Watching Liberal senator Dean Smith on the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday morning, I was impressed by the quiet and dignified man it’s been my privilege to know since the days of the Howard government.
Smith, as the drafter and chief proponent of the same-sex marriage bill that has devoured the political debate this past week, was the careful, cautious, decent man of principle his friends know him to be. While convinced of the rightness of his cause, he acknowledged that all do not think as he does. Yet, despite needling from Barrie Cassidy, he made the case for change on his terms clearly, calmly and logically. Just as calmly, he argued the same-sex marriage plebiscite promise had been discarded when the Senate blocked the enabling legislation last year.
Most tellingly, he highlighted how John Howard granted conscience votes on arguably even more contentious issues – the abortion-inducing drug RU 486, the Northern Territory’s euthanasia laws and embryonic stem-cell research – both as recognition that those issues were above party politics, and because the related conscience votes were political circuit-breakers when the party room was deeply divided on moral grounds.
Frankly, Dean Smith and the other members of the Dean Smith Five – Tim Wilson, Trevor Evans, Trent Zimmermann and Warren Entsch – have not only John Howard’s precedents but logic and classic conservative thought on their side. Unlike the Dave Clark Five, they are not glad all over about the Coalition’s same-sex marriage policy centred on a popular plebiscite on the definition of marriage. On the logic of their case, however, a conscience vote on same-sex marriage legislation that also protected religious freedom of conscience is reasonable.
Parliament is our supreme lawmaking body and its members are elected to make law, not fob off responsibility to the people.
The five open dissidents are entitled to assert, as Edmund Burke famously declared to the electors of Bristol, ‘your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion’.
Rationally, a conscience vote, taken after enough time to allow MPs to consult voters in their electorates and the wider community, is the best way to settle this irritation once and for all. A formal plebiscite, effectively a de facto referendum, as proposed by then PM Tony Abbott and taken by Malcolm Turnbull to the 2016 election, effectively was a way of putting off the moment of unwanted decision and placating the conservative elements of the Liberal and, especially, the National party. It contracts out the unwanted decision to the people, despite the people electing them to make such decisions. By pushing a plebiscite, our representatives are refusing to do their job.
And if Abbott and Peta Credlin developed the plebiscite plan partly to ensure the definition of marriage didn’t change on his watch, surely he can now sit by and let Malcolm Turnbull carry the can for a conscience vote if it gets the Liberal party room’s nod. After all, it’s consistent with Turnbull’s own leanings.
So much for the rational policy and political case. However, this is not a matter of what the Dean Smith Five and, almost certainly, a significant number of other Liberal MPs, believe. The fact is that parliamentary sovereignty relates to legislation only: in the Liberal party, it is the party room that is sovereign over policy.
Despite its flaws, that policy on same-sex marriage remains a plebiscite, and that is what will be debated and voted on in the Liberal party room today.
If current policy is upheld, whether as a full-on plebiscite or a postal ballot, the plebiscite commitment continues to bind all Liberal MPs and senators. That it is rationally-flawed does not matter. To defy the will of the party room and bring the Smith bill on regardless would not just undermine Turnbull’s already shaky leadership, it would cause an acrimonious split in the Coalition as well as the Liberal base, and help hand electoral victory to Bill Shorten and Labor on a platter.
It was noticeable that Dean Smith, on Insiders, avoided saying he would abide by party policy if it retained a commitment to a plebiscite. Indeed, he efficiently highlighted the flaws in the postal plebiscite compromise. The option of defying the party room was kept open, and that he did not categorically rule out defying the whip was disappointing,
It is, however, no less disappointing to hear die-hard parliamentary opponents of same-sex marriage, like Eric Abetz, irresponsibly declare they will vote against same-sex marriage regardless, effectively promising to defy the expressed will of the people if the plebiscite on which they’ve insisted returns a Yes vote.
What a mess.
To see the government tearing itself apart over this third-order issue, and elevate it to a potential confidence crisis for the Prime Minister in the party room, and possibly the government on the floor of the House of Representatives, is painful for any Liberal party member or supporter. The stand of the five dissident MPs on their principles is admirable, but in turn, they must respect the will of their party room if they don’t succeed in winning enough support for their case. Just as grassroots Liberals will be expected by their MPs to toe the party line on whatever policy they decide.
As for the postal plebiscite compromise, which reportedly has the support of conservatives including Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann, the Dean Smith Five shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. Certainly, a postal vote may not have a high turnout, and funding it may lead to another Senate confrontation. But, if opinion polls are right, the Yes vote in any plebiscite on same-sex marriage – full-on or postal –would almost certainly prevail. Then government legislation, not a mere private member’s bill, could be brought forward and, if their commitment to a plebiscite means everything, even MPs and senators opposed to same-sex marriage would be honour-bound to vote for the legislation or abstain.
A postal plebiscite may hold off a parliamentary vote until early next year, but that vote still will happen. With understanding, the willingness to cooperate with colleagues and genuine patience, the Dean Smith Five will likely get the result they want. In return, their diehard opponents, like Eric Abetz, must pledge to respect the plebiscite result no matter what it is.
As for Shorten and the others on the Left opportunistically putting the boot in on so-called marriage equality, they have no interest in forcing this to a head before the next election. They oppose a plebiscite, despite the result they profess to want being all but guaranteed. Their opposition to any plebiscite is base, cynical and political: they merely want to keep stirring the pot and inciting ugly disunity in Liberal ranks they can happily exploit whenever the election is called, knowing they’ll legislate for same-sex marriage with no Senate resistance in the increasingly likely event they win government.
If Labor and their allies truly believe in same-sex marriage, they should let a plebiscite happen, whatever form it may take. But they won’t.
It may generate far too much heat, and consume too much political oxygen, but it’s very doubtful that same-sex marriage is a decisive vote changer in the wider electorate. What is causing irreparable damage to the Liberal party and the Coalition is its contribution to the hardening perception that Government MPs on both sides of the question are self-obsessed, self-indulgent and uninterested in tackling bread-and-butter problems facing Australians outside the latte belt – creating jobs, power prices and the cost of living, national security, and ensuring a prosperous economy.
Most voters do not get worked up about same-sex marriage and can take or leave it, but they have seen time and again that Bob Hawke was right when he said that if you can’t govern yourselves you can’t govern the country.
Hopefully, the Dean Smith Five, and all Liberal MPs and senators, keep this sobering truth in mind when they enter their party room this morning.
Postscript: As a senior adviser to Health ministers Michael Wooldridge and Tony Abbott, Terry Barnes was close to the conscience votes on the NT euthanasia laws, RU-486 and embryonic stem cell research. These debates were conducted with remarkable courtesy and respect for different views, despite the passion of MPs on both sides of each issue.
Illustration: ABC iView.
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