Though he devised his plebiscite scheme to trap equal marriage advocates, Tony Abbott unwittingly created a snare for the Liberal party, one that’s wrapped them in impossible tangles.
With every poll showing public support for reform, a cannier conservative might have quietly passed the necessary legislation, thus taking the subject off the table.
Instead, as I argued back in 2016, by committing the Liberals to a popular vote, Abbott placed his disagreement with the majority of Australians right in the centre of public debate.
Already, Malcolm Turnbull’s version of the plebiscite has unleashed an extraordinary tide of sentiment.
A few random examples:
- Triple M – a station you might once have associated with “Tony’s tradies” – has updated its logo to incorporate a rainbow flag.
- Pubs and music venues across Sydney have staged an Equality Weekender to encourage people to enrol to vote.
- Singer Meghan Trainor reacted to the use of her image by no campaigners by joining Miley Cyrus, Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Fry and other stars in urging Australians to support reform.
- The Officeworks chain has declared it won’t allow the printing of hate speech at its facilities.
- In Sydney and Melbourne and elsewhere, town halls have been illuminated to urge a yes vote.
- Some 20 000 people rallied in Melbourne.
For young Australians in particular, opposition to marriage reform just seems bizarre, a weird legacy of a prejudice they’ve never endorsed.
And now they’re voting.
The Australian Electoral Commission has revealed that 90,000 new voters – most of them young – have registered since the poll was announced, a number it calls “extraordinary”.
Something like a million Australians have either updated their details or enrolled for the first time – and, once they’re on the roll, they’re legally obliged to participate in future elections.
Not surprisingly, some Liberal party insiders are already aghast about what their leaders have done.
“You’re motivating a group of people, the large portion of them young, who are naturally going to vote against you at the next election,” a worried strategist told Buzzfeed’s Mark Di Stefano. “It’s just not smart.”
But after pushing through his weird postal plebiscite, he can’t campaign for a yes vote with any passion, not least because he couldn’t appear at rallies without being booed. While Bill Shorten’s team rushes to associate itself with the yes campaign, Turnbull must spend most of his time defending a shonky process that pleases no one.
Not surprisingly, the poll has widened the already deep divisions within the Coalition.
Turnbull is openly at odds with Abbott, who has gleefully positioned himself as the unofficial leader of the nos.
The Herald Sun’s James Campbell recently reported that the Australian Christian Lobby, Marriage Alliance, the Catholic archdiocese of Sydney, the Anglican diocese of Sydney and other conservative groups have begun sharing databases as they campaign together as the Coalition for Marriage.
Campbell thinks the coalition could be the beginning of that mythical beast, a rightwing alternative to GetUp.
But there’s a big problem with that idea: namely, opposition to same-sex rights has become a fringe preoccupation.
Look at Tony Abbott’s own career
In the Quarterly Essay entitled Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, David Marr describes the young Abbott launching himself into Sydney University politics by attacking gay students for “perversion”.
Publicly identifying himself “an infrequently practising heterosexual and drunkard” (truly!), Abbott opposed the legalisation of homosexuality. His friends remember the way he baited lesbians during political arguments.
But that, of course, was a different time, an era in which prejudice could be taken for granted.
If Abbott repeated today the language he used when he was promoting the Heterosexual Solidarity Society (yep, seriously), his parliamentary career would be over.
Years of struggle against prejudice have shifted the parameters of public discourse so that most Australians now see the kind of “jokes” in which Abbott once specialised as hateful.
Now, the man’s rhetoric was far less offensive than that employed by the young Tony Abbott – but Sandilands (in a clip shared a million times) still denounced him as a “fuckwit”, “cockhead” and “wanker”.
With even shockjocks calling out homophobes, it’s not surprising that, as Abbott urged a no vote, he felt compelled to add, “I’m not saying that there is anything inferior about a relationship between a man and a man or a woman and a woman.”
His evolution (he was once opposing legalisation of homosexuality; he now acknowledges homosexual relationships as not “inferior”) hints at the fragility of the anti-reform alliance.
That’s why, contrary to Campbell’s claim, the Coalition for Marriage doesn’t provide any real foundation for a broader conservative movement.
So here’s the paradox
The best outcome for the Liberals, given the pickle they’re in, would be for the high court to strike down the plebiscite process.
If that happens – if the postal vote’s derailed – the life will go out of the grassroots activism and marriage reform will stall until the next election.
Barring some huge upset, Labor will win power and then, presumably, amend the Marriage Act.
Under those circumstances, the Liberal right and the ACL will continue pretending they represent mainstream Australia. They’ll bluster about lawyers interfering with the democratic process; they’ll imply that the no campaign would have won.
Marriage will become the Lost Cause of the Australian Right: something that conservative politicians and pundits mutter darkly about, without any real hope of changing.
If, on the other hand, the postal survey goes ahead, the Liberals are cooked, whatever the result.
The campaign for the postal vote will initiate thousands of people into participatory politics. In schools, in universities and in workplaces, they’ll campaign for a yes vote – with almost every institution or organisation that matters to young people already urging reform.
They’ll march on the street; they’ll hand out leaflets; they’ll go to marriage equality events.
The campaign itself will highlight the difference between the pro- and anti-equality forces.
Does anyone really think that Lyle Shelton and his allies on the religious right could, for instance, have organised an event comparable to the rally in Melbourne on Saturday: a huge assembly, joyous and young and angry?
If the yes case wins, a generation will know they played a role in reshaping the country – and they did so in opposition to the Liberal party.
That’s not something you easily forget.
Even if the yes case loses, participants will (rightly) blame the trickiness of the postal vote for frustrating the majority sentiment identified in every reputable survey – and they’ll be more determined than ever to get the Liberals out.
Either way, we might well be on the cusp of a significant new anti-Liberal constituency, one that will affect Australian politics for years to come.
- Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist