Can Australia Handle Same-Sex Marriage and Becoming a Republic at the Same Time?

They're two of the biggest issues around. But it seems unlikely we'll get them both across the line.
09 February 2016, 12:00am

Illustration by Ben Thomson

Same-sex marriage and an Australian republic. You wouldn't think these two issues would necessarily be at loggerheads, but they may be facing off like two candidates who each know you only have one vote. Both are important issues. Both speak to who we want to become as a people. But it's very unlikely we're going to see movement on both of these issues in the near future. Maybe one, but not both.

So why will the progressives in Australia only get one wish possibly granted? It's not because same-sex marriage and a republic are equally important, and it's not because we like pitting issues against one another in a manufactured deathmatch. It's because of something that is very powerful, but is also entirely unquantifiable and largely fictitious: political capital*.

If you're unfamiliar with the phrase and concept of "political capital" it goes something like this:

If a politician wins an election in an absolute landslide after running on a platform of, say, healthcare reform and income tax reduction, they then theoretically have a clear path to enact those policies when they take office. However, if the politician wins by a very narrow margin, maybe because two days before the election their opponent accidentally outs themselves as a necrophile polygamist, then the subsequent path forward isn't so clear.

The scraped-in-by-a-slim-margin politician, having taken office, still won power. Yet how that power is perceived to have been won will dictate the agenda. It's not even about how much power you perceive a politician to have, but how much power you think someone else perceives them to have. It's like a riddle you'd find in a children's fantasy book, except that it's genuinely how our lives are governed.

Which brings us to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who—while famously in favour of both gay marriage and Australian becoming a republic—is in a very interesting position at the moment. Watching him effectively argue against his own agenda shows just how difficult it is to quantify the capital of a leader.

The fact that Turnbull became Prime Minister in a mid-term coup is offset by the fact that the government's approval rating has risen considerably. An almost-certain 2016 election defeat is now looking like an almost-certain 2016 election win, and so he has earned himself a degree of political capital. But it's also been strongly rumored that many secret deals had to be made for him to secure the support of the party's right-wing faction, and that these deals will prevent him from making any headway on his pet issues, at least in the foreseeable future. But if Turnbull leads the coalition to a huge win, and it's likely he will, the situation could change. Turnbull will be better positioned to set the agenda he wants, as opposed to carrying out the agenda of the guy he booted out because his agenda was so awful.

However, the slippery slope of power and perception works both ways. For obvious yet disingenuous reasons, Turnbull has continued Abbott's plan to hold a plebiscite on gay marriage, with the proposed ballot taking place after the next election. A yes vote from Australian will provide a mandate for marriage reform, and one that even the most conservative corners of the party will struggle to argue against. Minister Steve Ciobo, an opponent of same-sex marriage, has said that it would be foolish for ministers to vote against it if the public confirms its support.

But Senator Eric Abetz, who also opposes same-sex adults marrying each other, has suggested otherwise. A plebiscite would not be binding, and Abetz said he should not be expected to follow. "Would Warren Entsch [a staunchly pro-gay marriage Liberal minister] drop his campaign on the issue? I think not." Abetz is correct on this point, although his analogy doesn't quite prove what he thinks it proves.

With Tony Abbott controversially flying to the USA to speak to the anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion Alliance Defending Freedom group, there's clearly going to be a fight on the cards no matter what the outcome of a public vote.

Meanwhile, support for same-sex marriage continues to grow. A Fairfax poll in 2010 had support at 57 percent. By 2015, it had risen to 68 percent. As opponents drag their feet on the issue, support only continues to rise. Same-sex marriage is inevitable. But unfortunately for non-monarchists, ministers who end up having to support gay marriage against their wishes are unlikely to want to do the same again when the republic issue edges closer to a vote.

And this is why marriage equality has the potential to scuttle the republic debate.

When she was Prime Minister, Julia Gillard suggested the public's affection for Queen Elizabeth was the primary sticking point, and that the issue of a republic would have to wait until the Queen was no longer around. Of course, the public's affection for the newest generation of photogenic royals means we're unlikely to want to get rid of the monarchy once Princes William or George take the throne. That leaves a narrow window of opportunity when the premise of 1980s sitcom Charles in Charge becomes a reality, a brief period in time in which the Australian public might suddenly find itself rather keen on the idea of distancing itself from Mother Britain.

And perhaps that's been the plan all along. Imagine, if you will, a faction of conservative Australian powerbrokers who recognise that they've lost the battle on gay marriage, but still hold out hope for the Commonwealth. What if all these delaying tactics on marriage equality are simply designed to ensure that it is not passed until Big Willy IV pops the crown on his melon?

It's a crazy concept, but no crazier than the idea that we can't handle marriage equality and becoming a republic at the same time. And maybe that's the true issue that needs tackling.

*Political capital should not be confused with our political capital, Canberra, which is conversely the least powerful, entirely quantifiable and largely factual force in politics.

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