The debate over what some call same-sex marriage and others marriage equality is hotting up at the top levels of Australian politics.

On Wednesday, Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong referred to Tony Abbott as “stuck in the past” and “yesterday’s man”. About the same time, Bill Shorten described Eric Abetz, leader of the government in the Senate, as “a clown”.

Yet the Prime Minister and Abetz are not the only senior politicians to hold the traditional view that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. This position happens to be shared by Stephen Conroy, Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate.

When the Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 was debated in the Senate in September 2012, Conroy voted with Abetz to preserve the concept of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

When this legislation came before the House of Representatives, Abbott found that his opposition to same-sex marriage was shared by Labor ministers Chris Bowen, Tony Burke and Wayne Swan along with prime minister Julia Gillard and former prime minister Kevin Rudd. Several senior Liberals voted with their leader Abbott, including Christopher Pyne and Malcolm Turnbull.

Four years later, Bowen, Burke and Swan have changed their position, as have Pyne and Turnbull. But Abbott, Abetz and Conroy have not junked their previous view, which suggests that if Abbott is “yesterday’s man” and Abetz “is a clown”, then the same terms of abuse should apply to Conroy.

On ABC radio’s AM on Wednesday, Abbott said it had been the Coalition’s “clear policy for more than a decade that marriage was between a man and a woman”, adding: “Prior to that it would never have occurred to anyone in our culture and civilisation that marriage was not between a man and a woman.”

This comment has been ridiculed within the Canberra press gallery and on the ABC (where support for same-sex marriage is all but an article of faith). Yet there is considerable support for this view. The 2004 edition of the authoritative Butterworths Concise Australian Legal Dictionary defined marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of others, voluntarily entered into for life”, adding that, for a marriage “to be lawful it must be solemnised according to the provisions of the Marriage Act 1961”.

This legislation made no reference to such a phenomenon as same-sex marriage.

In his AM interview the Prime Minister said that, when at university in the late 1970s, his gay friends regarded marriage as a “bourgeois institution” of which they wanted no part. Again, this is true.

Writing in The Independent on July 6, 2002, Australian-born gay activist Peter Tatchell declared: “The focus on safe, cuddly issues like gay marriage and adoption ­indicates how gay people are ­increasingly reluctant to rock the boat and more than happy to ­embrace traditional heterosexual aspirations.” Tatchell supported the view that “accepting mere equality involves the abandonment of any critical perspective on straight culture”.

On the ABC’s The Drum on April 19, 2013, Steve Dow, author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection, was asked by presenter Julia Baird whether he would go to New Zealand “to get married”. Dow responded with respect to his partner: “Well, I’m waiting to be asked. I mean, his evolution on this whole thing probably charts the whole evolution in gay thinking on this. Ten years ago, if you’d asked somebody ‘Do you want to get married?’, they’d probably say ‘ … why would I want to buy into that whole (institution)?’ ”

And that’s the essential problem. The proponents of same-sex marriage want to overturn the traditional view of marriage immediately, after a debate that is a mere decade old in Australia.

In September 2013, a majority of Australians voted for the Coalition led by Abbott — who said that he would not introduce same- sex marriage in the government’s first term. He also said that he would take any such proposal to a meeting of the joint partyroom; that is, the gathering of Liberal Party and Nationals parliamentarians. This occurred this week.

The Abbott government has little backing among the journalistic class for its social conservatism. However, only 42 per cent of ­Liberal MPs and 14 per cent of ­Nationals MPs supported a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. The combined vote was about one-third of the joint partyroom, well short of a majority.

Like him or loathe him, Abbott enjoys majority support within the Coalition on same-sex marriage. It was much the same when Abbott prevailed over Turnbull to become Liberal Party leader in December 2009. On the contentious issue of the Rudd government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme, Abbott enjoyed the support of some 65 per cent of Liberals. The Nationals, who overwhelmingly opposed the CPRS, would have added significantly to Abbott’s support if added to the count.

In 2009, opposition to Turnbull’s backing of Rudd’s CPRS was driven by rank-and-file Liberals in the branches — namely, the men and women who staff the booths come polling day and who support the party between elections. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday night, he was not inclined to “dud”, or abandon, his supporters on same-sex marriage — having promised not to introduce such legislation in his first term.

The Prime Minister’s indication that, if re-elected, the Coalition will make possible a plebiscite on same-sex marriage is a reasonable compromise.

Especially in light of a Sexton survey, commissioned by the Marriage Alliance organisation, which indicates that same-sex marriage is a low-ranking issue for supporters (13th in order of importance) and opponents (11th) alike.

In most Western societies, same-sex marriage has come about as a result of the executive, legislature or the judiciary. Only Ireland, which had a constitutional referendum, introduced same-sex marriage following a vote in the referendum. If the Irish can trust each other to handle such an issue at the polls, so can Australians. Ireland voted for same-sex marriage. There may, or may not, be a similar result in Australia.