Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s support of same-sex marriage was carefully engineered to shore up undecided votes in marginal seats, but in reality it exposes his social legacy to severe criticism, while potentially derailing a movement to which he is a very late convert.
Rightfully, the economy, or rather, the management of the economy as it transitions to the next phase of the resources boom, has been installed as the key election issue.
But social issues are well and truly in the frame – asylum seekers and same-sex marriage chief among them. While no-one suggests Rudd rode a rainbow flag back into the Lodge, his backflip on same-sex marriage certainly did not hurt his perception as changed man, and one that presented a stark contrast to the stoic, negative Julia Gillard.
It is fortuitous then, or perhaps wise counsel, that now sees the issue of marriage equality elevated to a central question this election.
Newgate Communications’ Feyi Akindoyeri told ABC’s The Drum on Monday a poll taken over August 2-4 by her group, in conjunction with Newspoll, showed a dramatic change in voters’ intentions in marginal seats on the issue. Akindoyeri said in 2011 only four per cent of voters in marginal seats would support a candidate based on their support of same-sex marriage, while 23 per cent would not support a candidate based on their stance. In the latest data, 20 per cent of voters would back a candidate who supports same-sex marriage, while only 12 per cent would not support a candidate based on their stance.
In a broader sense, Akindoyeri said 72 per cent of Australians now believe same-sex marriage being legislated is inevitable.
Rudd can be accused of many deficits, but he is deft touch at reading the mood of the electorate. And thus, he is now using marriage equality as a wedge issue. Despite the urgings of advocates in the area – and indeed his own Finance Minister – Rudd has tacked on a virtual referendum on same-sex marriage to the September 7 election.
“If you support gay marriage, I will need your support at this election,” Rudd says during a YouTube video to voters, a clear nod to the intricate link between his marriage equality platform and social media agenda (Teflon Kev may end up covered in mud, August 8).
Like the Labor party, Rudd seems convinced the marriage equality movement needs a savior. That the reason for its failure to this point is nothing more than a lack of leadership – or a lack of Kevin. Brave, reformed, progressive Kevin.
It also conveniently plays on perceptions of Tony Abbott as a dangerous conservative.
Just as Labor is going after the Coalition for what it won’t say on GST, Rudd is gunning for Abbott on what he won’t declare on same-sex marriage.
As the first prime minister to openly support same-sex marriage and the architect of the government’s apology to the stolen generation, Labor should be bathing in the sunlight atop the moral highground on social issues.
And yet Rudd’s support of marriage equality is shaping up to be as disastrous as his previous progressive stances.
After all, he walked away from the carbon tax within days of being returned, despite previously identifying climate change as the “great moral and economic challenge of our time”.
He has adopted a controversial and tough stance on the issue of asylum seekers with his PNG solution, despite warning against “lurching too far to the right” on the issue in the run up to the leadership spill that saw him deposed by Gillard in 2010.
Still, Rudd has gambled to some extent his political fortunes to a hot-button issue within the electorate. Should the bet come good, it would be a boon for both the returned PM and the LGBTI community.
Should it fail, as the polls – and conventional wisdom – suggest it will, and an Abbott government is elected, Rudd’s social legacy will be tarnished and the same-sex marriage movement will be dealt a cruel blow.
If there is one thing advocates of same-sex marriage know, it’s that their biggest opponents are not those who oppose marriage equality, but those who use it as a political football.
While providing a rare point of difference between Labor and the coalition during an otherwise mundane campaign, a successful Abbott government could be tempted, one must think, to use an electoral victory as justification for taking marriage equality off the agenda.
After all, as Abbott made clear in the first debate, marriage equality was not an immediate concern of his. You can almost hear him saying “look, I think that issue was dealt with when Kevin Rudd was removed from office in 2013”.
Cut to 2016 and we’re in another election campaign where economic management is fighting against marriage equality for airtime. An economic fix requires reasoned, laborious management and significant capital. Marriage equality calls for only basic decency and costs nothing.