Malcolm Turnbull may have survived the Pyne tape affair but the same-sex marriage issue isn’t going away

The Christopher Pyne tape has almost certainly ensured that same-sex marriage will not be legalised in Australia while a Coalition government is in power.

In a less febrile political environment the tape would have been of passing interest only. For the most part Pyne’s speech was more pep talk than manifesto: “We are in the winner’s circle, friends, we are in the winner’s circle.”

But it was Pyne’s hopeful reference to same-sex marriage that alarmed conservatives. One imagines the very mention of same-sex marriage is considered abhorrent by the party’s conservatives. But Pyne went a big step further, telling fellow moderates that progress on same-sex marriage was imminent: “I think it might even be sooner than everyone thinks. And your friends in Canberra are working on that outcome.”

Tony Abbott and his fellow conservatives have always considered the position of holding a plebiscite on same-sex marriage – rather than putting it to a vote of Parliament – to be a clever way of keeping the issue in limbo.

Abbott hit on the plebiscite ruse while he was still Prime Minister, giving no indication of a time-table or even whether a ‘yes’ vote would be considered binding on Coalition MPs. When Malcolm Turnbull toppled Abbott as Prime Minister he agreed to support the plebiscite as a pre-condition to securing support from the right. Turnbull had previously been a critic of the plebiscite option.

It is intriguing to ponder what Pyne meant by his “sooner than everyone thinks” nugget of hope. It could only have meant one of two things: either the Government was confident it could secure the support of enough Senate cross-benchers to successfully resubmit the plebiscite bill (which was defeated last year 33-29), or a bullish Turnbull was confident he had the internal numbers to mount an Angela Merkel-like surprise and allow Parliament to vote on same-sex marriage – a pre-election surprise to catch Labor flat-footed and at last herald the return of the “real Malcolm” in time for the next election.

Building political capital

Either option would have been based on the euphoria of the Turnbull Government’s Gonski 2.0 win in Parliament – and in particular the Senate. This was a government getting things done, proving its mettle as a pragmatic negotiator with the Senate cross-bench. Although the opinion polls didn’t provide the Turnbull government with any pats on the back for its Gonski achievement, Turnbull strategists believed their man was starting to accrue some political capital. A few more wins and Turnbull might have the political wherewithal to force the issue on same-sex marriage.

The leak of the Pyne tape put paid to that happy scenario. As if to illustrate how beholden Turnbull’s prime ministership remains to the fragile factional accord, Turnbull hung Pyne out to dry with a swift repudiation: “Our policy [on same-sex marriage] is clear, we have no plans to change it, full stop.”

Pyne himself was forced to issue a fulsome apology: “My remarks were ill-chosen and unwise and I can see how unhelpful and damaging they have been.”

So whither same-sex marriage in Australia? The political impasse on the issue places Australia at odds with much of the world. As the Pyne tape saga consumed Australian politics, causing hasty retreats on even implied positions, Germany’s parliament voted 393 to 226 to legalise same-sex marriage.

Germany becomes the 23rd country to legalise same-sex marriage. It’s becoming increasingly hard to justify Australia treating same-sex marriage as a domestic political issue rather than a human rights issue. It is ridiculous that two men or two women who can legally marry in the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, France or 18 other countries cannot enjoy the same right in Australia.

Turnbull not the master of his destiny

If Pyne was right that there was a chance that a recalcitrant Australia might at last make a move on same-sex marriage, that prospect, however slim, has been unambiguously ruled out. Which all but rules out same-sex marriage while a Coalition government is in power.

Before the next federal election, scheduled for 2019, the Coalition will have to decide on what position it will take to the electorate on same-sex marriage. The Pyne affair has made it abundantly clear that Turnbull is not the master of his political destiny. Presumably, Turnbull will again be compelled by his conservative faction, and by his Nationals coalition partner, to advocate a plebiscite.

Bear in mind that what Turnbull is being prevented from doing is putting same-sex marriage to a free vote in Parliament. The conservatives don’t want such a vote because Parliament will likely support same-sex marriage. The conservatives wish that the issue would simply disappear, but that much of the politics they have lost. Their second-best option is a plebiscite which they believe they would win. Despite polls showing overwhelming support for same-sex marriage, a no-holds-barred ‘no’ campaign may very well triumph. (And then what? Would a ‘no’ vote suddenly make marriage equality less of a human right?)

Turnbull may have momentarily placated conservative elements in his party room in the wake of the Pyne tape affair, but the issue of same-sex marriage has not gone away.

Turnbull must sooner or later confront the reality that there is a difference between leadership and saving his leadership. Same-sex marriage is an issue capable of splitting the Liberal party, the Coalition and the nation.

The true test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership will be not by what machinations he manages to retain his prime ministership, but having retained it, what steps will he take to ensure that Australia takes its place in the world as a nation that says ‘yes’ to marriage for all.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher