It wasn’t entirely clear from my vantage point but it looked for all the world like Christine Forster, sister of Tony Abbott, may have rolled her eyes as her brother launched with gusto into the soundtrack of his contemporary political life: treachery from the top.
Forster was just one in a sea of faces in the visitors’ gallery in the House of Representatives on Thursday who arrived early and lingered late. As the marathon debate ground on, the onlookers leaned forward with an undimmed sense of anticipation, enjoying their ringside seat on history.
The visitors clapped heartily during the contributions that inched the debate forward, giving Thursday’s proceedings a kinetic quality, a rare sense of interactivity, of theatre-in-the-round. They injected joyful exuberance into a chamber that has spent much of 2017 hermetically sealed from the voters, preoccupied in its own grim state of war.
The manager of government business, Christopher Pyne, could barely bring himself to dampen the high spirits, but he made a half-hearted attempt to quieten the strangers in the House. Pyne prefaced that he didn’t want to be “a Christmas Grinch” but he counselled visitors weren’t really supposed to barrack for one side or another.
The visitors ignored Pyne of course – politely, as he knew they would – and they continued their periodic affirmations.
But when Abbott rose to object to colleagues coming into the chamber with preconceived ideas (perish the thought) and encouraged them to assess amendments “on their merits” – there was some consequential shifting by Forster and in the seats around her. A ripple of frustration was visible.
Abbott below was bathed half in shadow, half in blinding white sunlight, which happens in the chamber as the sun tracks overhead. The lighting lends the protagonists a thespian tinge as they deliver their soliloquies in the spotlight.
The former prime minister felt put upon, having to consider these weighty issues on the run, “because the promises from the top were not adequately delivered upon”.
Just in case we’d missed the negative pass at Malcolm Turnbull, Abbott warmed to his theme. “A promise was made by the leaders of this parliament and the promise has not adequately been delivered upon”.
Abbott also wondered what Paul Keating would make of this display of “supine respect” the House of Representatives was delivering on marriage equality to the Senate.
It wasn’t entirely clear why Keating had just been exhumed, summoned from battles past, and was now at large among us, but perhaps Abbott felt comforted by the ghost of a fellow combatant, who would always joust to the last.
“I have never heard before members of this House showing such supine respect to another place,” Abbott said. “Why is it that simply because something has been passed in the Senate, these are tablets of stone handed down from the mountaintop beyond any question or consideration or delay by this House?”
The horror of submission, to the Senate, of all places.
So here we all were, washed up in exactly the same place we would have been if the postal survey had never happened, creeping to a conclusion in a free vote in the parliament on the last sitting day of a brutal political year, with protagonists taking predictable positions.
Tony was wronged. Kevin Andrews was aggrieved.
The Next Gen clique of the conservative right stormed the frontbench when they triggered their various divisions, trying out the big boys’ seats, feeling quite at home. They sized up events and one another as they worked, proposition by proposition, to close down one epic internal battle inside the government in order to better create room for the next one – synthesis suiting no one.
The Liberals Michael Sukkar and Andrew Hastie eventually set up camp in the front row, such was their anticipatory familiarity.
At one point, the Nationals leader, Barnaby Joyce, crept to the dispatch box to affirm he was in favour of traditional marriage, before confirming he was “currently separated”, a fact he noted was already on the record (it wasn’t, actually, at least not before then) and noting, as he very often does, that he was “not a saint”.
At another point on the surreal end of the scale, Bob Katter raved about the word gay. Gay people, Bob felt, had a damned hide taking that wonderful word off straight people and making it their own. Not content with that creeping acquisition, now the gays were absconding with marriage.
The visitors’ galleries laughed at the old man in the chamber. Once the rainbow families would have crouched, defensively, at that kind of onslaught, at that kind of visceral public rejection.
Now, it was safe to laugh, because the old man in the chamber, and the history of shaming he represented, was about to be routed.
It was all about to be washed away.
As the divisions happened, Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet quietly split. Moderates took up defensive positions in enemy territory, watched by colleagues across the demilitarised zone marked out by the central table, the dispatch boxes, and the gold mace, the enduring symbol of authority in the chamber.
Christopher Pyne sat close to his Labor mate, Anthony Albanese. Kelly O’Dwyer sat with Liberal women who made the journey with her: sometimes with Jane Prentice, sometimes with Sussan Ley, sometimes with Julia Banks.
Josh Frydenberg ventured into enemy territory to vote down one amendment, so did Christian Porter.
Turnbull, who told very us often he and Lucy were voting yes, was an infrequent visitor during the amendments phase of the debate; a Delphic presence, a cheshire cat grin, more felt than seen.
And, in the end, the obstacles were cleared. Just before 6pm the House of Representatives did what it struggles to do – faithfully represent the will of the majority of the people of Australia.
The minority postured, preened, raved and roiled but the majority pushed through and made history. Only four parliamentarians voted no, a chapter of discrimination passed into history and the parliament’s temporary theatre-in-the-round exploded in triumph and relief.