Four Corners looks at the marriage debate

Quentin McDermott, Reporter (horizontal)_334df2a9

Tonight’s episode of the ABC’s Four Corners will focus on the marriage debate in Australia, tracing the discussion from John Howard’s decision to amend the marriage act in 2004 to the plebiscite impasse that the Turnbull government faces today.

Reporter Quentin Mcdermott spoke to OUTinPerth this morning ahead of the broadcast of For Better or Worse.

This debate on marriage equality is moving so fast, is that a challenge when your trying to make a TV program about it?

It is a challenge. We usually take seven or eight weeks to put a Four Corners story together. We put this together in four weeks flat, but on one level there was an upside to that which is this: We decided four weeks ago to do the story and what we did was we got on a plane and went to Canberra for the last week of the previous parliamentary session.

The upside for us, if you like, is that we were able to reach out to several of the key players in this debate on both sides of the political divide. So we were able to film interviews with George Brandis – the Attorney General, with Mark Dreyfus – the Shadow Attorney General, with Penny Wong, Terri Butler, Trent Zimmerman and others.

I think we covered quite a lot of territory in quite a short time in terms of the politics of this. Really what we’ve tried to do with this story is to tell the political back story  to how we got to this point, and here and now.

We’ve reached a situation where most Australians want marriage equality, where most parliamentarians want same sex marriage to be made legal, and yet, the politicians in parliament have failed abjectly to bring it about.

Has there been another time when what’s happening in parliament is completely different to what the people in the country actually want?

Well of course the argument in parliament is all about the process. This is why I think people outside of parliament find it so frustrating because, as I was saying, a clear majority of people of people outside of parliament want this to happen. A clear majority of people inside parliament want this to happen, but the argument has been over process.

Your right to ask that question, I can’t think of another example really where most parliamentarians have wanted the law to be changed, or a law to be brought in and yet they haven’t been able to agree to go ahead on that basis.  It is extraordinary, and an extraordinarily frustrating situation for everyone to find themselves in.

For people who follow this debate closely, if they watch Four Corners tonight will they learn anything new?

I hope that it will clarify, certainly for those people who haven’t been following closely, what has occurred. So what we do tonight is go back to 2004 to where former Prime Minister John Howard rushed a bill to essentially to clarify that marriage was between a man and a woman, and thereby excluding same sex couples from marriage.

There are two interesting points to make about what he did I think. The first is this;  there was absolutely no question of a plebiscite, a referendum, or anything else. This bill was rushed through parliament, very quickly.

The second point is that Labor fell in line behind this legislation and supported it. So in 2004 Labor was opposed to same sex marriage, and what we’ve done is to chart the way that since them, on both sides of the political divide, views have changed.

We also to go into some detail about the political shenanigans that went on last year when Warren Entsch on the Coalition side introduced a cross-party bill to legalise same sex marriage, and then there was a very long six hour meeting of coalition party room debate that rejected the idea of a free vote and brought up the idea of a plebiscite.

If you’re asking the question ‘Are there any enormous revelations about the political process that has taken place?’ Well, no, because they’ve been trawled through with great detail over the last few years.

What I hope our program does is to clarify how Australia has got to this point at this time, and how’s it got to this political impasse where both sides actually want marriage equality but they can’t agree how to do it.

Having looked at where we are, and how we got here, do you have any feeling on how politicians may get out of it?

Good question. Let me give you a forecast on what I think will happen, although I’ve been proved wrong in the past.

I think Labor will indeed oppose the plebiscite, they’ll vote it down in the senate and the plebiscite will not happen.

I think what will then happen is that a fresh new cross party bill, which will essentially be the same bill that Warren Entsch introduced last year – but without him actually sponsoring it , will be introduced in the senate. It’ll be passed, it will be voted on somewhere further down the line.

Then  it will be introduced into the lower house and the government will have to decide if they let it be part of parliamentary business or not. If they do allow it, and it’s debated on in the lower house, then it will pass. There will be coalition backbenchers who will cross the floor, as a matter of conscience, and they will vote to support the bill.

That is my forecast, but what George Brandis and other senior members of the coalition, including Malcolm Turnbull, are saying is that if the plebiscite is blocked then this won’t come up again for debate or resolution in parliament until after the next election.

Tune in to Four Corners on ABCTV tonight at 8:30pm. The show is repeated Tuesdays at 10am and on Wednesdays at 11pm on ABC. Also on Saturdays at 8.00pm on ABC News 24. The show can also be watched via the ABC’s iview platform.   

Graeme Watson


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