MUNGO MacCALLUM. Malcolm Turnbull ran dead on SSM

Malcolm Turnbull may not have wished to appear churlish last Thursday after the final vote on the same sex marriage bill, but he had no choice: that was his job.  So rather than following the parliament to embrace bipartisanship at the long and tortuous procedure, he had the obligatory swipe at Bill Shorten.

Shorten, he declared, had just played politics – the previous government had done nothing, then the opposition leader had opposed the original plebiscite and then the voluntary survey, and now wanted to claim a share of the credit. Which was, of course, entirely Turnbull’s own.

Well, actually, the Howard government of which Turnbull was a member had legislated to destroy even the possibility of gay and lesbian marriage, and had dismissed Tony Abbott’s idea of the plebiscite as an absurd cop out, and had then been dragged kicking and screaming to it by Nationals and his own right wing determined to scuttle the idea.

He then ran with one of the nay-sayers, Peter Dutton, to propose the voluntary survey as a device to buy time, in the hope that the issue could be quietly put to bed either through a win by the mythical silent majority the religious right assured him were waiting to clobber the concept through a campaign of lies and confusion, or, if a yes majority eventuated, it could be discredited through a small turnout and a discredited process.

Thus while Shorten and his allies were out on the hustings, our Prime Minister effectively ran dead: he said he and his wife would of course vote yes, but it was a decision for the people, not the politicians. And when he had no choice but to allow Dean Smith’s bill into the parliament, he embraced a few discriminatory amendments and abstained from rejecting others – anything not to offend the conservative rump, now revealed to be a very substantial minority of the electorate. Not much to boast about, and still less to accuse Shorten of being devious over the whole business.

But if Turnbull was determined to drizzle on the rainbow parade, it was the College of Cardinals in The Australian who really ramped up the thunderstorm. Page after page was devoted to whinging about insufficient privilege for those who profess to be religious in order to safeguard civilisation as we know it.

Pope Paul the Kelly, in imminent danger of disappearing up his own fundamentalism, preached the infallible truth that after all, same sex marriage was really a side issue, almost a distraction. What mattered was that the faithful – well, the Christians, actually, and of course primarily his fellow Roman Catholics – must be protected from the tiresome necessity of having to obey laws they didn’t like.

The cheering, singing and jubilation that greeted the final vote in parliament was not a unifying moment – it was in fact a sign of the deep divisions within society (or at least the Liberal Party Room, which he apparently imagines to be the same thing) and if there wasn’t division now, he was ready to unveil his sacred chainsaw to make sure it would fester.

The totally unnecessary review of religious freedom (as Kelly insists on calling his theocratic model), foisted upon Turnbull by the religious right, was now to be the new battleground and if Phillip Ruddock and his fellow commissioners did not deliver the discrimination and preferential treatment the Catholics wanted, well, the consequences would be profound.

Kelly did not actually threaten that they would burn in hell for all eternity, but the implicit warning was clear enough. This was not just another skirmish in the endless war between good (the Vatican) and evil (just about everyone else); it was not even a reprise of the medieval crusades. This was Armageddon, and only the true believers, his cosseted sheep, would be saved; the others, the goats, would be cast into the everlasting pit.

Kelly’s fellow religionists were not quite so extreme; Archbishop Dennis Shanahan was at least prepared to admit that politics, and even secularism, has its place, although it had to be subordinated to the demands of the holy mother church. So he will have to rely on Turnbull’s oft repeated declaration: “I just want to reassure Australians that as strongly as I believe in the right of same sex couples to marry then even more strongly I believe in religious freedom.”

As we have seen over the saga just completed, this is not exactly reassuring for the god botherers, especially since, as always with Turnbull, there is a loophole: “Religious freedom is fundamental and it will be protected in any bill that emerges from this parliament.” The bill that emerged was the unamended Dean Smith bill, for which Turnbull finally voted. So it we must assume that he feels he has fulfilled his obligations.

This, of course infuriates Kelly, Shanahan and the rest of the Curia who constantly complain about what they call the manifest inadequacy of the current many exemptions which shield believers (both genuine and opportunistic) from the hardy light of legislation which most Australians accept. Shanahan is still fighting, hoping and no doubt praying for Turnbull to return to the fold, although Kelly appears to have all but given up – he is only a step away from pronouncing anathema and excommunicating the prime minister forever.

What they refuse to accept is that Turnbull’s beliefs, while possibly sincerely held at the time, are always more than somewhat pragmatic: as he memorably said only a few days ago, “government policy remains the same until it is changed.” The hard fact is that Turnbull’s beliefs are, as Graham Richardson once remarked rather more directly, whatever it takes: specifically whatever it takes to survive within the party room and, that attained for the moment, to secure political advantage – to attack his opponents, most importantly Bill Shorten.

And now that Shorten has attempted to outflank him again, this time by writing to clerics of various hues to discuss their concerns, Turnbull will  have to become even more agile in the noble art of ducking and weaving. But it was, his backers insist, a terrific week for him – the best in ages. Which does not augur well for the remaining 50 or 60 until the next election.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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