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Coalition tactics on marriage and climate change risk self-destruction

  • 17 August 2015

Last week Prime Minsiter Tony Abbott announced two decisions: one endorsed by the Coalition members to refuse a free vote on gay marriage, and the other, endorsed by the Cabinet, to set a target to cut carbon emissions.

Both decisions have received a good deal of comment. Some blamed or praised the content of the decisions and the arguments made for them. Others reflected on the politics of the decisions.

In their comments they discussed the effectiveness of the denial of a free vote as a response to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's promise of a free vote, the consequences for the unity of Cabinet and the Liberal Party of the decision to have the matter decided by all Coalition MPs rather than Liberal Party members, and its electoral implications.

They also considered whether the higher than expected emissions reduction would neutralise Labor advocacy of strong action to address climate change, and the popular support for such action. Some queried whether the proposed cut could be achieved without damaging the coal interests on which the Prime Minister is betting Australia's future.

These aspects are being adequately canvassed. But another aspect that has not been explored is the longer-term effect of adopting such short-term political fixes both to resolve ethical and social issues and to draw the teeth of the political opposition.

This question is raised sharply by notable shifts in Australian public opinion. An increasing number of people, particularly younger Australians, want gay marriage to be made legal. They see the refusal to allow gay people to marry as discrimination. Australians are also increasingly recognising the crisis that climate change presents to the world, and are expecting government to take strong action to address it.

The popular sentiment on both issues is likely to grow, regardless of the merits of the arguments.

The Pope's insistence that action to save the environment is an urgent moral and religious imperative, and the Paris meeting on curbing emissions, are focusing attention on climate change. So are the popular protests against coal mining and the withdrawal of support for mining projects by banks on financial and reputational grounds.

As long as legislation to allow gay marriage continues to be seen predominantly as a proper response to discrimination, too, support for it will continue to grow.

The growing support calls into question the effectiveness of the political strategies designed to blunt them. The question is like that facing authorities which build levees and other defences