12/07/2011 06:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory: Australia's Battle for Marriage Equality

Recently, Australia's ruling Labor Party has been fighting off an attempt to legalize same-sex marriage. The problem was that rank-and-file members, and most voters, support marriage equality, while left-wing Prime Minister Julia Gillard does not. She is quite adamant in her opposition.

She claims that she is protecting "traditional" marriage, but she lives with a man herself, outside marriage. Gillard's rabid anti-gay position has a lot of Labor supporters scratching their heads.

Gillard has a problem. At the recent Labor Party conference, prominent members pushed marriage equality as a plank for the party. This would require Labor MPs to vote for equality legislation that their own party leader opposes.

Labor faithfully came up with a compromise that gives the appearance of supporting same-sex marriage while actually throwing gay couples under the bus. Enough Labor MPs oppose equality that if they were free to vote against the platform, it would fail. Gillard insisted on a "conscience vote" and got it. While equality won a place in the Labor platform, Gillard snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

While she is doing her best to stop marriage equality, her own party supports it. Nevertheless, Labor decided that saving her the embarrassment of defeat was more important than sticking to principle.

However, this does not mean all is lost. While the opposition coalition in parliament -- an alliance of the Liberal Party and the National Party -- is supposed to vote against the measure, there is hope. Canadian Melody Ayres-Griffiths, who married her Australian wife in Canada but now lives in Australia, has written that opposition Liberal MPs may still come to the rescue.

She observes that many of the people within the opposition coalition are fiscally conservative, socially liberal libertarians. "These libertarians -- some of whom are very powerful inside the Liberal party -- may force Tony Abbott [Leader of the Opposition] to allow his MPs to hold a conscience vote of their own," she writes. This would mean that opposition MPs could support marriage equality, making up for lost votes from Labor's conscience vote -- a repeat of what happened in New York.

New York's gay marriage legislation faced some staunch Democratic opponents who are fundamentalist Christians. However, some wealthy Republicans, who were more libertarian than conservative, came to the rescue and ponied up big bucks to push for equality.

Chadwick Matlin, in New York Magazine, wrote, "How do you get rich Republicans to support gay marriage? By appealing to their libertarian sensibilities." He went on: "Gay marriage is really just a fight about whether the government should be allowed to regulate personal liberty. On that, again, libertarians side with liberals." Ayres-Griffiths would agree: "It is straightforward to acknowledge that marriage equality is in fact then a very libertarian notion."

Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal Party MP for the Wentworth area of Sydney, and Angela Lansbury's cousin, has strong libertarian sentiments. Even though he's Catholic, he has been at odds with the Church on abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage, as well. Turnbull has said he's a libertarian, and as a former head of the Opposition, his word carries weight.

Unlike a conscience vote in Labor, which puts equality on the chopping block, in the Opposition the same move increases the likelihood of passage. Turnbull has lobbied Opposition leader Tony Abbott for it. Turnbull said, "I think everyone knows I am very committed to equality for same-sex couples." Other libertarian Liberals have been pushing for a conscience vote, as well.

The message seems to be getting through. Abbott's comments on same-sex marriage have emphasized that his coalition does not discipline MPs who cross the floor on any issue. In the Labor Party, without a conscience vote, an MP who votes against the platform is thrown out of the party, and out of office. Abbott told the press, "There's a sense in which every vote that our party takes is a conscience vote because we don't take disciplinary actions against people who make their own judgments about these matters." This seems to hint to libertarian Liberals that they are free to pass marriage equality into law, just as libertarian-leaning Republicans gave marriage equality the votes it needed in New York.

Meanwhile, Margaret Court, a former tennis player who uses that status to get attention as a fundamentalist Christian preacher, is again on the warpath against gays. Not only does she embrace the "pray-away-the-gay" theory, she also embraces the viciously anti-gay views associated with that movement.

Court claims that marriage rights for gay couples dismantles the "sole definition of marriage" and tries to "legitimize what God calls abominable sexual practices." She claims that being gay is a choice and that the Bible must be obeyed.

She might wish to check out what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." In 1 Timothy, the "infallible word of God" says, "Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over a man, but to be in silence." Court preaches in her church, has pastoral authority over men, and appears rather selective regarding which Bible verses to obey.

In the final analysis, the real question will be whether a small number of libertarian Liberals can undo the damage done by Gillard and her supporters within Labor. If they can, marriage equality will come to Australia.