MUNGO MacCALLUM. Malcolm Turnbull and Eric Abetz in furious agreement on same sex marriage.

Aug 9, 2017

The recalcitrants will call it a backdown and it will certainly be a change: but, as John Maynard Keynes memorably said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” But then, for much of his life Keynes was gay. Abetz can and will ignore that kind of dangerous advice. 

Shock, horror, amazing scenes! Malcolm Turnbull and Eric Abetz in furious agreement on same sex marriage!

And not only in their stubborn determination to enforce the party room decision connived by Tony Abbott for a plebiscite or nothing. On opposite sides of the continent, the two insisted that the public seldom if ever talked to them about the issue, and, they are almost certainly right.

For starters, why would anyone bother talking to a couple of brick walls – we all know what the robotic response will be. But more significantly, the vast majority of voters have already made their decision and moved on. All the evidence is that most people accept that same sex marriage is inevitable sooner or later and are not greatly fussed about it.

The silent majority is overwhelmingly made up of temperate progressives and reserved conservatives (not that they would ever bother to identify themselves as such) who have long since made up their minds and have no interest in the frantic fulminations of the politicians and their media bomb squad.

When it happens, some will feel a slight sense of regretful nostalgia for the good old days while far more will just be relieved it’s finally over – just has been the case everywhere else in the world that the reform has been implemented. The family will not collapse, the nation will not collapse into terminal depravity, civilization will endure.

And, believe it or not, Australia’s political stability will not be seriously threatened, even if Abetz and his handful of ageing mates see same sex marriage as the beginning of the end of the Liberal Party they have spent years wresting from the mainstream moderates. It has become an indispensible plank of their platform, a symbol of the right wing that must be upheld at all costs, but let us see just how ready they are to resign when, as will surely happen, the numbers finally turn against them.

One or two might; the member for Mallee, National Andrew Broad (of whom no-one has ever heard) has made noises in that direction. But whether he would vote for a no-confidence motion in the government is another thing entirely; apart from his loathing of Labor and all things left of the soup spoon, he rather enjoys the safe seat he has occupied for only four years, a long way before the parliamentary pension kicks in.

And of course there is another National, George Christensen, happy to cross the floor when it suits him and when he knows it will make no difference, but not one would back in a stoush over a matter of principle. And despite all the bluff and bluster, no Liberal has ever been prepared to make even the threat of resignation, so only would the Liberal Party survive, but so, almost certainly, would Malcolm Turnbull; when the tumult and shouting dies down, even the most delusional of the insurgents must realise that he is their last, best hope.

So why, against all the dictates of commonsense, logic and even self interest, are they so determined to make it so difficult for their country, their government and themselves? A lot of it can be attributed to religion; in recent years more than a handful of fundamental fanatics from various sects have felt the attraction of conservative politics and have been encouraged by zealous evangelists from outside who have, of course, nothing to lose for themselves.

But probably more of it is sheer cussedness. Some, mostly in their political twilight years, are just using it as yet another weapon to embarrass, undermine and if possible destroy Turnbull’s leadership. But others see it as yet another battle in the culture wars: if the left is in favour of it, they must, by definition, oppose it.

Their reaction is not visceral, and as such is impervious to rational argument. That being the case, they don’t even try to make a coherent case against same sex marriage: last week Abetz once again trotted out the old lines about concern for the children whose physical, emotional and of course spiritual wellbeing would be imperilled by the absence of two constant and loving parents, one of each gender.

This was of course unadulterated bullshit – rather like the idea of a non-binding plebiscite itself, actually, let alone the even more ludicrously anti-democratic idea of a voluntary postal vote – just ask Malcolm Turnbull.

Obviously children are certainly better off with constant and loving parents, but the gender has nothing to do with it. And in any case, the argument is irrelevant: same sex couples can and do adopt and rear children, so surely the kindest and most sensible course for those who believe that marriage is an important institution would be to allow them to formalize the arrangement.

But we are not talking about sense: this is a debate about emotion, not reason. Abetz is not looking for serious debate, he is seeking a post-hoc justification of his iron-clad prejudices. And in doing so he is following a fine tradition within his party.

Go back to 2001, the Tampa election in which the so called invasion of the boat people was the big issue. John Howard declared: “We will decide who comes to Australia and the circumstances in which they come” and the coalition cheered itself hoarse. It was all about keeping the bastards out: voters were encouraged to resist them at all costs, to demand they should be sent back to the depths to drown or in extreme instances bring in the navy to sink their leaky boats. A brutal racism was apparent: the mood was encapsulated by one punter who boasted: “I’m voting for Johnnie Howard because he knows how to deal with the towel-heads.”

But now, of course, it is all about preventing tragic deaths at sea; the ritualized cruelty of indefinite off-shore detention is reguarly spun as compassion. Like I said, bullshit. And the vendetta over asylum seekers has now lasted 16 years and remains as intransigent, as insoluble, as ever.

Same sex marriage should be a lot simpler: all it needs is a bit of courage, a bit of realism, from our prime minister. Admit the impasse will has to be resolved, so resolve it: forget the failed and unworkable plebiscite, stand up to the Nationals and tell them they can vote however they like – and so can everyone else in the parliament.

The recalcitrants will call it a backdown and it will certainly be a change: but, as John Maynard Keynes memorably said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” But then, for much of his life Keynes was gay. Abetz can and will ignore that kind of dangerous advice.


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