TONY Abbott was the young fogey who, through discipline and stubbornness, has grown to become our middle-aged fogey Prime Minister.
That’s the picture Labor figures are lining up to paint in the aftermath of last night’s Coalition showdown, which has guaranteed no same-sex marriage changes before the next election.
Marriage equality will not be a decisive issue when voters go to the polls in a year’s time, but the broader question of Mr Abbott’s ability to relate to voters on a range of social and cultural matters and polices could be.
Mr Abbott’s reading of his Coalition MPs’ views on gay marriage can’t be faulted, but he will be challenged on whether he reflects the views of the contemporary electorate, particularly voters aged 18 to 40.
“We saw that Tony Abbott will fight tooth and nail to be yesterday’s man,” said Labor’s Senate Leader Penny Wong.
Shadow immigration minister Richard Marles claimed the Prime Minister had “a Commodore 64 view of the world — he’s stuck in the past”.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten simply said: “We’re dealing with people who are genuinely stuck in the past.”
The Prime Minister risked contributing to this perception again today when he described same-sex marriage as an issue for this generation, because he hadn’t come across it when he was a university student in the 1970s. That is, last century.
However, this has been a topic of national debate for at least 15 years. That is why more than 10 years ago — in 2004 — Liberal Prime Minister John Howard changed the Marriage Act to stipulate it was for a man and a woman only.
“Prior to that, it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone in our culture and civilisation that marriage was not between a man and a woman,” Mr Abbott told ABC radio.
“I can remember my own university debates with gay friends and the idea that the gay community would have in those days waited to embrace a bourgeois institution like marriage would have been unthinkable.
Mr Abbott might have harnessed the forces of fogeydom to his advantage within the Government, he has broken new ground with the promise of a “people’s vote” to settle the matter some time following the next election.
After the recent Irish vote backed marriage equality, Mr Abbott sternly said that process wasn’t for Australia. It would be settled here by the Parliament. Last night, he revealed had changed his mind, but didn’t explain exactly to what.
But does he mean a referendum to change the Constitution, as Treasurer Joe Hockey this morning suggested?
Section 51 says the “ … Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to …” It lists some 40 matters from lighthouses to telegraph operations.
Number 21 is marriage. It is not clear what a change to the Constitution’s Section 51:21 would achieve, why it would be necessary.
But it appears the Prime Minister is looking for something more binding than a giant opinion poll, and the inspiration for the preferred format could be Liberal Cory Bernardi, a firm opponent to same-sex marriage.
“Quite frankly, if there was a majority of people in a majority of states saying that’s what we want … who am I to argue with that, quite frankly?” Senator Bernardi told the National Press Club on July 29.
He was imposing the tough conditions for a successful referendum on what would be a plebiscite.
Lyle Shelton, of the Australian Christian Lobby, today also saw a vote as a referendum disguised as a plebiscite, insisting “it was important there was equal public funding for both sides and Parliament should impose a ban on overseas donations to either side”.
That battle is well down the track, and first will be the election. Mr Abbott’s leader’s call — contrary to the positions of half his ministry — will be cheered by his usual supporters but younger voters might be placing it next to policies on climate change and gender politics to re-evaluate the Prime Minister.