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Marriage equality delay in Australia holds a lesson for Canadian MPs

Aussie legislators are showing more backbone than Canadian counterparts

Although Australia is in a parliamentary deadlock against gay marriage, it sets an example for how Canada could stand up to its own government. IvonneW/iStock/Thinkstock

In Australia, LGBT activists are celebrating because a parliamentary deadlock means that gay marriage will remain illegal for the foreseeable future. 

Although this seems like a bizarre reaction, it’s actually great evidence of a parliamentary system working exactly as it should, and it provides some useful lessons for Canada. 

Australia’s political system is similar to Canada’s, but it features a Senate elected by proportional representation and a House of Representatives elected by ranked ballots. 

After an election this summer, the governing right-leaning coalition was reduced to a one-seat majority in the House, and maintained a weak minority in the Senate. In order for legislation to be approved, it must pass through both houses.

Gay marriage has been a political hot potato in Australia for years. The current prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has long been a supporter of equal marriage, but in order to seek the support of far-right members for leadership of his party, Turnbull pledged that he would only legislate on the issue if it passed a nationwide plebiscite. The opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten once supported holding a plebiscite, but campaigned in the last election on legislating by a free vote in Parliament. 

Since the election, the parties have both dug in their heels, with Labor members now arguing that the costly $160-million plebiscite would expose LGBT youth to dangerous hate speech. They, and other minor parties, have pledged to block the plebiscite legislation in the Senate, and the government has threatened that without a plebiscite, they will not legislate on equal marriage until after the next election in 2019.

The government claims it has an electoral mandate to hold a plebiscite and accuses the opposition of subverting the will of the Australian people, who, inconveniently for the government, poll at about 60 percent opposed to holding a plebiscite. 

But uh-oh — the opposition senators claim a mandate to block it. And so they will, serving as a nice reminder that parliamentary systems are not meant to act as rubber stamps for the government of the day. 

Ok, yes, it looks like this show of backbone is delaying equality a little further. But this is hardly the end of the story. Both parties are mostly posturing right now. It’s not clear why Labor members think that a plebiscite would expose LGBT people to more harm over three years of delay on the legislation followed by a(nother) federal election fought on marriage equality. 

And the government’s position is equally incoherent — if homophobes in the coalition can’t abide a free vote on the issue now, why would they agree after the next election? Does Turnbull really want to fight another election on this losing issue?

Moreover, can Turnbull really hold all of his MPs long enough to block the free vote being pushed by the opposition? He can’t afford to expel any from the party, and only five would need to cross the floor on the issue for it to win. Or eight could abstain. 

Australian MPs tend to show a lot more willingness to challenge their party leaders than ours do — it shouldn’t be surprising if some government MPs from urban ridings cross on the issue. 

Over the next several months, the opposition will continue to press the issue, exploiting the government’s weakness, until either a compromise emerges that saves the prime minister’s job, or a caucus revolt costs him it anyway. 

This deadlock is instructive, and maybe quaint, to those who remember the Stephen Harper minority years from 2006–2011. Harper repeatedly rammed through legislation, claiming a mandate and daring the opposition to force an election over any minor issue. 

The weak and divided opposition — particularly the Liberals, but also the NDP that acquiesced to much of Harper’s crime agenda — sat on their hands and let them. Canada’s MPs and our provincial representatives should look to Australia for an example of how they are meant to stand up to a government, even as it seems we’re heading to another period of federal Liberal hegemony.