Flat White

Malcolm Turnbull is either condoning bad behaviour or has lost control

2 August 2017

4:24 PM

2 August 2017

4:24 PM

How can Malcolm Turnbull lack the ability to pull his own MPs into line when it’s needed? If you’ve got an authority issue when you hold the highest office in the land, something is wrong.  This week, rogue parliamentarians have taken a hammer to the largest crack in the Coalition’s wall and seemed to be pleased with the result.

Same-sex marriage is always going to divide a right-leaning party. But having rolled a first term PM less than two years ago, undergone an impassioned debate about internal party reform, witnessed the emergence of a new centre-right party in Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives – and consistently trailed in the polls (because that’s what seems to matter most these days) – can this lot afford any more displays of division?

One wouldn’t think so. Malcolm Turnbull’s blasé response suggests he is either unable to sense the danger of this, lacks the ability to control his MPs when needed, or perhaps in typical whatever-ist fashion, he doesn’t mind what happens next; no matter the result, the fallout can all be patched up with a few nice interviews on ABC RN.

The issue here is not about whether one supports same-sex marriage. The issue is about the behaviour of parliamentarians. The Coalition’s official policy, the one they took to the election, was to have a plebiscite. After a marathon party room debate, this was the policy agreed upon as the correct way to approach a red hot social issue. Now Senator Dean Smith has been drafting a private member’s bill to bring the issue to a head before the next election. It’s logical to conclude that this bill was the subject of Christopher ‘I’m a fixer’ Pyne’s recently leaked comments.

Now, commenting on an issue as a backbencher is perfectly acceptable. Straying from your party’s current position due to strongly held beliefs shows principle. However, the parliamentarians who have been in the loop about this secret private member’s bill seem to have been actively planning to abandon a policy they took to the election and ambushing their colleagues with a completely different one. This could potentially play out on the floor of the House, where usual business is unexpectedly suspended and MPs abruptly given a free vote on the bill.

This is sneaky, underhand behaviour. High-jacking the national agenda, parliamentary business and your party’s policy, to replace it with your own, is simply disloyal.

The issue here is not the policy of same-sex marriage itself. The issue is that in a time when the forces of fragmentation are strong in the Liberal party, these backbenchers are happy to publicly display the cracks. Imagine if Tony Abbott was working on a secret bill to completely change Australia’s energy policy? Calls of disloyalty would ensue.

It’s like having a job to keep a mob of sheep in a paddock, but then pointing them to a hole in the fence. Bill Shorten, schooled in the art of internal divisions courtesy of the Rudd-Gillard debacle, is using it to his advantage, posting to social media that he was looking forward to voting ‘yes’ to same-sex marriage over the next few weeks. However, same-sex marriage didn’t get much of a run at the Labor party conference; the opposition leader knows he doesn’t need to make it an issue.

The Liberal backbenchers who want to force the issue simply want to leave their mark. It’s disturbing how little regard they have for ramifications of their ambush tactics. They’ve already reduced their party’s credibility and publicly exacerbated divisions; this will only intensify if they persist, which doubtless they will. It’s a high price to pay to be the face of change.

One can’t help but feel that such underhand behaviour was normalised with Turnbull’s coup. Australians have the tradition of mateship in their blood; it’s an instinct that craves loyalty and can smell treachery from a mile off. Sadly, the federal Liberals have reeked ever since the knifing of Tony Abbott; that’s the reality and they can’t escape it.

Australians don’t like underhand, concerted attempts to change ships halfway through the sail. They don’t like the insider’s club springing change on them when they thought they had been promised the chance to make that decision. These are lessons the Liberals should have learned after September 2015 and would be wise to recall now. Simply put, Liberal supporters care about consistency and do not like rife disloyalty.

The best course of action would be to take the plebiscite to the Senate again. In turbulent times, the party must draw from its arsenal of principles. The Liberal party believes in free thought and in allowing people to choose their own destiny. It should push the Senate harder to allow people to have a say.

The Coalition has a mandate. It took a policy to the election and it was elected, meaning its policies were endorsed. The Senate should be put on notice for their low opinion of Australia; their attitude to the plebiscite suggests they believe this great, mature nation is not capable of having a debate and making a decision. Those Senators who are put there by the voters are now showing disdain for them. Especially for those who support same-sex marriage, opposing the plebiscite does not add up. Polling now shows support for it and there is the precedent of the successful Irish referendum. To vote it down for a second time would require Senators to again explain why they think the Australian people can’t cope with this issue; such a patronising view will really begin grate.

Turnbull and the Coalition must do all they can to avoid the rogue backbenchers ushering in same-sex marriage in the manner they are proposing. As The Australian reported back in February, Barnaby Joyce told the cabinet that the government would fail if it continued to focus on issues such as same-sex marriage. Any party that focusses on the issues that divides it is heading for doom.

He was right. As the national debt ticks past half a trillion, power prices go through the roof, interest rates threaten to rise on families that are heavily leveraged, house prices soar; the average Aussie is finding it challenging to get ahead right now.

One can’t help but wish for our parliamentarians to pursue some of these other issues with the same vigour as they pursue same-sex marriage. And while they’re at it, perhaps reflect a bit more Aussie mateship in their parliamentary dealings.

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