A #WECANDOTHIS sign, washed in rainbow lights, greeted politicians at Canberra Airport as they returned for the new parliamentary sitting this week. But the Liberal Party remains unmoved, and will keep their binding “no” vote for the duration of this electoral cycle.
A wave of national optimism had been inspired by the 11,000 people who rallied in capital cities last weekend, the cross-party Bill to be tabled by Liberal MP Warren Entsch, and recent marriage equality victories in the US Supreme Court and the Irish referendum.
The push by Liberal Party backbenchers to get a free vote on a marriage equality bill, has been rejected. After a six-hour party room meeting on August 11, the call for a free vote was shot down 66 votes to 33.
However, Prime Minister Tony Abbott did say this would be the last term in which the vote would be bound.
The decision has increased disunity in the parliamentary Liberal Party, with many moderate Liberal MPs claiming the meeting was a blindside ambush and that National Party members, as a large bloc opposed to the change, were included in the vote to stack the conservative side.
Some backbenchers have called on pro-marriage equality frontbenchers to resign, but one such frontbencher, education minister Christopher Pyne, rejected this call as unhelpful.
Other voices in the party are complaining that this is out of step with Liberal Party values of equality before the law and individual freedom of conscience.
Warren Entsch and other Liberal MPs who have indicated a willingness to cross the floor, were told by Abbott that any frontbenchers doing so would be demoted, and any backbenchers would lose their chance of promotion.
There is a groundswell of support for crossing the floor. Pauline Pantsdown articulated this on a Facebook status: “#MarriageEquality #CrossTheFloor Let's see what that "liberal" word means”.
However, the bound Liberal vote now makes it doubtful that the government will even select the Bill for debate within this term, leaving no opportunity for such a display of dissent.
The Bill was planned to be put by Liberal MP Warren Entsch, but he has now conceded it would fail.
Labor has responded by reaffirming their commitment to put the Bill within 100 days of being elected, and calling on Liberal supporters of the bill to stay strong.
Labor says that this decision will bring down the government at the next election, with opposition leader Bill Shorten saying that there will be a choice between Tony Abbott and marriage equality.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young agreed with Shorten’s claim, responding with the memorable tweet: “Tony is toast”.
But the Liberal Party has suggested they may call a plebiscite or referendum to coincide with or soon after the next election.
Labor and the Greens have both strongly criticised the plebiscite option. Deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek said it was “ridiculous” because the next election was a plebiscite on marriage equality anyway. Greens senator Janet Rice called it a “costly delay tactic”.
This is now the twelfth year of a ban on marriages between same gender couples in Australia, and throughout that time, people have regularly mobilised and taken to the streets demanding an end to this discriminatory and destructive situation.
Abbott’s position of defending traditional marriage for one term, but then allowing movement after that does not even make sense to conservatives, and is indicative of a failure in leadership and in values.
Hiding behind arbitrary political process instead of allowing clear and open democratic decision making will continue to divide the Liberal Party and alienate the voting base they depend on.
Our voices must be the opposite: clear, consistent, courageous, and unwilling to compromise on anything less than full equality.