Tony Ab­bott on the air.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week / Contents - Paul Bon­giorno

Aus­tralian pol­i­tics surely could not get more bizarre than the spec­ta­cle of the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment tear­ing it­self apart this week over what it dis­misses as a sec­ond-or­der is­sue. And it all comes down to the dy­nam­ics gen­er­ated by one em­bit­tered man. Although many com­plain that the con­tin­ued fo­cus on Tony Ab­bott is nau­se­at­ing, to ig­nore him is to be blind to the po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity of where our na­tional gov­ern­ment finds it­self.

And make no mis­take: the dumped prime min­is­ter couldn’t be more de­lighted. On Mon­day, the fort­nightly Newspoll de­liv­ered an­other re­al­ity check for Mal­colm Turn­bull. His gov­ern­ment is still trail­ing La­bor by six points and it’s the 17th sur­vey where the Coali­tion has come sec­ond.

Ab­bott just so hap­pened to be in 2GB shock jock Ray Hadley’s stu­dio, one of his favourite com­fort zones, on the day the poll was pub­lished. With a TV net­works pool cam­era trained on him, the hum­ble Lib­eral back­bencher could scarcely keep a straight face when Hadley, be­fore the ra­dio in­ter­view be­gan, cheek­ily drew at­ten­tion to the 17th bad re­sult. “Yep, yep,” was Ab­bott’s re­sponse as he looked to­wards the cam­era. “Thir­teen to go, old mate,” Hadley con­tin­ued. “Yeah,” Ab­bott said, ac­knowl­edg­ing the bench­mark of 30 bad Newspolls in a row that Turn­bull nom­i­nated for a lead­er­ship change.

The high-rat­ing Mac­quarie Me­dia ra­dio net­work, which plays from Syd­ney into Queens­land and the ACT, has given Ab­bott eight hours’ air­time in just 20 weeks, ac­cord­ing to the ABC’s Me­dia Watch. It does it be­cause Ab­bott is a rat­ings grab­ber. And he is be­cause, as an­other of the net­work’s pre­sen­ters, Ben Ford­ham, puts it, the for­mer prime min­is­ter al­ways comes with some­thing to say.

The man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of JWS Re­search, John Scales, has no doubt about “what could stop the rot for Turn­bull”. His ex­ten­sive tech­niques for mea­sur­ing the pub­lic mood con­firm what Turn­bull’s mod­er­ate al­lies in the party are con­vinced is the case. Scales says for ev­ery vote Turn­bull saves by cav­ing to the con­ser­va­tives – whether they be in the Lib­eral or the Na­tional party – he loses two votes from the cen­tre and the soft left. In other words, Turn­bull’s at­trac­tion to the broader vot­ing pub­lic has been sac­ri­ficed. His mod­er­ate col­leagues be­lieve his lead as pre­ferred prime min­is­ter and as Lib­eral leader com­pared with the other op­tions means he could re­trieve the sit­u­a­tion. But, as the Fair­fax Ip­sos poll found this week, vot­ers think “he has to grow some balls”.

In the run-up to Mon­day’s cab­i­net meet­ings and emer­gency Lib­eral party-room gath­er­ing, called by Turn­bull to ad­dress the cri­sis pre­cip­i­tated by the threat of a Lib­eral back­bench mar­riage equal­ity re­volt, se­nior mod­er­ate min­is­ters urged Turn­bull to seize the op­por­tu­nity to grab back the ini­tia­tive from Ab­bott.

The ar­gu­ment went that the gov­ern­ment had al­ready dis­charged its obli­ga­tion to vot­ers by at­tempt­ing to get the plebiscite through the se­nate, now he should ar­gue for what ev­ery­one knows he be­lieves in and de­fine the de­bate. Turn­bull was told the plan B op­tion – a non­com­pul­sory postal vote – was highly prob­lem­atic and if suc­cess­fully chal­lenged in the High Court would make the gov­ern­ment look like “it couldn’t run a chook raf­fle”.

Plan B was the brain­child of lead­ing con­ser­va­tives Peter Dut­ton and Mathias Cor­mann. Their coun­ter­ar­gu­ment was on the need to hold the Coali­tion to­gether, es­pe­cially in light of threats from Na­tion­als back­bencher An­drew Broad that he would quit, rob the gov­ern­ment of its ma­jor­ity and go to the cross­bench if the free vote was al­lowed. The mod­er­ates ar­gued Turn­bull should call Broad’s bluff and stare down any­one threat­en­ing to bring down the gov­ern­ment.

There were signs the penny had dropped for Na­tion­als leader Barn­aby Joyce that if he ended the Coali­tion gov­ern­ment over the free vote it would also be the end for him. His abil­ity to de­liver on the var­i­ous boon­dog­gles he was promis­ing to re­gional Aus­tralia would dis­ap­pear. Even the peren­nial Na­tion­als rene­gade, Ge­orge Chris­tensen, was telling peo­ple that if the Lib­er­als went with the free vote he wouldn’t quit the gov­ern­ment, just be more pre­pared to cross the floor more of­ten in fu­ture – de­pend­ing on the is­sue, of course.

Be­sides, the Na­tion­als were say­ing pub­licly that ev­ery­one should stop talk­ing about gay mar­riage and start talk­ing about more im­por­tant things. But their in­tran­si­gence on the is­sue has guar­an­teed that it will con­tinue to fes­ter for months. Just as it did in the past two weeks. It will over­shadow what­ever else the gov­ern­ment is do­ing, es­pe­cially when key events flare, such as a High Court chal­lenge to the postal vote or the vote it­self, if it sur­vives. Vet­eran Lib­eral back­bencher Rus­sell Broad­bent warned the joint party room on Tues­day that the postal vote would turn to po­lit­i­cal mush for the gov­ern­ment.

If there were any doubts the cam­paign for the

$122 mil­lion non-com­pul­sory “let­ter to 16 mil­lion vot­ers” will get ugly and in­tense, they were quickly dis­pelled mid­week. Tony Ab­bott – see above – came to the doors at Par­lia­ment House to run the lines he has al­ready honed: “It is an op­por­tu­nity for ev­ery Aus­tralian who cares about this to have his or her say, and again I say to you, if you don’t like same-sex mar­riage, vote no; if you are wor­ried about free­dom of speech and free­dom of re­li­gion, vote no; and if you don’t like po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, vote no, be­cause this is the best way to stop it in its tracks.”

It was too much for Ab­bott’s sis­ter, Chris­tine Forster. Forster, a Lib­eral Syd­ney City coun­cil­lor, who makes no se­cret about want­ing to marry her fe­male part­ner, shot back on so­cial me­dia: “If you value mu­tual re­spect: vote yes. If you want all Aus­tralians to be equal: vote yes. If you be­lieve in free speech: vote yes.”

The Ab­bott grab bag of alt-right griev­ances am­ply demon­strates his cru­sade against same-sex mar­riage is merely a proxy against the sort of moder­nity he iden­ti­fies with Turn­bull and con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia. Iron­i­cally, he wasn’t too keen on a postal plebiscite on Mon­day. He urged Turn­bull to keep bowl­ing up the com­pul­sory plebiscite, for years if nec­es­sary. But now that has been ditched af­ter its sec­ond se­nate de­feat, any­thing will do as long as it keeps the gov­ern­ment off bal­ance.

At his Mon­day news con­fer­ence, Turn­bull bris­tled when he was asked why he was fol­low­ing and not lead­ing. “Strong lead­ers carry out their prom­ises,” he shot back. “Weak lead­ers break them.” With a straight-jawed firm­ness, he said, “I am a strong leader.” The last time he gave a sim­i­lar self-as­sess­ment it had a greater ring of truth to it. That was in 2009 – the day he lost the lead­er­ship by one vote to Ab­bott over pric­ing car­bon. He said, “I am a strong leader. I don’t take a back­ward step. I am pre­pared to stand up for what I be­lieve in.”

Now he is only half-heart­edly pre­pared to stand up for what he be­lieves in. He says he will not be cam­paign­ing for a yes vote, although he and his wife, Lucy, will vote in the af­fir­ma­tive. He has, he says, “many other calls on his time”.

Turn­bull’s weak­ness of lead­er­ship came with a dis­ap­point­ing thud in ques­tion time. La­bor’s Bill Shorten drew at­ten­tion to a pam­phlet au­tho­rised by a for­mer Howard gov­ern­ment min­is­ter, Chris Miles. He said it “falsely claims chil­dren of gay cou­ples are more likely to abuse drugs, have sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases and be un­em­ployed”. Shorten won­dered how this fits with the prime min­is­ter’s guar­an­tee of a re­spect­ful dis­cus­sion. He asked why the prime min­is­ter was mak­ing Aus­tralians pay $122 mil­lion to give li­cence to this vile rub­bish.

In­ex­pli­ca­bly, Turn­bull did not con­demn the sen­ti­ments as a fail­ure of the good sense he be­lieves a ma­jor­ity have. In­stead, he gave a green light to the gross prej­u­dice of the pam­phlet. Un­like La­bor, he said, his side of pol­i­tics, “is not go­ing to shut down democ­racy”. Is it any won­der that LGBTI peo­ple in Turn­bull’s Syd­ney elec­torate of Went­worth are dread­ing the lead-up to the postal vote should it hap­pen? Al­ready, coun­selling ser­vices are re­port­ing in­creas­ing traf­fic from dis­tressed, vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple.

John Scales says there are real doubts the Aus­tralian Bureau of Statis­tics will be able to de­liver a re­sult in the time set down. He says a sim­pler and more ac­cu­rate way to gauge pub­lic opinion would be to robo­call a weighted sam­ple of 150,000 with a sim­ple yes or no choice. It would cost just $1 mil­lion. It would also deny the big­ots and zealots a plat­form to play on vot­ers’ prej­u­dices and fears.

Dean Smith, the Lib­eral sen­a­tor who pre­cip­i­tated the amaz­ing scenes of the past week, is hold­ing his fire with his pri­vate mem­ber’s bill. He is pre­pared to give Turn­bull’s Novem­ber dead­line for a vote a chance. He now knows he has the num­bers in the house to sus­pend stand­ing or­ders if Turn­bull’s plan B fails to de­liver. Noth­ing will stop him if it does.

In the same 2GB in­ter­view, Ab­bott did not con­sis­tently ap­ply his new-found pi­ous re­gard for not break­ing prom­ises. He urged Turn­bull to ditch the promised clean en­ergy tar­get be­cause it was La­bor– Green the­ol­ogy push­ing up prices. The chutz­pah of it is

• just as­tound­ing.


PAUL BON­GIORNO is a colum­nist for The Satur­day Pa­per and a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor on the ABC’s

RN Break­fast.

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