If Bill Shorten Really Wants To Achieve Marriage Equality, He’s Going About It The Wrong Way

Bill Shorten's Marriage Equality Bill on Monday seems like little more than a publicity stunt -- and a dangerous one at that.

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Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten introduced his marriage equality legislation to the Federal Parliament. As the first leader of one of the two major parties to actively support reform, Shorten’s move is being seen as a major step in the march towards equality. And with the momentum from the successful Irish referendum, it now seems even more inevitable that Australia will soon legislate for same-sex marriage.

But while I really want to believe Shorten introduced the bill with the sole motive of making reform a reality, I cannot.

To me, this feels not just like a publicity stunt, but one that has the potential to significantly hurt our chances for reform this year.

Why This Bill? Why Now?

It is strange to watch Shorten and his colleagues act as if they are heroes on marriage equality, when the ALP have been one of the biggest blockers for change over the last decade. The ALP voted with the Howard Government in 2004 to change the definition of The Marriage Act 1961 and ensure same sex marriages were not recognised in Australia; and the ALP defeated The Greens’ marriage equality legislation twice, in 2009 and 2012. Six years in Government, and they could not achieve reform.

With this in mind I have to ask: why this bill, and why now?

Shorten’s legislation came at the heels of the successful Irish referendum a couple of weeks ago. When it comes to timing, the ALP’s motives were clear: to maximise on momentum from the vote, and push for a groundswell of support for a similar change in Australia. It is a good strategy.

But there’s more to it than that. The ALP also wants to use this legislation as an attempt to “own” the issue of marriage equality. This is why Shorten has made such a big deal over the bill, and why my Facebook feed has been full of advertisements about the party’s position in the last week. Yesterday, Senator Penny Wong suggested the ALP had to introduce the legislation because “no one stepped up” — a ridiculous allegation if you think about the ten other marriage equality bills currently sitting in our Parliament.

The ALP are trying to position themselves as taking a brave and courageous lead on the issue, rather than simply catching up with public sentiment that has supported marriage equality for years.

Marriage Equality Needs Bipartisanship

‘So what?’, you ask. Who cares if the ALP tries to “own” this issue? It doesn’t matter what they did in the past, as long as they are doing the right thing now.

That’s how I would normally feel as well. That’s politics after all. The problem, though, is that Shorten’s posturing actually has the potential to set back the cause of marriage equality.

While Shorten was making his move last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was too. Speaking in Parliament, Abbott finally acknowledged there was momentum for change, and that a vote would come to Parliament at some point this year. But he gave one caveat:

If our Parliament were to make a big decision on a matter such as this, I want it to be owned by the Parliament, and not by any particular party.”

This is a major concession. For the first time Abbott has admitted, even begrudgingly, that marriage reform is on its way — and, even more importantly, that the Coalition will be a part of the change. Not only has the PM opened the door to a Coalition conscience vote, which would likely lead to the passage of the legislation this year, but he has also made a move that could encourage his party’s more conservative supporters to finally accept that change is on its way. These are not just empty words; in the past week Alan Jones came out in support of marriage equality and Andrew Bolt appeared to have given up, and on Friday Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch announced that he would introduce the legislation (again disproving Wong’s contention on Monday that “no else one stepped up”). It was originally reported that Entsch’s bill would be co-sponsored by ALP MP Graham Perrett, but he has since denied any involvement — and one has to ask whether Shorten’s legislation had anything to do with that.

In making this concession, Abbott and the Coalition have laid out a way forward on marriage equality that could see a positive vote by August. Realising that change is inevitable, Abbott has offered a compromise. He doesn’t want to “own” the legislation himself, let alone vote for it. Yet at the same time he does not want to be further embarrassed on the issue by the ALP or the Greens.

Hence a middle of the road approach, and — given that the Coalition controls the Parliament, meaning any legislation will require their cooperation — a fairly decent one at that.

A Dangerous Publicity Stunt

It is here where the ALP’s posturing becomes so dangerous. Abbott’s change of heart and the potential for bipartisanship it represented was one of the biggest signs of progress there’s been on marriage equality since the last election. Yet instead of working with his compromise, Bill Shorten is using the opportunity to embarrass him even further. In doing so Shorten is potentially pushing Abbott and his supporters back into the closet — shaming him at the very time he indicated a willingness to change.

While I normally have no problem with embarrassing Abbott, this time it seems to be a grave mistake. Just look at the Coalition’s reaction to Shorten’s bill. Only five Coalition MPs turned up to the introduction of the legislation, which to the public makes it look  precisely as though they are against the bill. Meanwhile, Abbott has continued with his claim that the budget is more important, delaying a vote for a number of months.

Whether we like it or not, Tony Abbott and the Coalition have control of the House of Representatives, meaning marriage equality advocates require their cooperation (and some of their support) if we want to see a change to legislation this year. This is why a cross-party approach is the best way to achieve reform in the short term, and why the Greens have said they oppose Shorten’s approach in favour of a slower, more consultative process. “Having individuals going it alone now, having the Opposition Leader going it alone, would be a mistake,” the Greens leader Richard di Natale has said. “I just hope that he recognises that here’s an opportunity to have a rare moment of unity.”

Marriage equality is just around the corner. It is great that Bill Shorten has finally caught up on the issue. Yet by barging in the way he has done, Shorten and the ALP have proven they care more about “owning” the issue than they do about actually achieving reform — and if they continue on their current trajectory, they could harm the chances for marriage equality even more.

Simon Copland writes on issues covering politics, the environment and sex, gender and sexuality. He blogs here and tweets at @SimonCopland.