As former Prime Minister Tony Abbott stood in Parliament this week complaining that the bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Australia was somehow being rushed, it represented a moment of profound political defeat for him.
Mr. Abbott has been the most vocal and high-profile opponent of same-sex marriage in the country. In his tenure as prime minister, he tried everything to delay the inevitable, including denying Parliament a vote on the matter before insisting that the public give its opinion on it.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull inherited Mr. Abbott’s plan: a voluntary, nonbinding opinion survey, conducted through the mail. Last month, the survey result revealed what every poll has been screaming for years: a strong public preference in favor of same-sex marriage that hangs around 60 percent. On Thursday, Parliament voted to make same-sex marriage the law.
But while the outcome of the postal survey may not have been a big surprise to Australians, the district-by-district results were a different story, revealing demographic and political changes that will reverberate through Australian politics long after the debate on same-sex marriage fades. The data make it clear that Australian attitudes on race, gender and sexuality do not fit neatly into the traditional conservative-progressive divide.
This raises an especially tricky conundrum for Australian conservatism, which has traditionally attempted to hold together a movement with both liberal and socially conservative strands. The same-sex marriage survey shows how conservatives may be approaching the moment when these strands unravel.
In Mr. Abbott’s own safe Liberal Party seat in Sydney, 75 percent of respondents to the survey favored same-sex marriage. That is a serious repudiation of his yearslong campaign against same-sex marriage from voters who are otherwise sympathetic to his conservative policy positions. And it’s a pattern that repeated itself to varying degrees in seats held by the loudest opponents to same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, politicians on the left face a related problem. The responses against same-sex marriage were disproportionately concentrated in Western Sydney’s immigrant communities, in districts dominated by the Labor Party, which has been pro-marriage equality.
A decade of Australian culture wars has obscured these underlying trends because the politicians most vehemently against same-sex marriage have also been the most opposed to multiculturalism and most suspicious of feminism. They have mostly been middle-aged straight white men — Tony Abbott, Senator Eric Abetz, Representative George Christensen — leaving many of us to conclude that these were merely varied expressions of a single prejudice against diversity, in favor of some old social order.
Perhaps it is for this reason that same-sex marriage supporters failed to take immigrant communities seriously. But the opposition put resources into winning over immigrant neighborhoods, distributing bilingual campaign material, some of which made outlandish claims that same-sex marriage would lead to unisex toilets that would give rapists access to vulnerable women.
There is every reason to suspect that immigrants would be inclined to defend multiculturalism, historically supported by the left. They were, for instance, suspicious of the Abbott government’s attempts to water down racial discrimination laws. But tightly knit immigrant communities have been susceptible to this underhanded campaigning on same-sex marriage for a range of reasons.
They are likely to be less immersed in mainstream media, lending conservative religious institutions far greater political authority. Moreover, new immigrants tend to see marriage as an institution that serves the whole family, rather than solely individual needs. Also, Andy Marks, an assistant vice chancellor at Western Sydney University, said to The Australian that within immigrant communities, same-sex relationships are often known by other family members but considered a private matter that has nothing to do with the state.
The pro-marriage campaign’s “love is love” refrain is unlikely to appeal to these families.
The challenge is most profound for conservatives now with the discovery that the people most responsive to their message against same-sex marriage are those multicultural communities they’ve spent years attacking.
A special election last month in the inner-city Melbourne district of Northcote is one recent example that underscores this conundrum. It was a contest between Labor and the Greens, the Liberal Party choosing not to run a candidate in a seat it would never win. The Greens won the seat, but they did it off the back of conservative Liberal voters (polling booths that have historically favored the Liberal Party recorded the sharpest swings to the Greens).
This is significant because the conservative Liberal Party has always seen the Greens as the most radical, unacceptable form of leftist politics. It directs its voters to place the Greens behind Labor in preferential voting. Yet both the Liberal Party and the Greens appeal to affluent, educated, upwardly mobile constituencies. And left to itself, the party’s conservative base appears to see itself more aligned to the Greens’ cosmopolitan constituency than to Labor’s working-class roots. Thus, the boundary between the conservative Liberals and the progressive Greens is more permeable than most politicians assume.
The Liberal Party’s decades of championing free-market liberalism seems to have created a preference for social liberalism built on the logic of individual freedom and equal rights. The trouble for conservatism is that increasingly its urban base is comfortable with more liberal social mores, like same-sex marriage.
The most socially conservative audience in the cities now appears to exist among the immigrant communities it repels with its suspicion of multiculturalism. That leaves a rural white audience who might be sympathetic to its more nostalgic forms of nationalism, but not its liberal traditions, anchored in the free market and (partly for that reason) acceptance of immigration. If the party chases the rural whites, it alienates the conservative voters in the cities, people who are prepared to vote Green as a second choice.
The contradictions of Australian conservatism are finally reaching their logical conclusion.
Waleed Aly is a columnist and broadcaster and a politics lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne.