The Politics    Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Turnbull’s daft crusade

By Dominic Kelly

Yet again, the prime minister has meekly surrendered to the right of his party

I didn’t want to write about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act today. Honestly. But the Liberal Party and its ever-helpful media allies just won’t let this most niche of niche issues go. Malcolm Turnbull has thrown a bone to his rabid right-wingers and put a set of reforms before the parliament that seek to provide “the right balance between defending Australians from racial vilification and defending and enabling their right of free speech”.

The spin today from the Australian’s Simon Benson is that the proposal stems from Turnbull’s deep liberal convictions, stretching back to one of his career highlights – the successful legal defence of a former MI5 officer in the 1987–88 Spycatcher trial. This is transparent nonsense. Benson himself raises a comment Turnbull is reported to have made to a colleague in 2016, which tells us much more about his preferred approach to the issue: “About 100 people care about 18C and there are 16 million people on the electoral roll.”

Benson was backed up by Paul Kelly, who flicked the switch to hyperbole in describing Turnbull as a conviction prime minister and “warrior for the cause of liberty”. “Turnbull has crossed the Rubicon,” Kelly tells us in his cliché-ridden piece, before pompously invoking Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation: “the Coalition parties have nailed their principles to the wall. They fight for them or they die.”

Returning to reality, the reforms do not have the support of the Nick Xenophon Team, and thus have next to no chance of passing the Senate in their current form. But even so, the government risks losing up to six seats as a result of its ideological obsession with an issue that has little relevance to the lives of most Australians. In the surest sign that this Coalition is out of touch, not even the likes of Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce were able to rein in its resident ideologues.

Putting aside the spin, it seems that the most likely explanation for Turnbull’s change of heart on 18C is his simple desire to get some clear air in the lead-up to the budget. The free-speech warriors were never going to let up, especially following the death of Bill Leak, so Turnbull ceded to their demands. He knows that the reforms are unlikely to become law, but he can blame the Senate crossbench for that, tell his party he tried, and move on to more pressing matters.

But as Michelle Grattan points out, Turnbull is now “wholly owned” by the conservative zealots in his party. Any attempt to break free of their stranglehold will likely bring more humiliating backflips. On that front, the response to Turnbull-ally Arthur Sinodinos’ equating of the climate-change denial and anti-vaccination movements from the Coalition’s many climate deniers will be interesting.

This is a government with no unifying purpose beyond keeping Labor out of power, and Turnbull has once again surrendered to the hard right, for no net gain. A self-own, if ever I’ve seen one.

Today’s links

Dominic Kelly

Dominic Kelly is a PhD candidate and tutor in politics at La Trobe University. He tweets from @illywhacker_.

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