Bound to end in tears- for Malcolm (Photo: Graham Davis)

As if the looming global financial crisis isn’t enough to cause the odd palpitation this holiday season, Australia has been plunged into a full scale debate about the pros and cons of gay marriage. Arguably, this is the work of one man – the famously gay (and strangely grey) Greens leader, Bob Brown, who wields gay marriage as one of the many sticks above the head of the infamously weak Gillard Government. How else to explain Labor’s obsessive preoccupation with such a relatively minor issue at its recent national conference? Or is this what happens when inept and (since the Australia Network debacle) corrupt governments thrash around in search of diversions?

Anyone watching the sometimes passionate debate might have been excused for thinking this was a burning issue for the electorate as a whole. It wasn’t until Labor made it one. But now that the notion of same sex marriage has bolted from the closet, so to speak, temperatures are rising, and not only on the part of an outraged clergy. For Grubsheet, not a social event seems to pass without a vigorous exchange of views about whether the state, if not the churches, should sanctify same sex unions.

Grubsheet’s opinion on this has been expressed in a previous posting. We think formal marriages are for men and women and agree (for once) with Paul Keating’s cutting observation that two men and a Spaniel do not a family make. Yet it never ceases to amaze how many otherwise rational people take issue with us in the most strident terms, accusing us of everything from homophobia to madness. We happen to support gay rights in every other context but this one; the right to live as a couple, have children – either by adoption or insemination – inherit each others’ superannuation and so on. But white weddings for homosexuals? No. And we believe that’s the majority view, irrespective of religious belief.

In its inimitable way, Labor sidestepped having to confront the issue in anything but a superficial sense. While making all the right noises, it refused to make recognition of gay marriage a binding part of its platform, choosing instead to introduce a conscience vote in the parliament next year which, by all accounts, is certain to be defeated. So much for principle. It was all designed to save Julia Gillard from abject humiliation on the conference floor, a prime minister so weak that her promise before the last election not to introduce gay marriage meant as much as her promise not to introduce a carbon tax. Nothing. Her face was saved but not her reputation, especially among advocates for change like her gay finance minister, Penny Wong. The look of barely concealed contempt on Wong’s face as she was forced into an awkward air kiss with Gillard before the cameras said it all.  Having raised collective expectations of change, Labor had squibbed. Two Wongs would not be making a white wedding after all.

Any hope gay marriage advocates still had now rested – improbably – with opposition leader, Tony Abbott. If he were to allow a conscience vote, perhaps enough Coalition MPs might join forces with enough Labor MPs to see the reform bill pass? For a couple of days, it looked as if Abbott might be willing to play ball. But ultimately he kyboshed any notion of a conscience vote, telling his MPs that they were elected on a platform opposed to gay marriage and would need to go back to the electorate if they wanted any change. Game, set and match. Labor’s tormented debate now has as much life as a row of porcelain ducks on a suburban wall – an empty flight of fancy before the Christmas break. How did a once great party allow itself to be hijacked by the shrill gay activists and social engineers of the left? It staggers even Labor’s stalwarts like Barry Cohen, who warned his colleagues to expect a public backlash of tsunami proportions.

The biggest winner in all of this is Tony Abbott himself because he will use gay marriage as the weapon to destroy his principal rival, Malcolm Turnbull, once and for all. Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth in the eastern suburbs of Sydney has the highest number of gay voters in Australia. They will expect him to stick to his promise to support gay marriage and herein lies the rub, or more pertinently, an exquisite wedge. Turnbull would have been hoping against hope that Abbott would allow a conscience vote. Now he’ll have to defy his leader and his party and cross the floor in a blaze of publicity. This will seem heroic to the legion of starry- eyed lefties who seem to regard Turnbull as the acceptable face of conservatism. It will save his own face with his constituents and maybe even his seat. But it will destroy him in the eyes of middle Australia and make it impossible for him to return as opposition leader and, ultimately, fulfill his life-long ambition to be prime minister.  Yes, ducks, the gay wedge. Tony Abbott can’t believe his luck.