Malcolm Turnbull may have survived the Pyne tape affair but the same-sex marriage issue isn’t going away

The Christopher Pyne tape has almost certainly ensured that same-sex marriage will not be legalised in Australia while a Coalition government is in power.

In a less febrile political environment the tape would have been of passing interest only. For the most part Pyne’s speech was more pep talk than manifesto: “We are in the winner’s circle, friends, we are in the winner’s circle.”

But it was Pyne’s hopeful reference to same-sex marriage that alarmed conservatives. One imagines the very mention of same-sex marriage is considered abhorrent by the party’s conservatives. But Pyne went a big step further, telling fellow moderates that progress on same-sex marriage was imminent: “I think it might even be sooner than everyone thinks. And your friends in Canberra are working on that outcome.”

Tony Abbott and his fellow conservatives have always considered the position of holding a plebiscite on same-sex marriage – rather than putting it to a vote of Parliament – to be a clever way of keeping the issue in limbo.

Abbott hit on the plebiscite ruse while he was still Prime Minister, giving no indication of a time-table or even whether a ‘yes’ vote would be considered binding on Coalition MPs. When Malcolm Turnbull toppled Abbott as Prime Minister he agreed to support the plebiscite as a pre-condition to securing support from the right. Turnbull had previously been a critic of the plebiscite option.

It is intriguing to ponder what Pyne meant by his “sooner than everyone thinks” nugget of hope. It could only have meant one of two things: either the Government was confident it could secure the support of enough Senate cross-benchers to successfully resubmit the plebiscite bill (which was defeated last year 33-29), or a bullish Turnbull was confident he had the internal numbers to mount an Angela Merkel-like surprise and allow Parliament to vote on same-sex marriage – a pre-election surprise to catch Labor flat-footed and at last herald the return of the “real Malcolm” in time for the next election.

Building political capital

Either option would have been based on the euphoria of the Turnbull Government’s Gonski 2.0 win in Parliament – and in particular the Senate. This was a government getting things done, proving its mettle as a pragmatic negotiator with the Senate cross-bench. Although the opinion polls didn’t provide the Turnbull government with any pats on the back for its Gonski achievement, Turnbull strategists believed their man was starting to accrue some political capital. A few more wins and Turnbull might have the political wherewithal to force the issue on same-sex marriage.

The leak of the Pyne tape put paid to that happy scenario. As if to illustrate how beholden Turnbull’s prime ministership remains to the fragile factional accord, Turnbull hung Pyne out to dry with a swift repudiation: “Our policy [on same-sex marriage] is clear, we have no plans to change it, full stop.”

Pyne himself was forced to issue a fulsome apology: “My remarks were ill-chosen and unwise and I can see how unhelpful and damaging they have been.”

So whither same-sex marriage in Australia? The political impasse on the issue places Australia at odds with much of the world. As the Pyne tape saga consumed Australian politics, causing hasty retreats on even implied positions, Germany’s parliament voted 393 to 226 to legalise same-sex marriage.

Germany becomes the 23rd country to legalise same-sex marriage. It’s becoming increasingly hard to justify Australia treating same-sex marriage as a domestic political issue rather than a human rights issue. It is ridiculous that two men or two women who can legally marry in the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, France or 18 other countries cannot enjoy the same right in Australia.

Turnbull not the master of his destiny

If Pyne was right that there was a chance that a recalcitrant Australia might at last make a move on same-sex marriage, that prospect, however slim, has been unambiguously ruled out. Which all but rules out same-sex marriage while a Coalition government is in power.

Before the next federal election, scheduled for 2019, the Coalition will have to decide on what position it will take to the electorate on same-sex marriage. The Pyne affair has made it abundantly clear that Turnbull is not the master of his political destiny. Presumably, Turnbull will again be compelled by his conservative faction, and by his Nationals coalition partner, to advocate a plebiscite.

Bear in mind that what Turnbull is being prevented from doing is putting same-sex marriage to a free vote in Parliament. The conservatives don’t want such a vote because Parliament will likely support same-sex marriage. The conservatives wish that the issue would simply disappear, but that much of the politics they have lost. Their second-best option is a plebiscite which they believe they would win. Despite polls showing overwhelming support for same-sex marriage, a no-holds-barred ‘no’ campaign may very well triumph. (And then what? Would a ‘no’ vote suddenly make marriage equality less of a human right?)

Turnbull may have momentarily placated conservative elements in his party room in the wake of the Pyne tape affair, but the issue of same-sex marriage has not gone away.

Turnbull must sooner or later confront the reality that there is a difference between leadership and saving his leadership. Same-sex marriage is an issue capable of splitting the Liberal party, the Coalition and the nation.

The true test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership will be not by what machinations he manages to retain his prime ministership, but having retained it, what steps will he take to ensure that Australia takes its place in the world as a nation that says ‘yes’ to marriage for all.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

The unexpected connection between the Paris terrorist attacks and the Australian republic: it’s time

The barbarity of the terrorist strikes in Paris gave rise to a groundswell of grief, horror and sorrow throughout the world. That solitary Friday night of horror has brought to the fore the best in us. Street marches, gatherings, messages of condolence and symbolic displays of the tri-colour, both spontaneous and organised, have provided a tangible if helpless demonstration of fraternity.

But even more important is the reflection that only such a human tragedy can elicit.

The French Ambassador to Australia, Christophe Lecourtier, remarkably, appeared on ABC TV’s Q&A program on Monday night, looking exhausted and brokenhearted. His courageous appearance on the program was not without purpose. First and foremost it was no doubt an act of thanks for the outpouring of grief, amity and solidarity from Australians.

Lecourtier told the audience that France and Australia share common values, and it’s these values that are at stake, values that express “that we want to be able to go out with anybody, to dress as we want, to be in love with any people that we want”.

But the Ambassador’s courage extended much further than his decision to appear on Q&A. It was also reflected in his candid admission that France had failed Muslim immigrants and French-born Muslims by not doing more to include them in French society.

“Of course 96, 97, 98 per cent [of Muslim migrants] are good people and probably we’ve not done enough in the past 20 years to fully bring them into the nation,” Lecourtier said.

“When I look at Australia I do see that you have been working far better than us in the past 20 years to bring new immigrants into your communities and in that sense Australia is the true model.”

The Paris terrorist attacks – and their death toll so far of 132 –resonated locally because of the affinity of culture and values between the two countries, and because the issues of extremist Islamists, the refugee crisis and national security are global problems that we share.

But Paris’ Black Friday has also placed the spotlight on Australian multiculturalism – a fact brought home by the French Ambassador.

Modern Australia is entitled to feel proud of its standing as a harmonious and peaceful multicultural society, and yet one suspects that it’s not something most white-picket-fence Australians give much thought to. One is more likely to hear glowing plaudits about our society of many hues, cultures and religions from overseas visitors – or in this case the French Ambassador – than we are from our own citizens.

Malcolm Fraser is often described as the father of multiculturalism, perhaps because his government gave some policy and social coherence to the “ethnic” cornucopia of the Whitlam years. Suffice it to say that the dawn of multiculturalism as we understand it today can be traced back to the 1970s and early 1980s.

Multiculturalism is more tolerated than embraced

Before that, Australia had the post-WWII immigration influx which provided the bedrock on which multiculturalism was built. But those arrivals from war-torn Europe were expected to leave their cultures and histories behind as they forged new identities as “new Australians”.

The migrants’ influence seeped into Australia’s stubbornly white, parochial and “British” culture, but unobtrusively and without fanfare, until it was unlocked – not to say unleashed – by Whitlam and Fraser’s leadership.

Multiculturalism, although deeply embedded in Australian society, is more likely to be tolerate than embraced, an uncertain relationship best characterised as benign apathy rather than nuanced appreciation.

Ambassador Lecourtier’s reflections about France’s trouble relationship with its Muslim immigrant community should be taken as much to heart as his praise for Australian multiculturalism. While it is true that we have not marginalised Australia’s Muslim population as the French have done, we must be alert to the dangers of demonising members of the Muslim community at times like this.

For this reason Australia’s political (and community) leadership has profound responsibilities.

Many argue that political atmospherics don’t matter, but they certainly do, and they especially do in such critical tinder-dry environments.

Many will welcome that the considered Malcolm Turnbull and not the hawkish Tony Abbott is Prime Minister at this sensitive time, and one suspects that the Muslim community is especially relieved.

It is significant that on the same Q&A program senior federal government Minister Christopher Pyne demonstrated precisely such leadership when he stated firmly and unambiguously that Muslim leaders should not be repeatedly called upon to condemn terror attacks. Noting that in his experience Muslim leaders do speak out against terrorism, Pyne said:

“They shouldn’t be called on to do so because it suggests they don’t want to do it.

“By the very act of demanding that they come out [against terrorism] you suggest that they don’t want to. That is something we must stop happening in Australia; whoever is doing that must stop it because it is a pejorative demand.”

Would Pyne have made the same statement as a member of the Abbott government? We can’t know the answer to that question, but most Australians would have a pretty fair idea.

Pyne also emphasised that extremist and militant Islamists do not represent the Islamic faith:

“Moderate Muslims need to be embraced in Australia or elsewhere. Moderate Muslim governments need to be embraced, wherever they might be, because they have at much at stake as we do in defeating extremists.”

Pyne knows why such statements need to be made, and emphatically so.

The Paris terrorist attacks have been eagerly appropriated by opponents of the so-called “Islamisation” of Australia,

For “true Australians” the events in Paris confirm every odious prejudice, stereotype and piece of misinformation about Muslims. One can barely imagine the dread that Australian Muslims must feel when a tragic event of this kind occurs anywhere in the world, but especially in a country with which Australia has some cultural affinity, which will result in saturation media coverage.

This time it’s not just the usual suspects

They know that in the eyes of some Australians every Muslim is a potential terrorist or likely sympathiser with the perpetrators of terrorist activities overseas. They know that they will be blamed for the atrocities committed in Paris; and if not blamed, they must somehow answer for these barbarous events.

And it’s not just neo-Nazi thugs and the usual suspects such as Pauline Hanson (the less said about her the better) that have called for a tightening of immigration laws and refugee intakes.

NSW state Nationals MP Andrew Fraser – assistant Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly, no less – has called for a stop to refugees from the Middle East.

“Message to Malcolm Turnbull: Australia does not need Middle Eastern refugees or Islamic boat people! Close our borders we have enough anarchists already resident in Australia (our democracy) we do not need any more coming in disguised as refugees!” Fraser wrote on his Facebook page.

He later told Fairfax Media, in defence of his post:

“Isn’t it about time we said, hang on, our number one duty is to protect Australians, not to give a haven to people who want to kill people in the name of Islam? I have no problems with people coming in from the Middle East to Australia. But I don’t think the filter is good enough.”

How is it that such irresponsible comments can made – by one of the most senior parliamentarians in the land – in what is supposed to be a multicultural society that is the envy of the world? Fraser would no doubt claim that he is not a hate-monger, but his comments will certainly provide fodder for people who definitely are. (The Muslim community in Bendigo, Victoria, which is facing rabid opposition to plans to build a mosque in the regional city must be wondering if events in Paris have sealed the future of their mosque.)

Despite Australia’s many-hued corpus, there remains a fragility and ambiguity to Australian multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a cornerstone of Australian society, but that is not to say that it is uncontested.

There remain Australians “opposed” to multiculturalism, as if the clock can be turned back to 1955. They are more denialists than opponents. Walk down any city street, take a seat in any bus, train or tram, look around your workplace and the reality is clear: there is no turning back.

One hopes that for most Australians it is a desirable and indeed beautiful reality, and that only a relative handful want the clock to be wound back, but events in Paris have once again put Australian multiculturalism to the test.

Australia’s self-conscious patriotism

One of the moving spectacles to be observed in recent days is French citizens’ deep love of country. It is to be envied. It goes much deeper than Australian-flag capes on Australia Day. It is a deep reverence, a profound faith in the values that the ambassador spoke of and which have been referred to in hundreds of speeches since Black Friday. It eclipses the jingoism of Australia’s self-conscious patriotism or the saccharine (certainly to our ears) patriotism of the Americans.

Could we ever hope to emulate the French when it comes to national pride? Can we ever be as sure about the values that underpin our nation? Can we ever come to believe that our greatness is in who we are and who we can be, not in who we used to be?

There can be only one answer to these questions: Australia will not be a truly sovereign nation until we have our own head of state.

We remain a young nation uncertain of who we are. The White Australia policy and the close bonds with the “mother country” provided a fledgling nation with some certainty, but with it there remains a stiff vein of xenophobia that continues to course its way through Australian society.

It was such an apt illustrator of Australia’s bodgie status as a nation that the heir to the British and Australian thrones, Prince Charles, should find himself in Australia at the same time as the terrorists struck in Paris. Charles embodies Australia’s historical and constitutional connection with Britain, but his presence here also underscored Australia’s tenuous grip on who we are and who we wish to be as a nation.

The constitutional relationship between Australia and Britain has been reasonable and proper; but it ceased to be relevant, or even desirable, some time ago. Perhaps the spell was broken on 11 November 1975.

Before we can address with confidence and resolve Australia’s future as a vibrant, diverse and inclusive society we must cut our constitutional links with the British monarchy.

While we retain those links there will always be some Australians who seek comfort and license from our white, British past. The hard-right and neo-Nazi defenders of the “real” Australia – and their gullible supporters – have a false icon in Australia’s weak-kneed retention of the constitutional monarchy.

We are no longer a “white” outpost. Refugees and migrants from the Middle East are not aliens in our midst; they are not “foreigners” in a quasi-British Australia.

The Australian republic is not a second-order issue. It is fundamental to who we are; it is vital to Australia’s future.

In the aftermath to the tragic events in Paris, the people of France have once again taken succour from the inalienable values of their nation: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Remaining a constitutional monarchy because we can’t be bothered becoming a republic is a disgrace.

Whether a seventh-generation Australian with links to the First Fleet, as is the case with Malcolm Turnbull, or a fresh arrival from Syria, none can be truly Australian until we declare ourselves a republic with our own head of state.

Vive la République!