Turnbull has had a relatively quiet week in the parliamentary break. But whether he continues to appease the right in the Coalition, or reverts to the old Malcolm, he has a more basic problem – people have stopped listening to him.
It was a relatively peaceful week for Malcolm Turnbull.
He had a few things to do: he re-announced a feasibility study into his over-the-horizon plans for Snowy 2.0 and spoke severely to electricity retailers who promised him that they would write letters to their customers in three or four months, and if the punters absolutely insisted, they would find ways of overcharging them not so much, at least for the moment.
He dropped in on the west to try and stop the citizens of Kalgoorlie from drinking too much and gave the beleaguered Sandgropers a bit of a gee up. And as always there was Kim Jong Un to berate in almost Shorten-esque terms, and a new front in the Philippines for the war on terror.
But because there was not much real action from the government, the side issues predominated, and that meant same sex marriage and the voluntary public survey. On this, Turnbull has, as he promised, kept a low (indeed, almost subsonic) presence.
He has not actually campaigned for a Yes vote; the most that can be claimed is that he is clearly in favour of it, at least for himself and his wife. But more importantly, and disappointingly, he has signally failed to slap down the mendacious nonsense already emanating from the No campaign.
Some of his ministers – Simon Birmingham, George Brandis and Christopher Pyne, to name the most prominent – have put their heads above the parapet but our fearless leader is apparently busy in the trenches, attempting to dig his way out of trouble. He is happy to mumble about the need for an open debate, and even if some misleading and hurtful things might be said, well, that’s free speech.
Perhaps it is; but that has not always been his position. Compare and contrast, as a more bolder and robust leader once used to say, Turnbull’s performance on election night 2013. Then he was incandescent with rage over what he saw as an outrageous lie. Bill Shorten’s Mediscare campaign was almost too awful to mention, but he mentioned it loudly and often, ranting and raving about the need for truth in politics.
But times change; now, it appears, there is to be open slather, it is entirely legitimate to slander, defame, humiliate and offend the LGBTIQ community and their children in the name of – well, what? It is still not entirely clear where we are going, and why. What is becoming apparent is that the opponents of same sex marriage have reserved the right to ignore the plebiscite altogether if it doesn’t go their way.
There are two get out clauses. The first is that if the Yes vote gets up, it will be up to a private member – not the government of the day – to move a bill to implement it. A free vote will eventually ensue, but according to the conservatives, that means that the whole issue will be a clean slate – the so-called plebiscite for which they fought so tenaciously will be regarded as irrelevant. They will vote against same sex marriage anyway, just as they always intended.
But long before that point, there will be endless attempts to amend any legislation to give exemptions from any new law to protect religious freedom – by which they actually mean religious privilege. And Turnbull, it appears, is happy to go along with their machinations and procrastinations. Anything to avoid taking a real stand – anything to avoid revisiting the Malcolm Turnbull who once held serious beliefs and convictions.
And perhaps it is just as well, when you think back to his election night outburst. This was arrogant, petulant and utterly inappropriate and seriously unlovable – but it was authentic. We saw a glimpse of the real Malcolm, and we didn’t like what we saw.
The urbane lawyer was suddenly naked, stripped of the briefs painstakingly prepared for him by the conservatives of the party room and the timorous spin doctors in his office, and he let it all hang out. Restraint, control, the moderation that had become his hallmarks were swept aside in a moment of passionate rage.
It has been completely different to his demeanour in parliament, in which the confected outrage about Shorten – the socialist, the Stalinist, the most dangerous lefty in generations – is patently unconvincing. And deservedly so, because the messages it is intended to convey are totally contradictory. On the one hand we are warned that Shorten will destroy civilisation we know it, but on the other we are assured that nothing Shorten says can be believed – so presumably it doesn’t matter how radical his policies are, they won’t actually happen.
Unsurprisingly, the opposition sees the government’s campaign as risible; more worryingly, the polls suggest that the voters agree with the assessment and Turnbull’s own troops are showing major signs of bedwetting. The answer, according to the primitives of Newscorp, is to lurch even further to the right to try and shore up the dwindling band of ageing reactionaries who are considered to be the Liberal Party’s base.
These are, we are assured, the silent majority – presumably silent because most of them are dead. But, as delcons keep telling us, Turnbull is not one of them, never has been and never will be. In other words, he should act in an even phonier fashion than he already does in the hope that, finally, bullshit may baffle brains and the public mainstream will succumb to this transparent artifice.
The alternative is that he could try and revert to the old Malcolm; go a little further than merely refurbishing the leather jacket and becoming serious about climate change and same sex marriage. But even if he did (ands he obviously won’t) it would be too little too late; after two years of recantation and denial another backflip would be seen not as sincerity but desperation – just another tactic to turn the polls around before the fateful 30th Newspoll that will blow what credibility he has left out of the water.
The ugly truth is that Malcolm Turnbull is caught between the swamp and the cesspool: people have stopped listening to him now, but if he changes, they may like him even less. It may have been a quiet week during the break from parliament, but one short break does not make a spring, and this one has definitely not been a long time in politics. And now its time for Malcolm Turnbull to get back to parliament and the relentless quicksand which continues to engulf him.
Mungo MacCallum is Mungo MacCallum