people can remember is wanting to knight Prince Phillip for something.
The Liberals are not in a good position right now.
Just how bad is being perhaps under-estimated by the commentary since the “principled positions” of both sides are being taken a little too much at face value. This is not just on the conservative right. On the liberal side, we have those like Senator Dean who very much wants to have a vote in Parliament rather than a plebiscite, when presumably he will vote in support, which would be a nice change since every other time he has had the opportunity his conscience has told him to vote against it.
The underestimation comes in seeing this as yet another unpopular Prime Minister in trouble and just more of what we have seen for the last seven years. But the very big difference this time is that nobody can summon up an argument why dumping another Prime Minister would make things any better. At least when Abbott and Gillard were dumped there was a polling justification, and the same reason was even tried for Rudd (there wasn’t). This time there is no one who can make a case they would make any real difference to the government’s polling fortunes. No wonder Abbott’s attempt to make this about principles is being given a bit of a run, because the leadership implosion that is actually happening is just a little too awkward to contemplate.
In reality, behind all the polling justifications we have had for the last seven years, they have really been leadership implosions too, i.e. leaders are being replaced with nothing new. The last time it wasn’t the case was arguably when Rudd took over from Beazley in 2006 and at least signalled a more technocratic shift against the “old politics” that ended when Abbott and Gillard took over their respective parties. Both attempts to reinstall the old, whether ideologically or institutionally, flopped. But neither Rudd nor Turnbull, when they returned, could reinvigorate what they had before.
The technocrat moment, that saw Obama and Rudd create some degree of enthusiasm and popularity against the old politics, is now truly over. Politicians and the media have leapt all over Macron as representing its revival while conveniently ignoring the historically low turnouts for the subsequent parliamentary elections, the unpopularity of his policies, and a Presidential win that had more to do with the collapse of traditional parties and his main opponent being Le Pen, than anything else. The right populism was the busted flush it always was, and let’s talk about “Corbynism” when it actually wins something.
So what we are left with is a sort of technocracy by default. In Canberra we have a Prime Minister who is in limbo against a right he kowtows to and a liberal wing who claims him as their own except he can’t actually do much about it. Labor is in the same paralysed, if more catatonic state, under Shorten.
So from where will change come? Unlikely from Abbott’s phoney Conservative Agenda which is going nowhere even with Liberal supporters, and highly unlikely from Bernardi’s more authentic Conservative Agenda, which may have allowed him to suck up fringe Senators desperate for funding, but when electorally combined, as seen in his home state, is proving that 1+1=1.
More likely change will come from two sources. Internationally, the US, the stabiliser of the 20th century is proving the destabiliser of the 21st, whether intentionally or not. No matter what brave face the Europeans put on it, the climate change agenda has been dealt a blow by Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Accords, only underlined by the laughable suggestion that the mantle will be taken up by China, who killed the Copenhagen talks, agreed to the Paris Accords only if it doesn’t need to do anything for years, and can’t even stop the unnecessary choking of its citizens in Beijing (including the party elite in the compound) even if it wanted to. There must surely be a temptation on the Liberal right to follow the US and make climate change an even greater touchstone for mobilising against the moderates than it was in 2009.
And, of course, the second destabiliser of this stalemate could be the one that caused such political headaches in 2016, and is still reverberating, but as yet has not really impacted the Australian political scene – a change in the public mood.