Dear Prime Minister Turnbull
Congratulations on your election success. Two years ago very few observers believed the Coalition Government deserved another term so you have a personal achievement of which you can be proud.
While you were busy campaigning, I distracted myself by reading Coral Lansbury’s Sweet Alice. * What an enjoyable read that is! Critics are correct to compare the book with Tom Sharpe’s farces about life, manners and politics. The novel explores the fortunes of the central character Alice and her son Alaric. With her home in England being demolished around her, Alice learns that she has inherited a property called Mockery Bend near Hopes End in north-west New South Wales. The problem is that the will has been made in spite and Alice cannot claim her inheritance while several cousins have claims. Alaric sets out to contact the cousins because Alice believes that reasonable women would be happy to have a sharing arrangement.
Alaric’s Oxford educated haplessness accounts for each of the claimants. Aunt Gerda for example, is a champion golfer who strides around the greens with her putter between her teeth to intimidate opponents. Her plans for making the property into a huge golfing resort are dashed as she plunges to her death on the south coast while reaching for her ball stuck precariously in a cliffside bush.
While Alaric lives in an ideal world constructed from remnants of his classical education, Alice also has trouble with reality. In Alice’s case however, sweetness and innocence triumph over all of the cynicism and bitterness she encounters in the outback. Several men attempt to exploit her naivete and helplessness but each in turn falls under her spell, falls at her feet and falls in line with her imagined idyll. She blithely impounds some of a neighbour’s champion cattle when they stray onto her land for example, and while everyone expects he will be furious, he makes over to her the whole herd.
It occurs to me, Prime Minister, that you have also received a rather nasty inheritance from the previous parliament. I have written about this elsewhere so will not go over familiar ground (‘Marriage legislation – the Latest Wedge?’ Australian Review of Public Affairs, http://www.australianreview.net/digest/2004/07/smith.html; ‘Plebiscite, Tony? Nope, nope, nope!’ The Cud, www.thecud.com.au), except to say that I realise that you have been placed in a very difficult position by conservative elements in the Coalition. What an awkward inheritance! You will recall that one of the more progressive Liberal MPs suggested that a rort occurred when the policy on marriage equality was decided not in the Liberal Party room but in a joint meeting of the Coalition. He implied that the more conservative votes from the National Party turned the decision in favour of a plebiscite.
I found the idea of a plebiscite repugnant then and I still do. You have been elected to legislate and should do so. This was, and remains an entirely cynical ploy by those who believe that a plebiscite is likely to deliver the decision they want. Either that or it will absolve them from any responsibility for the refusal of what in this day and age ought to be considered an undeniable right. I find it repugnant because people who have no interest, no knowledge and no sincerity on the issue will be asked to rule on the life chances of people who have suffered long enough.
If my assessment of the motivations of the plebiscite supporters seems a little harsh, perhaps you should recall what happened to the process surrounding a republican referendum some two decades ago. The monarchists rejoiced when their convention adopted the question they wanted because they knew it would fail. You will recall the mood of cynicism at the time and might even recognise some of the cynics around you still.
Legislating for universal access to marriage can do no harm. Perhaps thousands of people excluded by the current legislation will flock to the registries, perhaps not. In and of itself, availability cannot cause even one marriage to take place. On the other hand, I understand that at least one couple who are now entitled to formalise their relationship, have decided to wait until all of their friends can avail themselves of the opportunity to wed. I understand that an international footballer, whose courage is well known and his partner, who has also shown courage in protesting the destruction of the environment in a part of the country not all that far from the fictional Hopes End, plan to wed only after the Act is amended. I think that people must have much greater respect for this principled stand than for the cynical opportunism of reluctant legislators. What I am sure that equal rights will achieve is greater respect for those now excluded. We can anticipate falls in the rates of depression.
Prime Minister, I’m not sure how many millions of dollars you plan to spend on this dubious exercise. But every time I hear the Treasurer or the Minister for Social Security crying crocodile tears over the state of the country’s finances, I will think of the waste which you now envisage. You do not need to exploit this issue as a means to ‘wedge’ your opponents. You have been granted another three year term. Do not procrastinate but legislate. If you have the sincerity of an Alice or an Alaric you will introduce this legislation yourself immediately and dare the cynics to challenge you. Imagine the legacy you will then be able to leave as ‘the Prime Minister for Human Rights’.
*The late Coral Lansbury was Malcolm Turnbull’s mother.