Embattled Tony Abbott stakes his crumbling leadership on saying “I won’t” to same-sex marriage

Consider our most statesmanlike leaders in the post-Menzian era. Prime Ministers Whitlam, Fraser and Keating? Perhaps Hawke and Howard at their very best? It’s a subjective assessment, of course, but pit Tony Abbott against these formidable leaders and there is only once conclusion to be reached. Our current Prime Minister is no statesman.

By any objective measure, Abbott is the most inept, gaffe-prone and crisis-riddled Prime Minister since William McMahon.Unlike McMahon, Abbott won an election in his own right to become Prime Minister. It remains to be seen whether, like McMahon, he faces defeat at his first election as Prime Minister. If he lasts that long.

Tony Abbott poses a political conundrum for the Liberal party. He is deeply unpopular and political poison – the electorate knows it and the Liberals know it. But he remains doggedly opposed to same-sex marriage, which accords with the majority view of his party. Which means that Australia is stuck with a dud Prime Minister while conservative MPs fend off moves for change to our marriage laws.

Abbott’s muddled stance on same-sex marriage – as most of his “policy” positions tend to be – has confirmed yet again this tin-eared Prime Minister’s inability to hear what the electorate is saying to him loud and clear. And that message would go something like this:

“Some of us believe in same-sex marriage as a matter of equality and human rights, some of us don’t care but if same-sex couples want it let them bloody well have it, and for those who are against gay marriage – get over it: now for fuck’s sake, legalise same-sex marriage and let’s get on with the 21st Century!”

Abbott’s solution to the same-sex marriage issue is of course no solution at all. For Abbott, this is a personal crusade. No matter that the push for marriage equality is a world-wide, deeply felt cause, Abbott is depicting it as a niche issue, a fad of little moment or momentum.

By making this an issue to determine by popular vote – senior Ministers are quarrelling among themselves as to what this precisely will involve – after the next election Abbott believes he can place same-sex marriage in a state of suspended animation. Both his naivety and arrogance are breathtaking. This is not an issue that is going to go away.

Abbott does not believe in same-sex marriage; that is understood, and on a personal level he is entitled to that view. But he is not entitled to impose that view on the rest of the community, and most especially on those same-sex couples who wish to express their love for each other through marriage.

It’s not about you Prime Minister

As a leader, he must recognise that same-sex marriage is a much bigger issue than his personal preference, nor is it a matter of religious dogma.

Abbott seems more concerned with maintaining a stance that will win the favour of Cardinal George Pell than he is with keeping faith with the people of Australia and showing leadership on a vital reform whose time has come.

Abbott’s absence of leadership on this issue has given licence to the likes of Senator Eric Abetz to argue that if Asian countries in the Asian Century don’t favour same-sex marriage, why should Australia?

Abetz, who is a Cabinet Minister if you don’t mind, has also observed that “Not all homosexuals want to marry”, and gave as his example Italian fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. (Abetz denied the published quote of his party-room comment as “simply false”, but not the substance of his point, such as it was.)

It is a spurious objection to argue that not all homosexuals want or would enter into same-sex marriage. If traditional marriage was reliant on all heterosexual couples marrying before living together the institution would have long ago disappeared from the statute books.

Such arguments trivialise same-sex marriage in a way that is offensive and demeaning. It also implies that same-sex marriage is a fad of interest to a loud minority alone, not to “good gays” who are respectful of the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

More than implies, the Prime Minister has in previous statements made it plain that he considers that issues such as the economy, asylum seekers and the war on terror are far more pressing than same-sex marriage.

And so it has come to pass that this government does not intend to act on same-sex marriage until after the 2016 election – and even then without any firm plans on precisely what action the government, in the unlikely event that it is returned, would take. With good reason proponents of same-sex marriage feel they have been unceremoniously fobbed off.

The Prime Minister and fellow conservatives in his government portray demands for same-sex marriage as an aberration, an extravagance, an issue not to be taken seriously. They could not be more offensive, or wrong.

Australia stands isolated as nations around the world legalise same-sex marriage – through popular vote, through political leadership and through the courts: Britain, the United States, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, France … and our neighbour and once mooted Federation partner New Zealand.

Quite apart from issues of equity, inclusiveness and respect it is preposterous that what is legal in a growing band of countries with which we would feel a political and cultural affinity is not just illegal in Australia, but dismissed as a second-order issue.

In multicultural Australia it is now the case that many citizens find themselves wondering why it is possible for marriage equality to apply in the countries of their origin but not in their own country.

‘Not on my watch’

Is Tony Abbott really suggesting that he would be prepared for Australia to stand alone on what is now widely considered a fundamental right around the world?

Rather than demonstrate leadership on same-sex marriage Abbott has made this a “not on my watch” issue.

Indeed, it is the unlikely issue which has come to define his leadership. And there’s the rub for Australia: the worst Prime Minister since Billy McMahon may well go to the next election as leader because to opt for Australians’ preferred Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull would mean a surer path for same-sex marriage.

At this stage it seems that a majority of Liberals would rather have the bumbling Abbott if it means staving off same sex-marriage, than a commanding, competent and electorally appealing moderate leader who favours same-sex marriage. A dill rather than a statesman.

If Abbott thought he had put same-sex marriage to bed – as it were – he is sorely mistaken. Again.

As Turnbull was only too keen to point out, marriage equality will almost certainly dominate the political agenda until the 2016 election. And there will be consequences.

Abbott may relent and allow a conscience vote in this Parliament, which would place his rickety leadership at risk; he might tough it out and hang onto his leadership because he alone stands between traditional and same-sex marriage, only to face annihilation at the next election; or it all becomes too much for nervous Liberal MPs who buckle and opt for a new leader.

That’s not bad going for a second-order issue. And at the end of it all, however it ends, it will be Tony Abbott who will be standing alone and abandoned at the altar. Someone may even mutter as they leave the chapel: “I never liked him anyway.”

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