A bit over a year ago, Malcolm Turnbull decided that it was all about winning.
Not winning for the nation, or winning for the party, and certainly not winning for his long-held policies, but winning for himself – making himself number one.
So he set about buying votes; it was, after all, almost second nature. That was the way he obtained his preselection and bludgeoned his way past the sitting member for Wentworth in the first place.
This time it meant auctioning off his core principles (one could hardly any more call them beliefs) to the highest bidders, the Nationals, who had never liked him, and the right wing Liberals, who had never trusted him. Of course, they still don’t, but they were bought, and by and large they have stayed bought.
There were a few recalcitrants, but they were in the minority then, and their numbers have been decreased since he dragged them through the recent election. So he could relish the first anniversary of his coup in relative safety. His party room may be far from solid, but it is, for the moment, secure.
But to keep it that way he needs to constantly kowtow to the uberconservative rump; they have been suppressed for the moment, but for a wildly ambitious but morally pusillanimous leader, the risk of insurgency is always paramount: that is what winning, and continuing to win, is all about.
And thus we saw the last vestiges of Turnbull’s previous stance on same sex marriage abandoned so comprehensively that it could only appear that he wanted the plebiscite to fail – to get rid of the troublesome issue for the next three years, and to blame Bill Shorten and the Labor Party for its demise. Any possible olive branches were ruthlessly pruned away.
He could have agreed to George Brandis’s idea of a bill which would have made a successful plebiscite self-fulfilling; if the yes vote won, then the legislation was passed automatically. He could have committed to a bipartisan – indeed, a multipartisan – campaign with Shorten, Richard di Natale, Nick Xenophon and others of like mind to prosecute the case of equality as vigorously and energetically as he once worked for the republic – another abandoned crusade.
And he certainly could have resisted the demands for public funding to propagandise the extremists of both sides. This latter surrender was simply outrageous. The zealots against reform try to claim that it is only fair, there was public funding – more of it, in fact – during the republican referendum campaign.
But the comparison is absurd. That was a referendum – a binding measure to change the Australian constitution. The plebiscite will change nothing, not even the marriage laws. That will have to be done through parliament, if at all, and there are those in that forum which who will refuse to accept the result in any case.
The plebiscite is, as its opponents have pointed out, no more than a hugely expensive opinion poll. People are entitled to air their views as vigorously and as publicly as they wish to, but surely they should have to bear the cost themselves. But as it is, selected propagandists will dig into the public trough for no good reason at all.
And the process by which the money will be allocated is highly dubious; the loot will be apportioned by a committee of two government politicians, two opposition politicians, one crossbencher and five so-called “community” representatives, appointed not by the parliament but by the government. These five will constitute a majority, a branch stack of the kind John Howard managed with the republic and Turnbull himself manipulated with his own preselection. And there will be no effective restrictions about what they can say and how; that will be up to the networks, who will be compelled to air the content in what is laughingly called the public interest.
It seems a long time ago that Turnbull attacked and derided the process, in far stronger language than the measured terms the conservative Dean Smith used in pointing out the dangers of overturning the whole system of parliamentary democracy to embrace populism. It was, Turnbull claimed, an election commitment, an unbreakable promise to the voters. But even as he mouthed these platitudes, his iron clad guarantees for superannuation reform were being trashed, once again by the heavies of the right.
The trashing, of course, was at the behest of protecting the rich base (meaning donors) of the Liberal Party, but as a barely intended consequence there were some worthwhile changes to the budget announcements as well. This, Turnbull and his treasurer Scott Morrison assured us, proved that they were consultative and flexible. Our Prime Minister is certainly flexible; the flip flops of the last years have proved that. He can bend over so far backward so that his head disappears up his arse.
But the plebiscite is apparently written in stone, the eleventh commandment handed down by his immortal predecessor, Tony Abbott. It is worth recalling that the plebiscite was never a considered decision of the party room, but a captain’s pick – a stitch up by Abbott and his fellow conservative god botherers to delay, frustrate and ultimately destroy the whole idea of same sex marriage.
Turnbull’s now foredoomed legislation, his own birthday present to the nation, may well have completed the job. Having made the machinery around the already unloved plebiscite as hard line and unacceptable as he possibly could, the man who still pretends that he really, truly, honestly wants same sex marriage to become a reality has almost certainly scuttled it in the foreseeable future.
There are those who hope that Turnbull will eventually turn to a plan B; that there will be the conscience vote he previously espoused, that his party room will bow to the majority view confirmed repeatedly by the electorate at large over numerous polls far less fraught than the plebiscite and that we will all come up bathed in rainbows. Well, they can hope; Turnbull has certainly shown that whatever he may have said or done in the past, there is always room to make yet another somersault, if it is seen to be to his advantage.
But there’s the rub; at this stage his commitment is to grovel to Cory Bernardi, Eric Abetz and their ilk – the ones who have always hated him and who will ignore the plebiscite anyway. Happy anniversary, Malcolm. I hope it’s been worth it.
Mungo MacCallum was a senior journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery for many years.