MUNGO MacCALLUM. Malcolm Turnbull and Daniel Andrews.

Oct 23, 2017

The success of Victoria’s Labor government in passing its Assisted Dying legislation through the lower house is surely an object lesson in how to handle a sensitive and contentious subject.  

The subject was taken to parliament, as it should have been. There was a serious and passionate debate which even the losers acknowledged was generally respectful and without too many diversions, distractions and red herrings.

Religious differences were aired, as they should have been, but did not degenerate into fanaticism and abuse. All the arguments were canvassed and heard and after more than three days the vote was conclusive enough to be credible to a weary and disillusioned public.

Of course it is not over – it has to go to the upper house, and it may still be defeated there. But at least we have been spared the craziness and cowardice of buck-passing the issue to a voluntary plebiscite and the weeks of bitterness and bullshit that has gone with Malcolm Turnbull’s capitulation to Tony Abbott and the extreme right over the similarly fraught question of same sex marriage.

The differences were stark and salutary, but so were the basic similarities. Both were, and are, matters which will always ignite deeply held beliefs and convictions. This is why they are regarded as conscience issues, rather than strict party policy – although federal Labor is on the brink of turning marriage into one if Turnbull’s referendum fails or the parliament refuses to endorse its dubious verdict.

And this, of course, is the nub of it: whatever prevarications, deceptions and diversions the Abbott-Turnbull axis can devise, same sex marriage always has and always will be a decision for the parliament – as is euthanasia.

It might be said that Daniel Andrews, the Victorian premier, had an easier job than does Turnbull; he has a solid majority of supporters for his assisted dying bill in his party room. But there was a significant bloc of dissenters; indeed, the opposition was led by Andrews’s own deputy, James Merlino.

It would have been easy to duck the whole business, to stick it on the back burner for as long as possible in the hope that it would go away. You could, just for example, try a plebiscite, or a voluntary survey – anything to avoid making a decision.

But instead, Andrews faced his troops with frankness, conviction and authority – not qualities associated with Turnbull in recent months. He may fail, but if he dies, he will die on his feet.

Turnbull likes to use Andrews as a convenient punching bag, deriding his progressive agenda as lefty extremism. And it is true that the Victorian leader is more inclined to a crash through or crash strategy than the uneasy incrementalism that is Turnbull’s stock in trade. But the result of last week shows that he can produce an outcome when it matters and do so with a minimum of rancor, disruption and division.

When the same sex marriage fiasco is eventually resolved – if it ever is – Turnbull may claim the same. But the cost, both economic and emotional, to the nation will have been considerable and largely unnecessary. And let’s face it, it hasn’t done Turnbull’s personal standing much good either.

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