MUNGO MacCALLUM. Malcolm Turnbull’s low road.

Oct 4, 2016


So much for Malcolm Turnbull’s great fortnight in parliament, followed by his triumphant march through the marbled halls of New York and Washington.

His claque of supporters raved, of course, but the paying customers – the voters – remained resolutely unimpressed.

Newspoll, the bible on which our Prime Minister relied on when he made his grab for power, put his government behind on preferences, and the primary vote fell below 40 percent – where The Australian’s Liberal spruiker Dennis Shanahan used to gleefully describe as “the death zone” when it involved Labor. Now he is more reticent, as is just about every other conservative.

And the sludge on the toilet brush was another Newspoll, which revealed that the public had switched on the plebiscite – there was now a clear majority for a parliamentary vote on same sex marriage, and even Liberal voters now wanted to the dump the coalition’s unbreakable mandate.

Naturally, the Turnbull troops blamed Bill Shorten: it was his relentless campaign of fear and loathing that scared the punters away from their democratic act of free choice. And indeed, Shorten deserves some of the credit, but not for any scare tactics.

It is unlikely that the proponents of traditional marriage were greatly moved by the evidence that the plebiscite would unleash hate speech and misery to the LGBTI community; it has seldom bothered them before. The real strength of Shorten’s message was that they realised that they had been conned.

It had finally dawned upon them that the plebiscite would indeed be a $200 million opinion poll in which they would have to vote but the politicians would not have to take any notice of them, and would still have to do their day job – to vote in both houses of parliament – to reach a decision. All the hype, spin and ballyhoo about giving the people a say on this vital issue was, in fact, bullshit.

This does not mean that the public has suddenly become passionate in the cause of marriage equality; there is, as there has long remained, a majority in favour of it. But it is now clear that they are ready to get it over with, one way or another. They are ready to cut to the chase and they don’t like the way they have been led around a devious, expensive and in the end pointless blind alley under the guise of a higher morality than that of parliamentary democracy.

How much of this has spilled into the fall in the conservative vote is hard to factor, but it must certainly add to the general disillusionment of a government which promised action and reform, but has at its best dithered and compromised and at worst produced little if anything of what was promised. The only pre-election commitment, it would now appear, is the unwanted plebiscite: that is set in stone. But everything else is up for grabs, at least when the restive backbench – led by the Nationals – is concerned.

Hence the latest backdown, this time on the backpackers tax. This may or may not be good policy, but if it is, why was the tax promised in the first place, and why did it last so long? And, more pertinently, if it can be ditched because it is manifestly unpopular, why not the plebiscite?

Shorten has moved away from the plebiscite, as his enemies gloat; but once he changed his mind, he has been rock solid. The hapless George Brandis, who was asked by his leader to try and broker some kind of compromise to keep the proposal alive, presumably knew that his mission was futile from the outset, which is presumably why he never really pursued it.

Having called his Labor counterpart, Mark Dreyfus, in for talks, Brandis offered precisely nothing, which figured; given that the Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce had said that the terms laid out in the House of Representatives were not negotiable for him and his followers, Brandis had nothing to give.

Instead, he said that if, just suppose, that Labor would agree to a plebiscite, what would be required? This was absurd on every level. For starters, that is not a decision for Dreyfus; he would have to take it back to his leadership group and to the party room before he could even countenance the idea. And in any case, the meeting was Brandis’s initiative: surely it was up to him to set the agenda.

The exercise was just another distraction; part of the fraud that, it was hoped, would leave Shorten, not Turnbull, carrying the can for the failure of the plebiscite. But if the poll is right, it will be to Shorten’s credit and Turnbull’s humiliation. In which case prepare for a few more Newspolls where the government is behind, and the dogs of the party room continue to growl and grumble.

At this stage a prime minister of courage and conviction would have confronted his party room, telling them that it was time to cut their losses and ordering them to take a conscience vote to the parliament and get rid of the distraction which was dividing the country and his government.

But if Malcolm Turnbull ever possessed such qualities, he does so no longer. Instead, as soon as he returned to Australia he took the low road: his response to the extreme weather that blacked out South Australia was a tirade against state Labor governments who took an aggressive approach to replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.

He knew perfectly well that this had nothing to do with the power failure: it was sheer opportunism and cynicism and, in the wake of a natural disaster, almost indecent. He seemed to be echoing Barnaby Joyce, or even Pauline Hanson. The dwindling band of middle-roaders who still hoped that he might redeem himself as the reforming liberal in whom they had placed their faith last year will be further depressed.

But the bovver boys in the joint party room will be delighted. And apparently that’s all that matters.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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