Tony Abbott: the anti-hero on gay marriage?

Opinion | Andrew Probyn Federal Political Editor
Tony Abbott with his wife Margaret and daughters Bridget and Frances, left, at an election campaign laungh. Picture: Getty Images

Shhhh! Don’t tell him, but some Liberals reckon that Tony Abbott is the man best-placed to deliver gays and lesbians so-called marriage equality.

Not that the Prime Minister supports gay marriage. Heavens no, despite what his sister(s) and his daughters have been telling him for years. But that’s the point.

Politics is littered with examples of the least likely being the ones that play a key role in change: on economic reform, international relations and social reform.

One of the most famous examples is from American politics. If it had been a Democrat President that reached out to China and not a virulently anti-Communist Richard Nixon, it would not had anywhere near the same impact.

In Australian politics, a less dramatic but no less transformational example was in Labor’s economic reforms in the 1980s, overseen and undertaken by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Under the ALP, the financial system was deregulated, the dollar floated, import tariffs reduced, the Commonwealth Bank sold … things that might not ordinarily be expected of a Labor government at the time.

Well may John Howard have later commended Hawke and Keating for modernising the Australian economy – they were ideas that had their origins in the 1981 Campbell report that Howard, as Malcolm Fraser’s treasurer, had prepared.

Howard left the Campbell report, along with a Commonwealth Style Manual, stapler and pencil sharpener in his vacated office as a welcome present in March 1983 for Keating, his replacement as federal treasurer.

Keating would have also introduced a GST, if he’d had his way. But there was only so much neo-liberalism Labor could cope with during the fast wrench from its more protectionist history.

Nevertheless, the Hawke-Keating reforms defied expectations of a Labor government and are celebrated for it.

In this sense, Abbott is being framed as the antithetical rainbow hero; that if a social conservative like him can be convinced not to stand in the way of gays and lesbians marrying it would carry much more significance.

Malcolm Turnbull supporting gay marriage? Well, that would be expected. So what? Abbott’s the headline hardliner, the Nixon-goes-to-China, counter-intuitive agent for change that some people believe.

It’s hard not to agree that Abbott’s acquiescence to a conscience vote on gay marriage would be worth much more to the cause than Turnbull’s advocacy, even if Abbott’s personal vote didn’t end up appearing in the Ayes column.

And so, in the lead-up to Tuesday’s coalition partyroom, there was a quiet but determined effort within the Federal Liberal Party to get a discussion going on gay marriage.

Delicate conversations were had with members of the Abbott Government executive to see if it was possible to lean on Abbott to make room for such a debate.

In the end, it came to nought. Nothing was mentioned on the topic. In part, this was because of the softly-softly approach being taken due to the sensitivities involved.

Nor did the agitators want to push it too hard, for fear of creating another damaging federal distraction before the NSW election – Mike Baird is already facing nasty headwinds thanks to Labor’s crass and xenophobic anti-privatisation campaign.

And Liberals wanting to get a proper measure of the anti-Abbott mood in the election didn’t particularly want to spoil the experiment with extraneous issues.

But such were the expectations of the coalition partyroom meeting on Tuesday that even a no-show of the topic was greeted as a victory by the Australian Christian Lobby which announced shortly after midday on Tuesday that it welcomed news the Liberal Party would continue to vote “as one” on marriage.

“The response from supporters of marriage has been magnificent,” ACL managing director Lyle Shelton said, revealing that more than 20,000 anti-gay marriage Australians had bombarded Liberal MPs backers in response to the ACL’s campaign.

“Legislating a family structure which requires a child to miss out on their mother or father should not be supported by mainstream political parties.

“It is quite appropriate that the Liberal Party has a party position supporting marriage between a man and a woman.”

At this point, it’s important to note that no-one thinks that a vote on gay marriage would succeed right now in the Lower House, even if Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Freedom to Marry Bill scraped though the Senate.

But it is an issue that has developed a quick evolution among MPs as they struggle to keep up with the times or, in some instances, reconsider old instincts at the urging of younger family members.

As Liberal MP Warren Entsch, a moustachioed former crocodile hunter from north Queensland and unlikely champion of gay rights revealed to this column this week, some of his colleagues who oppose gay marriage have been chastised by their children for being so old-fashioned.

Entsch has doubts Leyonhjelm’s Bill will ever see the light of day but as chair of the parliamentary friends of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex group he says he would sponsor a Government Bill if needed.

On the other side of the Chamber, the difficulty is not how to start the conversation but where to stop.

A series of Labor State conferences has voted to make marriage equality ALP policy.

There is a plan afoot to make it part of the national platform at the ALP national conference in July. This would bind Labor MPs and senators to support any legislative attempt to legalise gay marriage.

Any Labor MP or senator who felt unable to toe the line and crossed the floor would be expelled from the party.

One of them would be WA Labor Senator Joe Bullock, the veteran unionist, one-time Liberal Party member and university mate of Abbott.

Bullock would be among half a dozen Labor senators alone.

To insist a vote on gay marriage is binding would be insane, says one senior Labor MP who is one of many 50-something male politicians in Parliament to have dropped his opposition to gay marriage.

“One of constant themes in Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing is that the smartest people sometimes do really dumb things,” the Labor MP says.

Too true. Forcing a vote on an issue that is ultimately about choice would be dumb indeed.