The view from Billinudgel

Turnbull’s legacy costs
The former PM’s promise to legislate a religious freedom bill has ensured the culture wars rage on

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Malcolm Turnbull’s overweening ego will never admit it, but his legacy as prime minister is less than earth-shattering.

Arguably his greatest achievement was to knock off Tony Abbott, a feat for which a majority of the electorate was relieved and grateful.

But after that there was not much to trouble the scorer. His supporters will say he was hamstrung by the delusional conservatives in his party room, while his detractors will contend they had to resist his efforts to push their base to a Labor-lite left, and there is truth in both contentions. But the hard fact is that he was unwilling to risk confrontation, and as a result dwindled into impotence and a form of irrelevance; what he did manage to change, his successors have largely undone.

But Turnbull has left one memorial, and, ironically, it is one that both sides of the culture wars might now rather he hadn’t: the promise to legislate a religious freedom bill.

At the time it was thought to be a doddle, a sop to the losers on the same-sex marriage plebiscite, something that could be comfortably massaged through in a few weeks. It would not really break any new ground, just confirm the already extensive privileges the faithful (by which almost everyone assumed meant Christians) already enjoy at the expense of the wider population.

A tweak or two about existing anti-discrimination law would surely be sufficient. But of course it wasn’t. First the Christian lobby grabbed the opportunity to expand its influence, and then it dawned on those of other creeds and none that they too had a stake in the game. Why should the Christians have all the fun?

One in, all in, and within a few months we were embroiled in a new campaign in the ongoing culture wars, one in which just about everyone felt they were missing out on their fair share. The faithful wanted more than a guarantee against non-discrimination – they wanted a positive bill, affirming what they saw as their unalienable rights but which many others saw as unconscionable advantage, an affront to our secular Constitution.

The perhaps unfortunately named Christian Porter, as the new attorney-general, was tasked with sorting out the mess. Now, after nearly two long years of bickering and resentment, he has signally failed to do so: if anything, the various factions are even further estranged and more adamant in their various positions.

The interventions of high-profile evangelists Israel Folau and Margaret Court have not helped, but the divisions are far more deep-seated than can be resolved through quick fixes over disputes around individuals. It seems that Porter has yet again gone back to the drawing board in an effort to produce an acceptable bill, but it is now clear that there quite simply can’t be; that whatever finally emerges in parliament will merely exacerbate the divisions entrenched not only across the community, but crucially within the joint party room.

And that means those divisions will fester on until and beyond the next election. Turnbull’s legacy may not be one he’ll boast about, but it will certainly be remembered.

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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