Time warp: Australian conservatives in civil war over gay marriage

I come from a land down under, Where beer does flow and men chunder. Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder? You better run, you better take cover.

In Australia it’s like 2015 all over again. (Of course, it takes a while for the news to reach that continent, so I suppose that’s to be forgiven.) The story unfolding there right now on the gay marriage front sounds like a replay of the scene in the United States a couple of years ago. The liberal leaning party is almost unanimous in their desire to legalize marriage for gay couples while the more conservative coalition which currently controls Parliament (by the slimmest of margins) is divided on the subject. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finds himself caught somewhere in the middle. (Associated Press)

Australia’s ruling party will attempt to resolve bitter internal differences over gay marriage at a special meeting on Monday aimed at containing a rift that threatens the prime minister’s leadership.

Finding policy agreement on the issue is a test of prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s authority over his government, which has trailed the center-left opposition Labor Party for months in opinion polls.

The conservative Liberal Party-led coalition was narrowly re-elected at elections in July last year with a promise to let voters decide whether Australia should recognize same-sex marriage through a popular vote. But the Senate would not allow the so-called plebiscite, which would have cost 160 million Australian dollars ($127 million) and the result could have been ignored by lawmakers when deciding how to vote on gay marriage legislation in the Parliament.

To understand the power struggle going on in Canberra at the moment we need to get a grip on the country’s parliamentary system and their ruling factions which, much like in Great Britain, have names which can lead to confusion for Americans. The liberal leaning party is the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and they currently hold 69 seats in Parliament and 26 in the Senate, along with a few others from some much smaller parties who mostly align with them. The conservative faction is led by the curiously named (to Americans) Liberal Party of Australia, headed up by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. They are teamed up with The National Party, The Liberal National Party and the Country Liberals. Between them they hold 76 seats in Parliament and 29 in the Senate.

The conservatives promised to hold a national referendum on gay marriage last year, but for some reason the Senate wouldn’t allow it, with some arguing that the results wouldn’t be binding on the legislature anyway. (They also complained about the cost of another election.) But if the ruling coalition doesn’t do something fairly soon they’re probably going to be in danger of losing power since the public is generally in favor of legalizing it. (Though perhaps not as robustly as we saw in the United States when it became the law of the land here.)

Here’s a few minutes of Turnbull last September pushing for the idea of the plebiscite which already seemed doomed at the time.

Turnbull is on record as favoring gay marriage, but he had to agree to the plebiscite idea instead of direct action in Parliament in order to placate his most conservative backers in the coalition. As you see from the numbers I listed above, his list of allies is thin and he really can’t afford to lose any of them at the moment, so the Prime Minister is between a rock and a hard place on this one. If Labor introduces a bill in Parliament this week and it somehow passes, the entire situation could collapse on Malcolm’s head and wind up costing him his position as Prime Minister.

In short, this is a mess. It actually makes the process we went through in America look like the regular order of business by comparison.

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