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Gillard's fascinating ploy to allow vote

Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax

Julia Gillard has won the battle against same-sex marriage, at least for now, but at what political price?

The tide in Australia for change has been slowly but continually building. The trend is most notable within the Labor Party, where branches around the nation, led by the ACT, have campaigned strongly.

But the PM is standing firm. Her detractors wonder how this works for an atheist living in a de facto relationship.

That's a useless observation - she is entitled to her views, no matter her personal situation.

Her stand that marriage is for a man and a woman could prevent a backlash in some conservative electorates at the next election.

Her methodology in allowing a vote is fascinating.

After the ALP national conference adopted marriage equality as formal policy, she wrangled a free vote for Labor MPs in Parliament. That allowed her to cross the floor yesterday and vote on the same side as Tony Abbott.

Significantly, Abbott refused to allow his MPs to have a conscience vote - unlike Barry O'Farrell - despite this custom for issues that transcend formal party lines, such as euthanasia. Apparently Abbott, who has a gay sister, does not think this issue rates so highly.

However, Gillard is not for turning on this issue, despite the party platform. For the PM, it is not a first priority issue for the nation, nor a vote-decider next year. Given the outcome of yesterday's ballot in the House of Representatives was expected, it was not surprising that the PM looked relaxed, even though she was sitting with the Opposition.

But the hard part of her day was just ahead, when the PM delivered a eulogy to her father.

Today the Labor Party remains, split on the issue of gay marriage but Gillard hopes she has put it lower on the national agenda by allowing a free vote.

By comparison, her conservative stance looked very liberal compared to Cory Bernardi's bizarre link between gay marriage and bestiality.

And it put the spotlight on Abbott's leadership. He had no choice but to sack his parliamentary secretary, but the effort didn't look or sound wholehearted.

This is the second time Bernardi has been sacked. Abbott, who is loyal to his mates, said: ''[Bernardi] is a decent bloke with strong opinions but discipline is critical.''

Ross Peake is Political Editor

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