NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Same-sex "marriage": litmus test for Gillard
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, November 26, 2011
Julia Gillard’s survival as Prime Minister could depend on whether she stares down the push from the homosexual lobby, the Greens and the ALP left to change ALP policy on marriage at the forthcoming ALP national conference.
When the left initiated the push to reverse the ALP’s long-standing support for marriage last year, the Prime Minister’s position was unequivocal. She described herself as a traditionalist on marriage, and said explicitly that she supported the definition of marriage contained in the Marriage Act, as between one man and one woman, entered into for life.
It is widely known that when she was touted as a replacement for Kevin Rudd in 2010, the ALP right — which had reservations about her — asked for and received undertakings in relation to same-sex “marriage” and continued support for non-government schools.
Based on these undertakings, the ALP right switched from Kevin Rudd and supported her accession to the Prime Ministership.
Since then, her position has become more equivocal. While stating that she supports the present definition of marriage, Gillard has also said that she would be bound by the decision of the ALP conference, and persistent rumours have suggested that at this conference she will permit a “conscience vote” on the issue in federal parliament.
Both these alternatives represent an abandonment of her earlier commitment, and will have consequences for Gillard herself within the ALP over the year ahead.
Despite the most recent opinion polls showing an improvement in her personal popularity — on the back of the royal visit, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth and the visit of US President Barack Obama — 2012 promises to be a very bad year for the Gillard Government.
The opinion polls also confirm that if an election were held today, the Labor Party would suffer a crushing and demoralising defeat.
To deal with the budget deficit and its long-standing promise to deliver a budget surplus next year, the Gillard Government is being forced to introduce a mini-Budget which, in the words of Treasurer Wayne Swan, will contain “tough budget decisions”.
Some commentators have suggested that this will involve cuts to social welfare, health and defence.
It remains uncertain whether the Independents who hold the balance of power in the lower house, or the Greens who have the balance of power in the Senate, will agree to them. But in any case, such cuts will be deeply unpopular with core Labor constituencies, and will drive more Labor voters into the arms of the Coalition.
This year seems likely to end on a sour note, especially after the Prime Minister promised that 2011 would be a year of decision and delivery. She has reversed a promise made before the last federal election not to introduce a carbon tax. She is now supporting cuts in social spending and softening her stand on same-sex marriage at the ALP national conference.
The situation in 2012 will undoubtedly get worse. Next year, the Labor Government intends to bring its budget back into surplus on the back of the carbon tax and the minerals resource rent tax (MRRT), both of which will take effect from July 2012.
Both these taxes will put further pressure on prices (by contributing to rising electricity prices, and by lifting the price of domestic steels), and fuel inflation.
With an election due in 2013, Julia Gillard will come under increasing pressure within the ALP to step aside or be replaced.
Despite the deep reservations in the parliamentary party against a further change in leader, Gillard’s position is far from secure, as seen in periodic media speculation. While many MPs will not consider Kevin Rudd under any circumstances, he retains a high public profile and is supported by many in the Labor heartland, particularly Queensland.
Additionally, Steven Smith, currently Minister for Defence, and Simon Crean, a former ACTU and ALP leader, are regarded as senior and experienced political operators who have the correct credentials for leadership.
If Julia Gillard abandons her support for traditional marriage, she is likely to find that her base of support in the parliamentary party will collapse, as happened to Kevin Rudd before her.
Apart from Julia Gillard, the future of many Labor MPs will depend on whether they join the Greens and the ALP’s left wing on the same-sex “marriage” issue.
The tactic of “conscience votes” was introduced to permit the party in government to avoid the odium of introducing unpopular social legislation, while steering it through parliament. For 20 years, the tactic worked.
But MPs in marginal electorates are becoming aware that if they support such legislation, they will face strong and concerted local campaigns to unseat them. With Labor facing a strong headwind in the run-up to the next election, this is the last thing they should be considering.