Marriage equality and Joycean humility: the week that was

Nobody with ears could mistake the words of recently re-elected Nationals Party leader Barnaby Joyce for stirring speechmaking. But in a close run thing, the indulgent nonsense from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, when the House of Representatives eventually reconvened to debate marriage equality, was the bigger oratorical mess.

Joyce first. The footage of his breathlessly anticipated return to Canberra shows Barnaby muddling through a poorly-conceived and grossly misleading analogy on eligibility for the national parliament.

“We threw ourselves under a bus”, said Joyce of his decision to stay on in cabinet and the parliament until disqualified by the High Court of Australia. “Matty Canavan came out the other side, I got stuck under there for a little while.” The camera zooms in briefly on that footy ruck neck and his lanyard strap. VISITOR.

That VISITOR stamp was a momentary reprieve from an otherwise grim reality. The thumping Joyce victory is disappointing and dangerous. I lived and voted in New England from 1989 to 2002, and visit every year to see family and stand with community against coal and coal seam gas mining. I have written at length that Joyce talks the farming talk while walking the mining walk.

The Joyce victory is a betrayal of traditional custodians and their country, of farmers and food production, and of looming climate catastrophe. It is also telling of a hyper-masculine culture that many voters knew why Mrs Joyce and their daughters were not on the campaign trail, and voted for him anyway.

That reason was kept strictly under wraps until Joyce was safely back in Canberra in record time. As ABC political editor Andrew Probyn told Insiders, the fastest turnaround from by-election to swearing in was previously 11 days. Joyce took four days. That timing was essential to avoiding the referral of several Coalition MPs to the High Court for potential breaches of the Constitution, but Joyce had other matters on his mind.

While preaching on ‘traditional marriage’ – whatever that is – to the parliament, Joyce announced publicly for the first time that he is currently separated ‘so that is on the record’. Presumably he meant ‘on the record as of this exact moment’. Joyce later told radio 2GB that he disclosed his marriage breakdown – widely tipped to be caused by his adultery – so as not to appear hypocritical. While a worthy goal, this is logically unattainable goal, given events and the passage of time.

“Some Nationals also feel that locals may have voted for Mr Joyce on principle,” reported the ABC, “or in sympathy because they felt the High Court citizenship ruling had been harsh.”

What principles? Joyce tracked across the electorate – was there was a New England pub he did not visit? – telling his constituency he did not understand why a fine bloke like his good self was disqualified from the parliament. This actively encourages ignorance of, and disrespect for, the Constitution. Which is his call, except that Joyce votes on laws that govern this country, and collects a hefty parliamentary salary, under that same Constitution.

But the by-election was not about the Constitution, because Joyce is apparently some kind of unreconstructed retail politics genius. “If you want to focus on the person in the weatherboard and iron they will give you the grace of their vote,” he said. That is code for the poor white rural (Australianised rustbelt) vote, as Joyce told Fairfax here.

The reality is that New Englanders know which side on which their bread is buttered. The cache of having the Deputy Prime Minister as the local member is real. Government largesse rains down upon New England at a greater rate than in any other electorate. At the same time, you could count the number of New England farmers who support government handouts on no hands. Agrarian socialist entitlement is as intractable as it is invisible to its beneficiaries.

Anyway, it worked. A victorious  Joyce said he is “completely and utterly humbled”, as shown here with an equally humble Prime Minister. You can practically smell the humility.

 

If the Joyce victory speech was a clatter of misplaced triumphalism and cringe-worthy hypocrisy – which it was – nothing can top the way Turnbull carried himself during the passage of the bill drafted to legalise marriage equality.

The highlight of the Turnbull “gay marriage” speech – such a staunch supporter, just ask him – was this piece of patronising gibberish:

“Co-dependency is a good thing. If we believe two gay people are better off together than living alone, comforted only by their respective cats, then why should we deprive that relationship of equal recognition?”

The question, recall, is equality before the law – specifically sections 5 (definition of marriage between a man and woman) and 88EA (recognition of overseas marriages not between a man and woman) of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) as enacted under s. 51(xxi) of the Australian Constitution (the marriage power). Since 2004 – the date at which ‘traditional marriage’ was defined by the Howard government – and until Friday 8 December 2017, that definition discriminated against same-sex couples.

It is not about religion, or sex education, or de facto relationships, or cats. It is fundamentally not about whether “we believe two gay people are better off together than living alone”. They can do that now, without scrutiny by the entire electorate. Yet having put thousands of people through an unnecessarily protracted and intrusive survey process, the Prime Minister endorses legal recognition of rainbow couples getting married by grossly insulting single gay people, complete with cat schtick. Classy, huh?

Turnbull then cited David Cameron, the bloke who brought on Brexit. That still-unresolved matter has seen an increase in hate crimes, cost millions, and was essentially designed to outsource petty internal differences between two white conservative men who attended Oxford University.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

“And for those to see this [sic] as an ideological issue”, Turnbull brayed in that paternalistic hector that he imagines portrays gravitas and great moment, “recall British Prime Minister David Cameron as he spoke for marriage equality six years ago: ‘To anyone who has reservations, I say Yes, it is about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

There it is. Turnbull outs himself as a conservative by quoting an actual Tory.

I mention this, because one of the most irritating features of the Turnbull government years is a press gallery which insists on the existence of moderate Malcolm. This is not true. Turnbull is an ideological chameleon, a man of ambition rather than loyalty, who once reportedly said “I could never succeed in the Labor party as it would be unforgiving towards someone who had been a successful businessman”.

The idea that Turnbull may have joined the Labor Party is ridiculous. Turnbull married into blue-blood Liberal heritage, as he reminded us in the second reading speech extracted above. As we watch Trump unravelling live on his twitter stream, the proposition that being a businessman somehow trains an individual for public life is exposed as the self-serving lie it has always been.

It does not matter how enthralled our fourth estate remain by “the Prime Minister held court as he regaled all and sundry with witty anecdotes about his days as Kerry Packer’s lawyer”. Whatever, Phil. This is a lawyer who as a politician basically concedes that his team are announcing a new legislative package designed to criminalise and otherwise control their political opponents (Senator Sam Dastiyari and GetUp! if you were wondering). That is not democracy but authoritarianism, so at least Turnbull himself has finally put to bed the myth of moderate Malcolm, given myriad other examples, including the shabby lonely cat dig at single gay people.

The bill reaches the House of Representatives

Tone-deaf as that verbal imagery was, the next day Turnbull’s performance was substantially worse. As those carefully watching the procedure would have noticed, Turnbull was not responsible for commissioning the drafting of ‘the Dean Smith bill’. It began legislative life as a private members bill, introduced in the Senate.

After the postal survey results were announced, Turnbull assigned passage of the bill through the lower house to himself. In the normal course of events, a bill is tabled (first reading), debated (second reading) and passed (third reading). In this case, the second reading was interminable. Every MP and their dog wanted a position on the record. The conservative derailment exercises in pre-defeated amendments went on and fucking on.

Even Tony Abbott, who campaigned against his own sister and delayed the reform for as long as politically possible, whose electorate returned a 75% Yes in the postal survey, who left the chamber so as not to vote on the bill – and whose ‘traditional marriage’ hypocrisy is as well-kept a secret as Joyce’s – got his mug on the news as he banged on with his bigoted bullshit.

The debate was also derailed by that s. 44 disqualification vote which Joyce snuck back in just in time to defeat. But eventually, even all the boring bigots had had their say and the House was ready for the Prime Minister to move that the bill be read a third time so that it could be passed into law, pending the signature of the Governor General and the clock striking midnight.

Naturally, given the suspense and patience of those in the public gallery, the rainbow community, and everyone else watching at home, the Prime Minister rose and moved that the bill be read for a third time so the speaker could bring on the vote and the thing be done.

Just kidding. Turnbull rose to move the motion, but instead started shouting about what a great day it was for Australian democracy. He boasted about the shoddy postal survey which cost $80 million and saw a swift rise in mental health stresses for LGBTQI+ people. He waved his arms and thumped his tub. When he had exhausted his misplaced triumphalism, the prime minister sat back down to what he imagined was appreciative applause for himself.

The Speaker was thus compelled to ask the Prime Minister to rise again and move that the bill be read for a third time, without which the vote can not be called.

This moment has been edited out of every inch of footage I have seen of the vote. Why? Either it is mere procedural glitch, of no shame or moment to a prime minister who, naturally, was feeling exuberant that marriage equality – or gay marriage, as Turnbull, in the language of the No campaign, said consistently throughout. If Turnbull failing to move that the bill be read a third time is a trivial and meaningless oversight, it surely can be shown. After all, that moment is as accurate an account as any of what actually happened in the chamber in the moment the bill was passed.

Maybe commercial television has the clip on repeat, but in the mediascape I inhabit – the Guardian, Fairfax, the ABC – nobody is showing the clip of the Speaker reminding Turnbull to do his actual job. Nobody is commenting on the fact that Turnbull rose to perform an essential step in the passage of a bill into law, but became so distracted by his own vanity that he failed to perform this simple task.

At last

The final step in making a bill into law is the Governor General giving royal assent. Then all that remains is for the clock to tick past midnight on the commencement date. So off to Yarralumla went Turnbull, godspeed, with his Attorney General George Brandis. Interestingly, given nobody threw brickbats at Turnbull for fluffing his final lines, Brandis got all sorts of feathers for his cap for being visibly moved by the reform. This is a simple manifestation of inherent bias to incumbent power: individualise and heap praise on the good (you are quite emotional, Senator), while ignoring or universalising (it could happen to anyone!) the bad.

While Dean Smith, the first openly gay Liberal member of the parliament, received a gift of the pen used by the Governor General, he did not get to share the limelight with the Prime Minister on leaving Yarralumla. In a piece to camera framed by the French doors of Government House – and presumably recorded by the PMO media team – Turnbull again sang his own praises, alone.

The strategy here is obvious enough. Just in case media had mischievously broadcast historical truth and shown him messing up procedure the day before, Turnbull wanted to command his own legacy and take credit for the new law no matter what mistakes he made along the way. Any media advisor knows that the news of today supercedes the news of yesterday, so it was a sure bet. Right on cue, the piece-to-camera was broadcast far and wide.

The most lasting image, by AAP photographer Michael Masters, must go to Labor MP Linda Burney and Nationals MP Warren Enstch; and the final word to Ms Burney, who lost her son Binni Kirkbright-Burney during the protracted campaign. She spoke incredibly eloquently and courageously:

“I support marriage equality as someone who has and has had loved ones who identify as LGBTI,” she said. “To them marriage equality would mean so much. I honour these people, in particular my late son, Binni.”

 

*This is an updated account of marriage equality debates and the return of Barnaby Joyce to Canberra following a by-election in the seat of New England. An earlier version was published by Independent Australia on Wednesday 6 December 2017, before the Marriage Act Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (Cth) had passed the lower house, and before Joyce was sworn back in as Deputy Prime Minister.

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