Having lit the match that fired same-sex marriage back onto the government’s immediate agenda, the five Liberal rebels have left Malcolm Turnbull with a dangerously smouldering issue that will burn on for months.
The Liberal party room saw the rebels neatly isolated, and they’ve stepped back. At Monday’s meeting of nearly two hours, only Warren Entsch reserved his right to cross the floor, and that’s not going to happen any time soon, if ever.
The government will now, in great haste, put its legislation for a plebiscite back to the Senate. But the chances of it getting a tick appear to be close to nil.
The next step, a postal ballot, is divisive and risky. It would be costly, though admittedly cheaper than a plebiscite. There’d be the legal test. The government insists the ballot can be held without fresh legislation, but the lawyers are divided and a legal challenge by the marriage equality lobby might lead to delay, even if it ultimately failed.
There’d be difficulties in getting voting papers to younger, mobile voters. The postal system is a relic of past times for a lot of people.
The ballot would be voluntary. If there was a low response rate that would raise further big questions about how representative the result was. Whichever side lost would cry foul.
Turnbull’s 1997 doubts about postal ballots, although expressed in another context, remain potent. “The voluntary postal voting method … flies in the face of Australian democratic values”, he wrote then.
If the postal vote came back with a yes result, the government would facilitate a bill for change. But Coalition MPs would have a free vote, so those with strong objections to same-sex marriage wouldn’t have to support it.
In the event of a negative result, that would be that, as far as the government was concerned. If a bill were then put up by a Liberal rebel, Labor or a crossbencher, the indications are that government MPs would remain bound to resist it – with the proviso that any Coalition backbencher has the right to cross the floor.
The rebellion has left the government, certainly in the immediate term, worse off than if nothing had been done. Before the rebels made their run, same-sex marriage had gone quiet, well down the list of voters’ priorities.
They put it up in lights, created a distraction and exposed divisions. But then, they were not willing to carry through – to tell the party room that regardless of its opinion, they’d follow their consciences and cross the floor in the quest for a swift resolution.
What were they thinking? That they could persuade their colleagues? That they would have the courage to defy those colleagues? Surely they must have suspected it would always end this way – with the party’s conservatives victorious in beating off yet another challenge to their position.
It was the same two years ago, when Entsch was trying, he believed with Tony Abbott’s encouragement, to advance a cross-party bill, and then found himself cut off at the knees. As he has been this time.
The marriage equality lobby has worked closely with the five. But while that lobby and the rebels have an obvious common motivation – to win reform – their fundamental priorities actually diverge.
Achieving same-sex marriage is the lobby’s one and only mission, and its tactic is disruption, to increase the pain for the government of not making the change. It has done well out of this exercise, given the party was always unlikely to endorse a free vote, because the issue will be to the fore in coming months.
In contrast, the rebels are primarily Liberals and secondly marriage reform activists. For them, causing disruption, which they’ve done, has costs for the government and them personally.
So it is interesting that in recent months – because this push started a good while ago – they decided, or were persuaded, to put their activism ahead of everything else.
Despite their apparently bowing to the party room, it is not known whether any of them might stir again before the postal ballot gets underway. For example, could Senator Dean Smith, who has denounced a postal vote, try something in the Senate with his bill?
The postal ballot is another win for Peter Dutton, who promoted the idea early. Dutton and fellow senior conservative Mathias Cormann are both known to be anxious to have the issue gone. Dutton’s interest is likely to include particularly the fact that GetUp is campaigning fiercely in his marginal seat – to neutralise the marriage question would be useful.
Turnbull desperately needs the postal ballot, assuming it occurs, to deliver a yes vote so a reform bill is put through parliament before Christmas.
He’d then have delivered same-sex marriage, and deprived Bill Shorten of an issue for the election.
This may happen. The conservatives, who can’t hold back change for ever, may finally be routed. The rebels will have won.
But it is equally possible a hellish few months could be followed by a “no” vote or a result so close that the party went into another paroxysm.
It’s anybody’s guess. In the meantime, the Liberals are preparing for a messy battle over energy policy.