A failure of nerve
Malcolm Turnbull has caved to the conservative rump of his party on Safe Schools

Last week MP George Christensen crowed that, as a result of the protests of himself and his fellow knuckle-draggers, as Bill Shorten called them, the Safe Schools program had been gutted.

And it is not the only thing that has been left with no guts. Our prime minister has rolled over and groveled at the behest of the far right, to the extent that he may never be able to rise again. Malcolm Turnbull has temporized, retreated and cowered to the conservatives in his party room before, but there has never been a more craven capitulation than the one we have just witnessed.

Consider: the program was inaugurated by the government of none other than Tony Abbott – the same Tony Abbott who last week signed a petition recommending it be defunded. That, presumably, is what the former leader means by defending his legacy. A mere three months ago, the funding was confirmed by the Turnbull government.

But at the first whimper of complaint from the likes of Christensen and Cory Bernardi, amplified by the zealots of the Murdoch press, Turnbull buckled. Instead of telling them to get back to their caves, which was the initial reaction of his own education minister, Simon Birmingham, Turnbull offered them a review.

Gritting his teeth, Birmingham set one up under the aegis of a highly respected academic, Professor Bill Louden. Louden came back with the finding that there was nothing much wrong with the program; but, of course, that was not the answer that was required.

Louden’s report, they fumed, as a whitewash, a joke; and as is always the case with the bully boys, they wanted more. So their fearless leader gave them, in effect, everything they wanted – until next time. The program has been gutted.

The claims trumpeted by the likes of Christensen and Bernardi defied reality – indeed they defied parody. The program involved child grooming, they said, it promoted sex toys and sado-masochism. It was run by radical Marxist cultural relativists (whatever they are) and advocates of paedophilia. It was pushing a queer agenda, rather than the “heteronormative”.

Shorten dismissed Bernardi as a homophobe, which is self-evident; but it goes further than that. Bernardi and his kind regard any kind of gender diversity as intolerable – unnatural, perverted. Hence Bernardi’s attack on same-sex marriage as leading to bestiality. It is almost beyond belief that a supposedly rational man such as Malcolm Turnbull could truckle to him.

The Catholic crusaders of the Australian, led by Paul Kelly, can be dismissed as acting largely in self-interest: they are determined to preserve their own monopoly on brain-washing the young. Their zeal to invoke community outrage against an opt-in program which has been run with great success for some two years would be laughable – except, it seems, that Turnbull has taken it seriously.

Almost from the day he took over the top job, there has been some doubt about his conviction, his commitment.  His numerous backdowns from his previous enthusiasms have been justified by pragmatism and necessity – he needed to compromise to secure his party room. But this is different: this is an utter failure of nerve, cowardice in the face of the first shot. It has to be said: our prime ministerial poltroon has no courage in his convictions. No ticker.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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