It is an article of faith in Australian politics that a referendum question that does not have bipartisan support will fail to secure majority support. The principle is no less relevant in the case of the half-baked postal ballot foisted on Australian voters to decide the issue of same-sex marriage.
There was never any prospect of federal Cabinet agreeing to join the 21st century and unite in support of same-sex marriage, but it is disappointing that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has chosen to all but absent himself from the plebiscite campaign.
Turnbull, whose time in office has been marked by a conspicuous lack of authority, has been particularly craven on same-sex marriage.
Rather than taking a leadership role in advancing the case for what is a fundamental civil right, Turnbull will limit himself to answering journalists’ questions on the subject and urging people to vote in the ballot.
This is nominally the outcome of a Cabinet decision to absolve ministers – whether ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ supporters – from actively participating in the plebiscite campaign unless within their own electorates. While the Cabinet position applies to all ministers, this is a weasely ruse whose primary purpose is to keep Turnbull out of the marriage-equality campaign.
It hardly matters whether this was a gag imposed on Turnbull or a strategy devised by Turnbull himself. The Right don’t want any star power that Turnbull may still retain to be mobilised in favour of same-sex marriage and the last thing Turnbull wants is to further alienate his colleagues on the right by being identified with the ‘Yes’ campaign, especially in the case of a ‘Yes’ vote.
For anyone hoping that the plebiscite would free up the Prime Minister to show his true rainbow colours on same-sex marriage and act as a champion for marriage equality their disappointment will run deep. Turnbull’s advocacy will be especially missed as the more strident activists on the ‘No’ side turn up the volume and produce ever-more offensive arguments on behalf of the status quo.
Marriage equality ‘a fourth-order issue’
Turnbull’s abandonment of the cause of same-sex marriage can be put down to political cowardice. It’s damnable, but it’s what most Australians have come to expect of him. However Turnbull has done much more than squirm himself out of a prominent role in the marriage-equality debate.
He has also deliberately sought to diminish the importance of marriage equality, partly to justify his absence from the fray, but in the process leaving same-sex marriage campaigners to their fate.
Turnbull argues that his first duty is to “run the government” which includes focusing on much more important issues than same-sex marriage such as national security, the economy and energy prices.
“Same-sex marriage is an important issue but there are a lot of other much more important issues for me to focus on,” he says.
It’s hard to imagine a prime minister being more offensive. Same-sex couples wishing for the right to marry – in many cases their children joining in their fervent hope – have been told by their government that theirs is a fourth- or fifth-order issue.
Let us reflect for a moment on what this means: the Turnbull government refused to budge from its preferred option of a plebiscite to decide on marriage equality – rather than let Parliament do its job – because such an important and fundamental change should be voted on by the Australian public. Now the Prime Minister and his ministers argue that they have more important things to do than to actively participate in the campaign.
While the government “encourages” people to vote in what is a voluntary ballot they have done everything in their power to belittle the process.
One wonders how seriously the plebiscite result will be taken. It is not a wild stretch of the imagination to suggest that the lower the turnout the less likely opponents of same-sex marriage within the government will be to accept a ‘Yes’ outcome, particularly a ‘Yes’ vote that falls just over the line.
PM swaps wedding tux for khaki
Labor leader Bill Shorten has already stated that even in the event of a negative result a Labor government would still legislate for same-sex marriage.
That may explain why Turnbull had ramped up attacks on his opposite number, describing Shorten as “the most dangerous left-wing leader of the Labor Party we have seen in generations”.
While Turnbull focuses on the big issues, he is not exactly doing so with a cool head.
On energy, he has become increasingly shrill. Even as the Finkel report languishes in the PM’s bottom drawer, he has hit out at South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, describing his energy plans for the state as “dangerous…ideology and idiocy in equal measures”.
On national security, which Turnbull considers his biggest strength, like Coalition leaders before him, the Prime Minister has gratuitously and prematurely aligned Australia with the United States in the event of war with North Korea.
Swapping his wedding tux for khaki, the Prime Minister thundered that “we stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States”.
“The ANZUS treaty means that if America is attacked, we will come to their aid and if Australia is attacked, the Americans will come to ours. We are joined at the hip.”
If this was meant to sound reassuring it was nothing of the kind, showing the sabre-rattling Prime Minister obscenely willing to fan President Donald Trump’s bellicosity in order to portray himself as a war-time leader.
That is, of course, if Australians are still listening to Malcolm Turnbull. Pulling out of the same-sex marriage campaign will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many Australians. They will recognise that taking a discreet position on marriage equality is all about saving his political skin, even if it means jeopardising the cause he once so freely championed.
He must know – and dread – that if the highly compromised postal ballot delivers a ‘No’ result marriage-equality campaigners will lose no time in dubbing Turnbull as the second Prime Minister to break Australia’s heart.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a columnist with The New Daily and is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He’s on Twitter @DAngeloFisher