If there were subterranean fears in the public’s mind about the potential for the Greens to be the policy-drivers in a Gillard minority government, the eruption of the issue of gay marriage has well and truly vindicated them.
Fresh on the back of an announcement about a carbon tax, which the Greens have subsequently boasted as being their policy, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has created a new controversy ostensibly on the issue of reducing the power of the Commonwealth Government to intervene in legislation in the territories.
At the behest of the Greens, and using Ms Gillard’s chief adviser Simon Crean as the spear-thrower, the federal Labor Caucus was informed that the Gillard Government had decided to support the Greens’ bid to rescind the veto power that a federal minister can exercise over any legislation enacted by the territories. However, the federal parliament would still have the power to over-ride territory legislatures, Labor MPs were told.
In essence, this meant giving the territories greater autonomy in decision-making, as is currently enjoyed by the states. In practice, this meant giving the green light to gay marriage.
Initially, all Labor MPs had accepted the proposal. However, after the Caucus meeting at which the decision had been considered a fait accompli, it dawned on a small group of socially conservative right-wing Labor MPs what this decision could mean.
Members of the group included influential South Australian Senator Don Farrell, NSW Senator Steve Hutchins and Queensland Senator John Hogg.
They fronted Ms Gillard and urged her to reconsider the proposal and the implications of adopting yet another Greens policy so soon after the unpopular backflip on a carbon tax.
As a result, the proposed bill has been referred to a Senate committee.
Many commentators have tried to argue that the proposed bill is simply a states rights issue and a means of granting parliaments in the territories greater autonomy.
Greens leader Bob Brown has mischievously declared that the issue had nothing to do with gay marriage. “This is about the rights of the territories to determine their own future,” he said.
In the bizarre world of modern politics, where black is declared white and visa versa, this statement stretched the bounds of credulity.
Was Bob Brown MP complaining about states rights being usurped when the Keating Government overturned Tasmanian laws, which penalised homosexuals in 1994?
Or going even further back, did Bob Brown complain when the Hawke Government used federal World Heritage legislation to over-rule the Tasmanian Government to prevent the damming of the Franklin River? The then Mr Brown was begging the federal Labor Government to step in!
In truth, the only current reason why the territories would need this would be to assist in the passage of the controversial same-sex civil union laws, which the ACT Government has been trying to enact in various forms since 2006.
But it is also Senator Brown’s declared intention that he wants to also repeal the federal law banning euthanasia in the territories.
Since 2004, the Commonwealth Marriage Act has defined marriage as the “union between a man and a woman”. The law applies throughout the country.
Every federal leader since has publicly supported the institution of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, including Ms Gillard herself on many occasions – although not to the point of entering into such an arrangement herself.
Both the Howard and Rudd governments used the ministerial veto to quash previous attempts by the ACT Government to permit same-sex unions.
On the other hand, both the Howard and Rudd governments have enacted legislation to eliminate discrimination for same-sex couples in terms of their ability to pass on superannuation benefits to surviving partners and other matters.
When introducing his original bill for same-sex civil partnerships in 2006, ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope declared that, while Tasmania had a relations registration scheme, what he was proposing for the ACT would be significantly different.
“It’s an advance on a … registration scheme. The civil union scheme, or the Civil Union Act which we propose to pass in the ACT, will essentially create domestic relationships,” Mr Stanhope then told the ABC. “It won’t be just a register of the existence of a relationship.”
And this is why successive federal governments have fought to intervene to prevent the ACT Government from introducing such laws. They fear that such same-sex civil partnerships would mirror the Commonwealth Marriage Act in all but name.
The whole unnecessary episode is another “own” goal scored by federal Labor. Ms Gillard is now embroiled in a fight between right-wing socially conservative MPs on one side and socially radical left-wing MPs on the other. Whatever the outcome, one group is going to be left unhappy.
Some influential right-wing Labor powerbrokers such as AWU chief Paul Howes and NSW Senator Mark Arbib are now advocates of a change of Labor policy on same-sex marriage, citing polls which claim that Australians are adopting more of a live-and-let-live approach to such issues. Probably, the attitudes of the average Australian voter are more socially conservative than the pollsters like to imagine.
But while many ordinary Australian voters may be ambivalent about same-sex unions, they will not be happy about a prime minister who is taking her marching orders from the Greens, and even more unhappy about a prime minister who is being sidelined by irrelevant tenth-order issues.