It's the leadership, stupid
News that Liberal MPs and senators could be allowed a conscience vote on the Liberal Democratic Party’s proposed marriage equality bill is welcome. But its successful passage remains far from guaranteed.
The LDP’s senator David Leyonhjelm may well have a valid point that some conservative MPs will be more open-minded to a bill like this when it comes from his party – the libertarian right – rather than the Greens. There is indeed a strong element of pathological hatred amongst the Liberal Party to all Greens and any policy they advocate – even sensible, electorally popular policies such as marriage equality. Assuming his motives and goals are sincere, his strategy is certainly clever.
But even Leyonhjelm has a battle on his hands. Because for the few genuinely liberal champions of individual rights and freedoms who serve in the Liberal Party, there are plenty of neo-conservatives who see one role for government to regulate people’s personal relationships. Among them is of course their leader, Tony Abbott – not to mention their Senate leader, Eric Abetz, and the majority of Cabinet.
And therein lies the biggest hurdle – poor leadership. Not only are Abbott, Abetz et al never going to champion marriage equality, they’ll actively fight against it and disparage it publicly, as they have done for many years. Consequently, they’ll send out a warning message to MPs wavering on marriage equality that they should fall on the pro side only at the risk of their own future career advancement, at least while they’re running the show.
Marriage equality can only ever happen on the watch of conservative governments when their leaders champion it. That’s why it’s now a reality in the UK and New Zealand, and why it’s almost guaranteed not to happen in Australia so long as Abbott is PM.
[Image] Senator David Leyonhjelm.
That said, there is a small glimmer of hope for equality supporters. Abbott’s leadership, and that of the Liberal Party’s senior figures, has been so appalling that even the party’s most one-eyed cheerleader newspaper columnist, Andrew Bolt, has described the Abbott government as “starting to look shambolic”.
By abandoning controversial planned changes to the Racial Discrimination Act as proposed by George “people have a right to be bigots” Brandis, as well as standing firm to his universally unpopular paid parental leave scheme, Abbott has been accused of alienating big chunks of his own party and weakening his own leadership. Not only is he unloved by many voters, as opinion polls continue to show, increasingly he seems to be unloved by his own party too.
And judging by his cosy lunches with Clive Palmer, it seems Malcolm Turnbull can smell blood in the air. Were he to do a Gillard and knife Abbott for the top job mid-term, the Liberal Party would then at least have a leader who could champion marriage equality with credibility and integrity, and bring its supportive or uncommitted MPs along with him.