A craven Malcolm Turnbull has placed his political survival ahead of marriage equality

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

 

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

 

Where’s Malcolm? The election is Turnbull’s last chance to be the PM everyone thought he was going to be

It’s the question on everyone’s lips: “Where’s Malcolm?” And it’s not a misplaced question. The Malcolm Turnbull who became Prime Minister on September 15 last year – to the palpable relief of a grateful nation – is not quite the man who occupies the office today.

There are occasional glimpses of the charming, eloquent and charismatic visionary whose elevation to the top job aroused much anticipation. Even the Labor opposition seemed quite giddy and star-struck in those first few heady days of Malcolm at the despatch box. At question time, even when he dared to helpfully suggest the question the Opposition should have asked, there was much fluttering delight on the Labor side.

“Early Malcolm” certainly set the scene for the post-Abbott era: soaring speeches, a mini-summit of diverse interests that heralded a new era of inclusion and consultation, a softer tone on terrorism, and of course the innovation statement.

But then, just as suddenly as he appeared, the urbane statesman who promised to usher in the glorious “Turnbull era” became just another politician – and not a very good one, with missteps galore, wasted opportunities, flights of policy fancy that came and went in the space of a news cycle, and a curious reluctance to give voice to those convictions he once proudly wore on his bespoke sleeve: the republic, same-sex marriage, climate change, [insert your own issue here].

Perhaps, opined those prepared to give Turnbull the benefit of the doubt, including this writer, he was silenced by whatever agreements he needed to strike with conservative elements within his party, not to mention his coalition partner, to secure the leadership. Once he has a mandate in his own right, the theory ran (runs), then the “real Malcolm” will re-emerge.

But Turnbull has given not so much as a hint that voters’ patience and understanding will be rewarded in due time. On the republic he has been especially disappointing, relegating it to a distant third-order issue, one to be revisited, maybe and perhaps, when the Queen dies (begging your pardon, Ma’am). On same-sex marriage, he has opted not to reverse the Coalition’s controversial commitment to a divisive and expensive plebiscite.

Who is this imposter claiming to be Malcolm Turnbull? Turnbull is Turnbull in much the same way that the waxen Shane Warne is who he says he is. Of the former spin king, once we get past the swallow’s nest on his bonce, we might agree that he sounds like Warnie and if you squint he even looks a bit like Warnie.

That goes for Turnbull too; if you squint, there is a passing resemblance to the old Malcolm.

Even if we can make allowances for Turnbull squibbing it on those cornerstone issues until after the election – and increasingly that now seems like a big if – it’s much harder to explain the past six months of stumbles, about-faces and inglorious defeats.

It’s even possible to pinpoint the very day when the Turnbull gloss turned to fluff.

That was October 9, less than a month after becoming PM, when Turnbull stupidly (no other word for it) told a Liberal Party state council in Sydney that their party was neither run by factions nor subject to “deals in back rooms”. For his trouble he was openly jeered and laughed at.

Who can say what possessed Turnbull on that day, but ever since Turnbull has been squandering the enormous political capital he initially enjoyed.

A PM who promised so much

The turning opinion polls tell the story of a public’s disappointment with a Prime Minister who explicitly and implicitly promised so much.

It had widely been assumed that Turnbull would be Keatingesque in his policy gravity and vision, but mostly he has just been Abbottesque.

Turnbull deliberately set high expectations on tax reform, promising an informed community debate on taxation, with all tax options to be considered, and a government tax reform blueprint to be presented to the nation in its aftermath. There was no blueprint and debate was pretty swiftly cut short when federal Labor successfully spooked Turnbull into taking any changes to the GST off the mostly bare table. Changes to negative gearing, also initially entertained by the government, had its sacred-cow status confirmed when it too was ruled out – all the better to hammer Labor at the election.

Turnbull, suddenly bereft of a tax reform centrepiece, much less a tax reform manifesto, came up with a proposal to return limited income tax powers to the states for the first time since World War II. It was, the PM boasted, the greatest reform to income tax and the federation in 70 years.

“What we are talking about is the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations, really since the income tax powers were ceded to the commonwealth in the Second World War. There is a failure at the heart of the federation and this is the failure: it is the failure of the states to have access to the revenue sources. This, we believe, is the only way that we can genuinely reform our federation.”

While the proposal – such as it was – was still alive, Turnbull actually did a good job explaining why giving states a share of the income tax base would be an important reform. But, on April 1, appropriately enough, the COAG meeting at which the proposal was formally raised, was informally buried.

Officially the communique stated: “COAG agreed…[to] work on broader opportunities for tax reform, including state tax reform…with a progress report to COAG at its next meeting.”

There’s been not a peep from Turnbull on his momentous state income tax reform since.

Given its significance, one would have thought the Turnbull government would fight harder for such a reform rather than meekly acquiesce to the predictable objections of the states and territories. Or indeed that such a seminal reform might even be an issue to take to the voters? Apparently not.

Wishy-washy brand of politics

Turnbull vowed in his first address to the nation as Prime Minister-elect that his government would be one of “engagement, of consultation, of collaboration”, respecting the intelligence of voters and explaining necessary policy changes.

There has been no such engagement, mainly because there has been no great policy shift which the government has had to explain. It certainly hasn’t been on tax reform, and most certainly not “the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations”. Turnbull has squandered much goodwill; in those first six months we can only speculate on how much he could have achieved in policy terms.

We know from the opinion polls that voters are not happy with Turnbull’s wishy-washy brand of politics – it’s the very opposite of what they expected from him and completely at odds with his take-no-prisoners approach in previous lives as a journalist, lawyer, businessman and investment banker.

Yet, every now and then Australians are treated to a glimpse of the Turnbull they thought they would see on a more regular basis: Turnbull’s prime ministerial Anzac Day address; or Malcolm in command as he announced the awarding of the $50 billion submarine contract to French company DCNS, which will build 12 submarines in Adelaide.

It may be that the Budget will make up for Turnbull’s disappointing start to his prime ministership. To do so it would have to be a budget for the ages, a cornucopia of vision, narrative and bold policy brilliance. It’s possible, but the hamfisted lead up to the Budget suggests nobody is expecting much at all. Except for cigarettes going up again.

And so to the election, which will be called just after the Budget formalities are over.

For jaded Australians who remain hopeful that a mandate will ensure the return of “real Malcolm”, it is no longer the certainty that it was seven months ago that Turnbull will be returned as Prime Minister.

Neither Turnbull nor Labor leader Bill Shorten have led an election campaign before. Neither man will ever face a more important contest.

Hopefully it will be a contest not just of endurance and theatrics, but a contest of ideas, a genuine choice between two plans for Australia. The fact that Shorten lives to tell the tale – not cut down by an all-conquering Turnbull as expected – is a plus for democracy.

Turnbull’s uneven start as PM has been cleverly exploited by Shorten who has for the first time cut through electoral indifference to point out chinks in the government’s armour. More than that, he has been more adventurous on the policy front. Even so, the polls suggest that, whatever gains Labor has made at the expense of the government, people still haven’t warmed to Shorten as the alternative PM and Turnbull comfortably remains the preferred PM.

Turnbull supporters will be hoping that on July 2 Malcolm Turnbull and his government will be returned, and the Turnbull era will at last begin in earnest.

However, Turnbull needs to be aware that thanks to his less than stellar debut as PM Bill Shorten is now very much in the race. Turnbull isn’t the only one hoping to kick off a new era in Australian politics.

 

 

Why Malcolm Turnbull must call an election now

It was refreshing to hear Malcolm Turnbull late last year, while still newly ascended to the prime ministership and enjoying towering prominence in the polls, to put early election speculation to rest by declaring that the Coalition government would go full term. Rather than take advantage of his popularity, Turnbull said he was “expecting” to call an election “around September, October” this year.

This undertaking seemed to confirm the measure of the man; here was a Prime Minister who was clearly determined to retire the naked politics of his predecessor. Malcolm Turnbull was living up to voters’ expectations of their new Prime Minister being more statesman than politician.

Turnbull’s immediate appeal to the electorate was the fact that he was the antithesis of Tony Abbott: urbane, charismatic, articulate, thoughtful – prime ministerial. And perhaps most importantly he was perceived as a moderate and a modernist whose eye was on 2050 rather than 1950. Among his many faults, Abbott was embarrassingly stuck in a past that was no longer relevant to most Australians. The Prince Phillip knighthood fiasco was not of itself the reason to draw a line under Abbott’s cringeworthy prime ministership, it was simply one reflection too many of a tin-eared Prime Minister who was irretrievably out of sync with the Australian people.

Turnbull’s demeanour, reputation and public utterances on a range of hot-button issues suggested a Prime Minister in whom Australians could place their trust to be a leader for the 21st century.

But many voters of late have wondered what became of that idealistic figure, a doubt which has been reflected in recent opinion polls. Turnbull and the Coalition remain well ahead of Bill Shorten and Labor respectively, but there’s been a noticeable wobble in the polls recently which suggests voters fear that Turnbull is after all just another politician, albeit a charming one.

Turnbull has changed; he’s more of a politician than he used to be, and perhaps he needs to be to keep in check the febrile Abbott-right conservatives who are suspicious of his progressive inclinations.

Malcolm Turnbull is well aware, perhaps too aware, that he lost leadership of the Liberal Party to Tony Abbott in 2009, albeit narrowly, because he stood on principle rather than political opportunism in his support for the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme.

The disappointing upshot of that experience is that Turnbull has gagged himself from speaking out on the issues that call for Keatingesque leadership and resolve: asylum seekers, same-sex marriage, the republic, climate change, et al.

Turnbull the heart-breaker

To hear a mealy-mouthed Turnbull casually dismiss the republic as a second-order issue is almost as heart-breaking as the republic referendum sabotaged by proto-monarchist John Howard. Turnbull’s insistence on a plebiscite, rather than a vote of Parliament, on same-sex marriage, is contrary to his earlier stated position and an abrogation of leadership on what is an essential reform. Turnbull turning a blind eye to the unspeakable suffering of asylum seekers in off-shore detention centres is another heart-breaker. On climate change – Greg Hunt’s Coco Pops award as Best Minister in the Known Universe notwithstanding – world leaders must be wondering if Australia has the same understanding of the threat posed by climate change as the rest of the world.

Even Turnbull’s broad-shouldered commitment that all tax matters would be up for debate as part of an open process to arrive at necessary tax reform has proven short-lived. Turnbull’s premature decision to rule out changes to the GST – despite his commitment to bring “rule in/rule out” politics to an end – revealed a Prime Minister who did not have the stomach for genuine consideration of the GST option.

Turnbull buckled under the pressure of Labor’s scare campaign against a “15% GST”, a rare win for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Yet there was every indication that the electorate was open to an increase in the GST from 10% to 12.5% as being in the national interest. Paul Keating, Australia’s most influential and unflinching economic reformer, while implacably opposed to a 15% GST as a general revenue raiser, did see merit in a GST increase of “one or two percent” if the extra revenue was earmarked for health spending.

But with Labor’s scare campaign starting to bite, Turnbull decided that discretion was the better part of valour and closed down the debate, leaving two State Premiers – Jay Weatherill in South Australia and Mike Baird in NSW – high and dry. They had taken Turnbull at his word and bought into the GST debate (supporting an increase) at considerable political risk to themselves. The backdown also caught short Treasurer Scott Morrison who was up for the fight and left him in a position not dissimilar to Paul Keating in 1985 when Bob Hawke reversed his support for then Treasurer Keating’s consumption tax – and we all know how that ended.

Seeking a mandate

So what’s going on? For those prepared to Turnbull the benefit of the doubt – including this writer – the forgiving interpretation is that he is unwilling to act on matters of policy principle until he can be sure of having a mandate that can only come with an election win in his own right. On this reading, Turnbull, his prime ministership “legitimised” through the ballot box, will have political license to unveil the “real Malcolm” without reference to his lunar-right colleagues.

On his recent performance, however, we are left to wonder whether even a mandate will embolden Turnbull. On the key policy areas outlined above, Turnbull has not even seen fit to drop any clues, subtle or otherwise, that change may come with a returned Turnbull government. But perhaps he is playing it extra careful.

If so, the time for an election is sooner rather than later. If Turnbull feels that he requires a win – and presumably a decisive win – before he can take on the conservative elements within his party, and indeed his Coalition partner, then he must attain that mandate at the nearest opportunity.

Labor is gaining traction when it accuses Turnbull of being Abbott in Italian suits; it is not a charge that Turnbull can allow to take root if we are to see the best of the Turnbull government.

Malcolm Turnbull will stand condemned if he squanders the opportunity that he has worked a lifetime towards.

Perhaps this is not lost on Turnbull. In recent weeks Turnbull has, despite his early assurance, hinted that an early election, and possibly a double dissolution, is on the cards.

According to some pundits, a double dissolution would give a returned Turnbull government rare control of both houses. That would be an even better outcome for Turnbull and indeed for Australia. Although there is some democratic merit in the government of the day not controlling the upper house, Australia is at risk of languishing as a middling back-water nation of no account. Or in the call-to-arms warning of Paul Keating, a banana republic.

Australia needs principled and decisive government. It is still within Malcolm Turnbull’s grasp to go down as one of our great Prime Ministers. There is no doubt that Turnbull has returned gravitas to the office of Prime Minister. But he must go much further if he and his government are to leave an indelible imprint on Australia in the way that the Hawke-Keating governments did.

There is no doubting the vision, intellect and stamina that Turnbull brings to government. But it is leadership that Australians call for; leadership that will herald Australia’s arrival as a 21st century nation.

This can be Australia’s century, and Turnbull is the man most likely to usher Australia well and truly into the new century. That includes decisive action not just on the economic front, but on touchstone issues such as the just and long overdue constitutional reconciliation with the First Australians, the republic, same-sex marriage, the environment, energy reform, asylum seekers, federation reform, population policy and no doubt much for.

It’s a tall agenda and it’s an agenda that the Turnbull government must address without impediment, compromise or political reservation. If an early election means that we get to see an untrammelled Turnbull government, then most Australians would welcome such an election. Bring it on, Malcolm.

 

Embattled Tony Abbott stakes his crumbling leadership on saying “I won’t” to same-sex marriage

Consider our most statesmanlike leaders in the post-Menzian era. Prime Ministers Whitlam, Fraser and Keating? Perhaps Hawke and Howard at their very best? It’s a subjective assessment, of course, but pit Tony Abbott against these formidable leaders and there is only once conclusion to be reached. Our current Prime Minister is no statesman.

By any objective measure, Abbott is the most inept, gaffe-prone and crisis-riddled Prime Minister since William McMahon.Unlike McMahon, Abbott won an election in his own right to become Prime Minister. It remains to be seen whether, like McMahon, he faces defeat at his first election as Prime Minister. If he lasts that long.

Tony Abbott poses a political conundrum for the Liberal party. He is deeply unpopular and political poison – the electorate knows it and the Liberals know it. But he remains doggedly opposed to same-sex marriage, which accords with the majority view of his party. Which means that Australia is stuck with a dud Prime Minister while conservative MPs fend off moves for change to our marriage laws.

Abbott’s muddled stance on same-sex marriage – as most of his “policy” positions tend to be – has confirmed yet again this tin-eared Prime Minister’s inability to hear what the electorate is saying to him loud and clear. And that message would go something like this:

“Some of us believe in same-sex marriage as a matter of equality and human rights, some of us don’t care but if same-sex couples want it let them bloody well have it, and for those who are against gay marriage – get over it: now for fuck’s sake, legalise same-sex marriage and let’s get on with the 21st Century!”

Abbott’s solution to the same-sex marriage issue is of course no solution at all. For Abbott, this is a personal crusade. No matter that the push for marriage equality is a world-wide, deeply felt cause, Abbott is depicting it as a niche issue, a fad of little moment or momentum.

By making this an issue to determine by popular vote – senior Ministers are quarrelling among themselves as to what this precisely will involve – after the next election Abbott believes he can place same-sex marriage in a state of suspended animation. Both his naivety and arrogance are breathtaking. This is not an issue that is going to go away.

Abbott does not believe in same-sex marriage; that is understood, and on a personal level he is entitled to that view. But he is not entitled to impose that view on the rest of the community, and most especially on those same-sex couples who wish to express their love for each other through marriage.

It’s not about you Prime Minister

As a leader, he must recognise that same-sex marriage is a much bigger issue than his personal preference, nor is it a matter of religious dogma.

Abbott seems more concerned with maintaining a stance that will win the favour of Cardinal George Pell than he is with keeping faith with the people of Australia and showing leadership on a vital reform whose time has come.

Abbott’s absence of leadership on this issue has given licence to the likes of Senator Eric Abetz to argue that if Asian countries in the Asian Century don’t favour same-sex marriage, why should Australia?

Abetz, who is a Cabinet Minister if you don’t mind, has also observed that “Not all homosexuals want to marry”, and gave as his example Italian fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. (Abetz denied the published quote of his party-room comment as “simply false”, but not the substance of his point, such as it was.)

It is a spurious objection to argue that not all homosexuals want or would enter into same-sex marriage. If traditional marriage was reliant on all heterosexual couples marrying before living together the institution would have long ago disappeared from the statute books.

Such arguments trivialise same-sex marriage in a way that is offensive and demeaning. It also implies that same-sex marriage is a fad of interest to a loud minority alone, not to “good gays” who are respectful of the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

More than implies, the Prime Minister has in previous statements made it plain that he considers that issues such as the economy, asylum seekers and the war on terror are far more pressing than same-sex marriage.

And so it has come to pass that this government does not intend to act on same-sex marriage until after the 2016 election – and even then without any firm plans on precisely what action the government, in the unlikely event that it is returned, would take. With good reason proponents of same-sex marriage feel they have been unceremoniously fobbed off.

The Prime Minister and fellow conservatives in his government portray demands for same-sex marriage as an aberration, an extravagance, an issue not to be taken seriously. They could not be more offensive, or wrong.

Australia stands isolated as nations around the world legalise same-sex marriage – through popular vote, through political leadership and through the courts: Britain, the United States, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, France … and our neighbour and once mooted Federation partner New Zealand.

Quite apart from issues of equity, inclusiveness and respect it is preposterous that what is legal in a growing band of countries with which we would feel a political and cultural affinity is not just illegal in Australia, but dismissed as a second-order issue.

In multicultural Australia it is now the case that many citizens find themselves wondering why it is possible for marriage equality to apply in the countries of their origin but not in their own country.

‘Not on my watch’

Is Tony Abbott really suggesting that he would be prepared for Australia to stand alone on what is now widely considered a fundamental right around the world?

Rather than demonstrate leadership on same-sex marriage Abbott has made this a “not on my watch” issue.

Indeed, it is the unlikely issue which has come to define his leadership. And there’s the rub for Australia: the worst Prime Minister since Billy McMahon may well go to the next election as leader because to opt for Australians’ preferred Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull would mean a surer path for same-sex marriage.

At this stage it seems that a majority of Liberals would rather have the bumbling Abbott if it means staving off same sex-marriage, than a commanding, competent and electorally appealing moderate leader who favours same-sex marriage. A dill rather than a statesman.

If Abbott thought he had put same-sex marriage to bed – as it were – he is sorely mistaken. Again.

As Turnbull was only too keen to point out, marriage equality will almost certainly dominate the political agenda until the 2016 election. And there will be consequences.

Abbott may relent and allow a conscience vote in this Parliament, which would place his rickety leadership at risk; he might tough it out and hang onto his leadership because he alone stands between traditional and same-sex marriage, only to face annihilation at the next election; or it all becomes too much for nervous Liberal MPs who buckle and opt for a new leader.

That’s not bad going for a second-order issue. And at the end of it all, however it ends, it will be Tony Abbott who will be standing alone and abandoned at the altar. Someone may even mutter as they leave the chapel: “I never liked him anyway.”

Bill Shorten shows leadership on marriage equality; the question now is will Tony Abbott join him at the altar?

Same-sex marriage may well prove the rebooting of Bill Shorten’s less than inspiring leadership of the Labor party, but in the meantime, and more importantly, it provides much needed political momentum in support of marriage equality in Australia.

Australia’s reluctance to face up to marriage equality as a fundamental issue of human rights ended with the announcement by Shorten and his deputy Tanya Plibersek to co-sponsor a private member’s bill. Marriage equality is now only a matter of time; if there was ever any doubt about that, those doubts can now be cast aside.

It is mischievous to dismiss the Shorten-Plibersek initiative as a political stunt. While there is growing support for same-sex marriage among MPs and the community, there remain pockets of entrenched opposition to such a reform.

As Shorten admitted to Fairfax Media: “I know this private member’s bill will not have the universal support of my colleagues.”

Plibersek’s recent misjudged call for a binding Labor vote on same-sex marriage illustrated how passions can be very quickly inflamed on the issue.

The Shorten-Plibersek announcement should be welcomed as an act of policy leadership – leadership sorely lacking from the Abbott government which has preferred to stall on the matter in the hope that it goes away.

But the Irish referendum ‘yes’ vote in favour of same-sex marriage put paid to that misreading of a generational move for change. If Ireland can overcome its social conservatism and Catholic mores, what is Australia’s problem? More to the point, what is Tony Abbott’s problem?

Abbott has personal views against same-sex marriage, but those views, as deeply held as they may be, must be secondary to the objectives of national inclusiveness and respect for the rights of all Australians. As Prime Minister he has a responsibility to show leadership on the issue that transcends his own personal position.

When all is said and done, there are no fundamental reasons for opposing same-sex marriage. Certainly none so fundamental that Australia can continue to say to a section of its citizenry that they are not free to marry the person of their choice; that marriage as a profound expression of love is not available to them.

Australia’s Marriage Act has not been handed down from the heavens. It is an instrument of the state, an expression of community values. The state has an obligation to ensure that the laws governing the institution keep pace with changing social attitudes and the human rights of all its citizens.

One day Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief

Marriage is hardly a fixed entity. It was not so long ago that laws proscribing marriage between white and African Americans, and laws circumscribing marriage between white and Aboriginal Australians, were considered reasonable and consistent with preserving the “sanctity” of marriage. Such laws today would be considered unthinkable by all but the most extreme margins of society.

Generations from now, Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief that homosexual men and women had to fight for the right to marry the person they loved.
Tony Abbott has called for tolerance in the conduct of the same-sex marriage debate, but he has no tolerance for the profound desire of some Australians to marry someone of the same sex.

“[W]e need to see mutual respect of all the different views on this debate because as I said, decent people can differ on this subject,” Abbott says.

No doubt the PM is blind to the irony that while he is pleading for mutual respect, he is denying it to those gay Australians who wish to marry but in law cannot.
It is absurd that homosexual Australians should have equal standing before the law in every respect but marriage. By what perversion of logic does equality stop at the door of marriage?

It’s true, some Australians do have deeply held views of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Convictions deserve to be respected, but they are not always the best foundations for a just and inclusive society. Marriage can longer be preserved as an exclusive club.

There is no excuse for Australia’s inaction on marriage equality. Nineteen countries have so far legalised same-sex marriage, including the country of Abbott’s birth, Britain, and our neighbour New Zealand. Australia is in danger of standing as isolated on gay marriage as it does on climate change. For Abbott this may be a point of pride, but only at the cost of his credibility.

Quite apart from issues of equity, inclusiveness and respect it is preposterous that what is legal in a growing band of countries, in nations as familiar as Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and France, is illegal in Australia. In multicultural Australia it is now the case that many citizens find themselves wondering why it is possible for marriage equality to apply in the countries of their origin but not in their own country.

There is no turning back

Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek are to be congratulated for bringing the issue of same-sex marriage to a head. There is no turning back following their decision to place the issue front and centre of the nation’s political agenda.

Curiously, and unconvincingly, sections of the government and its backbench have accused Labor of politicising the issue of same-sex marriage and of jeopardising a bipartisan approach to change.

Liberal MP Warren Entsch, a long-time supporter of marriage equality, rather than welcoming an imminent vote on the matter, says he is “profoundly disappointed” by Shorten’s announcement because it will turn the result into a partisan vote.

“This is about survival for Bill, this is not about marriage ¬equality. It was always our intention to bring something on this year. I’m determined to get something up and I don’t want it to be partisan. Let’s do it in a civil, orderly way,” he says.

Tony Abbott, avowedly opposed to marriage equality, has been stalling on the issue since assuming office. Even granting Coalition MPs a conscience vote has been a stumbling block for Abbott, let alone opening his mind to the substantive issue itself.

Whatever “something” Entsch had in mind, there was no definite prospect of the government bringing the issue to Parliament; nor, in the event that it did, that it would permit Coalition MPs a free vote. Similarly, the issue being brought to the Parliament by a minor party would have been fraught and far easier for the government to stymie.

The fact that the alternative government has announced its intention to put the issue to the Parliament is entirely another matter. In doing so it has raised debate and discussion on marriage equality to new heights. The genie is out of the bottle and proud.

“Political”? Yes. An out-of-step, tin-eared, ideologically hidebound government has been out-manoeuvred by Labor. But it is no less an action of leadership by Shorten and his deputy. Their next leadership challenge is to prosecute their case and take the rest of Australia with them to the altar of reform.

Warren Entsch and like-minded colleagues can ensure that marriage equality is not a partisan issue by backing the Labor initiative and urging their Prime Minister to adjust his hearing aid and, like his opposite number, show some courage on the issue.

Even if the Prime Minister finds gay marriage confronting, as he does so many things, he must declare that the time has come for marriage equality in Australia.

Bill Shorten’s position is compelling, unambiguous and ultimately straightforward:
“Our current [marriage] law excludes some individuals, and to me that is unacceptable. It says to them: your relationships are not equally valued by the state, your love is less equal under the law.”

We should have heard such a statement from the leader of the nation.

But better late than never. There is absolutely nothing to stop Tony Abbott from regaining the initiative and endorsing Shorten’s sentiment as a matter of fundamental principal.

It is not too late for Abbott to race down the aisle, join Shorten, and declare “I do too”.

Mozilla’s same-sex marriage of inconvenience: a CEO falls as freedoms collide

The forced resignation of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla, the US open-source software movement-cum-corporation best known for its Firefox web browser, over his opposition to gay marriage, may be shrugged off as an “only in America” moment, but it’s only a matter of time before an Australian business leader is caught in a similar bind of being held to account by employees and shareholders for his or her personal views.

Eich had been CEO for just two weeks when he resigned on April 3 over revelations that in 2008 he donated $US1000 in support of the Proposition 8 ballot to ban same-sex marriage in California. (The proposition was carried 52% to 48% but, after much bitter litigation, was struck down by the US Supreme Court in June 2013.)

There is much to fear in such a trend that makes no distinction between personal views and the professional, conscientious and lawful discharge of one’s duty in the workplace. By every account, Eich was precisely such a leader. There was nothing in his history at Mozilla to suggest animus towards gay employees or the gay community; no accusations of Eich ever being less than totally committed to equality and diversity at Mozilla.

And “history” is the operative word when it comes to Eich’s association with Mozilla. This was no red-neck CEO who had somehow found himself in charge of a company that prides itself on a “culture [that] reflects diversity and inclusiveness … [and] equality for all”.  

Eich is a legendary and respected figure in the US and international software industry. As well as creating the programming language Javascript, he was a co-founder of Mozilla in 1998 and prior to his appointment as CEO was Mozilla’s chief technology officer. 

An issue still in play

Without question the Proposition 8 campaign gave voice to homophobic and extreme elements, but that does not make Eich homophobic.

That said, it is true that there is a fine line here. At what point does opposition to same-sex marriage become a demonstrably anti-social position to hold, as opposed to simply being politically incorrect?

While the momentum for same-sex marriage is unstoppable the fact is that it remains an issue still in play and for many people it is an issue of deep personal and moral conviction. For Eich, with an unblemished record of ethical conduct as a business leader – saving some explosive revelation yet to surface – it is manifestly unfair to deem him unfit for high corporate office because of his personal views about same-sex marriage.

The lack of tolerance for divergent opinion in the same-sex marriage debate is the weak link in the otherwise courageous and epoch-defining campaign for marriage equality. The pressure on Mozilla to sack Eich, to which it succumbed, on the basis of his modest financial support for the anti-gay marriage lobby, is not a proud moment in the same-sex marriage movement.

By all means Eich should have been called upon by his board to explain himself and to demonstrate, irrespective of his sound record, that his private views would have no bearing on his conduct as CEO. But he was given no such opportunity.

His resignation also reveals the inconsistencies of the US’s much-vaunted constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, in practice if not in law.  

Mozilla found itself in a muddle as it sought to reconcile its commitment to free speech while also distancing itself from Eich. Executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker tried to explain it this way: “Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.” So is figuring out what Baker is going on about.

Could this happen here?

So what would happen in Australia if the CEO of a major company was to found to have privately supported opponents of same-sex marriage?

There is every chance that an Australian CEO would, in the same circumstances, face the same social media and gay marriage lobby backlash as Eich, and very likely the same ultimate fate. 

Australian CEOs, unlike their US counterparts, have traditionally been reluctant to engage in public discussion about public policy issues, unless their interests are directly affected. This is at odds with the growing community expectation that business leaders should play a more prominent and responsible role as community leaders – after all, the decisions and practices of our big companies have huge impacts on society. The reluctance of CEOs to be seen as “political” also robs the nation of their experience, intelligence and wisdom as the nation faces a time of immense change and challenge.

If ever there was a time for business leaders to engage with the community at a much wider level, and to lend their voice to the big issues of the day, this is such a time. But given the experience of Eich, who would blame Australian CEOs for keeping a low profile?

It need not be an issue as contentious as same-sex marriage to set off a career-ending social media firestorm. But one imagines that Australian business leaders are in no hurry to discover where social media activists, not to mention fickle investors, draw the line.

 

Why I’ve changed my mind about same-sex marriage

I have changed my mind about gay marriage: it’s time for the federal parliament to legalise marriage for same-sex couples. Marriage, as in the real thing. Not a “gay version”, not a euphemism-laden consolation prize that comes close: marriage equality for same-sex couples.

When I’ve written about same-sex marriage in the past I haven’t been avowedly anti-gay marriage, I just – “just” – haven’t taken it particularly seriously.

I’ve dismissed it as a “political bandwagon that can’t be stopped” – that is, a fashionable issue rather than a burning issue of equality and human rights.

I’ve joked about it, warning that “gay marriage will mean more cards distributed around the office for signing and more envelopes doing the rounds for donations to buy useless gifts”. Or this: “I always thought the most compelling advantage of being gay was not having to bother with marriage. Now it seems gay romantics are determined to rip up their get-out-of-jail-free cards.” (I’ve got a million of ‘em.)

When I have sought to make a serious point about gay marriage it is to question whether the federal government should be in the business of defining marriage at all. Here my argument was that gay marriage should be free to emerge in an environment in which social and cultural behaviour, not legal definitions, dictate custom.

“[G]iven that marriage has become such a flexible and diverse social institution, surely it is time for government to give up its role as protector of the institution. Rather than amend the Marriage Act, the federal government should abolish it. The government’s business should be to record permanent relationships for purposes of taxation, superannuation and other benefits and legal requirements,” I wrote in 2011.

“Beyond that, it should be for churches, registered celebrants and even commercial enterprises to offer marriage as a service. Let private operators offer whatever products and services they please – marriages, civil unions, certified life partner agreements, even renewable licences. Open up marriage to the competition of private enterprise, let the government concern itself only with recording these arrangements and let’s get on with the things that really matter.”

Well, my condescension aside, same-sex marriage does matter. And given that the law currently does and pointedly has done since 2004 define marriage as being between a man and a woman, it’s time to for Australia to show some consistency in its attitude to the gay community and some honestly in acknowledging how much society has changed from the white-picket-fence era of the 1950s.

It seems extraordinary now, even shocking, that there was a time not so long ago when homosexuality was illegal in Australia. There remain pockets of intolerance towards homosexuality, some of it virulent, but on the whole gay men and women are visible and welcome members of the community. (Hopefully there will come a time when we don’t even have to make such a statement.)

In 2014, there is nothing remarkable about same-sex couples and “the family” has become such a complex and diverse social organism that same-sex parenting has fused itself into the social fabric virtually without murmur – “traditional family” warriors notwithstanding. So one can be gay, one can live in a loving same-sex-relationship, and a same-sex couple may even be bringing up children in the suburbs. But no marriage. It is mean-spirited, disrespectful and irrational to draw the line at gay marriage, to insist on marriage as the exclusive preserve of male-female couples.

I once wrote: “I won’t pretend to understand the demand for same-sex marriage.” But now I do understand it. And like so many epiphanies, it is personal experience that has opened my eyes.

A couple of months ago my marriage broke up, just a few weeks short of our 25th anniversary. (No one to blame but me. I’ve not been an easy person to live with.) That catastrophic event brought into sharp relief the profound love I had, and have, for my wife and of course my children. I don’t know by what circuitous route my mind took me to the issue of gay marriage, but I thought to myself: if two people of the same sex love each other with the same depth as I do my wife, and they wish to express that love through marriage, by what right does anyone dare stand in their way?

Seen in these unequivocal terms, it’s impossible to mount a credible argument against same-sex marriage, and irresponsible to consider it an inconsequential issue.

Society has changed, attitudes have changed, and our laws must change accordingly. Marriage is not a natural state; it is a social instrument, something we have invented. And even the very best inventions have to be finetuned from time to time. If Prime Minister Tony Abbott won’t show leadership on this issue, let us hope that federal parliament will.