This one photo of Parliament says everything about marriage equality in Australia

The Australian parliament, June 1, 2015, as Bill Shorten introduces a private member’s bill in support of same sex marriage. Source: Screenshot/Adam Todd

This image from this morning, taken as opposition leader Bill Shorten introduced a private members’ bill to change the legal definition of marriage from between a “man and woman” to the union “of two people”, shows Australia has a long way to go until finding a workable political pathway to marriage equality.

The Government side of the parliament is empty, except for one “on duty” MP on the front bench and a couple of backbenchers.

Prime minister Tony Abbott has described Shorten’s bill as a potential distraction from the government’s focus on the budget and small business, but the decision by the Coalition to stay away from the chamber while the opposition leader makes his introductory comments is hugely symbolic.

The cross-bench MPs, including the Greens, are also absent. The reason is not yet clear.

While it’s not unusual for the chamber to be empty, on both sides, for much of the daily grind of legislation, filling only when a vote is required, the Government has sent a clear signal that it’s not yet ready to deal with same-sex marriage with the same urgency and zeal it brings to so many of the reform tasks on its agenda, although it was swift when the ACT introduced legislation allowing it.

Abbott has ruled out the possibility of an Irish-style referendum on the issue, arguing it’s a matter for parliament, going so far as to admit he’s the last “holdout” for man/woman law in his own home.

Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, a City of Sydney Liberal councillor, wants to see bipartisanship on the issue, but this morning in Parliament, that seems well over the horizon still.

The Coalition’s strategy at this point seems to be that if they ignore the issue, and refuse to debate it, it will go away. For now, perhaps, but the push will continue as everyone points to conservative, Catholic Ireland as the place where the people spoke overwhelmingly in favour of letting two people who love each other marry, regardless of gender.

It’s fair to argue that Labor are grandstanding on the issue in the wake of the Irish referendum, especially since plenty of MPs on Shorten’s side of politics remained consistently opposed to same-sex marriage before suddenly revealing major epiphanies in the wake of Ireland’s historic decision. The ALP has been conveniently ignoring attempts by Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm to introduce his own same-sex marriage bill over the past eight months — a move he’s flagged twice, then withdrawn in part because it lacked enough support from Labor, who allows its MPs a conscience vote on the issue.

As Shorten said this morning in Parliament, “I do believe in God. And I do believe in marriage equality. For me, there is nothing contradictory about extending love.”

There needs to be a bit more love between the two key sides of politics and across the Parliament before that can happen.

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