Newly elected Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, is caught in a moral and political bind over civil unions.
Firstly, Campbell Newman is pro-gay marriage and has put his position on the public record many times. Yet Newman leads a party that, he himself acknowledges, is implacably opposed to gay marriage and civil unions. The Premier can only support the LNP’s position at the expense of his personal principles. And it is a fact of life that authority is diminished once personal principles are abandoned. That is as likely to leave as sour a taste in the Premier’s mouth as the prospect of him being overridden within the party. Therein lies Newman’s moral dilemma.
He also leads a party that, despite its resounding thrashing of Labor, suffered very significant swings against it to Katter’s Australian Party and its highly visible campaign opposing gay marriage. These inroads went largely unnoticed by political commentators but LNP strategists will be acutely aware that Katter’s Australian Party poses a greater threat than the demoralised and battered Labor Party. Labor will take years to rebuild while Katter’s Australian Party produced swings of up to 14 per cent against the LNP. These swings occurred in the LNP’s strongest ever election result and support for Katter is likely to grow as the LNP vote reduces to more historical levels. Unfortunately for Newman, any move to shore up the LNP base in the regions is likely to come at a cost to its vote in inner-city seats like his Ashgrove electorate. Hence Newman’s political problem.
The simple solution to Campbell Newman’s problem is for him to convince the LNP to drop its opposition to civil unions and let Labor’s legislation remain in place. At the very least, there is no doubt he would prefer for the party to wait rather than act. Newman knows that LNP MP, Warren Entsch, will bring a bill to legalise civil unions before the Federal Parliament later this year and would hope that this will move his problems to Canberra. This would allow the Premier to maintain his moral principles and the backing of voters in Ashgrove who probably support gay marriage. Perhaps more importantly, he would not have to face the embarrassing prospect of defeat within the party room. The downside would belong mainly to old National Party MPs who are on the outer with Newman anyway.
This simple solution is unlikely to impress LNP supporters who polls continue to show are opposed to civil unions and gay marriage. It will also ensure that the LNP heartland takes another hit from Katter’s Australian Party in three years’ time. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the previously dominant and generally socially conservative elements of the LNP will accept Campbell’s simple solution. Rather, they are more likely to view it as a personal problem for the Premier to tough out. Indeed, recent reports that the Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, is set to recommend that the LNP move quickly to scrap civil unions indicate this view may prevail.
Unfortunately for Campbell Newman, if the LNP adopts measures that are good for the party rather than the individual, it will only create a stickier situation for him. If Newman stands his ground in support of gay marriage there is a possibility he will end up on the losers’ side in the party room and on the floor of any parliamentary conscience vote. This may or may not hurt him politically given his popularity levels but it definitely will not endear him to the LNP faithful who want the legislation overturned. It also won’t go unnoticed in the party room that the seemingly invincible Newman can be rolled. An even worse option would be to downplay his previous support for gay marriage. Without a doubt this would be viewed as setting aside personal values to play politics with social policy and win votes back from Katter’s Australian Party.
There are also deeper problems on the horizon for Newman if the LNP overturns civil unions. The LNP would then preside over a set of contradictory social policies in Queensland that allow gay and lesbian couples to create surrogate children while their status as couples remains unrecognised by the state. Every rational person would agree that such a situation lacks any sense.
Again, the LNP base would support the scrapping of laws allowing surrogacy for same-sex couples but Newman has left himself with much less room to move over this issue. In the last week of the election campaign he point blank promised the LNP would not remove these “rights” and effectively overturned the LNP’s long-held position to do so. A vote to overturn civil unions will set the scene for an almighty stoush within the LNP over same-sex surrogacy and it is hard to see how Newman would win. Once again, his authority is likely to suffer within the party over a social policy setting.
Right now, much of this remains speculation and a great deal can change in a week of politics. However, two things are clear. Firstly, Newman is very sensitive on the issue of civil unions and his demeanour when questioned during the election campaign showed it clearly. The fact his office rushed out a response on Sunday morning denying any imminent moves to overturn civil unions confirmed this. It also showed that Newman has not yet given up hope of convincing the LNP to accept civil unions in Queensland, at least for the short term.
Secondly, Newman will be provided no rest on issues of social policy. He is set to be swamped by journalists once the gay marriage parliamentary debate unfolds in Canberra because of his prominent position in the LNP and his vocal support for what is essentially a Labor/Greens position. The media had a field day with the Labor Party’s contorted positions on gay marriage at its National Conference last year. This year it is likely to do the same with the Liberals.
For the record, although I remain unconvinced about the LNP’s willingness to overturn civil unions under Newman, I applaud moves by elements of the party to do so. Marriage is about children, including their education and upbringing. Gay marriage will result in radical changes to laws in these areas and as a practicing Catholic who accepts the teaching of the Church, I can do nothing less than oppose it. That is why I joined Katter’s Australian Party - the only party with a set of values acknowledging marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
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