MUNGO MacCALLUM. ‘Come on chaps,I am right behind you’

Sep 12, 2017

It was not the end; it was not even the beginning of the end. But it was, finally, the end of the beginning.  The High Court has at last fanned the long smouldering same sex marriage into flame, and now it has become a question of not if, but how, the inferno will play out and how many victims it will consume in the forthcoming holocaust. 

But for the moment, Malcolm Turnbull’s only emotion was one of joy and relief – had the High Court found the other way it would have precipitated yet another crisis for his government, yet another shit fight in the party room.

The fact that the shit fight will now engulf the entire nation is a relatively minor problem. But it is one that will have to be faced, both in the confrontation which will now ramp up in earnest, and then in the outcome when, as was always inevitable, the decision must be made in the parliament.

Turnbull insists that the debate will be respectful anyway; but just in case he is talking, in the manner of a man proclaiming that nuclear warfare can really be contained under Queensberry rules, of legislating some kind of framework to restrain any excesses.

At the time of writing there are no details beyond the suggestion that advertisements on both sides would need some kind of authorization. And if he attempts to go beyond that – as Labor, the Greens, and even some of his own followers say he should – there would undoubtedly be screams about restrictions of freedom of religion and speech by the zealots of the religious right.

But more importantly, any such measures would be ineffective the offensive material would have already been promulgated before it could be challenged. So close your eyes and hold your nose, and prepare to dive into the cesspool.

Obviously Turnbull himself finds the idea distasteful, and has made it clear that he intends to stand above the battle, limiting his encouragement to the yes case with a murmur of “Come on chaps, I’m right behind you.”

He has been warned that he might have to be a touch more vigorous if only in order to deny Bill Shorten (who will be rather more enthusiastic in the cause) the claim of ownership if the campaign succeeds; but whether he does or not, he will still have to face the count when the numbers come up in November.

If they say no, we are back to square one; the issue will not go away and the divisions, both inside and outside the party room, will continue. But if, as he says he hopes and expects, they say yes, it will be Turnbull’s task the guide the implementation of same sex marriage through the parliament.

He may try and throw a hospital pass to a backbencher to propose it, but the nitty-gritty about the extent of exemptions – devices to allow those demanding their religious privileges to maintain and extend them – will eventually land on his own prime ministerial desk.

And this is when it may become the beginning of the end. Our leader will hope that this judgment will apply only to the tortuous argument, and not to his timorous and dysfunctional regime.

 Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist from the Canberra Press Gallery.

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